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Flash Journal, 11-21:
White Oak Diary
Past Forward to the Future
By Asimina Chremos
Copyright 2000 Asimina Chremos
CHICAGO -- Hello, Dance
Insiders! I just completed a very intense week as part of the Chicago
community cast of Past Forward, the current program being offered
by Mikhail Baryshnikov's White Oak Dance Project. I participated
in six shows (I think!) with varying programs. What follows is a
diary I attempted to keep on November 11. There was so much, it
was such a rich experience; this is just a little random slice of
"So, should I put on
my 'Satisfyin' Lover" clothes?" "We have to 'Huddle' in the lobby
today." These are phrases I overhear as I warm up in a studio at
the new Dance Center of Columbia College, upstairs from the intimate
theater where I will soon be performing in the Saturday matinee.
Just came back upstairs
after the most sublime "Huddle" in the small dance studio off the
lobby. There are several of Chicago's fiercest improvisers in the
8-member "Red Leather" Huddle/Scramble group (we got to choose nicknames
for our groups). Kathleen Maltese, Selene Carter, Tiina Harris.
Normally I am in the group nicknamed Rocks, but one of the Red Leatherettes
decided being climbed on was not the thing so I volunteered to fill
in. The group breathed together, felt solid and serene. Around us
I heard the hubbub of the audience filtering in and the '60s music
playing through the sound system. Kind of theme-park goofy, but
it sure is fun to improvise to Jimi Hendrix's version of the National
Anthem. The watchers in the room with us were drawn into our energy.
Their talking subsided as they were sucked into the quiet earnest
sensitivity and effort of our task of huddling together, arms around
waists and shoulders, legs in deep supportive wide stance, backs
facing out, and one or two people dislodging, climbing over, and
rejoining the Huddle. Simone said the other day that in some languages
there is no translation for "Huddle" so in those cases she calls
it "Mountain." Huddle is nice because it is a verb and a noun both.
Think of mountain as a verb....
Huddling with Red Leather
is so different than with Rocks. In Rocks we have newer improvisers,
and one more guy. The majority of the community cast is female.
The usual John Bergeresque politics, I guess; women are more socialized
to "appear." Anyway, in Rocks we experience more struggle, more
work, more fear, more eagerness. I love doing Forti's pieces. Such
lessons in group dynamics and interdependence. Well, I better go
check about changing my clothes for what I have to do next. I can't
keep track of what happens when. I have a joke about being a sheep
and just waiting for the herd to move me to the next place. Baaa
Okay! I'm out of the
black and grey sweatpants Huddle outfit and into my street clothes
for Steve Paxton's walking piece, "Satisfyin Lover." I'll wait for
Nancy Duncan, who taught us all these works and handles the community
cast, to round the 40-some of us up and get us in line to walk down
the hall, through the door, down the steps, past the security guard
and onto the stage. There's a whole walking piece prior to the walking
piece. Hanging out in the community room listening to the chatter
of many voices, and periodically getting in line, is reminding me
of kindergarten. This association is helped by the fact that that
there're kids and babies around.
Nancy's got a rough job,
keeping track of all of us. Also, as she admitted to us, there is
a great paradox to White Oak. All these "pedestrian" pieces that
were once so rebellious, spontaneous, and process-oriented have
become products for the semi-formal stagings of Past Forward. There
are rather clear parameters for how to walk, stand, sit, climb on
the Huddle, Scramble, etcetera. A certain amount of self-conscious
decorum seems to be called for that doesn't seem authentic to the
original spirit of the work. But it's fun anyway.
I am #5 in line for "Satisfyin'
Lover." Why is it called that? Simone says Steve is always creative
and unpredictable. She told a story that once she had bought a cabin
and was trying to scrape off these shellacked paper bags that covered
the floor. She was getting really frustrated. Steve Paxton came
in and said something like "Simone, this problem is as good as the
next." We all laughed.
My score is:
Enter when #1 pauses
Walk to 1/5 across stage
Stand 20 seconds
Continue walk to exit.
My experience of doing
this simple work so far, just walking on stage and standing and
then walking, is that of being exposed. There's nothing to do but
be yourself. A couple of previous performances, I've waited for
my cue, entered, and then in the middle of counting start to think:
did I walk too fast? Nancy asked us to be calm, relaxed.... am I
calm? Oops, I'm thinking, not counting.... Breathe, sense the space,
I remind myself. I've been working in my own work on being aware
of space. Here's a chance to do it. I stand in the black space of
the stage and try not to look directly into the light that's glaring
in front of me. People pass by me; I feel as if I am receding. Then
I'm done counting and I go. It's not the same walk I do upstairs
to go down the hall, away from so many eyeballs.
The Red Leather group
just came upstairs, breathing a little hard and a little sweaty,
from doing the Scramble on stage with the company. There have been
issues about White Oak dancers being hit or tromped on by community
members and the whole thing seems a little tense, the company doesn't
want to do a warm-up Scramble with the community and they also don't
want to Scramble with both groups. So Red Leather gets to do it
every time. The politics are such that there's a slight vibe about
the Community Slobs vs. the Precious Dancers. The Community people
are afraid of damaging the Dancers. It's kinda weird. But everyone
who just came upstairs from doing it looks exhilarated. Anyway,
someone is saying "When they called 9 1/2 (the cue to end the Scramble),
there was such a rush of desire, everyone wanted to burst in and
shift the flow." "It flared before it quelched."
More people around me
are talking about their experience of Landscaping in the lobby.
"Landscapes" is another of Forti's scores. Albert, who teaches African
Dance to kids and seniors (Ghanean, I think), is saying that it
reminds him of the game of statues.
It's our break between
the matinee and the evening show. I take the somewhat longish walk
through the cold wind and light snow to a cafe where I can be alone
and write. I seem to have stumbled on Goth social hour. What's funny
is with my blue hair and the clothes I chose this morning, I sort
of fit in. No one here knows I am a refugee from the museum of postmodern
dance. How many people here know who Mikhail Baryshnikov is? I wonder.
Probably a lot, even Goth kids. He's pretty famous. People have
asked me what is it like to see him; Is it intense for me because
I was a little ballerina wannabe when Misha was in his balletic
prime? and so on. Am I starstruck? He's just a person, I find myself
replying. He participates in the work just like the rest of us.
He is friendly and reserved. It's the nature of the work itself
to remove the glamour from the situation. Yvonne Rainer's "No Manifesto"
(No to spectacle, virtuosity, seduction of the audience by the performer...)
Waiting downstairs in
my Nana's black dress to go onstage for Deborah Hay's "Exit," I
took occasion to read a copy of a review that is posted on the wall,
by Clive Barnes, in the New York Times and dated January 11, 1966.
It's a scathing pan of new works by David Gordon, Yvonne Rainer,
Steve Paxton, et. al. Calling them immature and terrible, cringing
at painter Robert Rauschenberg's un-dancerly appearance; I don't
recall much of the descriptive and derogatory language, but there
was one phrase that sticks in my mind: "blissfully boring." Maybe
old Clive did "get it" despite his irritation and disappointment.
By taking away costumes, makeup, virtuosity and spectacle and so
on, the artists of the Judson movement left us with the boring bliss
of existence. Standing on stage, walking around. Stripped of profound
mythic hopes, heroic future-oriented striving, poetic memory- driven
expressiveness, or godlike willful creativity and forceful manifestation.
I love performing "Exit."
I learn something new every time about time and memory and experience.
It's a simple score about walking towards the future and stopping
to look back at your past, progressing along a diagonal from downstage
right to upstage left, all to the highly emotional Barber String
Quartet. My mother was one of the first people to hear that piece
at a concert at Antioch College. That must've been in the early
'60s or late '50s. I need to ask her about what it was like to hear
that for the first time. I love the silent moment in the music.
It reinforces that idea that looking into your future is like falling
into a void. Like my favorite cinematic image at the end of Kurusawa's
"Ran," when the blind man is standing on the edge of the cliff.
There is a live video
feed of the stage to a TV set in the community room. However, one
of the juiciest parts of this whole White Oak deal for me is sneaking
onto the catwalk to watch the show in the theater. I'm becoming
fascinated by the group dance Whizz and developing a deep curiosity
about Deborah Hay through what I've experienced with White Oak.
Dancers Manu and Raquel told me about their initial hesitation in
working with Hay: She was so wacky, giving them directions like
"invite being seen" and "collapse the live space" to develop the
movements that would take them from one spatial pattern to another.
There's a gentleness, a flickering, twitching transparency to "Whizz."
I especially enjoyed watching Manu perform in this today. By talking
to her I got the impression that she's skeptical, still, about Hay's
work and process. But Manu's sparkling awareness was very present
and compelling; she at times wore a wry expression I read as acknowledgment
of the lightness, the subtle humor of the situation; or maybe it
was pure irreverence!
Okay, I found out I've
crashed a gathering of Goth website organizers. It's such an e-world,
My mind flashes to the
flashy metallic pants the dancers wear in a trio from Trisha Brown's
"Foray Foret." What a gorgeous piece! It's delicious, I was telling
the dancers. Like candy, Raquel said. But it's a healthy dance!
said Simone in her enthusiastic way. I tried to get Raquel to show
me a move from it, a deceptively difficult transition from a downward-dog
type of thing with one leg in the air to a headstand. I'm still
figuring it out. Raquel, Roz and Michael bring a weighted, heavy
fluid quality to Brown's choreography that is really different from
the slippery weightlessness I recall from seeing this piece done
by Brown's company. It's funny how the word transparency keeps coming
up for me in thinking about these choreographers.
I was lucky to hear Misha,
Simone, and David Gordon converse about Trisha Brown the other night,
sharing anecdotes about what a wild and fearless improviser she
used to be back in the day. Gordon told a story about how he once
bought three frilly dresses at a thrift store and brought them to
rehearsal. Trisha, he said, put a long prom gown on over her t-shirt
and sweatpants and ran across the floor and right up the wall, where
she flourished the hem of her gown and said "Look, I'm a girl!"
before coming down. This came out after Misha was saying that Brown
is so specific in her choreography, so exacting now. Time passes,
things change, sometimes a lot!
I'd better get back to
the theater and start getting ready to "Landscape" and "Huddle in
the Lobby" for the evening show. My landscape partner, Fish, says
he feels like a mime. I struggle with inviting being seen.
Editor's Note: To read
our reviews of White Oak's Past Forward program, please see Flash
Review 1, 8-4: Misha's Homily: Bored at the Church, and Flash
Review, 8-7: Heroic Banality.
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