Every fall the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art hosts its international Time-Based Art Festival. This year I was lucky enough to be a part of it, while simultaneously being reminded of one of the biggest mistakes of my life: letting other activities growing up get in the way of my dancing. Such is life, kids.
My main job was to coordinate writers for theater director Mariano Pensotti’s U.S. premier of Sometimes I think, I can see you: a conceptual art piece in which people are chosen to sit at a computer in a busy, public space writing live about the people they see. They make up their present, past, future – whatever strikes them – and these imaginings are projected onto a large screen like real-life supertitles. Naturally, I chose to bring in a collection of 24 incredible writers rather than “everyday” people. They did not disappoint.
I also performed I am sitting in a room by Alvin Lucier (for TBA: Room Tone by Lucy Raven and Rebecca Gates), wrote for Mariano’s piece, and did a little volunteering. All this afforded me some ca$h money, drink tickets, and a pass to basically every event during TBA. That’s how I wound up at the dance performance this article is really about.
Roya Amirsoleymani, PICA’s Community Engagement Manager, spear-headed an incredible program that (if you’re gonna be in the PDX area) will continue into this winter: Field Guide. It has three parts:
1. Workshop (discussion of ideas & group dancing/movement)
2. Performance (watching one, that is)
3. Download (discussion/drinks/dinner)
The idea is to help a wider audience be able to understand and enjoy contemporary and experimental dance, and from the 3hr conversation my group and I wound up having afterwards I’d say it works pretty fucking well. Though my mom put me in modern, lyric jazz, and ballet when I was three, I did dance off-and-on, and have never taken a class on critiquing or talking about dance. At least I was starting off somewhere, though, as a once-dancer, poet, classically trained singer, vulnerable person, you get the idea.
My workshop and download were lead by choreographer/dancer Zoe Scofield, whose company mission statement begins, “Our company is driven by the idea of mythologizing the experience of our senses” – I die. She was at once brilliant, funny, engaging, and accessible. She talked to us about space, focus, the lenses of other mediums and structures from ritual, to time, to media, never telling us what to watch for, but instead setting our minds up to be pliable and alert to whatever we were about to see.
“So, how was the performance?” you ask.
I’ll tell you, but this is not a review, this is what I need you to know.
We come into a massive warehouse, light bulbs bare and hanging down from the ceiling that soon present as disaffected eyes, watching, dimmed and dulled. A few bright spotlights from the floor and pointed upward. A cart of red wine and black grapes, closed pomegranates and a knife. I dug my fingers in not caring who else had, and sat down on a long black bag on the floor.
When the cart was rolled away the room was empty. Into it, eventually, walked a man, turning his back to us, singing purely, maybe without words, then running, dancing, settling near us. A woman after, entering in the dark far away, clicking, slamming her feet on the floor, whipping her body, pulled backward, dragging the bottom of a microphone beside her across the asphalt.
They end up taking their clothes off. They are on a table, now, close enough for me to touch the legs of it. They take turns getting on top of each other. They make close sounds, or there is no sound and no light almost, and neither is dominant for too long. They will let the other. They want. Intimacy under a light bulb somewhere, and the sense that they are fighting for or against something inside of them that they know they cannot beat.
They are warm,
BREAK. We turn our chairs around to face a tiny dance floor and a wall with black paper all down it. They pull the cart out. Cereal, bowls, milk, and silver sugar drinks in packets. I shovel rainbow-colored flakes into my mouth, and suck down fruit punch by two piles of Christmas lights squealing out un-synced carols. A booming Auden begins playing through the loudspeakers. She comes out in blue shorts and a beard of blue gaffers tape screaming –
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating…
Screaming, disappearing and resurfacing in a Lady Lovely Locks skirt and no top, tearing the black from the walls to reveal hot pink paint and the word YIKES! in white.
They can’t stop moving. Manic. He’s shouting directions at her, screaming at the floor, red-faced, huffing, squeezing his palms to squishing sounds and moaning. Me with my rainbow cereal in this rainbow world, eating their intimacy, their childhoods, adulthood, their death, their fear. Wondering what the people who chose Cheerios are feeling; if they feel disconnected or dead, like they never fought. We are in this together, this bent pas de deux and me, fighting death with neons and bare feet and muscle. A collage of motion that ends in flashing, purple sparkle-lights.
Or, we could say –
Sound and the flavors of death. Two bodies, opened in the shapes of anguish and anger and fight, closed, and a terror of intimacy (like a rat king). Palms slamming cement, as self, as other. Flat feet. A blush of boys. Skill and flailing, and her hair everywhere over her face and flipping it, like the tallest vixen, showing us at once the shapes of men, of girls, the fighter and the web, and death hanging in the dark rafters, we just know it.
What you need to understand experimental dance is:
Also, philosophy, gender, honesty. No, not that honesty – real honesty.
Blur your eyes if you get confused, to see the shapes, the distance.
Stop trying so hard; it’s like poetry. We’re shaping, saying it the way it’s felt not the way it’s told. The syntax of shapes. The body like an “oh” in the shape of a conversation.
The body on fire.
Alyssa Morhardt-Goldstein is the founding editor of SOUND: a weekly literary magazine on contemporary musico-poetics, and an associate editor for Rattapallax. She received her MFA in poetry from The New School, and her BS in classical vocal performance and literature from Mannes. Her chapbook, Quiet, was selected by Matthea Harvey as The New School’s 2012 Chapbook Contest winner for poetry. She is currently writing the libretto for Jonathan Dawe’s operatic re-telling of Tamburlaine. @Elkawildling