Dance Discussion: In Site Part I
Jeans, waves, wind…and a bright red stumbling-block. A viewer’s impressions, and the artist’s response.
For the month of March, Disjecta Gallery (8371 N Interstate) hosts In-Site, an installation by Karl Burkheimer combined with a series of dance performances staged on the installation. The next two Saturdays of In-Site feature Kathleen Keogh and Linda Austin. Last Saturday, Culturephile saw Tahni Holt and company (see slideshow). In case you missed it, here are a few lingering impressions:
To begin, there is one dancer*, making swanlike arm movements and brushing a bare foot along the floor. Her hair hangs forward, and ambient sounds haunt the PA, like rushing wind trapped in a can. It’s 1pm. Sharp. A crowd of fifty-some onlookers has sifted around the edges of an imposing slanted wooden platform, anticipating an improvised dance performance led by local choreographer Tahni Holt* and musician Thomas Thorson (Culture Machine). It’s an impressive turnout , especially considering its post-brunch timeslot and Disjecta’s far-out location. This is going to be something.
As Thomas Thorson holds down the fort, running sound and playing keyboard from a hole in center stage, five dancers emerge:
• A long-limbed, graceful blonde man in a red flannel shirt (Robert Tyree)
• A tall, slender woman with a balletic bun (Sally Garrido-Spencer)
• A shorter man with a seemingly subdued demeanor (Richard Decker)
• Two medium-height, medium-build women with medium-length brown hair (Noelle Stiles and Tahni Holt*)
All wear jeans, creating a look that is literally “pedestrian,” puzzlingly at odds with the performance-art-in-a-gallery context. As each denim-clad dancer begins to explore the space, we see sweeping gestures and varied postures. Slow rotations. Sudden thrashes. Creative ambulation. Walking, rolling, crawling. Many movements seem detached, incubated, almost fetal. The soundscape evokes the roar of a tunnel, a vacuum. And the faces of the dancers remain…placid? determined? blank. Music is sans melody; movement is, for the most part, sans pattern or narrative. There is nothing to attach to beyond a feeling of “happening.”
As a viewer who yearns for narrative, I start to seek it. I notice one dancer placing a hand on another’s back. This seems to inspire a natural reaction where the pair end up rocking back and forth together, as though the wavelike sounds were actual waves—or, more metaphorically, throes. Their movements speed up, peak, and then subside. This event happens more than once, with different pairs of dancers, and I can’t help but process these instances as erotic pantomimes. I’m relieved to see a couple of the dancers’ stoic masks crack to reveal a faint flicker of passion.
Hang on, what’s that? And has that been there this whole time?
What I thought was a blank stage, actually contains one object: a large red block, mounted on a wooden base. Think small sawhorse, hurdle, gymnastic balance beam—though it’s none of those things. When I see it, I think “stumbling block,” and my hunger for narrative practically growls. But as I watch dancers interact with the red prop, sitting on it, resting against it, looking at it…I realize it’s not going to end up meaning anything particular. It’s just one more object to explore.
Now there are Twister poses. There are electro-shock spasms. In a particularly inspired moment, three dancers brace themselves between the stage and the wall to make some acrobatic formations (see slides). In another memorable flourish of duénde, Holt kicks into a stomping rhythm, throwing all her weight on her forward foot, then rocking back on her other foot, her hair dramatically thrashing. This movement, proven hypnotic by countless indigenous dances, could go on forever. But Holt’s version is a brief dalliance as the music reaches a thundering crescendo, then wisps away into silence. Cameras stop clicking, notebooks are folded and bagged. I look at the clock: 1:41. It’s over. Right? Wrong.
The music resumes, this time sounding like a twinkly twilit bat cave with dripping stalactites. Dancers momentarily do windsprints. For 19 more minutes, there are more happenings, but I can’t shake the feeling that it’s already over. Now, I realize there was a predetermined schedule, and an hour is tidy in a way that 40-odd minutes is not. But while the 19 extra minutes didn’t minimize the experience of the previous 41, they also didn’t enhance it. If the group had been instructed to stop when the piece felt “done,” they might have walked off at the same time that the crowd tuned out, rather than cuing off their music guy, who must have been instructed to fill the time. By the time we hit 2pm, the dancers had (perhaps instinctively) crawled into the center-stage sound booth and taken the headphones from Thorson, almost as if to say, “Make it stop!” To be fair, I hadn’t realized how much I was “into” this piece, until I spent 19 minutes “out of it.” And if that’s part of the Holt & Co. strategy—well played. But if not, a note for next time: when you improvise a piece, maybe improvise when it ends.
While my wish for narrative elements fell on blank faces, sensory impressions remain. Moments of color and gesture, whips of hair, points of toes, wisps of sonic texture. This was a thing that happened. This Saturday and next, there will be more happenings, and you might decide to catch them.
TAHNI HOLT RESPONDS
Thank you for coming. It was a pleasure getting to move in and around the environment that Karl created with his installation. As part of his desires there was nothing precious about his work, it is to be walked on and explored by gallery goers. So although it is in a gallery setting he embeds In-Site with a lingering sense of construction. If you traverse the installation you feel the rough edges and the textured plywood. Underneath there is more refinement, visual patterning and curved edges. We costumed to match our feelings about the installation. It felt funny to wear anything but something that we couldn’t get dirty or would rip. Yet, like the installation, we did not stay in pedestrian movements (although we alluded to them certainly). We danced our training and moved with specific intentions that, at times, I would like to think highlighted the immediacy of now and our odd connections to each other, the installation, the space, the sound, the audience, etc.
As you stated in your review you are a “viewer who yearns for narrative”. These are your desires and wants, maybe needs(?), for a performance. The context that you are viewing the work from when your “hunger for narrative practically growls,” is at odds with the context in which we are working. And thus there is a disconnect. I think this disconnect is rich with potential for a greater understanding. Clearly there are many debates about what should and shouldn’t be in a review of dance. I fear this debate, yet I would like to offer that without discussing this disconnect you are doing your readers and our performance a disservice.
I’m sorry if you think this review does a disservice. I actually enjoyed the piece, and the confession that I “yearn for narrative,” isn’t intended to invalidate other kinds of work. That said, I don’t see the desire for narrative as irrelevant to a dance discussion, because many dance performances do contain narrative elements. I also want to clarify that I’ve described the movement in lay terms rather than dance terms not to dismiss your professional training, but to paint a picture for readers, regardless of their level of dance knowledge.
The craft of writing, like the craft of dance, can be endlessly refined. Placement of paragraph breaks, word choices, and instances of repetition all contribute to the overall impression that is left. I have done a fresh edit of the piece since the above response, and while I haven’t removed my few criticisms, I’ve put them in a more representative context. Something that sticks with me is the phrase “nothing to attach to.” Is that seen as a negative statement? And if so, is that part of a larger Western ideology? Readers, what do you look for in a performance—dance or otherwise? And if there’s nothing to attach to, are you disappointed, or do you feel more enlightened for it? Please feel free to comment.
The In Site series is ongoing, with Kathleen Keogh on March 12 and Linda Austin on March 19. All performances start at 1pm. For more about Portland arts events, visit PoMo’s Arts & Entertainment Calendar, stream content with an RSS feed, or sign up for our weekly On The Town Newsletter!