Despite our brave rhetoric, in which live performance is often misrepresented as more special than a good film, album, or TV show, too often we sit in the audience forcing our eyelids up. Eventually, we give in and applaud the effort involved rather than the integrity of the work. While I like mindless entertainment as much as the next zombie, I prefer to spend less time and money on it than live performance tends to require. In addition to keeping our eyes open, live performance should be both a renegade act and an investigative art that attempts to reinvent itself at every moment without relying on the conventions and tropes of the conformist politico-entertainment industrial complex.
Good work doesn't have to be heavy, intellectual, esoteric, or experimental – Well, maybe it does have to be experimental if that means searching for an appropriate means for an interesting thought, but that does not mean it has to offer instant gratification. It needs to live in the here and now, with a sense of history. Otherwise it closes up and dies.
To live is to move. The world we live in requires movement of thought as a moral imperative. Changing current reality is only made possible by thinking differently, questioning the status quo. The alternative is to be sucked into the gaping Sarlacc of acquiescence to the Way Things Are. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned (with due respect to Santayana) to stumble blindly against the future.
Like watching a flying stutter
2nd Draft: Who Made These Video Tapes? performed at the end of August, was the culmination of work Laurie Van Wieren – a local institution without the Doric columns – initiated last December with Who Made These Video Tapes? Set against displays of excerpts from her previous 20+ years of work in the local performance community, Ms Van Wieren's work is at first glance a celebratory retrospective. In addition to re-stagings of earlier works, there were videos, photographs, programs, scores, objects and costumes on display throughout the Ivy Building's Studio 206 the week of the performance.
But 2nd Draft, in conjunction with December's work, was more than just an entertaining and educational performance-exhibition. It was a rigorous, forward-looking creation that addressed fundamental questions of what it means to be alive, and did so in a way that was witty, engaging, and touching – but, more importantly, it experimented with form and practice in order to open up these explorations specifically for those in the audience in the here and now.
A key element of both the December and August work is Ms Van Wieren's Solo. This piece was constructed in December from bits and pieces of her own history. Ms Van Wieren told me she thinks in bits and pieces. "Memory is like that," she says. "I put things together in pieces. This is put together like a painting. Bits and pieces of my past work."
What we saw in performance was a little like watching a flying stutter. She entered from the side with her left arm held in a curve in front of her. She found a place and in a breath, threw her arms in the air and held a pose as if climbing up a wall. Then, she walked like a raccoon on its hind legs. A moment later and she is kicking out behind her, sending her arms in front of her like pistons and scooting backwards across the room. But then she turned her head abruptly, as if checking who was watching – or who had pushed her or called her name.
See her face
A problem with this familiar mode of describing movement is that it leaves out her face. It is in part the face that activates these moments of movement into flying lines of life and keeps the movement from becoming pure abstraction. Each of her movements comes from an image or moment of her history—from a past piece, past training, a relative's gesture, a photograph. Each of these moments of movement have the fullness of character and narrative – figuration – but without the story, emotional arc, or formal development that would lend them familiar shape. Constructed into a series of movements, they form a machine, a physical means of thinking through the past. But they occur in the performer's conscious sense of present-tense existence – being with us now in this specific room. The cascading fragments of images in this collection of movements set two temporalities against each other: her personal past and our shared present. In the spaces between each movement – in the moments before and after – the face adds a third term to the equation: an individual life being lived as we watch, and this concatenation suggests entirely other forms of knowledge – neither entirely abstract nor entirely concrete.
She calls this dance, so I call this dance. But there is something going on here that escapes the confines of language and discipline. I could call it by a different name, but names are beside the point here. The work flutters like a fevered mind between accepted conventions of disciplines and forms until the excited blur of its identity becomes its own reward.
Given the complexity of this solo performance, it would be sufficient grist for my little mental mill to grind away at it for some time. And in December's Who Made These Video Tapes? the solo stood on its own next to the sparkling and pointed piece, 5 Dancers and A DJ. But this August, Ms Van Wieren further intensified the experience by teaching the solo performance to three very different dancers with whom she had never worked: Sally Rousse, Kristin Van Loon, and Joanna Furnans. In its varied iterations, the solo work developed almost into a fugue as each of these performers rode the same choreographic mechanisms of open structure, controlled form, and individual idiosyncratic movement.
Rather than pass on a codified series of her own movements or choreograph idiosyncratic movements developed by her dancers, or provide us with a run of open improvisations, Ms Van Wieren managed to create an open framework of images in which the individual performer's characteristic idiosyncrasies stood out against the characteristic idiosyncrasies of Ms Van Wieren's body and history.
The body is an archive.
The body is an archive. A place where our own lives and the lives of others leave their marks: our habits are learned, inherited, or marked by the scars of our passage through life. These records of what has gone before guide much of where we are headed. Because the world does not make sense – or rather, it only makes the sense we make of it – the choices Ms Van Wieren made in creating this piece are particularly poignant. She does not allow us the comfort of either a familiar narrative structure or of a repeatable abstract design. She does not tell us what to think or to imagine, but offers us freedom.
When in Ms Van Wieren's piece her body performs its archive we see both the idiosyncratic presence that is the individual before us as well as reflections, or remanences, of her past made present. When the other dancers perform the same work, we don't see their archives – their pasts are not on display. Nor do we see mere interpretations of Ms Van Wieren's images. We see the absence of Ms Van Wieren. In this absence, the intimate presence of the other performers is revealed, inhabiting the here and now.
Because of the choreographic machinery, each performer's specific idiosyncrasies are exposed, naked, as they arise in each moment. The work reinvents itself with each movement, riding the moment of performance on the structure of both Ms. Van Wieren's past and each performer's individual present. Against the temporal richness of Ms Van Wieren's performance, these naked idiosyncrasies allow us to recognize what it means to be here now, and provoke the movement of thought:
What is this stuff we have lived through that has disappeared?
What is it to have this past?
What is this?
Where are we now?
This place. . . .
This thing, this…