The Elephant in the Room blog #1 by Platform dramaturg-in-residence Jenn Joy
September 27, 2010
Blog entry. 9.27.10.
certain difficulties, certain joy
What do we know when we approach dance? What are the certainties that lie in wait when we arrive? What are the specific kinds of joy or pleasure in dance, in dancing, in watching dance? The title of the platform, certain difficulties, certain joy, curated by Trajal Harrell repeats, calling attention to the limits of certainty, the sites and affects where what is certain breaks down—difficulties and joy. During the opening public panel, Elephant in the Room, Harrell spoke of his desire to break with taste as the impulse behind curation and instead to focus on the particular force across contemporary experimental choreography to engage with the physicality of joy, not only as a conceptual constraint but as corporeal practice. certain difficulties, certain joy would function as an operation rather than a description or metaphor to put in motion different ways of thinking about the works and “instigating a discourse.”
certain difficulties, certain joy acts as a kind of critique of the ways in which curating happens and the kind of performances that can be witnessed, represented, and experienced. For me, this platform participates in a questioning of how choreography might escape from the strictures of representation to explore a kind of uncertainty, something that is less easily diagnosed, less easily articulated, less legible. Here choreography works against its own limits resonating with art historian Georges Didi-Huberman’s call for a kind of art writing that revels in uncertainty, looking to the obscure, illegible, and strange. The works within this platform offer a series of possible answers to Harrell’s provocation. A series of choreographic projects that use exquisite physicality to engage with objects, architecture and language.
What then is the critical capacity of joy?
Somewhere in the middle of Madame Plaza (2009), choreographed and performed by Bouchra Ouizguen with Aïtas Kabboura Aït Ben Hmad, Naïma Sahmoud and Fatima El Hanna, Ouizguen walks behind El Hanna, her head tucked in her back and wraps her arms around her belly. Grabbing her thighs, shaking her stomach, clinging to her as she runs her hands up and down her legs. We see her hands attempting to find something, to reach for something, yet always they miss what seems to be the object of their grasp. The moment is erotic and tinged with desperation. Then Ouizguen grabs El Hanna, lifts her up and carries her to the edge of the stage, but on this particular night they both fall off the stage. Not perhaps as Ouizguen intended and yet the crash as the two bodies fall and hit the floor and the wall of the stage behind them unsettles. What was subtly woven within the gestures and coded within the eloquent wailing becomes explicitly visible in this accidental crack in the choreographic mechanism. Quite literally breaking into the audience’s space, the crash exposes the violence embedded in many of the gestures—shaking, trembling, grapping, pointing—and amplifies the danger of this very public exposure of various forms of female intimacy.
The sonic reverberation of the crash, the spectator’s communal gasp, and the silence immediately following challenge any easy reading of the work as an exotic representation of a more traditional form of the Aïta cabaret work, instead revealing the difficulty of making sense of these traditions through the physical presence of the dancers/singers on stage.
Calling attention to the architecture of the stage in the moment of falling reinforces the framing Ouizguen initiates on stage with her three couch platforms. As the audience enters the performers sit, anticipating in silence. They lie down, sit up, stretch out, kneel slowly shifting from one posture to the next. Later these same platforms stack to form a wall that collapses as the performers fall into it from behind and later still a kind of fence behind which Ouizguen and Sahmoud hide. When their faces appear and then disappear it feels almost illicit, as they disappear into a space of pleasure? Of secrecy? Of invisibility?
As they sing, we witness the density of sound moving through their bodies as trembling becomes shaking becomes convulsion. The force of the sonic manipulates limbs and flesh as their singing and wailing offers up an interrogation of tradition and history through sound. Listening it is as if I am standing in the plaza listening to an accumulation of voices, some individual, some intimate, some public, a momentary escape from the confined and assigned spaces of tradition and expectation.