PLATFORM 2011: Body Madness writer-in-residence Huffa Frobes-Cross on Yvonne Meier’s “Brother of Gogolorez”
March 1, 2011
“Microscopic details get larger and larger,” Yvonne Meier announces with measured authority, in one of the first lines of her spoken score for last Thursday night’s Brother of Gogolorez. Arturo Vidich, Aki Sasamoto, Jennifer Monson, and Dau Yang spread out in casual disorder around the dance floor and began flickering movements that seem at first like imperfect attempts at stillness. Within a minute or two these shivers became writhing fits spinning several performers off their own feet. Behind them a band, guitarist Dave Gisler, saxophonist Michael Jaeger, and percussionist Christian Jaeger-Brown, also responding to Meier, pulls buzz, clicks, and squelches into a clanging feedback roar. On the risers in the audience, we listen to Meier and improvise along, reading a slashing arm as a magnified twitch through the frame of her sentence. Meier, standing still and straight behind a microphone, chooses her next words while watching.
Gogolorez is improvisation through iteration, speech being swept from, out, and into bodies. Routing their signals through shifting relays and proxies, neither Meier, performers, nor audience can be traced to the center of its disseminated production. The latest chapter in a career-long engagement with improvisation, Gogolorezneeds to be read through the development Meier’s own particular notion of improvisation, which interweaves and rewrites several related, but distinct, improvisational traditions. After coming to New York to study with Merce Cunningham, Meier worked alongside Steve Paxton, whose Contact Improv technique both, in part, grew out of and reacted against Cunningham’s work. She also trained in Authentic Movement and Skinner Releasing Technique, both of which put improvised movement to work for therapeutic purposes. When asked in a 2008 interview why she does not “set movement” in her pieces Meier responded,
“I’ve spent years going back and forth and at some point definitely found for myself that movement is more interesting when it’s not set. Whatever comes out of me, I can do better when I don’t set. I’ll make scores and be much more creative. All the little shifts of weight, this or that, you can’t repeat it. When you repeat something it’s supposed to look like the first time you are doing it, but it never is, so you are like lying. Lying. That I find so annoying.”
Even beyond its appearance, there is something that, according to Meier, separates improvised movement and movement that while choreographed, tries to seem improvised, something that makes set movement purporting to be improvisation a kind of “lying.” What is it that Meier hopes to conjure through the complex improvised relations of a piece like Gogolorez? Why is it inherently beyond the reach of set, choreographed movement?
For Mary Stacks Whitehouse, who created Authentic Movement, the importance of improvisation hinged on a displacement of the ego that allows movement to arise directly from the unconscious. It is a difference, in her words, between the egoistic “I move” and the authentic, unconscious “I am moved.” The experience of “being moved” is “a moment of unpremediated surrender that cannot be explained, repeated exactly, sought for or tried out.” (Whitehouse, 1979) Grounded in Jungian psychoanalysis and developed in the 1950’s, Whitehouse’s Authentic Movement paralleled notions of automatism developed by Abstract Expressionism at the time and derived from Surrealists like Andre Breton and Andre Masson. Action in the world is valued for its clear provenance from within the unconscious mind of the producer, set choreography aiming to reproduce the appearance of such movement would be beside the point, and it would be a false display, the “I move” masquerading as the “I am moved.”
Contact Improvisation was developed by Steve Paxton almost two decades later while working with Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, and others in the Grand Union dance collective. Paxton hoped to displace the sole authority of the choreographer and “[t]he weighty theatrical tradition of subjecting one’s self to another person’s aesthetic of time-space-effort manipulation…in favor of the attempt to be emancipated without confining or restricting others.” (in Turner, 2010) Contact Improvisation aims to produce an environment in which creation arises from each individual’s free action. Often involving invitations to audience participation, CI hoped to replace the hierarchies of dance performance with a community of equals working together towards a shared experience.
“Angry turtle shot and dies a long and painful death,” Meier flatly states about midway through Brother of Gogolorez. Sasamoto, the target of the descriptive instruction, crouches jumping and snapping at the air until shot, falls to roll repeatedly on her hunched back, struggling to get up. Vidich, as per Meier’s words, approaches Sasamoto before jumping back in shock tearing at his face. At which point, Meier, pushing down a smile, advises, “A little less obvious.” Soon after this Yang, asked to do a “nasty porn solo on the floor,” mimes a woman masturbating and climaxes with screams that veer from orgasm to psychosis or seizure.
The bodies of the performers in Gogolorez take on roles far beyond themselves or their own ‘natural,’ ‘free,’ or ‘automatic’ movement, and they are told by another to do so. These are neither the direct emanations of any particular unconscious nor the emancipated movements of each individual. Meier deliberately inserts what would appear within either Authentic Movement or Contact Improvisation as impurities in the flow of unfettered improvisation. Since the early 1980s, her performances have been littered with these kinds of disruptive mechanisms. Often these have involved an array of objects, costumes, and stage sets, trash bags to be torn out, papier–mâché animals to be danced with, sheets of foil, and cardboard boxes. Gogolorez strips away almost all props, but inserts Meier and her speech as a repeated reminder of interruption and a source for the movement of the performers beyond their own interiority.
How does Meier avoid “lying”? Not simply through spontaneity, and not through any purportedly unrestricted space of artistic production. As Meier described, the “lying” of certain choreographed movement was not that it was set, but that it aimed to appear as if it weren’t, as if it were happening now, for “the first time.” Gogolorezaims not to promise an ideal or truth that it doesn’t and cannot deliver. Instead, it shows improvisation as something that arises always between participants, with spectral obstacles of hierarchies, inhibitions, and cultural presuppositions and inherited signs as the sea within which it moves rather than the hostile force it must expel. Even in its “first time,” Gogolorez makes clear that it is reiterating the signs, disciplines, power relations that have all come before it. This is not to say that this is merely a display of the inevitable defeat of the hopes of earlier improvisers like Paxton, Rainer, or even Whitehouse. It is an adjustment of their techniques. By bringing all the messy obstructions to the freedom of improvisation into the light, it makes it possible to address them, maybe even challenge them rather directly, even right to their face.
The afternoon after the performance, the New York Times published critic Gia Kourlas’ review of the performance. It was, by necessity, an unusually first-person description. “It isn’t every night,” Kourlas wrote, “that you find yourself dead center at a performance as a dancer [Vidich] approaches you with the resolve of the shark from ‘Jaws’…with the sole intention of making out. … ‘Uh-oh’ [Meier] said, ‘The critic.’” From my angle, it was at this point that Vidich disappeared into the crowd, but I have it on good authority that he did indeed try to slip the critic some tongue. Improvisation, as imagined by Meier, is not simply the spontaneous production of something within a given set context, it is a searching for the presupposed limits of that context in order to act to shift the entire field in which one acts. Later, after Vidich had given up on his advances towards the critic, he crawled on the floor towards Meier and gripped her microphone stand in his teeth, eventually toppling it and temporarily silencing the voice of the score. Standing still, upright, at the edges of the performance, Meier’s position is as much one of vulnerability as it is authority. If she is the monarch, she is there only to be always already, repeatedly, deposed in the swirling, circling dissemination of her own words.