PLATFORM 2011: Body Madness writer-in-residence Ana Isabel Keilson on Laurie Berg and Aynsley Vandenbroucke
March 22, 2011
Dances without Dancing, Chaos, Failure, and the Process of Becoming Thyself
Typos, transformations, wrong decisions, moments of action that engender unintended results. Failing to be who we are—or who we want to be—as a process that brings us closest to an authentic realization of our own subjectivity. Philosopher-historian Robert Pippin, in his book The Persistence of Subjectvity (2005), explains this process through the writing of Marcel Proust; Laurie Berg and Aynsley Vandenbroucke, the artists of Danspace Project’s second evening in part II of the Body Madness platform, show us moments of failure and becoming through their dances.
It is important to specify that the two pieces in this shared evening are dances, because the first half of the program, Vandenbroucke’s Untitled, has no dancing in it. Its staging is simple: a series of written dialogues between Vandenbroucke and her past, Vandenbroucke and her present, and Vandenbroucke and her artistic collaborator, Brian Rogers. These dialogues range from the mundane (the experience of making a dance), to the personal (experiences of personal failures, frustrations, childhood memories, artistic influences), to the philosophical (what it means to begin and/or end something, why things (dances) matter). Each of these dialogues—or, better yet, digressions—-is typed by Vandenbroucke and Rogers on computers set up onstage and projected onto two large screens in the space. One screen is propped up like an easel mid-stage right, the other hung opposite the audience on the far wall across the sanctuary.
For most of the dance, Vandenbroucke and Rogers sit at their computers facing away from us. We occasionally catch glimpses of their faces during the piece. In one instance, Vandenbroucke, holding a video projector, lies down on the floor to bathe the ceiling in images—including clips from previous performances at Danspace Project meaningful to her. One of these clips is of Mark Haim’s 1997 solo performance, Goldberg Variations, which, Vandenbroucke explains, inspired her to become a choreographer. 3:17 into this clip Haim balances in a geometric, Graham-esque pose, and the slight twitching (tapping?) gestures he makes with his fingers and toes are a nice prefiguring of the typing in Vandenbroucke’s own Danspace Project solo fourteen years later.
We then briefly see Rogers’ face. After writing about his admiration for virtuoso Glenn Gould (1932-1982) and his own (failed?) experience of being and becoming a pianist, Rogers gets up from his computer, walks across the sanctuary, and sits down at a piano set back in the far corner of the church. Rogers then plays, quietly and beautifully, the first variation of the Goldberg Variations.
The result is a collage of the deeply personal and the impersonal. Throughout the piece, we see only Vandenbroucke and Rogers’ backs, yet we have access to their innermost thoughts. We read anecdotes from their lives, typed out in Comic-Sans, a kitschy, generally playful font. Untitled is an ode to our attempts at art-making—an honest appraisal of who we are and what we make. The clearest example of this, perhaps, is Vandenbroucke’s decision not to dance. In Untitled, movement isn’t physical but is instead a mental shifting from what we would like to be (and do) to what, exactly, we have done (and so become). To return to and paraphrase Pippin: in our modern age, our life imperative is no longer Socrates’ dictum, “know thyself,” but is instead playwright Oscar Wilde’s instruction to “become thyself.” For Vandenbroucke, “becoming thyself” thus stems from the movement of her typos, her memories and gestures of failure and success.
If the notion of being and becoming in Untitled has a sad, bittersweet tinge to it—not unlike Prousts’ tone in Swann’s Way—the notion of subjectivity in Laurie Berg’s A Different Brand of Chaos is defiantly upbeat, anarchic. The dance is a wild romp through rhythm, movement, random props (salvaged from the dumpster down the street? Who knows? Who cares!), and exuberant kinetic states. Wearing blue and red feather hairpieces, Berg and collaborator Siri Peterson perform strange rituals and sing nonsense lyrics (“one zero one one zero one,” “blah blah bleh blah”). Their joyful singing turns into frantic whining, which turns into animal-like yelping, which turns into the sounds of grunting, orgasmic ecstasy. Their tics and rituals suggest Glenn Gould’s piano playing: as Rogers notes in one section of Untitled, Gould was known for his strange habits and, most famously, his vocalizations while playing. In this recording of Gould playing Beethoven’s Fifteen Variations and Fugues, you can see the strange “dance” of his face that, seemingly, fails to connect with the graceful logic of his piano playing.
Berg and Peterson continue: they make faces, they ham up the audience, they strip down to glitzy Americana showgirl outfits, they do silly jazz dances that morph into routines of demented aerobics. They exit the space only to reemerge a minute later, soaking wet. Feather hairpieces limp and dripping, they continue dancing—defiant in the soggy face of failure. Yet at all times they are confident, relaxed, themselves. Their performance channels Jean Hagen’s character, Lina Lamont, in the classic 1952 musical, Singin’ in the Rain. Through a hilarious and inimitable inability to speak with “proper” diction, Lamont becomes more authentically herself.
But most importantly, Berg and Peterson’s irreverence recalls the energetic, endlessly inquisitive words of dance writer Jill Johnston (1929-2010). Johnston, who wrote for publications including the Village Voice, Art News, Art Forum, and the New York Times, is required reading for anyone interested in dance (especially the Danspace crowd). In Johnston’s 1968 article, “Marmalade Me”—the title review of an anthology of her writing during the 1960s for the Village Voice—Johnston uses the idea of poetry to explicate larger issues of meaning, performance, and, I would suggest, failure. Johnston notes,
The sound (and motion) came first. The sound was the noise of the infant’s disapproval at separation from its cave of blood and water. When did the sound become so specified as to signify a particular object? Other animals make such sounds, but so far as we know they don’t get very deep into grammatical complications. (Can you write a simple declarative sentence with seven grammatical errors?) But I presume all animals enjoy the sounds they make. Do you think that when someone talks just for the sake of talking he is saying the most original and truthful thing he can say?
For Johnston, we are defined by the gaps in motion, meaning, and sound. Moreover, we experience the world through the paradox language poses—“Can you write a simple declarative sentence with seven grammatical errors?”—in other words, the experience of simple, physical pleasure complicated by all of the (personal, complex) mistakes we make.
From Berg and Peterson’s red and blue sparkly antics to Johnston’s blood and water; from Berg and Peterson’s parodic chaotic revue to the sound and motion of Johnston’s review. From the rupture of Gould’s face and fingers to the rupture of Vandenbroucke’s dance without dancing. And so Vandenbroucke and Berg’s shared evening brings us to a place where we try, fail, and become ourselves.