PLATFORM 2011: Body Madness writer-in-residence Ana Isabel Keilson on Adrienne Truscott’s “ha: a solo”
April 1, 2011
Impersonating History Impersonating Choreography
It is a historic weekend for dance in New York. The Merce Cunningham Company, in one of their last New York performances, is at the Joyce; the Trisha Brown Dance Company is at Dance Theater Workshop; the Juilliard dancers are performing Nijinska in their spring concert; and Adrienne Truscott is at Danspace Project.
The landscape of dance today in New York is beautiful and overwhelming. Despite any number of our imminent existential crises—the “death” of the Cunningham Company, Dance Theater Workshop (and maybe, next, the Joyce?)—when we stop and sit down and watch, one thing is clear. We are surrounded by dance that is deeply moving.
The most moving thing of all is that this weekend is best seen through the lens of Truscott’s work. Her performance is humor and fearlessness and perspective and intelligence in movement; her work is referential, deferential, subtle, and uncompromising. There is no better way to move into the next chapter of our communal future than with these qualities in hand.
Truscott’s ha: A Solo reminds us that the most moving thing of all is critical thought. From the beginning of the dance, we question what we are seeing: it is a solo that is really, actually, a quartet. Or possibly a quintet? (One of the performers is stuck in Australia, or so we are told.) And more: ha starts with confusion. Neal Medlyn and Carmine Covelli run onstage, clad in the carnivalesque: Covelli, in a horse-costume, Medlyn in a unitard with the crotch cut out. They leave, something else happens. Natalie Agee, in a brownish-red wig, impersonates Truscott, informing the audience that this is an evening without rules, without plot, without linearity. A lie, or a contradiction follows: despite all of this, Agee tells us that she, the (false) Adrienne, needs our help in building a narrative for the evening. What are we supposed to believe? More importantly, what are we supposed to do?
Before we have time to decide, we have to revise. Truscott, naked, does a series of brilliantly executed back handsprings. Lights dim; Truscott dances. Agee is joined by Medlyn and Covelli, changed, wigged, and dressed like Truscott. They dance. Truscott, still naked, is somewhere in the background, behind the sanctuary’s pillars, doing things (drinking, wearing a dress made of hair, walking down an imaginary staircase). Agee, Medlyn and Covelli growl lines from Edward Albee’s 1962 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? References are made to Mike Nichols’ 1966 film adaptation, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Agee pulls out a chicken wing and eats it. Agee impersonates Truscott impersonating Elizabeth Taylor impersonating Bette Davis. Truscott’s performance couldn’t possibly be more relevant: Taylor passed away earlier this week. Danspace Project mourns the loss of a great American performer.
But, specifically, the question of impersonation is an important one. For dance, it is—and has been—long embraced. One of the most historic examples of this is playing this weekend across town from St. Mark’s: at the Joyce you can see a reconstruction of Cunningham’s 1958 Antic Meet, which contains Cunningham’s parody—or an impersonation, take your pick—of Martha Graham. Four women, dressed in Bob Rauschenberg’s billowing parachute dresses, dance in classic Graham-style movements around Cunningham, trapped in a four-armed sweater without a head-hole. Here, as Merce parodies Martha, a doubling occurs: he is the choreographer impersonating the choreographer. As Medlyn and Covelli impersonate Truscott, we ask ourselves: who is Truscott impersonating?
Other notable moments of impersonation include Miguel Gutierrez’s 2010 collaboration with visual artist Jenny Holzer at the Institute of Contemporary Art: Boston, in which his entire company is dressed—down to tattoos and facial hair—exactly like Gutierrez. Malcolm McDowell’s performance of ballet-master “Mr. A” in Robert Altman’s 2003 film, The Company, so references George Balanchine (known to all as “Mr. B”) that it slides from parody to impersonation. And of course there are Richard Move’s brilliant performances as Martha Graham: 29 seconds into this clip you can see Move performing one of Graham’s most famous solos, Lamentation (1930). Move’s dancing reminds us that impersonation and parody are not necessarily linked, and that sometimes the best way to pay homage to someone is to perform them.
Or to become them. As part of a retrospective film on Yvonne Rainer, directed by Charles Atlas (also a longtime Cunningham collaborator), Move-as-Martha learns from Rainer a section of Trio A. Together, Rainer and Martha are beautiful, hilarious. More importantly, their staging of an imagined-yet-embodied encounter between the dance community’s present and past functions as a critical analysis of what it means to inherit the legacy of “classical” modern dance in a post-modern context. Through impersonation, Rainer and Move are able to redefine meaning for themselves, as dance-makers, performers, and as people who see—and think—about movement.
In Truscott’s work, the transition from impersonation to becoming is vital. Over the course of ha: a Solo, the performers shed pretense, pretending, and performed identities; like the characters of Albee’s play, they eventually find themselves (albeit exhausted, drained) in a place of honesty. The wigs come off, everyone gets a new costume, everyone dances together. A series of slowly changing video-stills is projected on the ceiling of the church: we look up and see a close-up of a girl’s face (Truscott?), crying or laughing or crying. We can’t quite figure out which it is, but we see some kind of transformation happening—and we know that it is powerful.
Somewhere in all of this, there are rhythmic stomping references to Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913), the reconstruction of which was made largely from movement taken from one of the most important works of modernism in dance, Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces (1923) (Nijinska was Nijinsky’s sister, on whom he developed movement material for Rite). Les Noces is being performed uptown this weekend. What’s more, it is a dance centering around a giant wig—a long braid—which is moved and supported by a massive cast of dancers dressed alike . Truscott impersonates Nijinsky made from Nijinska. Truscott becomes history becoming itself.
But before we get nostalgic and take ourselves too seriously, the confusion and carnival return. Agee wears the dress made of hair (which looks startlingly like Rauschenberg’s parachute dresses for Antic Meet), and the performers wear white, four-fingered oversized Mickey Mouse gloves. They look strange and goofy. They dance like Elizabeth Taylor; they execute “moves,” they pretend to brush their teeth. They dance in unison; they have become a single unit, something new. Their performance is breathtaking.
So, then, leaving the show, we understand everything differently as the past and the present keep folding onto one another. Across town, Cunningham’s 1982 Quartet is a quintet is a solo; Robert Swinston performs himself performing Merce. At DTW, Neal Beasley performs Trisha Brown performing her 1979 solo, Watermotor—the first time anyone besides Brown has danced it (Watermotor begins 2:19 into this clip). Brown and Cunningham’s work moves forward in time as it is performed and impersonated and parodied and transformed.
And ultimately, thanks to Truscott, when one of Albee’s main characters, George, declares midway through the play, “I’m really very mistrustful,” we know how to hear him, and what he means: don’t believe what he says, but don’t not believe it either. Luckily for us, dances, unlike people, live and die and live again (and die again). Unlike people, dances don’t impersonate each other; they are singular, honest, they never lie. And yet, as Truscott shows us, much like way people perform—or become—other people, their truths, perhaps, live somewhere else.