The Forms that Words Take
April 21, 2015
Danspace Project PLATFORM 2015: Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets, curated by Claudia La Rocco
by Jaime Shearn Coan
Edwin Denby, the patron saint of this year’s Platform, clutching his tri-pointed model of dance: George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham, and Judson Dance Theater, joined Claudia La Rocco and her invited performers (positioned somewhere on the triangle’s continuum), and a distinguished crew of scholars, poets, artists, journalists, friends, and invited contributors, to lead off this year’s Platform with two text-centered events: a reading for Denby and a catalogue launch, which brought together Platform participants and catalogue contributors, including Douglas Crimp and David Velasco. At both events, the bounds of inquiry kept radiating outwards, conversation becoming the model for a new practice of making meaning.
The catalogue includes a wide-ranging collection of writings from dancers, poets, scholars, critics, artists and performers—sprinkled throughout with Denby’s poems and Rudy Burckhardt’s photos. It is also an investigation into the field of language for each of the invited Platform artists, all of whom were offered the field of two pages by La Rocco. The result is a truly contemporary text that enacts the centrifugal and centripetal aspects of this invoked historic triangle.
1. Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets: A Reading for Edwin Denby
Wednesday, February 11, 8pm, Parish Hall at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery
“We were all so bright around Denby” – from Remembering Edwin Denby
I sat down in the last row and started talking to a gentle man who had known Denby. The Parish room was more full than I’d ever seen it. A man with a little dog that I recognized from other readings sat on the floor. Opera filtered down from upstairs. Through the parade of speakers, many of whom knew Denby, I felt the contours of the man I only knew from pages vaguely take form. In a sense, the reading felt like a memorial, a much-appreciated chance to remember the man himself.
Vincent Katz read from Denby’s collaboration with Rudy Burckhardt, Mediterranean Cities, a collection of twenty-nine sonnets. Jacob Burckhardt, Rudy’s son, described Denby’s loft, with its door covered in messages and drawings from friends who’d dropped by, the sonic blend of typewriter, traffic, and space heater, and “the volumes that were in constant use.” Bill Berkson recollected reading Denby’s first dance column, in the magazineModern Music: With the Dancers (what a title!). Anne Waldman spoke of going to readings with Denby who told her that, partially because he couldn’t hear, he was attentive to the “atmosphere of an audience”—to “pauses, presence.”
Like many others, Waldman spoke of her debt to Denby who, with his “cranky, luminous mind,” helped her to see dance. Ron Padgett relayed an anecdote of accompanying Denby to the City Ballet and being embarrassed about napping during the performance, to which Denby, the esteemed dance critic replied, “Oh, I almost always do that.” Mimi Gross, coming up to the stage, chimed in with her version of Denby’s adage: “The curtain went up and my eyes went down!”
The representative dancer on the program, Yoshiko Chuma, danced to a tape recorder that delivered Denby’s voice to us, from the level of the floor. (Apparently, he hated reading in public.) And in a rare screening opportunity, two Rudy Burckhardt films were presented, The Uncle’s Return, (1940) and Remembering Edwin Denby (1997). The former featured a vaudeville version of Denby in chase scenes that, seen from above, were perfectly spaced choreographies—wreaths of bodies circling in the sand. At this event, co-presented by The Poetry Project, Denby was paid tribute to primarily by his poetry family, and cast, as La Rocco puts it, as a “connector between worlds.” This took on another valence at the next event I attended—where the worlds shifted from poetry and dance to uptown dance and downtown dance, or ballet and contemporary, or Balanchine, Cunningham, and Judson Dance Theater.
2. Conversations Without Walls & PLATFORM Book Party
Saturday, February 14, 2-6pm, Parish Hall at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery
“A lot of what sparks my enthusiasm here is curiosity. What would happen if…?” La Rocco began the program by reading her curatorial statement, an informal performance of direct address that placed value on experimentation, process and failure. A few Platform participants, including Emily Coates, Yve Laris Cohen, Kaitlyn Gilliland, Sara Mearns, Jillian Peña, and Will Rawls, Silas Riener, and Adrian Danchig-Waring began to speak about their experience working together on their Dance Dialogues. What seemed to stick all these comments together was a simultaneous destabilizing and reinforcing of various binaries. Adrian Danchig-Waring, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, comparing his training and practice to that of his paired partner Silas Riener, a former Cunningham dancer, used contrasting terms such as “intellectual” and “empty vessel.”
While La Rocco pit productive terms like “jostling” and “collage,” to describe the encounters she hoped to instigate, she admitted to challenges inherent to the pairings, including push-back in terms of how and where she identified them on the triangle. Will Rawls, in fact, referred to the triangle as a “Bermuda Triangle.” Yve Laris Cohen pointed out that Denby’s triangle is “not an equilateral one,” citing the different socioeconomic realities associated with ballet and downtown dancers, and the possibility for asymmetrical power relations. There is also the fact that many are “defectors” from ballet, such that it is anxiety producing to work within that realm.
A question from an audience member introduced another important issue: While La Rocco was encouraging of failure, what did that mean for the artists who were presenting work? Emily Coates suggested that the reception be set up for critics—away from evaluation and towards possibility perhaps? While this is certainly a good rejoinder, and also aligns with La Rocco’s critical orientation, as expressed in her curatorial statement, it does also slightly sidestep the very real economic pressures faced by “downtown” dancers—dancers who are not working with companies, are producing work in precarious conditions, and who actually must rely on reviews in order to receive support to make new works.
The second part of the program consisted of a conversation between David Velasco and Douglas Crimp, who contributed a printed conversation to the catalogue—an epistolary email exchange that charts their evolution as “dance partners” in addition to relating their own histories in relationship to viewing dance. Crimp began by reading a piece of Denby’s dance criticism: “Three Sides of Agon” (1957). Balanchine’s Agon also provided the organizational center for the chapter of Crimp’s current memoir project, from which he then read. David Velasco read from a current book project on the work Sarah Michelson, forthcoming from MoMA.
In the conversation that followed, two primary topics developed. First, the idea of geography. What do we mean when we say uptown and downtown? And how have the use of these terms shifted? Crimp pointed out that in the 70s, there were real geographic divisions in Manhattan—for instance, he rarely went above 14th St. Although he didn’t know Denby personally, Crimp shared his Chelsea neighborhood with him—they were both walkers/cruisers. The proximity to downtown institutions was crucial to establishing artistic communities, Crimp said. Taking into account shifts in the ownership of these institutions, as well as changes in location of both places and people, “downtown” has become metonymic—a representation of a concept. What does it mean to be a “downtown” dancer who lives in Brooklyn or Queens or New Jersey?
The second movement of the conversation began when Crimp asked Velasco how he came to start writing about dance. Velasco said he came to dance more generally by way of performing in his friends’ pieces. He started writing art criticism for Artforum, and wanted to be “useful to the dance I was seeing.” He was interested in the different temporality that longer writing about dance could afford, as opposed to what he found in newspaper coverage. I think it’s very sweet and fitting that Velasco’s first overture to Crimp was in regards to Crimp’s 2008 Artforum piece on Merce Cunningham’s “Events” at Dia:Beacon: “Dancers, Artworks, and People in the Galleries,” a title which nods to Denby’s book, the title of which La Rocco has repurposed for the Platform. That overture, detailed in the Catalogue piece, was met with an invitation by Crimp to attend a ballet. And so on and on.
And Crimp’s shift to writing about dance? He started out teaching a course of Yvonne Rainer’s dance and films (“it felt safer” to include the films, closer to his previous scholarly work, notably on Warhol’s films). From there, he wrote an essay on music in Rainer’s dances and films. Crimp describes his motivation to extend his knowledge of dance in humble terms: “I wanted to understand my own pleasure and deepen my understanding.” I think of Denby again as he continues, saying: “The pleasure that you take compels you.” I loved hearing about Velasco and Crimp’s respective connector-roles between art and dance worlds, roles that are only reinforced through the nature of their “dance partnership.”
3. The Catalogue: Margins and Marginalia
Who reads catalogues exactly? Who buys them, who dips into them, who reads them cover to cover? Who are they for? I set myself the assignment of reading this catalogue the whole way through—how could I write about it otherwise. It proved to be a challenging imperative to follow through on, like most things I suppose, once the freshness of the idea wears off.
I read loosely in order, occasionally skipping ahead. Sometimes I would be deep into an essay and wonder: what does this have to do with the concerns of this particular Platform? The three nodal points were often invoked, but not always, and sometimes I felt myself grasping for relevance. Many of the pieces functioned as interventions, offering additional or counter-histories to the narratives generally held to. Some essays seemed to be included because they were exploring the relationship between text and dance—essentially, almost everything could fall into one of these categories.
Ultimately, I decided to just let the language take place in me. I found pleasure in stray lines and proffered pairings. Lineages and lists also emerged in abundance. I often paused to pursue dropped references, unfamiliar names. The short contributions from the Platform participants, wildly variant in visual presentation, struck me as candid forays into language: a poetics of embodied autobiography.
The writers not directly involved in showing work with Platform often wrote collaboratively or meditated on the topic of collaboration—whether their own or others—calling forth an aesthetic of exchange, of conversation and address. Here are a few places where I caught myself listening/looking carefully:
Reid Bartleme, Costume Portfolio
“Once clothing is performed in, is it costume?” (25)
“Thoughts on the Unflattering Modern Dance Uniform” + drawing (29-30)
“Freddie [Herko] was naked when he committed suicide, but I imagine he would have like to wear this lace, velvet, leather, and mirror dress. All in black.” (31)
Yve Laris Cohen
Subtitles: DESIRE / DEFECTION / CLASS BOOMERANG / JUDSON INCEST / TO DANCE OR NTD (52)
Douglas Dunn, Letter to Anne
“Intimidation of scale and of hard surfaces gave way to curiosity, to appetite for the details of this right-angle world, its endless narratives, true and imagined, which Edwin’s eye and mind constantly made actual” (63).
Perfect cursive across gridded paper: “The golden rhythm is not broken.” (75)
Fred Moten (drawings by Ralph Lemon), Amuse-Bouche
“a spoonful really; just a mouthful” (87)
“It takes a lot to feel yourself walking around, mouth open in wonder and/or desire” (89)
“Delaney and Taylor reveal that dance is the city’s mother tongue” (89)
“Consider dance as a matter of mouthfeel as well as footstep” (89) “a loss that makes you move, that puts you in motion, bearing you out into the city streets” (91)
Ryan Kelly, Good Feet
(Unannotated List of 36) “Buildings” (146)
Rashaun Mitchell, a constellation of thoughts from the past summer or Pasts, Possibles and other Fictions
“Should we look to the future? Should we try to escape? I like questions. They happen in the past and the future simultaneously.” (169)
Megan Metcalf, Re-Tracing Our Steps: Present Negotiations with The Past(s)
“(Revolutions have a habit or becoming their own orthodoxies.)” (177)
“Rainer’s ‘you just do it,’ is a complex reflection on technique as well as movement quality, one that echoes Cunningham’s famous ‘the only way to do it is to do it,’ or Balanchine’s ‘just do it…just dance’” (181)
Barbara Lloyd Dilley, Dance Poetry
“The poetry world is a different school even, and we don’t cross-pollinate very much. I’m not quite sure what to say about that. It just doesn’t happen.” (193)
“but points unknown often remain just that” (196)
(handwritten on gridded notebook pages): “Trying to put words on dancing puts me farther away from each and BOTH.” (202)