Picture performance artist and choreographer Ann Carlson on the back of a horse named Cupid. She's coming around a barrel at top speed when she thinks twice about going around a second time. In her moment of ambivalence, she's tossed from the horse's back. During one of the midshow conversations spliced throughout "Premiere" and "Grass/Bird/Rodeo" on June 11, Ann Carlson described the concussion she sustained while doing research for her West project. When asked by a medic, "What is your name? Where do you live?" Carlson found that without access to the words, she couldn't know. She mused that some part of her "exists only in the context of language," a fact which it took a good stunning to realize. Where do we live? How did we get here? Ann Carlson's work addresses a society that appears double-duped: We don't seem to know what we don't know. "Premiere" and "Grass/Bird/Rodeo," did those beautiful, old-fashioned things that art sometimes can: It rendered the familiar unfamiliar. It stunned.
In "Grass/Bird/Rodeo," and also with "Premiere" which could be read as a preface to the triptych, Carlson issued a solid threat to this unknowing with the use of hyperconventionality. Using two 10-by-10-foot stages as meta-performance spaces, Carlson changed costumes (feather hat, sequined bib, grass suit) between pieces at a clothing rack placed downstage, audience left. A rectangle of photo-realistic sky came to rest behind the left stage; on the right, members of the Sunrise String Quartet sat silently in their chairs on a small platform, their otherwise utterly discreet demeanor highlighted by their location, which was equal and opposite to Carlson's. And instead of ignoring and leaving to the audience the work of interpretation, Carlson leapt into the interpretive foray. She told the audience exactly what she thought her pieces were about before she performed them. She borrowed a mirror from a lady in the first few rows, and asked a man to describe Xeno's paradox more accurately than she had.
Sandwiched between conversations, the dances themselves stood out as grace periods of unmediated experience. "Premiere" was a world premiere commissioned by ADF. Carlson appeared in a black unitard, bathed in stark, white top light. A recording of her young son attempting, with her help, to read from Doris Humphrey's choreographer's checklist accompanied the dance. "Premiere" was perhaps the most conceptual piece she performed. The discomfort I felt trying to focus on the dance, but finding myself stuck in the limbo of misspoken words, caused a cycle of effort that is not unlike the creative process itself.
Carlson's movement vocabulary was gestural, non-evocative and clean. No evidence of narrative, no psychodrama, not even the funktionslust of a dancer doing her thing, was to be found. It was frustrating to watch, and left me knowing that it is essentially impossible to make a dance, or watch one, with a goal in mind.
"Grass/Bird/Rodeo" played out these tensions between language and experience, toward a radically different conclusion. Taken altogether, the dances evinced an incomplete transformation with almost unseemly precision and faith. Carlson loaded the audience's heads with her ideas and then promptly swept them clean with dances so completely indescribable, so willing to be strange, so felt and known that they were difficult to think about in the verbal sense of most thought.
Speaking of the art and science of transformation, Pilobolus, which gets its name from a small sun-loving fungus, was also in town last week. At its inception in 1971, the company fancied itself much like an insect that had dreamed it was several men. After watching works that span its 29-year career, I'm convinced things haven't changed much, even with the inclusion of two phenomenal female dancers in the six-member company. The dances most worth mentioning here are "Sweet Dreams," choreographed this year by Michael Tracy in collaboration with the dancers, and "Duet," this year's ADF commission, choreographed by Robby Barnett and Jonathan Wolken, also in collaboration with the dancers.
"Sweet Dreams" took place in a Daliesque nightscape created by painter Ru Wang--a hybrid of an urban high-rise district and a canyon valley, cast in golden moonlight. Much was familiar--in terms of the rare blend of danger and delight one expects from Pilobolus' alternately oddball and breathtaking visual structures--but Tracy's choreography broke new ground. In this "dream," one's partner can divide and become two, or seamlessly switch identity, while maintaining the easy coherence of one breath and one continuous thought. The dancers were unburdened with the politics of who, why, where and how; all configurations, all levels, all dynamics were allowed to play out at will as dancers fulfilled one another's fantasies of the perfect, cosmic waltz.
"Duet," on the other hand, embarrassed me, and not just because I was sitting next to two 7-year-olds. Josie Coyoc and Matt Kent performed it with precision and generosity. However, I question whether the story it told can be reproduced in the year 2000 and read as anything other than misogynistic. "Duet" tells the familiar tale of the caveman and the wicked enchantress who coyly seduces and then kills him. Coyoc's gold-trimmed, ruffled scarlet costume closely resembled traditional flamenco dress, and the music of a Spanish guitarist played when the lights came up on her silhouette. If this dance had been made in the earlier part of the 20th century, even up until the 1960s, it would have been a resonant depiction of how white men perceive female desire, especially that of non-white females. But because this is the year 2000, and because the dance so earnestly attempts to depict erotic bliss, I have to question its innocence. What is so blissful about an über-cliché fable precisely and earnestly replicated? I don't think political correctness is what's at stake as much as artistic integrity.
Pilobolus has dealt much more successfully with the political in such pieces as "A Selection"(1999) and "Apoplexy" (1998), so they're not off the hook. But one errand into the artistic doldrums can't stop this sun-loving fungus. They are remarkable for their tenacity to the ideal of pure movement on the edge of the possible, and for their commitment to human contact and interdependency as primary impulses for dance-making. So, as Ann Carlson said in "Rodeo": Woo-ee! Get back on that horse and keep riding, cowgirl!