Guest Feature: Boundary-Stretching Works by Steven Reker Open House and Morgan Thorson at American Dance Institute “Rememberer” and “Still Life”
By Luella Christopher, Ph.D.
“All through modern times, it seems to be expected of the artist that he be a martyr, first as a failure, then as a success. One doesn’t know which heaven or which hell is preferable. One has no choice.” So said Henry Miller, a celebrated author who loved painting and silk-screening, dressed dandily, and biked in his seventies. His 1958 chronicle, The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder, inspired the musician/performers of Steven Reker Open House to create “Rememberer,” which received its world premiere at American Dance Institute (ADI) in Rockville, Maryland on Sept. 30th and Oct. 1st, 2016.
This fantastical novella, written for the cubist painter Fernand Léger and inclusive of Miller’s own circus and clown drawings, details the adventures of the famous clown Auguste. Its epilogue explains that the work commissioned by Léger drew inspiration from Roualt, Chagall, Max Jacob, Seurat, and even Miro. Images of the ladder and the moon found in Smile were attributed to Miro’s “Dog Barking at the Moon” by Miller himself. In one of his nightly performances at the foot of the ladder, Auguste the clown observed the “real moon high in the heavens, a moon that seemed to race through stationary clouds” as the ladder ascended straight to the sky, surrounded by walls of people.
Smile notwithstanding, ADI’s incubator dramaturg and educator Melanie George in her pre-performance lecture insists that the audience cannot benefit from possessing prescient knowledge in advance of what Steven Reker Open House intends. “Rememberer” defies genre while simultaneously involving such techniques as layering and scrolling. Since it never amounts to a narrative, she urges adherence to the maxim, “Experience first, contemplate later.”
The audience takes its seats to an exposed stage with no curtain. It is set with all the instruments on tables and an overhead balloon. There’s a snaredrum with cowbell under a ladder at stage left in front of a tall stack of eight–foot long industry-standard styrofoam insulation boards. Theater wings and sets of lights are arrayed onstage. Musicians who double as performers enter the space, one at a time (instruments include drum, bass guitar, keyboard, and vocalist carrying a speaker). They break into song, though the performer/keyboardist (Eliot Krimsky) dominates the singing throughout the remainder of the piece.
The drummer (Matt Evans), outfitted with tambourines, sits on top of the ladder. Performer and company director (Steven Reker) pushes a stack of styrofoam boards across the stage and climbs up on one of them. Tambourines are suspended on a rope between the two elevated men. While smoke swirls from the lights, Reker hops off the stack of boards, then he and the performer/sound designer (Ryan Seaton, who doubles as saxophonist and guitarist) dismantle and divide them into three stacks.
Performer Evans (who is both percussionist and composer) retrieves a second balloon from behind the audience. Two manipulators balance and make shapes with the boards (free-standing double, then a structure resembling distorted triangles) to mournful notes on the saxophone by Seaton. A particularly whimsical moment occurs when Evans – playing a triangle – is rotated in a piece of carpet by two of the others. Another uses the ladder to make a tenuous shape with a speaker balanced on the top. The carpet is then laid out flat.
Boards are configured in an arresting shape and bathed in alternating lights of blue, pink, and yellow-orange with red toward the back. Luminous shadows are cast on the structure. Each board is leaning up against and on the next one. As the music reaches a fever pitch, the shapes created by the boards grow ever more complicated and lopsided. Boards rest on a stack and on the floor. The structure created is extended horizontally so that it forms a series of sawhorses or ladders (I counted six). We could easily be staring at a futuristic coliseum.
The stage is completely filled with multiple teetering structures that seem destined to collapse. The drumbeat becomes loudly funereal, resembling a march. Performer/sound designer Seaton explains to this writer later that he uses a technique called “comb-filtering” in which sounds self-oscillate and pitch is controlled. It’s like a Rube Goldberg machine that is tightly scripted, he and Evans agree. All the styrofoam boards collapse dramatically at the end.
One is tempted to question whether this type of staging can be labeled as choreography – even for the post-modern genre. Though this writer was initially perturbed at the absence of recognizable dance moves, the staging grows amazingly intricate. The ladders, née planks, achieve resilience in their ability to stand tall and firm. Miller and his fictional clown would be proud.
Reker is hardly new to the Rockville venue. A season or two back, he won ADI’s second annual Solange MacArthur Award for New Choreography. It included a $10,000 commission for the creation of a new work and paved the way for Reker’s debut at Lincoln Center. “Open House” was attached to his company’s name as a result of a collaborative ensemble of four separate bands for a run of shows at The Kitchen in New York City. The new group combined Reker’s indie pop songs and post-punk approach to music (People Get Ready), Evans’ integration of music, movement, and visual art (Tigue), Krimsky’s affinity for emotionally dense television and film soundscapes (Glass Ghost), and Seaton’s horn arrangements, vocal works, and electronic compositions (Callers).
On Oct. 14th and 15th, 2016, a second boundary-pusher – “Still Life” (2014) by choreographer Morgan Thorson – gave ADI audiences a meditation on time, particularly changing perceptions of its passage. Thorson is a deconstructionist who works across dance, archaeology, drawing, and religious studies. Testing the stamina of both dancers and viewers, she uses contrasting kinetic devices from stasis to physical outbursts. “Still Life” suggests erasure, mounting, caretaking, and renewal. As noted by a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee publication, “Each dancer lives a small death when drafting ideas of security, subtraction, inertia, stillness and the loss of verticality.” With each repetition of a cycle, a dancer, sequence, or sound is lost (INOVA [Institute of Visual Arts], June 11, 2015).
So, how do dancers intentionally kill choreography? Once again, ADI dramaturg Melanie George provides a guide: dancers shudder and collapse as the work decays over time. Viewers are subjected to semantic satiation – that is, endless repetition – until all meaning is eclipsed. The roaming, unfixed lighting becomes another performer in the piece. Ovals and circles of light in changing colors, as well as projections of drawings of extinct species, envelop the floor. Four sections of audience seats are divided two-by-two in an east-west pattern while north-south exposed walls provide opposite ends to the performance space.
Describing the piece is to relive the unsettling, deflated atmosphere created by Thorson. All the dancers are dressed differently and outlandishly – everything from candy-pink pants (Pareena Lim) and gold lamé huggers with teal tank top (Valerie Oliveiro) to black tights imprinted with white blossoms (Sam Johnson). Two dancers facing each other at close range make motions like tooth-brushing, except that they’re scrubbing the air. One dancer reads at a mic while the others move in unison facing the same direction. All walk in slow circles in place, some pigeon-toed. A brief ascending dissonant chord is vocalized by the entire cast.
One dancer walks to the wall, touching it with splayed fingers. Others join, their hands moving along the wall as they emit a primal scream. They work the walls at opposite ends. The sole male dancer (Johnson) drags a table across the space. Some very angular temps levé en attitude derrière (jumps in place with bent/raised back leg), hopping pas de chats and cabrioles (leg beats in the air) ensue. These vignettes, like the extended ensemble work in the last third of the piece, demonstrate a clever adaptation of classical ballet steps by Thorson that utterly suits her choreography. Numerous dancers intermittently lumber offstage in unbalanced lurches – head and arms dangling downward like dinosaurs – that align their backs parallel to the floor.
One of the dancers (Kristin Van Loon) is somewhat older than the others. To my eye, she virtually commands the stage with a body, visage, and gestures that rake, shudder and ultimately terrify. Like a traffic cop and a malevolent “witch”, she directs others to exit and circles her hands and wrists in grim affectations.
The group lines up single-file on a diagonal looking toward the light (three circles on the top half of one wall). A slight variation in levels, arms, and poses is followed by all collapsing to the floor. Shoulders shake as though the bodies are expiring. The dancers assume stationary poses with legs at different levels, holding them for several long minutes. Skips and sweeping jetés propel to the side in large wide circles. The jogger (Kara Motta) executes an athletic renversé and penchée. The pink-attired dancer (Lim) tosses off a version of a chassé in passé position. The dynamic is one of controlled frenzy. Chants of “toughen up” can be heard from dancers offstage who are choosing new outfits in combinations of black and gold from a visible clothes rack.
The percussive taped score of “found” sounds with strings and brass by Sxip Shirey becomes a major contributor to the dismantling of reason and security among the dancers, while an ominous projection of a derringer pistol dominates one of the exposed walls. Pas de chats à la seconde (cat steps in second position) become clawing prances. The performers drag their shoulders in pulsing motions. White circles of light move upward and onto the ceiling. Van Loon moves her tongue like a percussion instrument. The final segment of ensemble work with its bombast and difficult technique defies description as the pace of Thorson’s movement accelerates. It is jarring to realize that most of the dancers have occupied the stage for the entire piece, though occasionally one does disappear and return.
A dancer (Oliveiro) seizes the mic in the center of the performance space, hurling mostly babble-speak. There’s a final walk-on for the stagehand (Allie Hankins) – listed as an understudy/assistant in the program notes. Minutes count down on a digital clock situated at the bottom of one exposed wall. Final recitations at the mic seem calculated to be inaudible. The faces of two dancers are so close that they almost touch. But they only mouth a near-kiss. Many audience members filed out of the theater without speaking or lingering.
Additional dancers in “Still Life” include Margaret Johnson and Genevieve Muench.
Copyright © 2016 by Luella Christopher