Final Thoughts on The Nothing Festival With a Focus on Luciana Achugar

For the past two weeks, choreographer Tere O’Connor’s “The Nothing Festival” which took place at Dance Theater Workshop in Chelsea and just concluded this weekend has been the talk of the town. Basically, in an effort to explore how meaning is produced in dance, O’Connor asked eight modern / post-modern choreographers to choreograph a 30-minute piece starting from “nothing” — that is, with no preconceived concept. The first set of four choreographers — Douglas Dunn, HIJACK, Sam Kim, and Dean Moss — showed their work during the first week’s performances; the second set of four — Jon Kinzel, Luciana Achugar, Susan Rethorst, and Walter Dundervill — the second week; and sandwiched in between, on the afternoon of the 21st, was a four-hour-long panel discussion moderated by O’Connor and including all eight choreographers (which is pictured above). O’Connor also led shorter discussions following each weekday performance with the choreographers whose work was being shown on that night. Doug Fox from the Great Dance blog and I attended the April 21st discussion and the first set of performances that night, and I attended the second set on the 25th.

As I said, this festival has been the talk of the dance town, and so much has already been said, that I don’t have a tremendous amount to add. But since no one has talked at length about Achugar’s work, and since it was my personal favorite, I’m going to focus on that piece. First, though, for anyone who doesn’t know about the festival and wishes to explore the ideas and bit of controversy it engendered, I’ll be a good blogger and try to point to everything that’s already been said:

First, go here for TONY dance editor Gia Kourlas’s very useful interview with O’Connor; critic Roslyn Sulcas wrote an early and much debated critique of the idea behind the festival but that is unfortunately no longer available to non-NYTimes subscribers so linking is pointless; for Newsday critic Apollinaire Scherr’s initial write-up, go here; for a first set of responses to that, including O’Connor’s, go here; for Doug’s comments to Apollinaire, go here; for my own musings to Apollinaire on the April 21st discussion, go here; for critic Eva Yaa Asantewaa’s analysis, go here; for Doug Fox’s coverage on his own blog, go here and here; for Village Voice’s Deborah Jowitt’s very thorough review, go here; and finally, for Jennifer Dunning’s NYTimes review of the whole festival, go here. I think I got it all; if I didn’t, I apologize!

As a relative newcomer to the post-modern dance scene, my only expectation going into this festival was that I was going to learn something about the relation between dance and meaning. This festival definitely met my expectations on that front. Although I often felt during the April 21st discussion that I was kind of eavesdropping on a debate already well underway and some of the language used (while giving me a certain nostalgia for my grad school days 🙂 ) was a bit foreign to me, I still got the overall sense of great frustration dance-makers feel when trying to apply for grants to funders focused on the commercial value of the project and their need to know details of what the piece is about before it is even begun, as well as their deep annoyance at dance critics who, some choreographers feel, impose their own pre-conceived notions of what dance is and is not in determining, and recommending, whether something is worth seeing. I had some strong feelings about the discussion, which I posted as a comment on Scherr’s blog, and which she responded to (which I linked to above but will again), so am not going to repeat that here. In general, several critics were in attendance and it was really interesting to see them interact with the choreographers; at one point things got heated, but I appreciated that because I felt like serious frustrations were vented and deeper discussion came out of it. O’Connor had just embarked on a dialog with former Village Voice writer Elizabeth Zimmer on what is important in viewing a dance — is it just the beauty of the movement or is there more? — when time limitations forced an abrupt end. In the end, I love the discussion that the festival engendered, both on April 21st and in all of the newspapers and blogs, and I hope there can be more like it.

So, the performances: overall, my favorite piece — which is not at all to say it was “the best” but just that it spoke to me the most — was Luciana Achugar’s “Franny and Zooey” (not a direct relation to the book by Salinger, as the choreographer explained at the post-show discussion). I’m not sure exactly why it was my favorite — it just seemed to have the most going on in it that I could relate to. It began with spotlights jumping around, shining out on various places on the stage and in the audience. At points, while focused on the audience, it was rather blinding. The spotlight ended on a woman who ran out onstage and collapsed to the ground, where she lay, seemingly unconscious. The focus then changed to a video projected on the back wall showing a woman — Achugar — in a studio warming up, then trying to organize her movements into a dance. Unexpectedly, two cats, named Franny and Zooey, pets of the studio owner, entered, plopped down on the floor and began doing cat things — bathing, sleeping, curiously human-watching… Achugar tried to shoo them away, since, as she revealed post-show, she was allergic, but for the most part, the cats were oblivious. Slowly, the focus — both Achugar’s and the viewer’s, came to be on them. I noticed as they got up, shifted in space, and pranced around, how balletic and dancer-like the cats were balancing as they did toward the balls of their paws (if paws have balls that is!), looking all weightless and feathery, and the dramatic things they can do with those tails, waving them about in the air. I remember when my cat was still alive how much I wanted a tail 🙂 — such an instrument of expression! Anyway, Achugar seemed to share my thought, as soon she crouched down on all fours and began imitating the cats. Throughout this videotaped activity, female dancers — four in all besides Achugar — took the stage and danced. At one point, the video was turned off and the women approached the audience, the tops of their dresses unbuttoned provocatively. As they took to the aisles, walking very slowly, they looked directly at audience members in each row, making sure to make eye contact. It was slightly uncomfortable for me, and I thought of this activity along with the initial blinding spotlights shined out on the audience, as turning the spectator / looked at, viewer / viewed relationship on its head — now the gaze of the women, provocatively dressed and soon to be naked — was turned on us, making us complicit in their world, kind of in the manner of Manet’s Olympie… Achugar, on the video, soon disrobed as she crawled around, cat–like on the studio floor. In the end, the women lift up the real Achugar, lying on the stage floor, all engage in a playful romp in which clothes wind up being shed, then dance around the stage naked, jovially and “unashamed” to use Dunning’s word. While there may have been no fully fledged story, I felt like there were hints of body image issues overcome, exploration of range of human movement and notions of beauty through casting a watchful eye on another species, and, as I said, challenging the dichotomy of the (traditionally female) watched versus watcher.

Parts of other pieces caught my eye too (but I won’t go into as much detail or this post would be 100,000 words long): the contrast both literally and stylistically between Walter Dundervill’s movement (that man can really dance and he’s very sexy — I wish I could move like him!) and the constricting, corseted 18th Century costumes — it was a spectacle just to watch him dress his dancers; Susan Rethorst’s depiction of a large group of women humorously vying for space in the tiny apartment she is now forced to work from after losing her studio to skyrocketing rents, and her ability as a dancer to evoke profundity from such a simple, very human, everyday gesture as shoulder shrugging — Dunning remarked on this too; and, as I mentioned in my comment to Apollinaire, I was struck visually by Sam Kim’s piece in which two women, wearing lacey white dresses, inch-long darkly polished fingernails, and their hair long and unruly — sometimes prettily feminine, sometimes montrously out-of-control, by turns caress, madly fight, then placate each other nearly rendering each other catatonic at times, which was titled “Cult” and I surmised could have denoted a kind of cult of femininity and its potential destructiveness.

I knew I was going to see experimental pieces, none of which would be fully formed, and so I didn’t judge them on those grounds. I enjoyed the process of simply sitting in the audience watching, thinking about the movement, the interactions between the dancers, the visuals, the progression of the piece, and arriving at my own conclusions about the meaning of each work, or what I took from it.

Last, in her article Jowitt talks about the artwork on display in the lobby.

Doug and I found it fascinating as well. A video camera surreptitiously set up on the wall near the street records patrons’ images and projects them onto a screen on the opposite wall. Movement of outside passersby triggers this little skeletal figure to begin dancing on the screen. Very amusing to look up at the screen and see this little bouncing skeleton guy “dancing” with you 🙂


  1. Tonya,

    Thanks for this review! Aside from really appreciating your words about the clothing (and lack thereof), which is something that has always been a sticking point for me in dance in general, I also was really glad to see you mention Walter. I got to work with him on a show at St. Mark’s a few years ago with the Li Chiao-Ping dance company, and agree with you – great dancer, and more than that, really amazingly nice guy.

    Between you and Doug, I’m thinking I need to move to NYC just so we can go to dance pieces together!

  2. Hi Gray, thanks for reading my blog!

    That’s so cool you worked with Walter — he seemed like a really nice guy during the panel discussion and post-performance talk. This issue of clothes is interesting to me too; there is a lot of nudity in contemporary dance these days and sometimes I’m not always sure what to make of it…

    There is a lot going on here, dance-wise, I think, though a lot of people say the dance scene was so much more exciting in the 70s and 80s, etc., and nothing much is going on now. I think there’s a lot going on, so I’m glad to know at least we dance bloggers make it look that way!

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