EXPERIMENTAL DAY

(photos: top, The Bather, at Tribeca Film Festival; bottom, Trisha Brown’s Planes, taken from iDanz )

Last Thursday I spent the afternoon at the Tribeca Film Festival watching a series of intriguing experimental shorts (some far better than others of course), and the evening at Brooklyn Academy of Music watching Trisha Brown Dance Company, whose program included a couple of pieces that are experimental, or at least were when they were created.

The reason I’d chosen the Human Landscapes series of shorts at Tribeca was that I expected most of the films to be about the landscape of the body — so kind of related to dance. But, except for two – -maybe three — all were about cityscapes — human interaction with urban environments with the focus on the latter, which I didn’t mind because I love cities.

The film that most caught my eye in the program listing was Chop Off by M.M. Serra, about a man, performance artist R.K., who sees self-amputation as an art form. At first I thought “amputation” was metaphorical, but, no no, the film revealed it was actually quite literal.

R.K., who appears to be in his fifties and is covered with tattoos, decided to amputate his fingers and toes, creating, I guess you can say, an alternative model of the body. His fingers were mostly cut off, at the time of the film, at the joint, his toes where they met the foot. Except for the big toe, and I think his thumbs — those remained in full. With his toes, which looked more like wax pinkies than stubs, his foot appeared to have just melted. His fingers looked like those of the woman in that anti-smoking commercial that’s currently airing, who proclaims she lost her fingers to cigarettes (which I really don’t understand).  Anyway, R.K. went into detail about how he does this this — how he numbs his fingers, tying them with a string, using medication, etc., how he delights in the pain — the pain of creation, the creation itself. The film wasn’t sensationalistic at all, though you couldn’t help but feel faint and/or nauseous, and most audience members were covering their eyes and groaning (stand back, Chuck Palahnuik!), but the film wasn’t intended to disgust; it was, rather, an honest portrayal of a man who found poetry in this kind of self-mutilation, or maybe I should say self-alteration, the way some find poetry in tattoos or multiple piercings.

The other two human body-centered shorts were The Bather, a sweet film by George Griffin in which cartoon images of a naked woman joyfully dancing are juxtaposed over a diaphanous shower curtain covered with water drops behind which a real woman is showering; and Hot Dogs at the Met by Ken Jacobs, my favorite overall, though it made me kind of seasick. A camera homed in on various parts of a set of photographs of a family outing at a baseball game and on the subway. The camera would focus on different pieces of each photo or of, each figure — baby, little girl, father, etc. and would make small, staccato jolts so that it appeared the figure was actually moving. It became a moving picture rather than a stationary one. Very cool. And it kind of gave each character a personality — the father paying for the food, the little girl trying to grab the hot dog, the baby giggling in her carriage — made them come to life in a different way than they had in the two-dimensions of the photos. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but at one point, when the little girl grabbed for the hot dog, it seemed because of the motion of the camera that she was grabbing the hot dog man’s crotch — obviously very unsettling.

(above images taken from TFF site)

Okay, on to Trisha Brown:

I was feeling really kind of not so good after the finger amputation on-screen demo followed by the jolting camera work in Hot Dogs, but I forced myself to soldier on out to BAM. I was so excited to see Trisha Brown’s work — the first time in full for me (I’ve seen excerpts of her work at festivals like Fall For Dance but never a whole program before). There were four pieces on the BAM bill spanning forty years — from one of her earliest dances from 1968 to a world premiere. The two earlier ones — Planes, from 1968, and Glacial Decoy, from 1979, ended up being my favorites, go figure.

Brown was one of the founders of the Judson Dance Theater in the 1960s, which was a group of experimental (then called post-modern) dance artists. She’s known for being experimental, for using technology in dance, and for collaborating with visuals artists, namely Robert Rauschenberg, to whom the program was dedicated (he died last year).

In Planes (pictured at the top of the post), three female dancers scale a back wall into which cut-outs are placed, for them to hold onto. At first I thought they were rungs until I saw a dancer’s legs and arms disappear into the wall, and realized the rungs were actually holes. As the dancers climb, often stopping to make various poses, sometimes leaning out toward the audience, at times placing limbs into holes and nearly disappearing, various moving pictures are projected onto that wall — one a rocket taking off, another a small bare-bottomed baby, at times a female dancer would appear dancing or squatting at the camera, at times the screen would contain abstract pink protoplasmic-looking squiggly lines, at times it was as if you were looking through a telescope, zooming in on and heading toward a building, then zooming out and backing away from it. At one point, the image is of a moon-like object and it seems as if the dancers are astronauts, the circular holes in the back screen akin to the moon’s ridges. One of the most memorable images to me was a burning building, which, along with the dancers, limbs inside the wall, leaning, reaching out toward the audience, made me think of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed many women workers trapped inside by their employers, or of 9/11. I lost my notes somehow (something I’ve never done before), but if I remember correctly the soundscape was industrial.

In my second favorite, Glacial Decoy, several female dancers wearing Isadora Duncan-like loose white dresses made of flowing gauzy fabric dance in front of a series of four screens onto which are projected various photographic images of Americana by Rauschenberg — a close-up of a cow, barns, high-rise buildings, vast fields, an old European-style building, etc. Every couple of seconds each photo passes on to the next screen, the first screen replaced by a new photo so that there’s a continuous progressive, somewhat predictable but somewhat surprising (because of the first screen’s new image) movement across the stage’s backdrop. The dancers make various kinds of movement, sometimes running, sometimes squatting, kicking, staccato jumping — but none of it seems to correspond with the particular images on the screens at any given time. But it doesn’t matter. The effect is still mesmerizing. There was no sound, just pure, peaceful silence, which was a nice change.

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(photo of Glacial Decoy by Babette Mangolte, taken from here)

We were also treated to a U.S. premiere, O zlozony / O composite, from 2004, which was set on three dancers from the Paris Opera Ballet (Brown is apparently very popular in France right now).  It was a very modern ballet piece and, wonderfully, the three magnificent dancers from Paris Opera performed it for us: Aurelie Dupont, Manuel Legris, and Nicolas Le Riche. I’ve heard a lot about Legris in particular and was very excited to see him dance. I’m not sure what to make of the choreography — the program notes describe it as “an A – Z alphabet of gestures representative of the ballet lexicon” — I didn’t see much movement representative of classical ballet; it seemed more intentionally awkward and angular — but all three dancers are such excellent movers, it was fascinating watching them doing anything. Just as thrilling was the score, by Laurie Anderson. It consisted of a background soundscape that was often rhythmic and percussive, and a young woman’s voice was lain over it, reciting, in Polish or Lithuanian I think, poetry by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Czeslaw Milosz. Her voice at times sounded frantic, at times more relaxed, but it reminded me of Jorma Elo’s Brake the Eyes. I was trying hard to figure out which Eastern European language it actually was (I knew it wasn’t Russian, and am only assuming Polish or Lithuanian because of Milosz), and this concentration, I have to say, took up a good deal of mental energy that could have / should have been spent viewing the movement. I feel like I need to see it again. Maybe sometime in Paris…

(photo of O zlozony taken from here)

On last was the world premiere, L’Amour au theatre, which is part of an opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, she’s working on, with music by French Baroque composer Jean-Philippe Rameau. Maybe it was because this is part of a larger work, but I didn’t get much out of this dance. Dancers wore orange and white, which for some reason made me think of popsicles (I was getting really hungry by then), and the movement was light and lyrical. There was a backdrop of an abstract painting by Brown herself whose central figure reminded me, personally, of a bicycle taking off full speed, but other than that, nothing else seemed to be experimental the way her other work was. (Honestly, I think I was getting hungry and cranky by that point, but read Sir Alastair, who finds humor and wit in the work).

(photo of L’Amour by Andrea Mohin, from NYTimes).

At the end, Brown came onstage for a curtain call. She received a standing ovation. And she was so cute — she began jumping up and down and waving her hands about, like a little girl!  Even though I wasn’t in love with her latest piece, in general, the program definitely left me wanting to see more, especially of her early work.

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