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a thick cloud of smoke
and the dancer disappears into the night
Although I have been writing dance ‘reviews’ for many years, I don’t have an ethics to call my own. I’ve adopted the ethics’ of others and then moved on. Ethics, when writing about artwork, is important to me. For those readers who are not familiar with dance or my writing, I’ll say that I do try to be as subjective and caring as possible. My thoughts are not more important than anyone else’s; they are situated in my personhood, which is complex and entangled with many things like where I come from, how I did school, how I make love, how I conceive of money, and my position within white supremacy. But I also want to say juicy things and make writing about dance exciting, so couching everything in “to me, a mere person who feels” doesn’t seem like the answer either. You are my witness and judge. Any and all feedback is welcome.
CAMPING, a massive dance festival, is hosted by the CND in Pantin, on the lip of Paris. There are 700 “campers” in attendance over the ten day period, 300 of whom come from 30 art schools around the world. Cal Arts is there, for example, as is Ochanomizu University Tokyo, Stockholm University of the Arts, and some less dancey schools, like Parsons Paris, les Beaux-Arts, Paris 8 Masters in Literature.
The massive brutalist building contains 12 dance studios, a screening room, several libraries, and is built around a massive atrium, within which sits a four-story staircase and ramp structure that looks like a giant cliff. I imagine the building has distant cousins, like the central bus station in Tel Aviv, the Parisian indoor water park Aquaboulevard, and the Humbolt Library in Berlin. There is also an elegant cafe overlooking the canal de l’Ourq, which serves beer made in Montreuil and other local fare.
On Tuesday, along with 200 other people, I participated in a ballet class held in the atrium and then ran to the mediathèque to do some work, then off I went to krump class (more on that another time). After a beer in the bar I ran to see Soa Ratsifandrihana’s piece gr oo ve. Afterwards, I had more beer as well as some meat, cheese, and cornichons, and then went to see Macho Dancer by Eisa Jockson.
gr oo ve - The thing about gr oo ve was that it put me in an excellent mood. When I entered I was tired. Over the course of the piece, the vibe in the room totally changed. The work’s premise was to witness a dancer get her groove on. It was pleasurable. Soa was charismatic, engaging, a perfect dancer. She was virtuosic, clicking her body around right angles and snapping to machine-y contemporary music. She smiled, once or twice, and when she did the room melted. Sometimes she danced to these clicks with uncanny precision, and sometimes she let go and kinda swung her legs from side to side as one would when dancing in a barn yard, say. It was all kinds of grooves, from club beats to rumba (or salsa? don’t remember which rhythm because I was in a state of rapture) to her own style.
It started really slow. Why do so many pieces start slow? Louise! It’s obvious: that’s how you build up tension. That’s how you make the audience think there are stakes. It’s like revving the engine. And I guess if I had been the one dancing I would have appreciated a slow build up. It takes time to ground. If you blow your load too fast you are going to wind up not delivering.
Still, I am bored of a slow start. It’s predictable and it feels like something I have to endure. I imagine a well-meaning outside eye (someone who is there during the rehearsal process to help you see the dance from an outside perspective) saying “oh I could watch you do that for hours.” I cannot watch anyone do anything for hours. Soa’s slow start was on the same movement continuum as the rest of the work, just slowed down. In retrospect it makes sense to have done in that way, but in the moment it wasn’t fun for me. She moved from position to position in a square. The same positions came back later in the work, as did the square. It was a place to grow from. I get it. Am I thrilled to be there as it is happening? No. Was it worth it, dramaturgically speaking? Probably.
Because like I said, when the piece was over I was beside myself with joy and love for dance. I had stars in my eyes over Soa, and what a relief it is to watch a piece in which there is nothing other that a dancer dancing about dance and pulling. it. off. The friend I sat with afterwards, Jen, a master’s student in choreography at Paris 8, said “what a relief it must be to not be burdened with the choreographer’s discourse.” She said this because I had breathlessly told her, smiling like a banana, that the piece had no words – a rarity in Berlin. Last thing I saw without words was Sergiu Matis’s latest piece, “DRANG,” which was dance-heavy for Berlin but still had song, costume, prop, really intense projections, all this stuff happening on top of the dance. It was just nice to watch one person’s groove.
As I sat on the platform that juts out over the canal, guzzling my drink and talking excitedly about dance, I could not escape the heaviness of the brutalist architecture, nor how seamlessly the hipster cafe fit inside it, nor the fact that the French government pays for all of this. I want to express things to you about dance, and I wonder if this surreal environment makes it easier or harder to understand. Last edition, I wrote “trapped in form and not sorry about it!” At CAMPING, I found myself experiencing many forms in conjunction with each other: ballet, brutalism, art funding, the Goethe Institute (who footed the bill for my attendance), locavorism, the apparatus that made Soa famous (P.A.R.T.S, Anne Theresa de Keersmaeker), and I’m just trying to make sense of it all.
Form: Macho Dancer is also a solo and also had no words. The choreographer Eisa Jockson embodies a masculine performer in a Filipino night club. Recognizing something I’m familiar with – drag – I sat on the edge of my seat, waiting to become turned on. She comes on, nonchalant, wearing tight camo-print shorts, cowboy boots with shiny metal toes, a tank top, her hair in a low pony tail and a rosary around her neck. The song is loud and obvious, she stands leaning against the exposed brick of the back wall, on an elevated stage in a room that seats 30. It is 22:00 and she flexes her muscles and walks around.
I am waiting. I am waiting for the queer wink. I am waiting to be shown how fun this is, and how funny, and how great it is to reclaim something about this character. I am waiting for her to show me that she feels good when I look at her with hungry eyes.
She drops to one knee, suddenly. She humps the ground a few times, gripping the edge of the elevated stage. She gets up, walks, flexes, licks her bicep, pushes her hair back.
An understanding dawns on my horizon: the show is not about me, or her, or our relationship. It is not about the economy of desire between performer and spectator and all the exciting ways that attention could have been traded. It also isn’t about deconstructing toxic masculinity. It isn’t commentary at all. It is respectful, and it is crafted.
Her peripheral vision is tightly gathered around her. She sports a brand of blank stare. This is all that there is, and I do this every night, she seems to say. She is not asking. She is channelling people on the other side of the planet whose job this is. She is showing, through respect, restraint, and obedience to what she learned from them, a very formal physical and theatrical proposal. She’s not trying to add value or make myself or herself more comfortable or more palatable.
There was one moment, near the end, where she was hidden by her hair and was leaning on the edge of the stage, as if tired. Was this the calm before the finale? Once again, I felt the excitement that the theater dispositif so readily evokes in me. But then I thought, nothing is going to happen that I haven’t already seen. There is no big surprise coming. I remained transfixed, but it wasn’t really the dance that drew me. It was a curiosity about how this figure was going to disappear; it was the magnetism of the absence of something or someone, how magnetic the space between her and the men she must have meticulously watched for hours, never hoping for acknowledgement or the kind of pathos, or charisma that some stage relationships beget. She didn’t need me. They don’t need her. It’s not personal.
This is a dance that happens night after night. It does what it needs to do. It doesn’t necessarily gain energy through connection. There can be moments of glory, but they can’t be forced or predicted and they aren’t the point. There is an emptiness where connection could take place and something about that empty space made me sad. Or made me think she was sad. I could be anybody and she could be - is already - anybody, many bodies. I felt so close to her.
A thick cloud of smoke; the guy disappears into the night.
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~ Lil’ Announcements ~
If you happen to be in Nuremberg from July 7th to 10th, I’ll be there too! Lester St. Louis invited me to join the piece “In Residence” within the Musik Installationen Nürnberg festival, alongside Nikima Jagudajev, Chris Williams, Emeka Okereke, Tumi Mogorosi, Vanessa Sin, and maybe others.
Also, I am excited to attend Elsewhere and Otherwise at my beloved Paf. You’ll probably be hearing about it.