Here’s Lookin’ At You, Kid
Seeing, seer, and seen are the subject and object of Tahni Holt‘s dance piece event.space. that happened Thursday and Friday nights at The Cleaners. Not “seer” in the sense of fortune teller but in the sense of the seen asking, “What are you lookin’ at?” And more precisely, through what means do you see what you see? The large panes of glass of the windows of The Cleaners separated the audience on the sidewalk from the dancers within, thus providing the biggest of big screens through which we witnessed Holt’s dance as if on faux TV or computer monitor.
I recently had interesting conversations with Portland artist Paige Saez about YouTube as vehicle, as voyeurism, as window, as feedback loop…teen girls, in the case of Saez’ recent work, lip syncing and dancing in their underwear/pajamas to a pop song. For her video work, Saez recruited fellow artists to reenact the amateur reenactment of whatever the original video was, feeding back to the feedback.
In event.space. the dancers are subject (object), audience, and symbol (of pixel). There are three “primary” dancers–Sally Girrado-Spencer, Suzanne Chi, and Julie Katch–costumed in primary colors: red, blue, yellow. And there are perhaps a dozen more movers dressed in white. Holt herself did not dance in the piece, but the primary dancers wore quintessentially Holt movement well. The majority of the primaries’ movement was as if they were being controlled, pulled (often backward) in a jerky, marionette kind of way. Intentional, forward-directed movement was a lesser part of the mix, and often meant following or really marking, blankly, the movement of another. A particularly exciting sequence, executed thrice was the forward progression of Chi in a bent and tortured way, followed by Katch, appearing from behind a white curtain enacting a more joyful, armswinging phrase, then <PAUSE> both abruptly <REWIND> the phrase with Katch exiting. <PAUSE> <PLAY> Repeat. The blank-faced execution here was so brilliant, aping the confessional video face of the communicator who cannot see his audience through the video camera and so the eyes never connect, engage the viewer.
At first, the white-clad movers rivetingly play observer, adhering to the wall, they watch and track: moving in the direction of the “primary” dancers. And if you weren’t already clued into the nature of the piece, their role as observed obervers sets the stage. Later they are facilitators of movement for the primaries, armature, foil, and briefly container. And near the end they engage in a great moment in which they walk in seemingly random directions into and out of line formations, held briefly. Several times throughout the piece, the movers in white gather around a long-haired blond “singer” in a lavender shirt aping a music video while we, the audience, hear a “Lilias Yoga and You” type of voice issuing calm movement instructions that have nothing to do with what we’re seeing. The one sour/obvious note of the whole piece–missed by my companion so maybe missed by the majority of the audience, remaing the performers’ inside joke–was that the singer and silent chorus were mouthing (while pointing at us) “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?” That the watcher is the lonely, pathetic individual, face illuminated by the glow of the screen, is a simplistic take on a complex phenomenon that ignores, among many other things (social media) the participatory culture of feedback, remix, and connection associated with consumption via the screen.
The primaries do address the glass wall between them and audience in movement sequences on the window sills pressed up against the glass, but they operate at a cold, detached remove from the viewer. Because the space is on a streetcorner with two walls of glass, the audience also watches the audience watch the piece.
And when was the last time you saw the lighting elements as actors in a dance piece? Here, red, yellow, blue spots created by spotlights on wheeled carts moved by movers in white engaged space and dancer, slowly, deliberately as if they were John Baldessari spots (transparently) come to life. They played over ceiling, wall, dancer, and occasionally audience member bathed in red. Kudos to Malina Rodriguez for lighting design.
The score by Thomas Thorson was occasionally funny: Holt’s opening lip-synched welcome–out of sync by a mile–drew laughs as did (oddly) the occasionally cougar growl during the piece. There were moments of processed (echo, metallic) water sounds and scritchy crackling which worked well with the jerkier, marionettesque movements. One downside: while the audience chuckled at the recorded sound of streetcar (the site is located between streetcar rails on 10th and 11th) incorporated into the score, this inclusion felt wrong: this piece was not about the space it inhabited but something else entirely. To allow sound of place to be recurring element of score would have worked better for a dance piece that was concerned with its site.
A gripe (and I’m probably one of few who will be bothered by it): red, yellow, and blue, while primaries are not the colors from which your screen experience is created. Screen colors are RGB, or red, green, blue, the palette of colored light from which the millions of colors you see on television and monitor are created, pixel by pixel. So for me, the costumes, as crisply stunning as their colors were (considering they were essentially 80s thrift store dresses) did battle with what I perceived to be the conceptual underpinning of the piece concerning the audience’s experience of the work through the “monitor” or “screen.” But there’s no argument that they weren’t visually arresting.