AMYO/tinyrage – too
posted by: Seth Nehil
Choreographer Amy O’Neal met friends, family and fellow dancers in a wide variety of places – urban, domestic, rural and public. Using the specific energy of spaces to inspire movement is an interesting idea, and was also by far the best aspect of the robbinschilds C.L.U.E. live performance. Bringing dancers out of the black box theater and into contact with mundane realities can be an energizing notion. Making dance in and about site initiates a body in response to its environment – interacting, feeling, reacting. For me, the issues (in a broad sense) begin when those locations are brought back onto the stage.

There is an inherent tension between the “elsewhere” of video locations and the “here and now” of live bodies on a stage. This tension can be used in interesting ways. Bodies on film can be cut, displaced, rearranged. They are not subject to the laws of physics. A beautiful and classic example of choreography on film can be found in Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon where, at one point, Deren steps across filmic edits, landing her feet on beachsand, grassy field and sidewalk before arriving in the carpeted living room where the narrative continues. This device was explored exquisitely and at length in her next film, At Land.
It’s worth quoting theater and video artist Catherine Sullivan at length, from this Art21 interview:
“Early on when I started making theater productions there were video components mixed in, which I used to ‘spatialize’ the performance, so that led me to really have a need to start working with film and video. (‘Spatialization’ was a device that was very immediate–a way to make a small room or the space of a theater very large, and to suggest other spaces within a small space.) And there was a different kind of performance that grew out of working with the camera. The camera was actually a different kind of audience than a live audience. I was interested in what kinds of intimacies could be generated, or what other things the performer would do, if only the camera were present. And that grew to a different way in which I wanted to look at certain subject matter. In live theater, I really enjoy the pleasure of the eyes to look anywhere and the feeling of a very pleasurable kind of participation–watching and being able to experience a lot of different kinds of spatial compositions and depths. In film it became more about how the body was interpreted once it was broken down and framed in a series of parts and then reassembled by me either through editing or the manner in which it was displayed.”
These are subtle distinctions and unfortunately, I think they remain unrecognized in too. As viewers, we are subjected to an information overload that overwhelms and blurs our ability to concentrate on the most interesting aspects of the format. The multiple screens, video effects, random shifts, transitions, entrances and exits all seem like froth on a surface, obscuring our ability to focus. We are never given time to appreciate a rhythm, to sink into a moment, to look around within a specific interaction and notice small details. After a while, I began to suspect that maybe the treatments and edits were meant to distract us from the lack of quality in the source material itself. In any case, I felt a lack of trust that simple things can be engaging and beautiful.
I think (though I might be wrong) that these 50 dance interactions were improvisations, from which small moments were selected, extracted and strung together, with the on-stage choreography then created by imitating and responding to the video improvisations. The problem here is that many of the original improvisational decisions – the source material – seemed contingent and arbitrary. When taken out of the original moment and placed on stage, the actions didn’t sustain any significance. I mean, what’s up with Japanese schoolgirl outfits and spinning beds? Whatever seemed fascinating about pretending to drink out of a boot lost its meaning when reiterated on stage – and if you’re going to drink out of a boot, why not really drink? Similarly, the spontaneous act of throwing newspaper around may have felt inspired in a moment of living room improv, but seemed silly on stage. And, if you’re going to make a mess, why not really make a mess? Why have a stagehand clean everything up a few moments later?
Including karaoke singing in a performance had many of the same problems for me. Karaoke is not really a spectator sport. It’s enlivened by participation, the camaraderie and intimacy of friends, and of course, the loosening affects of alcohol. None of these things were present at this performance, unless dragging a couple of awkward but generous audience members onstage is considered participation. It’s painful to listen to the off-key wails of karaoke singers from outside a lounge, and it was no less painful when videotaped and chopped into a hundred tiny pieces.
The act of focusing can itself be an interesting and valuable tool. There were a few moments in too which revealed the potential power of video/live interaction. Early on, there was a section in which the video, like Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, cut rapidly in space and time but continued the choreography across edits, throwing their bodies into a wide variety of locations, angles and perspectives. This section was mesmerizing. As viewers, we were forced to synthesize the movement across past and present, between diverse bodies and against the physical presence of the onstage dancers. To accomplish this, O’Neal and Sandstrom used an offstage monitor, watching it intently to coordinate their movements. The monitor was placed to the side, almost apologetically. Why not bring it onto the stage, acknowledge it, and let us fall into this intense groove of mimicry and process?
Another brief section used tightly coordinated flashes between video footage and onstage lighting to quickly shift attention between recorded and live movements. This disorientation was powerful but all too brief. The moment shifted rapidly and the energy was dispersed, spread evenly across a multitude of effects. I think it’s important for performers to pay attention to paying attention. Amy O’Neal and Ellie Sandstrom are graceful, technically proficient and physically powerful dancers. I think that by cutting away some excess and focusing on process, an intensity could be maintained, and mined deeply.