The “wrecking” is starting. For the next three hours Big Dance Theater (Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar) will take their Edward Scissorhands to Susan Rethorst’s choreography—using it as a base for whatever topiary they’ll wind up with. At least this is my understanding of a wrecking--there is already a whole “thing” and you reshape it into something made of the same material but organized differently.
Susan describes the wrecking process, to us, as useful “after I’d been working for a while, after I’d been invested in the process.” Where is the point that a choreographer gets invested in a work? This differs per person and per practice; similarly too with performers, who learn and repeat and toss out on a regular basis amidst a sea of investment. My second question, then, in trying to locate investment, is where does the work begin? This is, at the moment, something of a hot topic about how you arrive at a performance—where the first moment of the dance starts (before or after programs, connected to the postcard, to the performer you know, to the festival that tells you such and such…). I resolve to hold onto these questions for the afternoon.
“We’re trying to just treat it as a rehearsal,” Susan says, and the dancers smile knowingly, because anytime there is someone in the room, it is clearly not “just a rehearsal.” There are thirty people who have come to the Fidget space to see this process. Mostly free from pomp, it is Rethorst’s invite to give her a different perspective on familiar material. There is a little bit of introduction, but basically they get to work and ignore the rest of the room.
There is a lot of watching happening as the draft unfolds in front of us. Audience watching performers who are watching each other and watching us back. As if the dancers were making line drawings of themselves they trace the various objects and people in the space. There are so many surfaces, so much intentional horizon and planes of architecture that are made with natural materials—both bodies and trees.
Rethorst started working on 208 East Broadway in her NY apartment, and the furniture is woggly and fragile with women perched on top and underneath, consistently encouraging it into new configurations. A pregnant pause and simultaneous stillness punctures the pace, which until then has been a little slow. Not bad slow, just intentional. Not boring slow, just focused, and this break gives me a minute to question the action.
First of all, who has an apartment in Manhattan where you can have dinner for eight at the dining room table? Secondly, when is this piece going to end its ever-changing life so that I can try to buy all this Danish design?
I imagine this is what people assume that dancers do all day long in their homes, perch and contort and lie around. In this dance, the choreography of manipulation and use of object in an unintended way opens up questions about artful
arrangement of forms of all sorts—people included—in an expansive definition of choreographer. I identify “futon” and know what a futon does, I see “dancer” and have some presumptions about what might come. Rethorst, however, consistently shows us that our preconceived notions about “futon” and “dancer” are simply that—notions that get in the way of a keener way of seeing the possibilities and poetry in these forms.
We’ve recently seen, in Philadelphia, a slew of movement-based performances that address the trappings of home-space. Most recently 1812’s Dave and Aaron Go to Work demonstrated the clowny confines of a too-small domestic life. Headlong’s more. employed the glorious mundane; their living room built up for habitation and observation, then re-purposed into a desolate heap of architecture that absorbed a performer. Above, under, in between, Willi Dorner’s latitudinal pass of a dance, focused on tightly timed construction and transformation with aspirations of Rube Goldberg. There are a host of dances, harkening back to Kurt Jooss and his Green Table, that put this object onstage—reminding the audience that dance is very much part of our everyday.
I don’t think Rethorst’s intention is to site dance as a normal everyday affair, though she has consistently shown the ways I’ve been overlooking the dance that can be found in the simple clarity of attention to form. Then again, I’m also sitting in the Fidget Space, where the audience lounges on couches, chats with one another and eats snacks throughout this rehearsal. As the performers quickly absorb and abandon material in real time, we’re all in the living room—whether onstage or off.
Paul initiates the wrecking, deciding that the performance started from the very moment that we were all in it together—asking Megan to “re-do” Susan’s introduction. Immediately the charade of introducing oneself as another person becomes a mask that Megan humorously wears. Paul stops them, deciding that the starting point for the performance is actually even earlier—from Megan’s preparatory shirt tug and throat clearing and the moment when we had to close the blinds.
When did this performance start for me? When I sat down to watch? When Lisa Kraus made her theatrical explanation of the afternoon and the larger project? When I met Susan at her home and sat in the chair that is currently on stage left? When I biked past the Christmas tree recycling station on my way here—that fresh memory currently making me wonder whether the futon frame is made of pine? When I heard Tere O’Connor describe her process of wrecking four years ago? I think the answer to all of it is yes—I’ve arrived at this moment with my amalgamation of Rethorst and wrecking.
They continue quite politely and rapidly, Paul and Annie-B asking the dancers to re-wind a bit, change and tweak this and continue on. Chance meetings of words and actions imbue the original abstract 12 minutes with snatches of story and non-linear relation. It feels fresh to those of us who see the magic behind the movement changed with some smart shaping. It is sensible that Big Dance Theater is spraying the piece with words, though not overpowering it. Their toolbox for crafting language is large.
“Does anybody have any headphones?” Annie-B asks, which sparks a flurry in this art-aquarium. Someone enters with an extension cord. Christina produces floor pillows for more people to sit up front. The boombox is plugged in. The front door creaks open again. Michelle grabs a glass of water. Observers chatter amongst themselves. The bright-line between the everyday and performance practice feels permeable, something that Fidget has worked hard to cultivate and is clearly working in this context.
She checks in: “Susan are you feeling sad?” (Nope, she’s taking notes and finding the ”keepers”) “Wait. Look like you’re looking at a ship out on the ocean,” Annie-B instructs the dancers. This is the first major performative note, the first non-functional and qualitative comment which comes nearly halfway into the day. Because we understand the directive behind it and not just the strange result, it is hilarious.
Paul starts in again, “It’s okay that it falls apart, you don’t have to act, at all. Jody is going to stand up and do this boombox thing like she’s Mussolini and if anything goes wrong with the podium you’ll be in big trouble.” As they’re working out the last bit of the transition, the choreographers concur quietly and several people strain their ears to hear--wanting to be in on the action.
Susan starts too offer a solution and stops short—recognizing that it isn’t her problem to solve. My neighbor sighs “it must be so hard” and I concur—wildly fun to watch people make choices that you want to hold onto, difficult if the “wrecking” seems to be doing exactly that to your dance, and probably equal parts maddening and engaging to be a witness to the re-shuffle.
We’re fortunate that these guests work incredibly fast—making alterations that happen with the performers acclimating to their new rules with light speed. The choreography of the new “moving show” is seamless and without traffic jams. Should they try to re-create it, the conversation about “first I go, then you, then we wait for JE and next KC comes with the end table, but not until Jody is done…yes.” would take 3 hours to choreograph.
The dancers repeat from the top, this time performing to the back wall as the living room of the Fidget Space--stage, audience and all--becomes incorporated into my landscape of the piece. I give my seat up to someone just arrived, and take my leave after asking a fellow writer if they’d “wreck” my writing so that I might learn something new about it. I hope he agrees.
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