Solos for Us in This Time
On May 2nd, Shawl-Anderson Dance Center’s production of “From One to Many: Six Solos Shared,” gathered artists, audience and hosts in the same “place” to watch dance. We Zoomed briefly; we scrambled over to YouTube to watch; we zoomed back to Zoom for a Q&A. To gather at the same time, to mill about in the virtual lobby after the show, was life-giving. It felt a little bit like “before.”
“From One to Many” gave the artists no specific prompt other than that the works be “made or adapted in this time.” This time. This time of what the fuck. This time of increased uncertainty and decreased activity. This time of when will I see you again? Of requirement to sit at length with the good and bad about what is ours. Each choreographer used music by composer Michael Wall, who wants folks (artists especially) to utilize the uniqueness of this time and this way of being. Wall asked, “What can we make of it? What are the tools we have right now? None of these things could happen on a stage, and they are low budget. There is so much bonus to that.” His sound for this show ranged from brisk to melancholic. Most of it was environmental, creating such a seamless backdrop for the movement that it nearly fused with the skin on the bodies. “A sound bath,” as SADC Executive Director Rebecca Johnson put it.
There was (unintentionally or intentionally) a current of containment and erasure in the choreography. Molly Heller was visually compressed between two walls. Melecio Estrella began up close and retreated back, back, back into a throng of plants. Erin Yen got buried in too much technological stimulus. But, regardless of this time’s collective and unavoidable experience of hard boundaries and reduction, the composition of these works struck me. Because even though right now the parameters are (literally) different, it is same practice: we’re making dance. And in making, like Shawl-Anderson hopes, we can get out of neutral and into gear, so that living “through and beyond this moment” becomes more palpable, more possible.
Molly Heller dances Finding in a staircase or maybe a hallway. She is positioned behind the entryway between two white walls. Black signs against the wall behind her read “before” and “after.” A light hangs directly center above her head. The symmetry is interrupted by a socket to her right and a table, or railing, to her left. These commonplace bits bring some realness into the cleanly constructed scene and provide a nice connection to her provocation for this piece: contrast “in the body and with relationship to texture.” Improvising, she works to locate buoyancy and density, precariousness and stability within herself. She surges through the quest with unyielding attention – is this buoyancy? Is this? Each movement’s sensation seems to provide insight into its counterpart. Her arms strike rigid lines, then become the fluttering sail above the hull of her rocking hips. A trickle of skitters with a bent abdomen precede a statuesque tracing of her plumb line. Heller’s embodied cognition is incredibly agile. She finds eloquence in one idiosyncrasy and then switches quickly and completely into another texture, another part of herself a whole body away. This is improvisation at its fullest: her body is theorizing. In her search for contrast, I find that center matters. Her body centered between the hard walls and the words. The light anchoring a clear midline. Her movement begins with symmetry – heels and “V” arms and organs ascending – and almost ends in symmetry – embracing her shoulders with scouring fingers, she squeezes. Her feet toying with the evenness of first position. But at the last minute, it doesn’t feel true, and she releases into a floaty lopsidedness. This solo is the opposite of apathy. It grinds along asking: what is the effort it takes to stay intricate and receptive when lodged between two hardnesses (like house walls and strict social guidelines, like old patterns and new doubts)? This is the sacred stuff it takes to find malleability and aliveness at our center.
Molly Rose-Williams is behind a chain-link fence, beside the sidewalk, within a sunny neighborhood in Today or Tomorrow. From behind a bush, she crimps her fingers into two of the coiled diamond holes – my knuckles know the quality of that steel from recess after recess of 3rd grade explorations. Her fingers trill. They pause. They grasp another set of diamonds a few feet up the fence. Up they rise again, over the top. We can see her face now. It’s occupied by the task at hand. She nudges the tips of her shoes into two more of the not-quite-big-enough-for-shoes diamonds. Just the toes catch enough leverage to hoist her up to her next choice. She folds over the top of the fence to flirt with a sign that reads “Reserved for Principal.” She hops cutely sideways across a railing that supports the fence, a childlike traverse. Unlike the others, this solo resists images of constriction. A person climbs over a fence in open air. It plainly and playfully lifts sensory and thematic aperture of the show. Rose-Williams moves slowly – allowing the details of the scene to unfold gently. There is another sign suspended mid-fence. Birds chitter. Chatting cyclists cruise by. They add a distinctive shift of speed and direction – unknowing collaborators in the social choreography of this “solo.” There are three tempos and trajectories. One, Rose-Williams is indirect and persistently unhurried, except when she slides partway down the corner post, when gravity beats her on the last few centimeters of her controlled, final descent to the sidewalk. Two, the speed of linear society walking and biking by is variably perky. And three, there is stillness. Trees, fence posts, ground… holding the certainty of place in spite of time. Wall’s tune whistles and ambles like an old western cowboy on an empty afternoon. All of it generates the helpful reminder that there is infinite opportunity within small, familiar spaces. Rose-Williams tells us after the show that she is encouraged by “cell membranes. Which look small from the outside, but when you go in, they unfold and unfold, and the cell membrane can go around the earth four times. Take a look. There are a thousand diamonds in that fence. Dig in, and see its vast magnitude.”
Erin Yen brings the camber of human lines to a plywood wall and an industrial drop cloth. Taking In reads like a site-specific proscenium dance. In sneakers and baggy sweat clothes, Yen begins to circuit her arms and knees around the space as a rectangular projection, created by Coal Rietenbach, fills the upper left corner of the plywood. The projection unemotionally flashes red, turns white, and goes blank. Meanwhile, Yen has dashed in and out of the floor like water spiraling down a slide and miraculously back up again. The basin of her pelvis finds a bench in her hip, and her arms heave to the ceiling. As she walks over to the projection it responds by splatting out a red ball. Yen walks to it… into it. For an instant, as it rolls by, her face absorbs the red light, its flatness now the curving dimensions of her brow, nose, and chin. After just a breath in this mergence, they resume their separate work. The dot expands into a hollowed-out slanting oval, and Yen peels her arms across her chest, flings herself from right to left and up to down. The two characters continue. The projection rolls uncaringly through various extraneous designs and shapes – a flickering barcode, a river of purple rectangles, jumpy red asterisks, abstracted fire and lightning. Yen steps in and out of its brash light. Sometimes she swerves and scoops right through it; other times she stops to gawk at it or cower from it. Throughout the piece, the relationship with the actual projection is muddy, but her management of it(s peril?) comes to the fore. Yen grows increasingly distraught and angsty, seemingly less and less able to move with roundness and power. Something about the set (that it includes technology?) and her relationship to it (that it “defeats” her?) makes her seem like the farthest soloist from the camera. This deceptive distance suddenly feels strange and unwelcome. I have had a taste of social intimacy and individual expansion, and I don’t want to return from it. By the end Yen has sunken to her knees and is jabbing through gestures that seem to gang up on each other, vying for position and fullness. Though the projection has sometimes been vacant and has not moved from its corner, it (or its influence) seems to have gobbled her up – not visually, not spatially, but internally. She’s trapped in repetitive, flickering swims and pricks of the arms.
Natalya Shoaf undergoes Shift. Seated up close, she looks at us frankly. Taut fingers ready to pounce and sharp elbows framing her head, she is fixated on the tiny circular lens between us. The bigness of her stare makes it feel like her face takes up the entire screen. But it doesn’t. Behind and beneath the contours of her upper body, we can see a row of books on the floor, an orchid, a curtain, a rug, Christmas lights. She wears a black spaghetti strap tank and black underwear. The lighting is poor and awkward – glaringly bright in one spot and confusingly reflective on a window. I love it. The untreated honesty and relevance of the space. Our un-produced living rooms and pj’s are truly the centerpiece of this time. But while the setting is makeshift, Shoaf’s performance is fierce. Shoaf spends the solo ticking and swelling through her joints. She seems to conjure spirits inside and outside of herself. Single-note piano strokes hang in the air at unexpected intervals while a soft, thick bass line cycles underneath. She moves separately from the music in terms of speed, but it supports her focused study. Like Heller, she’s searching. (“We’re learning [in this time] how to be chameleons. It’s the stubbornness that gets in the way. Shift into the lessons. I am learning my power in stillness,” Shoaf reflects in the Q&A.) When she’s still close but standing, she hunches forward, peering toward us, shoulders hiked above a sideways head, gnarling her fingers through the space just beneath her gaze. The yellowy light settles once on the tip of her shoulder and later on the bulgy tendon at the top of her thigh. She stands up fully, head cut off above the lens. Step touch, step touch. Fall forward, head cut off below the lens. Bend then inflate. Rrrreeach. Balance on one leg in no predetermined position. Flap the knees, swivel the hips. Fall from a second, crooked balance. Nose scrunching and eyes arcing in pursuit of the magic or lesson that lies in her caught foot. Her use of proximity and the fragmentation of her body pinpoints our vision. How does just the thigh breathe, or seek, or expound on a thesis? How does just the finger pad or tip of the shoulder declare its private changes? How do any of us declare our private changes? Changes in a normal apartment, crude lighting, personal clothing, sound like a lullaby, and movement that includes unscripted falls. What a candid quest for new selves within self in this time.
Liv Schaffer waits to enter Cagebird until after her accompanying set. We are looking at a small section of Schaffer’s floor. Daylight shines into the corner of the frame through curtains in a nearby window. The sound sighs long chords in and out like a resonant breeze through a giant ribcage. Old family photos tumble into the frame: a wedding cake from the 1950s, a 1990s portrait of an elderly couple, bouffant hair styles, vintage suits. A foot’s shadow grazes across the curtain’s light, and the curtains billow and twitch in response. Schaffer’s feet step deliberately into frame. She kneels to pick up a few of the photos and arranges them in a neat collage. She rests her chin on her knee to soak up the people and stories before her.
She swipes across her heart, looks at her now memory-filled hand, and coils around in a series of reaches and spirals. Her arms both lurch and melt. Her fingers find the floor. She traces the edges of the collage and then lays on it. On them. Resting on those people. Thawing completely into reminiscence. She turns her head to see who is next to her. Makes another trace and then shwoof, glides across the floor, dragging some photos with her and sweeping others into disarray. The movement is contemporary – mostly squishy floor work – and it works against the photos to locate Schaffer in today, the present end of this temporal thread. Schaffer doesn’t look at us, but does dance to us, in another house. She dances with and to the people in these pictures, in another decade. I know this feeling. How easy is it, especially in this time, to open up a dusty box and guzzle up the constellation of bodies and stories in your past? Schaffer sinks me into the haziness of time. How many days has it been? Where does that 20-year-old family sailing trip live in this present body? How do this physical body and that physical photo coalesce to make memory? Is this about loss? About missing connection in this time? About history? All of that maybe. Schaffer picks up a photo, and walks directly underneath the camera, so that we look over her shoulder. She leafs through some more pictures that we can really distinguish from this angle: young children with their toes in the sand, a table full of food and people to eat it, mother and daughter hugging, spouses and siblings toasting, 80’s earrings and perms. Each one is tossed casually back down to the floor. She follows gradually, down to knees, then belly, then back. She caresses her face and collarbone as if a hand from someone in the photos is actually between hers and her cheek. It passes. She inches her way off-screen leaving the mush of time-travel hanging on my sighing ribs.
Melecio Estrella dissolves biological and spiritual borders in House Plant. He starts sitting close in a simple yellow tank top, hair unkempt, expression unaffected. There is the digital twinkling and murmuring of Wall’s music. He blinks, passively, locked in a daze off-screen. His head turns to the other wall; finger pads trace his upper lip in thought. I feel close to him. He turns to me. Momentarily, the corners of his eyes do a microscopic squeeze, and the thinnest curl at the corners of his mouth slurps his lips open to uncover a smiley but inaudible “hi.” It feels like acknowledgment. He relaxes back to neutral and looks around to pick up a watering can. He lifts a small glass and pours. He lifts it to us, nods his head, and his eyebrows jump up and down in agreement about whatever is happening. He drinks. He feels the wet substance in his mouth, between his teeth and inner lip, on the back of his tongue. Then back to remoteness. His eyes fidget, his head droops as if falling asleep, and he jerks it back up. The second time it stays down for a moment. Estrella’s head and hands then rise together, two hands, no four hands. Because the owner of the second set of hands is entirely hidden, and because the hands rose in such carefully designed or felt synchronicity, it is easy to accept this as a biological phenomenon. Estrella has been watered and has grown. The four hands zigzag around his face like snakes. They stroke his hair, smush his nose, and dig inside his mouth for teeth and wet flesh. It feels both objective and deeply personal.
When the hands are satisfied and depart, Estrella moves to stand at a curtain behind him. From this range, we can now see his floral shorts and his large shadow. The music has ballooned in volume and vibration but still twinkles. His shadow becomes another set of extra limbs, another layer in the canopy. They dance together. Human and nonhuman arms flip and flop and flounce Estrella’s spine and head around like wind flapping through leaves on a willowy stem. Estrella is both shaped and without shape. He feels his liquid-like edge and then clicks back to form by the whisking of his torso or wrist. Eventually, he walks calmly through the curtain. A moment passes. The curtain drops away in the same instant that the lights switch to almost black. A single light beams on now bare-chested Estrella in a crowd – almost a halo – of plants. Some are as tall as he is. Some barely come to his knees. Leaves have replaced the previous fingers in another inquiry about dermis and adaptability. Estrella’s arms stretch out like a tree branch, but search softly for familiarity like a human. Both Estrella and the plants seem to wonder: who are you, and what do you need? Aren’t we kin? I feel the nature of my immediate soil (my resources) and pot (my residence). There are arid days and moist ones here. In this time we are all feeling the sanctuary or hazard of our soil and pots. Bending toward the light whenever possible. Domestic by decree and asking what essentials we are made of…nitrogen, water, movement, what else? So much. Hopefully we make it. Ultimately, Estrella withdraws into the unknown darkness beyond the leaves. Before the show, Estrella dedicated this piece to Nancy Stark Smith, who passed away on May 1. He “wished her the best in her travels.” And shared that from her he learned, “Acceptance. To give myself time to arrive. To loosen grip of locked time and calendar time and move at the speed of the body. To find joy in the moment, seek grace, become grace.” I can’t help but imagine Estrella now, falling and flying with her in that realm beyond the plants. I can’t help but feel that in this solo, he has accepted his mortality, given himself time to depart, and danced into the unknown darkness with decisive ease. He completed the journey from very near us to immeasurably far. He’s gone. The plants remain. The music fades to a music box strumming “Amazing Grace.”