In the Use of Others for the Changeby Thomas Micchelli
CENTER FOR PERFORMANCE RESEARCH | APRIL 14 – 16, 2011
There were two passages when the stage was empty, dark, and throbbing with music: guttural cries in the first and blues harmonica in the second, both shot through with ripples of electric guitar. It was during those moments that the essence of In the Use of Others for the Change was laid bare. Billed as “A Ballet in Three Movements,” this work by choreographer Julia K. Gleich in collaboration with the artists Audra Wolowiec, Austin Thomas, Kevin Regan, and Andrew Hurst is much more than that. If anything, it’s an opera in the truest sense of the term: a visual and aural complexity fraught with inner tension yet resolving into unreckoned transcendence.
The two short dances that formed the first part of the evening—“Ghost (for Martin),” a sweet and affecting duet between Gleich and Jason Andrew (of the Bushwick spaces Norte Maar and Storefront, who was also the producer of the event), and “Summer in RP,” a full-on classical ballet performed by the six female dancers of Gleich’s company—were scant preparation for what was to follow.
Sunny lighting, mauve tunics, and galloping leaps gave way to enveloping shadow, gray leotards, and lurches, tics, and scissor-like chops. Four of the six dancers—Michelle Buckley, Brittany Fridenstine, Kate Kelley, and Morgan Claire McEwen—skittered across the stage, as if on rollers, to the pops, clicks, elided words and deep breathing of Audra Wolowiec’s highly effective concrete score.
Or they would snap upward from all fours and just as abruptly collapse. I thought of Hans Bellmer and the Brothers Quay. The other two dancers, Claire McKeveny and Mary Jane Ward, sat on the floor on either side of the performance space (and so far downstage they were virtually part of the audience), working with markers and stencils on sheets of paper, surrounded by scatterings of colored scraps.
This activity recalled the working process of Austin Thomas, who created the visual design of the first movement (“Vectors”), which consisted of dual projections from what appeared to be pages of the artist’s sketchbooks. These projected abstractions, angled into the corners of the Center for Performance Research’s wide, clean, box-like space, acted as a diptych (in fact, as slides of double-page spreads, they were diptychs-within-a-diptych) and signaled the form of the entire work.
The title of In the Use of Others for the Change comes from a text (selected by Kevin Regan, who reads it aloud in the second movement—“Beliefs Unlimited Exercise”) by the controversial neuroscientist John C. Lilly (1915 - 2001), who experimented with sensory deprivation, hallucinogenic drugs, and interspecies communication: “The unknown exists in one’s goals for changing one’s self, in the means for changing, in the use of others for the change, in one’s capacity to change … in the form of change itself, and in the substance of change and of changing.”
To acknowledge the unknown and the limitations it imposes on our volition would consequently, in Lilly’s terms, allow “no limits” on “the province of the mind.” By isolating the line “in the use of others for the change” for its title, the work would appear to take as its subject the imperatives and hazards of accepting our isolation and blindness and embracing an external consciousness as inescapably circumscribed as our own.
And what is a diptych if not a dialogue between two circumscribed entities that relate only through the happenstance of their adjacency?
To follow this reasoning, the progression of the three movements of In the Use of Others for the Change can be viewed as a stepwise expansion of unfolding diptychs. Each entity is afforded equal weight and becomes a full partner in the creation of the whole.
This has been done before, of course, most famously by Merce Cunningham in his practice of withholding the introduction of his dance’s music and design elements until opening night. Such experiments in chance, however, reflect a philosophical approach generations removed from what Gleich, Wolowiec, Thomas, Regan, Hurst, and the dancers are up to (and which, in Cunningham’s case, still seemed to place primary focus on the ballet). Here the elements are unique but integrated, spiky yet congruent.
The second movement explicitly pairs the choreography with Lilly’s text, as Kevin Regan, followed by Mary Jane Ward and several others planted in the audience, read the aforementioned selections to the dancers, whose increasingly complicated patterning responded in kind to the canon-like layers of the overlapping words.
The lines of demarcation between spheres of activity, however, commenced their dissolution in the final and most extended movement, which featured sound design and video projections by Andrew Hurst and a hand-processed 16mm black-and-white film by Shona Masarin, accompanied throughout by Amery Kessler on electric guitar.
Divided into four sections—“Decumulation Cycle,” “Suite of Dances in 5 Parts,” “Yer Prayer,” and “Decumulation Blues” (“decumulation” is a term explained by Gleich in the program notes as a process that “unlike accumulation, has an end, where nothing remains”)—the movement began with the dancers standing on one side of a live video feed. Hunched over his gear at the foot of the performance space, Hurst dragged a camera over black-and-white drawings (including one revolving on a turntable) as a solo dancer would break from the others and dart like a flashing bird in front of the projector.
This interaction of living bodies with beams of light developed in nuance and complexity as the single video image was replaced by two, which in turn expanded into fluttering washes of color across the entire rear wall. The dancers, moving between the right and left channels, morphed into actors in a shadow play or, perhaps more aptly, agents of performance cinema. This sequence also introduced Marc St-Pierre, the seventh member of Gleich’s troupe, hurtling himself into frightening, nearly horizontal mid-air breaks that, by all rights, should have slammed him flat against the floor. Miraculously landing on the balls of his feet, pitting athleticism against gravity, his feat became a metaphor of the work’s defiance of whatever constraints—physical, psychological or aesthetic—hobble us in mental shackles.
In the evening’s mesmerizing final moments, the projected images vanished, leaving the dancers ethereally backlit by amber gels. Hurst stalked the perimeter of the stage, playing blues harmonica over Kessler’s guitar, the music and choreography synching into an elemental organism. One by one the dancers, bending to the beat, departed the stage until only Hurst and Michelle Buckley remained in a music/dance pas de deux. With a crazed smile on her face, Buckley invoked an ecstasy slipping in and out of madness: flipping on a dime between the mechanical and the maniacal, robot-rigid one second, whiplash-quick the next, a body at war with itself, managing to leave the stage only by manually manipulating her insteps.
This closing image, simultaneously disquieting and euphoric, as memorable as it was unaccountable, seemed to achieve liberation by accepting impermeable paradox over reason and judgment. The use of others for the change that we pursue in ourselves is a wild and most likely doomed leap of faith, inviting in the abstract but treacherous in practice. We can’t and yet we must. The musical sequences that took place on an otherwise empty stage, “Yer Prayer” and the aftermath of the final dancer’s departure, evoked a dissolution of boundaries possible only in perfect love or a perfect death— incorporeal, elegiac, and ravishing.