a Natural danceby Jaime Shearn Coan
Natural movement. Natural setting. Natural Selection. Natural disaster. Natural as neutral, as invisible, as hegemonic. Natural as a set of conditions we hold in our laps as we sit in our seats and wait for the show to begin. Natural as the obvious choice. a Natural dance deftly transformed a black box into a field of questions that emerged between found texts, stretches of silence punctuated with breath, the squeak of sneakers, the recorded sounds of pots and pans clanging, the performers steps as they circled around backstage or leaped onstage, the beep of the digital watch on performer Effie Bowen’s wrist as she timed her speech. While this piece was not about providing answers, it was certainly evidence of what careful questioning can yield.
The smartest critiques in this piece were often laced with humor. Jen Rosenblit had Bowen recite, with hyperarticulated precision, a list of gel light filters used for the stage, beginning with a string of colors with names like “pale bastard amber” (this is indeed a product name) and moving through colors such as “pale peach pink,” “lavender mist,” and “Mayan sunrise.” Each gel color claimed to create a specific mood or effect, illuminating the artificiality at the root of “realistic” scenes on the stage. What was especially provocative about this catalogue was the relationship between lighting and skin; there were dozens recommended for and named after fair skin tones, while I only caught one intended for “darker skin.” In this seemingly apolitical text, the embedded racialized expectations regarding who will appear on stage were exposed. At another point, performer Justin Cabrillos, while changing his outfit onstage, put on a pair of glasses and peered at the audience. What had he been able to see before, I wondered? What did he see at that point, through the very light filters that had been arduously rattled off by Bowen?
Much of the movement material, even when addressing serious themes, felt non-human, playful, and jokey. One of the moments that elicited laughs from the audience was when Cabrillos was lifted from a prone position on the ground, and rather than fluidly shifting, retained an almost rigor mortis inflexibility. There were some crouch-and-leap-up movements that reminded me of the arcade game Whac-a-Mole, where you frantically bang on the moles as they pop up at random. At another point, Rosenblit, Addys Gonzalez, and Cabrillos stood in a line and jumped on two feet in quick succession so that they constantly flipped between facing front or back, reminding me of kids playing peek-a-boo. Rosenblit and Clark often appeared in duets marked with distress or agitation, seeming to undermine disconnection with connection. Gonzalez and Bowen’s duet was mediated through microphones. A particularly virtuosic movement in which Rosenblit leapt and slid between Gonzalez and Cabrillos so that the three of them were suddenly holding hands, was de-formalized by a casual release and re-clasp. During another segment, Cabrillos swung his arms like a bored teenager and then went on to other tasks, returning to the swinging hands until it almost became his “natural” resting point.
Rosenblit’s costume choices were both aesthetically and conceptually exciting, and enabled some striking sculptural tableaus. Cabrillos began the piece dressed in a fashionable white and off-white ensemble of shirt, pants, and sneakers. Gonzalez appeared to wear a likewise pedestrian outfit of green shorts and an unbuttoned green camo shirt over a plain white tee-shirt, but when he removed his tee-shirt in a gorgeous twirl, he revealed that his shorts were actually an oversized U-shaped jumper. This reveal was then immediately re-enacted. I noticed how this repetition shifted my attention to the labor of the movement; once surprise was eliminated, the sequence emerged as a performative ritual. Meanwhile, Cabrillos reappeared onstage wearing a matching purple jumper. These jumpers had the ability to create surprising shapes, such as when Cabrillos crouched down at one point and appeared to have shrunk by several feet.
While both Gonzalez and Cabrillos changed costumes a few times, both off and on stage, Rosenblit, Hilary Clark, and Bowen remained in the same outfits throughout. Rosenblit wore a long silk purple shirt that nearly covered her shorts and Clark wore a striped short-sleeve button-up and black dance pants. Bowen was costumed in a simple stretchy black jumper and white socks. It felt significant that the male dancers, also the only dancers of color in the piece, were displayed and modified to such a large degree. Is Rosenblit pushing against the stage’s customary exhibition of bodies that read as female? Or perhaps asking us to think about how much the male dancing body is valued aesthetically? When she placed a pink scarf on Gonzalez's head in a sort of pharaoh style and watched him perform a gorgeous twirling solo, she seemed to be inviting the audience to consider the presence of exoticism and foreignness. Within the realm of Rosenblit’s critique of the natural, the viewer is reminded that bodies only make meaning in relation.
Over the course of a Natural dance, my expectations were twisted and refashioned around me. All of this added up to a fascinating new vocabulary where the spectacle is off to the center of where we expect it to be.
Jen Rosenblit’s a Natural dance was performed at the Kitchen from May 29 – 31 by Addys Gonzalez, Justin Cabrillos, Effie Bowen, Hilary Clark, and Jen Rosenblit, with lighting design by Elliott Jenetopulos and set construction by Sam Roeck.
ContributorJaime Shearn Coan
JAIME SHEARN COAN is the author of Turn it Over (Argos Books, 2015) and Ph.D. student in English at The Graduate Center, CUNY.