PUSHING PAST OURSELVES
Jeanine Durning’s To Being

The Chocolate Factory
September 9 –  26, 2015

I walked out of To Being feeling vulnerable to the world. Ejected from the bright white room into the unfamiliar streets of Long Island City, into a night balanced at the meeting point of two seasons, I found myself wondering how I was going to write about this. The whole performance was improvised, nonstop, and I had taken no notes. I felt lonely, let loose too soon.

Vulnerability is a great leveler, and puts things in perspective. To my mind, there is not enough time to pretend otherwise.

- Jeanine Durning

Jeanine Durning (L) and Molly Poerstel ®. Photo: Alex Escalante.

The room is filled with harsh white light. There is no designated stage. Chairs are spaced out around the periphery at various angles. The seating is intentionally limited; there are only about twenty available spots. I am basing this count off of my recollections of the individual audience members—during the performance, I spend a lot of time watching their faces as they range from frozen, to compassionate, to amused, to anxious.

Our whole bodies are visible. We don’t make eye contact (we are mirrors of each other) but we share the tension that threads the room, and meet in quick bursts of laughter, releases of caught breath. The performers had casually greeted us as we entered, but now we are left alone to wait in the silence. Finally, after making a lot of clamor in the hallway, they join us, travelling as a trio on a diagonal. They head straight into the corner before continuing to outline the space, which we are a part of.

The performers seem to simultaneously hold a concentrated inner focus and a kinesthetic awareness of each other’s positions. At times, they directly engage with audience members, smiling or just looking intently—a decision that has the unsettling effect of making us both voyeur and participant. We hear their breath and see the sweat begin to collect as they climb up into window ledges, dance around, between, and behind us. Legs swing over our heads, and arms fly out missing us by an inch. Everything is a prop, is of interest. Durning pulls a branch in through a window. Speakers, spotlights, tables, chairs, even an air conditioner are simultaneously functional and objects of study, shifting our sensory experience.

As time passes, the silence gives way to a low hum before rising and building into a complicated soundscape (recorded and live mixed by Tian Rotteveel). The intensity increases: as the performers become more fatigued, they increase their velocity. Molly Poerstel in particular takes great physical risks, hanging from poles on the ceiling, manipulating a ladder with her legs. She’s able to execute a series of turns with full composure and grace after grunting and writhing. It feels like she has a lot at stake, like everything lies in the balance of this performance. Watching her, I have to remember to keep breathing.

Durning’s physicality is quick but not angular. She is pliable—demonstrating flexibility and deftness, quickly shifting her expressions and object of interest. One second her whole body crumples, and the next she is crossing the floor in a crescendo of high kicks. Her face contorts with effort as she lugs around a heavy speaker; when she attempts to heave it onto a table she has set up directly in front of me, I feel a sharp stab of helplessness. I reach out and help her. She doesn’t acknowledge me.

Later, at this same table, Durning abruptly sits down and bores her eyes into mine. Her face is sweaty and flushed, her chest heaving. It is like watching a trapped animal struggle, the sheer force of that nonverbal holding-on. I can’t tell the direction of the energy—whether she is taking or giving. I try to offer her some of mine so she can keep going, but I don’t know if she wants it. In that moment, I experience being as an active state. Finally, after years of graduate-school discussions that yielded only vague explanations, I understand the meaning of ontology.

Shifts in sound offer opportunities for disintegration and reorganization: at one point the music narrows into a low growl that vibrates in my bones. Towards the end of the piece, Julian Barnett moves from one audience member to another, gesturing and describing in whispered fragments a trajectory of unknown material that is ricocheting off our body parts (he touches first my neck and then my right knee). He traces lines in the air and mimes explosions with his hands to the accompaniment of sound effects. While this improvisation has the quality of the fanciful imaginings of a child, it also does the work of activating and linking the body schemas of each member of the audience.

William James, the originator, back in 1890, of the term “stream of thought,” utilizes a metaphor from the natural world to emphasize the constant, organic “flow” of the thought process. Durning takes care to distinguish her practice of “nonstopping” in the program notes: “Whereas continuous implies ‘going with the flow,’ nonstop points to the critical nature of what it takes to keep going in the midst of—and despite—questions, doubts, limitations, and, of course, inevitable failures.” “Nonstop” is etymologically linked to railroads; it points to the flow around us rather than inside of us. This feels like an appropriate practice for our contemporary culture of immersive technology.

Durning’s “nonstopping,” in pointing to the nature of the difficulty or pressure of keeping going, does not merely serve as social critique; this project is an attempt to angle into new ways of being. The performers push themselves beyond themselves. And we, in turn, emerge into the night slightly sore, wanting something we can’t put into words.

Contributor

Jaime 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.

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