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Rain Train Transcript Cube

“Kaatsbahn table” taken by Yi Zhao, April 2009 at Kaatsbahn International Dance Center.
“Kaatsbahn table” taken by Yi Zhao, April 2009 at Kaatsbahn International Dance Center.

At the outset and intermittently throughout The School of Hard Knocks / Root Culture's performance of “Not About Romanian Cinema: Poonarc,” (Poonarc is an acronym for: “Page out of order not about Romanian cinema”) I made out the sounds of a train, what might be taken for the sound of a court-room transcription machine (it turned it was actually the sound a performer writing on a blackboard revealed later in the performance) and rain. The sounds bore a marvelous resemblance to one another, both textures and presences occupying one area of time. It is a kind of magic to see distinct units and elements transform from one into another in such a way that they remain distinct even as they are translated. That quality of things, which, because so primary, is difficult to harness, is a sort of square one, or, even better, square zero, from which Chuma's work has been extrapolated over time. It is a magic of number, of geometry, of language and of rhythm. Such an incredibly pure system allows for anything -- tennis balls, shredded paper, dialogue pulled from a popular movie -- to become “dance.” This is the beauty of math: it is an ideal language, and with a materialist's love of the physical Chuma has explored how mathematics can in fact be very emotional. Her ability to transform number into a performance is what gives her the ability to take on great magnitudes of chaos and turbulence -- whether those are natural or political -- and, rather than tame them, discover again and again that, as Steven's puts it so directly in Connoisseur of Chaos, “A. A violent order is disorder; and/ B. A great disorder is an order. These/ two things are one. (Pages of illustrations.)”

In contrast to that aforementioned texture of sound, there were, seated at a long table lit from the bottom, about ten performers engaged in what appeared to be casual conversation with one another. It became clear after about ten minutes that this conversation was choreographed. The scripts were in some ways treated as translatable ciphers, and in other ways as textures to be set against one another. The scripts were freighted with implications of nationality, for example (these are paraphrases) the red-blooded American: “I had a good childhood growing up in Arizona, eating a lot of burritos and riding around on my bicycle. I lead a life which is fairly normal to an American citizen, though I don't really identify myself as American, per say” or (paraphrasing again); a purportedly Japanese person: “I am Japanese, not because either of my parents are from Japan, but because I like to be Japanese”; or the tourist with a capital T: “People warned us when we got to Bucharest not to take the subway. It is disgusting and the people are nasty. But when we asked a native we met one night how he gets around, he replied 'I take the subway, of course.'” Some parts of the script were lifted from the two Romanian films “”Stuff and Dough” by Cristi Puiu and “12:09 to Bucharest” by Corneliu Porumboiu.

To add complexity to the readings of the scripts, the performers systematically traded scripts, thus highlighting the volatile and context-sensitive nature of nationality and its relation to the individual. This emphasized a tension inherent to the situation of the performers: it made it clear that while in body they were very much performing acts in space, it also asserted that no space is not affected by national borders and their politics. So some of the limits along which the piece was choreographed involved an exploration of how a dancer in space performs acts under the influence of nationality and identity. It would be too easy to say that the piece sought a fusion of individual translated into abstract form. In fact, the clashes of nationality, individuality, and the task of the individual as a performer were what drove the piece forward, very much in the way a baroque work breaks its own logic of form in order to project itself forward in time. When one of the Romanian citizens read the script describing himself as leading “a life which is fairly normal to an American citizen,” a question comes up concerning the modernist ideal of absolute translatability: on the one hand, it suggests that language and identity may indeed have an underlying logic which is universally translatable; on the other, it suggests that this is a dubious suggestion which may ultimately cause violence to the particular and to the individual. Chuma does not seem to be intent on deciding for herself or for us either way. It is an awareness of this contradiction as it continues beyond the duration of the performance that was the goal.

I spoke with Yoshiko a week or so after the performance. I was curious about where she's been coming from, and, suspecting I'd get an interesting answer for an uninteresting question, that question being, “So, are there any particularly groundbreaking experiences or influences which got you going to arrive where you are now in your practice?” she simply replied, “I landed in New York in 1976. When I came to New York I did not come for any specific reason. I've been located in downtown New York since I got here, and since then have been based here to make work.” While at first this seems to be a relatively straightforward answer, it hints at a certain rigor Chuma has maintained in her activities: she is interested in what happens, doing something then doing something to that; in making work, and not in having ideas about making work. She always goes back to nothing in order to see what else she can discover anew about dance and its possibilities. She said, being somewhat tongue-in-cheek: “If I have a statement, it is 0.” I was able to snatch into my notebook another proposition she made about her work too, and I think it responded quite well, and quite assertively, to my question “where are you coming from?”--- Chuma said at one point that perhaps she started “from a black hole.” She emphasized that “I must be very free because I don't have any barriers to break. I am not rebelling against the past.” A refreshing thing to hear, and one which would go to debunk the notion popular among academics that, even if the artist doesn't know it (and, apparently, this is why we've got to keep them on hand, to remind us) an artist always defines him or herself negatively against their predecessors. Well, maybe sometimes, but then again, sometimes maybe not. She went on to say “I occupy a free zone.”

The performance's freedom in its exploration of pure structure was cast into tension by some of the historically and politically charged material: the politically motivated films from Romania, the texts concerning economic and class issues in Romania, and the sensitivity to the national borders inherent to different identities and languages. While the performance was by no means “about” politics, it nevertheless was an effort to act within the tides of political history. It presented a Beuysian commitment to social issues; to locating the individual as both a sentient body in space and as a socially constructed identity in a political landscape. Chuma, who has dubbed herself “a citizen of the world,” cannot be satisfied with an art that is too pure. Maintaining a rigorous commitment to formal concerns, her work also remains under the influence of the contemporary, and so bears a committed worldliness. This is a fruitful contradiction, because formally, I think she might empathize with Morton Feldman's statement that “For ten years of my life I worked in an environment committed to neither the past nor the future… What we did was not in protest against the past. To rebel against history is still to be a part of it. We were simply not concerned with historical processes. We were concerned with sound itself. And sound does not know its history.” And yet the historical material is there just as much as the a-historical.

We then got into a fast paced and astonishing discussion of number. She first of all described to me the importance of quantity and number in Japan, where she grew up, and said this is where she must have picked up her understanding of it. She told me that number and quantity can be the basis of emotional content in a piece. For example, say there are three possibilities with the lighting: dim, medium, and bright. If she were to combine those three possibilities with, say, 7 to determine the durations of time each light level will be held, that can create profoundly different emotional content then, say, if she played 3 off of 2. Number is what she starts with, so to speak, and of course the fundamental number to start with is 0, which she associates with pure existence. She said that when she starts to conceive of a performance, she may “say for this performance I am going to start with a 0 statement.” From there she may go forwards to 1, then back to -1, which sometimes can turn out to be positive. She described her process as “a sort of walking back and forth,” numerically in this way. The form of arithmetic she described goes into everything about the performance, from the number of performers on stage, the number of props used, durations of time, steps, etc.

Her audience is not just there to be the receiving end of the work. She described her performances as “phenomena” rather than as pieces, and said that after she has created a work by conceiving of the maximum number possibilities, then subtracting something, she considers it a success “if the audience fills in the gap of what is left out…” Even during the actual performance, as was clear to me as I witnessed it, she experiences the work as a phenomenon and not as an orchestration. This is almost by definition amazing: that the event in part occurs on its own terms, and that the audience, performer, and choreographer in a sense are granted the task of navigating and influencing it, even just by way of being witness to it, is in effect a source of astonishment itself. It asks you to try to picture a dance that orchestrates and imagines you. Orchestrator, performer, and audience are all, in a sense, imagined by the dance, the dance and its human participants being part of the imaginative process of the world at large. I like the way poet Philip Whalen articulates this quality of art best: “Hello, hello, what I wanted to tell you was/ the world's invisible/ you see only yourself, that's not the world/ though you are of it/… the world imagines you…” (“Historical Disquisitions,” from On Bear's Head).

I'll finish with her cubes. This time there were three. They functioned in just about every way possible: they were fixtures for video screens and zones in which to dance. They shifted the performance from one stage to the next literally by being moved according to their geometric properties as cubes, unfolding and unpacking spatial relationships, and relationships between dancers. They also performed, most noticeably when they were lifted onto their corners and spun by the dancers. Being arranged and flipped as they occupied the stage, they created a system of geometric necessity along which the enactment and succession of events in the performance could be executed; this developed a marriage of nature and human act. Lastly, while they certainly were metal-frame-cubes, and were presented as such, these were also magic boxes of a sort. Chuma's is a materialist magic. The physical in her work is like so much material creating form; the origin of creativity is the material present, and so her work is slippery, doesn't fit well into categories. Her boxes initiated a game of the revealed and concealed, and in this game time, space, and movement were transformed. They created a rhythm of in and out, and embodied that magical property of energy in physics: that it is at times wave, and at times particle, at times continuity, at times a series of units.


Roger Van Voorhees

Roger Van Voorhees is a poet in New York who lives with a young cat named Lillith.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2009

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