Instead of Back Up
Heather Kravas’s The Green Surround is replete with references to the training of dancers, especially with regard to classical ballet. The setting for the work, we are told in the press release, is in fact a ballet studio. Oscillating between motifs of perfection and transgression/perversion, the audience experiences a spectacle in which it is as much titillated as accused, seduced as viscerally assaulted. While the gaze of the spectator is foregrounded, so is the spectator’s complicity with the dance performance/studio as the site where the dancer’s body is produced through certain disciplinary regimes and gestures.
Throughout the performance we witness the dancers both consenting to these regimes and resisting their situation in the performance itself. As we take our seats they face us, standing in a line across one side wall, as in one of Vanessa Beecroft’s tableaux vivants. They are wearing white smocks, kerchiefs, black bobby socks, and mirrored, panoptical sunglasses, which shield their eyes. The bright white lights that fill the black box theater only make it more difficult to tell where the dancers are looking. Counting occurs throughout the evening, starting with the nine women standing together, ticking off on their fingers while they repeat the words “boot lick.” The submission theme continues, and it is often unclear whether the viewers are dominating or being dominated, the boot lickers or the ones having their boots licked. “Boot lick boot lick boot lick” glides into “lick boot lick boot lick boot” echoing the ambiguity of subject and object.
The counting is also significant because so much of The Green Surround seems to be about measurement. The measurement of the dancers’ bodies together, as a mass; the way, also, that time is measured by space, the dancers’ movements counted (often literally) inch-by-inch, indexed in reference to a series of tasks (such as removing their high heel boots). The use of counting at times reminded me of post-punk and minimalist compositions from the ’70s and ’80s. Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca/Theoretical Girls would often use counting as a means of foregrounding rationalization, if only as a way of marking its limits. Could it be that Kravas’s choreography is also marking limits, delimiting the places where the body appears through its rationalization? Through obsessive measurement, repetition, and mechanization Kravas’s dancers would appear in a state of total submission, yet produce effects that appear very spontaneous (or free) in this state.
Such is the case where the dancers line up three-by-three on their hands and knees, their faces down (again a motif of submission). They perform a series of chants (“boo”/“hoo”) accompanied by the raising of their heads and the tolling of bellhop bells in various patterns to the beat of a metronome. The bell-ringing/head-raising/chanting seems to start and restart based on an initial call from one of the dancers, and stop based on another signal. I couldn’t figure out the pattern; it seemed like it could go on indefinitely without ceasing to be engaging and open-ended. Like post-punk/minimalist composition, it also had the charm of combining number and word, simple tones (bells) with poly-rhythmic elements (chanting and head-bobbing).
Visual gags were another important aspect of the performance. The most memorable one appears as the dancers are lined-up against the wall, along the bar of their would-be ballet studio. After performing a series of movements in unison along the wall (including pelvic thrusts and rotations of the head), they face the audience, their mouths opened wide like blow-up dolls. The visual reference could also be to the carnival game where one sprays water into the mouth of a clown’s head as the head moves away from the sprayer. One of the dancers pees (or seems to pee) on the ground where she is standing, her mouth still wide open. The dancers approach the audience at the foot of the stage in unison. They spit (no swallowing) and close their mouths as if to indicate that they have finished: the audience can stop watching their spectacle now.
Adding to the visceral dynamic of Kravas’s choreography (at one point a dancer performs solo, stomping around the stage in combat boots while the rest of the troop marches throughout the building of PS122 counting-off to 43) was the choreographer’s use of language. In the final scene the dancers stand at the foot of the stage directly facing the audience, often meeting the gazes of individual viewers for prolonged intervals. The commands they recite include: “Instead of ‘how do you do,’ say ‘dig your own grave’”; “Instead of ‘almost there,’ say ‘scantily clad’”; “Instead of ‘door mat,’ say ‘pay back’”; and “Instead of ‘back up,’ say ‘ass fucked.’” While many of the commands don’t exactly make rational sense, their affect is consistent with the rest of the performance, which frames the audience’s complicity in the construction and enjoyment of spectatorship, pleasing as much as it confronts, refuses, and inculcates.