BIRD OF A FEATHER
Jennifer Monsons Live Dancing Archive
Jennifer Monson’s most recent iteration of her Live Dancing Archive project (which premiered at New York Live Arts, October 15 – 18) proposes just that: that we should re-imagine an archive as an alive and ever-changing process, rather than merely as a fixed place for the curation of historical objects.
Typically, an archive is understood as a space for collecting, preserving, and even codifying material to assemble some kind of historical narrative. Traditional archival practices achieve this through their selection and ultimate categorization of materials. In line with these traditional archival notions, Monson’s dance does indeed work to reconstruct stories of the past by making environmental ephemera physically present and legible. However, Monson’s movement archive produces meaning through its very resistance to categorization and finalization, its blurring of physical boundaries, and its commitment to aliveness.
At first, the set is austere, even severe: a singular light, a soundboard, and one long strip of white paneling on wheels. The piece opens with a few minutes of total darkness and no sound but a low and gentle hum. Ghostly figures move around quietly, their exact coordinates unknown to us. It is like a precursory haunting. Maybe even a foreshadowing.
As the singular light fixture comes on, dancers Monson, Niall Jones, and Tatyana Tenenbaum are revealed, as well as sound designer Jeff Kola and lighting/creative advisor Valerie Oliveiro. The dancers’ silhouettes are revealed against the backdrop of the white-paneled structure, rendering their human forms ambiguous, like giant shape-shifting shadow puppets. “Nature” is an unknown shadowland: it is unclear where things begin and end.
Monson and collaborators have created and exist inside of an alternative archive—an organic accumulation of both individual and collective memories, sensations, and experiences. It exists as an excavation of the otherwise unknown—not a statement or an attempt to find truth, but a constant state of inquiry. What vast knowledge lives inside the body and how does it want to be expressed in this moment? This archive is an expression of things that arise in the present, all the while understanding the present’s articulation of all that has come before it.
In these ways, Live Dancing Archive breaks all the categorical rules of the archive. It hangs on the stage as an improvisational remix that combines and juxtaposes different systems of movement patterns and migrations. Monson, Tenenbaum, and Jones move with bird-like qualities, extending, shaking off a winter, and landing for a rest. One by one, each dancer outstretches her arms, legs, and spine with highly executed micro-gestures, unleashing wings that we can nearly see. Always the intrepid improviser, Monson uses distinctive movement vocabularies that possess both a grace and a beastliness.
As they meticulously create relational patterns on stage, we are exposed to the complexity of wildness. Monson’s smooth, rich movements, Tenenbaum’s staccato gestures, and Jones’s long, lumbering limbs all capture familiar, worldly forms. All three swan dive again and again into the sole light beam on stage, landing on their bellies and sliding forward. We see wings, beaks, feathers. The earth. The sky. We see ospreys landing on a pond, looking for temporary respite from their various migrations. We see our basic desire to move, to connect. Their kinetic movements appear to overcome natural forces like form and gravity, while their wildness is unleashed through the most delicate and expertly realized of choreographies. The dancers seem to vacillate between set scores and the improvisational freedoms that Monson has encouraged in this highly collaborative effort.
Collaboration itself is an archival practice—it breathes the archive into being. Last year, Monson performed an evening-length solo of the same title at the Kitchen, and the process continues, as does the archive, ever alive and changing depending on collaborators and contexts. In this way, Monson’s movement practice does not consist of isolated events or “shows,” but rather is a demonstration of ongoing, continuous research into what the dancing body has to communicate about time and place. These three dancers offer us something special and shared. A secret dialect. A very refined molecular exchange that speaks to all their time laboring together in the studio.
In one moment, Jones is dancing and Monson chases him with the long white structure on wheels. He barely escapes its impact multiple times over. He flutters out of its reach. Our compulsion towards industrialization is elicited in this moment. Perhaps it speaks to the way nature has to continuously escape from or accommodate our attempts to deny or control it. The portable white panel exerts itself on stage like industry and development. It takes up space like the monolith, the civilization we have built. In these ways, nature is both established and destroyed within the piece, multiple times over.
Sometimes, one or more of the dancers will take a rest on the stage, sitting down and watching the movement of the others. It’s the type of rest that usually takes place backstage, out of sight, as a means of preserving the boundaries and preciousness of the illusory “show.” But Jones and Tenenbaum sit quietly, wiping their brows, adjusting their costumes, watching Monson. These moments propose rest as a natural event, an integral part of the process of making movement. Passively witnessing the archive is just as important as actively excavating it.
Monson’s archival practice works tirelessly to preserve that which is often rendered invisible or forgotten by more dominant modes of production and representation. Body, Dance, Nature—are they all endangered species? Monson’s work does not try to pin down or define ephemera, but rather functions as an exploratory force that aims to rewrite our histories through the moving body, while also working tirelessly to counteract the ongoing erasure of the elemental world.
Shifting landscapes. Osprey. Fight or flight. Low earthly vibrations and heaven-bound micro-gestures. Monson and her highly skilled collaborators have perfected an archive of presence. And it ends as it began, in darkness, with a haunting helicopter-like sound drowning out all that has come before.
CASSIE PETERSON is a New York-based writer and thinker. She works as a psychotherapist by day, and moonlights as a dramaturge, essayist, and contemporary dance critic.