MoMA PS1 | October 2 – December 1, 2014
With Eleanor Bauer, Andrew Champlin, Sherwood Chen, Lindsay Clark, Alex Escalante, Ben Evans, Moriah Evans, Bryana Fritz, Michael Helland, K.J. Holmes, Iréne Hultman, Columbine Macher, Oisin Monaghan, Katy Pyle, Will Rawls, and Takahiro Yamamoto.
Visitor’s choice: I watch three performers as they interpret excerpts from Xavier Le Roy’s solo works (1994 – 2010). Or maybe I become the audience for a performer who is delivering a Retrospective. I might enter the second room, and be greeted by two other performers in a more informal (no dancing) environment. The last option is to enter a third room—a surprise that I will not spoil here. Whatever my chosen path, I am aware, immediately upon entering, that my presence affects the space.
One visit, it turned out, was not enough. Aside from the “fear of missing out” feelings that the work’s unrepeatable spiral inspired, there was another reason I kept coming back (and kept having trouble leaving). I wanted to hang out with the dancers. I wanted to hear their stories. I wanted them to address me. I wanted to see them performing their stories in an embodied way, because they are dancers. When do we ever get to know the stories of dancers? To know how they have arrived at the moment in which we encounter them?
Each performer worked individually with Le Roy to develop his or her Retrospective: a lecture-performance where personal and professional milestones correspond to the dates of Le Roy’s solos. Performers interwove excerpts of Le Roy’s dances with fragments of movement material that arise out of their experience not just as choreographers and dancers, but also child actors, students of Javanese court dance, models, a capella singers, and drill team members. While it was mandatory to include Le Roy’s material, performers could determine for themselves how to do so.
At first, the frame of linking their stories to Le Roy’s felt forced, too egotistical perhaps. And yet, the more time I spent in the gallery, the more I appreciated this element of formal unity. Listening to several Retrospectives, I noticed that the dates and the works themselves served as vectors that brought together otherwise unconnected narratives and movement material. The accumulation of Retrospectives created a constellation of associations and experiences around his works. Each Retrospective foregrounds the performer, with Le Roy’s work serving as point of departure, illustration, and transition.
Alex Escalante, describing his teenage years in LA, told his audience about a performance that changed his life: when his dance teacher brought him to see Tatsumi Hijikata, the founder of Butoh, when Hijikata was 87 years old. Escalante then performed an interpretation of Xavier Le Roy performing an interpretation of Hijikata’s same dance: an excerpt from Le Roy’s 2009 piece, Product of Other Circumstances. Melding the two performances together created something entirely specific to his witnessing and performing body.
Sherwood Chen began his Retrospective with a sassy interpretation of an excerpt from Le Roy’s Giszelle from 2001, later describing being at a gathering of dancers at Anna Halprin’s Tamalpa Institute in Marin when 9/11 hit. During the telling of this story, I looked away to see Will Rawls and Andrew Champlin performing excerpts from Giszelle across the room from each other, one anticipating the other by a single beat. If this had been a choreographed moment, there would be no trace of the powerful synchrony that I felt coursing through the room.
I include the performers’ names here because they are the ones who make the Retrospective in New York different from Barcelona, Rio de Janeiro, Hamburg, Singapore, and Paris. The cast brings together a range of primarily New York-based performers that you would not often find working together. The range in age, race, nationality, and dance training is notable. In a sense, Le Roy is also producing a Retrospective of the New York postmodern or “downtown” dance world, not complete in any sense, but still valuable in its accumulation of histories, of embodied archives. These archives are always present in the performers, but not often accessible to those who come to see them. Some through lines seemed to emerge: a lot of ballet-induced trauma. Lots of leaving dance and returning. Early experiences with acting and musical theater. Break-ups. Concerns about wages. The influence of downward economic trends. Issues of ownership and copyright.
This last set of concerns is engaged structurally in the piece, as performers sometimes included excerpts from dance material that technically belong to other choreographers. The choreographers were always named, but as far as I know, permissions were not acquired. In Product of Circumstances, Le Roy performs material from Yvonne Rainer’s 1970 work Continuous Project—Altered Daily. In 1996, as part of the collective Quatuor Albrecht Knust, he staged a “re-creation”1 of Rainer’s seminal work. Le Roy’s interest in re-creation of movement material as a mode of research is turned towards his own work in Retrospective. His performers are researching and reshaping his works in the main gallery and also in the second room, where they divide their time between navigating Le Roy’s archives (I often saw a performer practicing their moves in front of a video), typing notes into a performer’s log, and talking to visitors.
The shifting relationships between performer and visitor provide much of the energizing force of Retrospective. I observed a range of responses, including a young visitor who debriefed with her friend after they were greeted. Her voice had a tone of mild disapproval, but she was smiling as she said: “It’s very personal!” Although I eventually came to be seen as a regular, I was not immune to the unsettling experience of being a visitor. My pulse increased when Michael Helland looked me in the eye and said, “I was learning to do these kinds of exercises.” But he wasn’t really saying it to me. He was saying it to me-as-visitor.
I was encouraged to consider, from speaking with Ben Evans, a performer who has participated in a few Retrospectives and who is also Le Roy’s assistant, that the audience response is specific to region. In Hamburg, he said, people were largely polite and attentive, in Rio there was hugging and clapping, and in New York, people often just walked away. Of course, there were variations. At PS1, while I often sensed discomfort or anxiety as visitors got their bearings, I also glimpsed a curiosity, sometimes extending into an appearance of trust or openness. I witnessed a visitor asking Lindsay Clark if something was going to happen. When Clark asked her what she meant by something happening, she was given a dirty look and the woman stalked away. I saw this woman also walk away from another performer who addressed her in the main gallery. Clark spoke to me about the emotional labor exacted in exchanges like this, but when I asked her if she had experienced any moments of connection with visitors, she told me that during one of her Retrospectives a visitor had cried. Afterwards, she thanked Clark for telling her own story—a story that she had never heard articulated.
Each performer seemed to come up with his or her own strategies for negotiating agency with visitors. As unsettling as it may be for a visitor to be approached, the performers themselves are often placed in highly vulnerable positions. Some performers brought their audiences into a corner, promoting a kind of self-selecting commitment. Others asked for a circle or for their audience to sit down. Sometimes there would be a large group, and other times two people. Multiple performers told me that it was hard not to take it personally when someone walked away. Some performers explicitly addressed the power dynamics at work; at one point I was told, “In a sense, you’re my boss.” And of course, there are social contracts at work putting pressure on the visitor, who may want to roam around the space but feels obligated to fulfill the function of attentive listener.
The position of the performer in Retrospective is multiple and demanding. Before entering the show, I had wandered into the Francesco Vezzoli exhibit downstairs: a darkened room where glass-encased Roman busts were lit up to highlight their newly-restored color. Two tour guides were leading around a group, interpreting the work. Later, in Retrospective, I noticed a large group had accumulated, and realized it was the tour. I watched the group being addressed by the tour guides and also by the performers, saw them being pulled in multiple directions, and realized anew the beautifully disruptive potential of Xavier Le Roy’s concept. The performers functioned as guides to his work, and yet were the work themselves; the tour, not of something finished, something past, but something forming around them, shaping to them and through them.
- For more on the relationship of performer to frame, see Xavier Le Roy In Conversation with Will Rawls in Critical Correspondence, November, 2014, movementresearch.org
- Quoted from score of Product of Circumstances (1999).
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.