“We value living over artifact” is a statement in Katie Workum’s program for her newest dance work, Black Lakes. It is declarative and abstract all at once, a paradox. Workum concluded her written response by expressing the familiar dissatisfaction she had experienced while choreographing previous dances: the fruitless zeal for a perfect work that may never come to be. Furthermore, the second it is choreographed, it is recorded—if not literally, then at least physically or mentally through rehearsal guided by persistent repetition and corporeal consistency. A dance may be new to the eyes of an audience, but it has lived many previous lives in the bodies of its performers.
PRESENTED BY DANSPACE PROJECT PERFORMED BY WEENA PAULY, ELEANOR SMITH, AND KATIE WORKUM
April 9 – 11, 2015
While the work had its official premiere in early April at St. Mark’s Church, it will continue to premiere over and over again as a fully improvised dance piece. Fellow dancer-collaborators Weena Pauly and Eleanor Smith joined Workum in an exploration of Authentic Movement, a practice of movement improvisation usually done with closed eyes as one or more bear witness. The piece is an exercise in movement invention as much as animal awareness and, even more so, an exploration into the ways in which interior experience can be made available for public view. But, what more is performance if not witnessing another person undergoing an experience, however droll, ecstatic, or commonplace it may be? There was a precedent here but it had less to do with rehearsing an experience than just living it.
The performers seem to tumble from scene to scene as they move, watch, and react. Their senses are completely subverted—partially because of closed eyes but also because seeing, hearing, and feeling emerge differently than what is innate. This is clearly laid out in the opening moments, in which the three performers engage in solo explorations. Workum as a bounding, fearless creature with wide lunges and mobile joints; Smith with a vibrant winding and fluid curlicue motions that float through the air; and Pauly with a grounded quiet that gracefully skims each surface, but could also offer a supportive base to her partners when needed.
The performers seem to see with touch, hear with sight, touch with sound, and shape the resulting dance by allowing these reactions to lead. A lot of this has to do with my perception of their explorations: knowing, at any given moment, the performers are “finding it,” whatever “it” is. A sensory awareness, as much as a physical one, informs the dance. With closed eyes, their touch is a visual guide, the dancers feeling their way through connections and places of support. Conversely, vision seems to shape reactivity. With the security sight provides, movement becomes a little more energized and perilous. A particularly ebullient moment surfaces as all three performers, defiant and forceful, pound on the upstage wall. Their momentary rebellion is interrupted by Smith’s sudden exit, a deliberate choice in a piece where every movement can be seen as either decisive or uncertain, with scant middle ground.
These moments of tentative exploration are most apparent when the performers are in close proximity to each other, such as when they scoot across the floor in a caterpillar-esque shape—Smith sandwiched between Workum and Pauly, all of them entwined in its interconnected bodice. It takes time for this new shape to gain ground and move freely through the space. There is constant tension between searching and locating; just as one scene materializes, a new one supersedes it. This framework (or lack of framework) seems to be born both of impulse and familiarity, a point Workum also notes in the program, revealing that all three performers have been engaged with a daily Authentic Movement practice for the past two years.
At one point, Workum gets ahold of Smith and drags her across the floor like a heavy sack of potatoes. Pauly and Smith run back and forth across the space much like two small girls in a playground scuffle. Each structure takes time to develop: crawling, pounding on the walls, running a path that continuously traverses the stage. However, each performer possesses a seemingly innate understanding of how to react with textures, shapes, pressure, or support—a certain valuing of qualitative states over a craft in structuring a performance. As a performance shaped by a compositional point of view, there is much to be desired here. But, as a display of expressive states, it is incredibly compelling.
And, although it may oversimplify the level of courage and vulnerability a performance of this nature heeds, I came away from Black Lakes thinking more about the institutional constraints surrounding this work than the fact that it was rebelling against them. Of course, a piece cannot all be structure-less. As much as I would like to believe this dance bubbled up from the earth, unscathed and impetuous, I remember that this performance was a well-conceived event. There is lighting design by Carrie Wood and sound by James Lo. Mindy Nelson made some wonderfully monochromatic costumes. There were emails sent and money raised and contracts signed. There were tickets sold and an agreement of when and where the show would occur. This performance possessed all of these obligatory ingredients without acknowledging that they were essential.
And yet, I arrive at my conundrum for this dance. Institutional standards create necessary support and promotion of art. This is not to say that this approach is faulty. It’s also not to pit an entirely improvised performance as inherently in opposition to institutional standards. But, how “authentic” can it really be? Workum’s dance is in response to certain dissatisfaction but one that is as much political as it is framed personal. For her, the dance is the thing that produces the ideas and images, not the other way around.
It is living. It is not artifact.