The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2016

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MAY 2016 Issue

A World Without a Center

In 1974, Sol LeWitt debuted his sculpture series Variations of Incomplete Open Cubes. The conceit was simple: how many different ways could the artist not finish a cube? But the work was exhaustive: in total, LeWitt produced 122 variations of cubes—each with one to nine sides, never ten—out of wood and white paint. A penciled grid separated each figure in the series from the next.

Jessica Gaynor’s The Location of Figures. Credit: Sam Polcer.

Danspace Project
Jessica Gaynor Dance
April 7 – 9, 2016
New York

More than forty years later, Jessica Gaynor Dance has added another element to LeWitt’s series: choreography. In her premiere of The Location of Figures at Danspace Project, Gaynor reimagines LeWitt’s Incomplete Open Cube series as a piece of modern dance. Her precise movement vocabulary lends itself well to LeWitt’s serial, geometric work. But Gaynor’s methodical hand also risks monotony. Thus marks the challenges inherent in adapting visual art into art that exists in space and time.

Gaynor’s style is stacked with sharp angles, athletic sprints, and tight stage work. Her dancers—seven women and one man—begin The Location of Figures on the wings of the thrust stage, standing tall amidst the whitewashed columns of St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery. (The columns are reminiscent of the lines that create LeWitt’s painted cubes.) They scatter, stalk the performance space, and then converge on a patch of square light that beams down from the balcony. In this confined setting, they curve their bodies and roll over each other in a mass of limbs. They pulse, breath heavily, and then disperse.

In this sequence and others, Gaynor builds up and breaks down groups of dancers. Lighting designer Andrew Dickerson reinforces these efforts: he litters the stage floor with square spotlights, and as he changes the size and arrangement of these illuminated patches, he creates a flexible grid for the performance. Gaynor uses this setting to consider how her dancers’ relationships develop when different degrees of physical space separate them. In this capacity, she nods to LeWitt’s fascination with the relationships among the figures that make up Incomplete Open Cubes.

Eight confined bodies, she suggests, create a single, monstrous creature: whenever the dancers approach one another, their bodies become entangled. But a single body in a confined space can be a different sort of creature, one that writhes and withers without human contact. Gaynor repeatedly splits up pairs of dancers between two different squares of light. They run, kick, and keel to the floor, press up their backs, and slap their hands on the wood below them. Their exasperation is evident when they thrash their arms, throw themselves backwards, and give guttural gasps. In these phrases, Gaynor highlights the fervor and anxiety of isolation; these single figures seem to be missing something—or someone.

How many figures does it take to make a sturdy structure? To grapple with this question, Gaynor most explicitly invokes LeWitt’s work: her company cycles through a series of his open cubes. In one variation, four dancers create an open cube with two missing sides. One dancer lies prostrate. Another dancer hinges forward. A third is locked in a headstand. A fourth sits upright, her legs stretched out towards the first dancer, her arms propping up the legs of the third. These performers display power and control in each acrobatic pose, and it is thrilling to watch them scale each other’s frames. Whenever Gaynor’s dancers snap into these formations—these balancing acts, really—they are secure, stable, and strong. The structures that they build, however, are similar, and the piece could become tedious for some viewers.

Jessica Gaynor’s The Location of Figures. Credit: Sam Polcer.

Even Gaynor seems to question whether these shifting structures can sustain her audience’s attention. As she states in the program notes, she seeks to “reveal human relationships based simply on lines in space.” And yet she deviates from this interest when she creates narrative relationships among Gabriel Speiller, Sarah Eichler, and Emily Diers. After they couple off, Eichler walks towards one edge of the stage. Speiller crawls after her, grasping at her ankles before she breaks the physical connection between them. Later, Speiller wraps his arms around Eichler as they watch other pairs of performers tussle and embrace. And when Speiller gravitates towards Diers, Eichler lightly taps him on the shoulder, and he retreats with her. They leave behind Diers, who paces in the evening’s smallest box of light. This possessive progression allows Gaynor to explore whether complex relationships can “simply” be confined within lines and boxes. It also defies the parameters of her performance: these dancers cross lines in order to reach or stray from one another.

In her 1978 essay “LeWitt in Progress,” Rosalind Krauss assessed LeWitt’s Variations of Incomplete Open Cubes. “To get inside the systems of this work,” she stated, “is precisely to enter a world without a center, a world of substitutions and transpositions.” Even though the work is stationary, these “substitutions and transpositions” are evident in the minute differences among cubes—and implied in the spaces that separate the structures.

Gaynor also creates a “world of substitutions and transpositions” in The Location of Figures. Her dancers swiftly replace one another on stage, mimic each other’s moves, and overtake each other’s space, all against the dissonant, tense piano of composer Quentin Tolimieri. But unlike LeWitt’s work, audiences cannot revisit or compare her shifting structures. It makes sense, then, that Gaynor would feel compelled to work a narrative into her piece: emotional relationships are easier to follow than abstract ones.

In his 1969 work “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” LeWitt stressed that an “artist’s will is secondary to the process he initiates from idea to completion.” Here, he honors artists who pursue patterns—however tedious, however bold, however obsessive—to their natural conclusions. In The Location of Figures, Jessica Gaynor sets out to explore how spatial shifts can spur social ones. So long as she does not falter in her focus, she can guide her study to its completion.


Erica Getto

ERICA GETTO is is a writer based in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2016

All Issues