A Structured Life
Aynsley Vandenbroucke’s AND
Abrons Arts Center | March 30-April 2, 2017
Aynsley Vandenbroucke’s AND lives in the wide little Underground Theater of Abrons Arts Center with a particular intimacy conjured by a piece about structures and spaces. The stage’s three shallowly angled walls are treated as screens. Two chairs and tables, touting their own Ikea-ness, are in the center of the space with a microphone. The left wall plays a video of Vandenbroucke dancing in the thralls of funky abandonment to house music, alone in a studio, whipping loose hair, bouncing, swatting her arms, popping in and out of our view as if a chair itself had taken the footage. Eventually she collapses on the ground, and the middle wall comes to life. “Some words,” it reads in white letters on a black background. Structure. Imagination. Contradiction. Uncertainty. Honesty. Each word is given a breath of time. Vandenbroucke steals into the space and takes a seat at the table. Years. Wondering. Thinking. Struggling. Community. Sex. They continue and cycle through several times throughout the piece.
From a script, Vandenbroucke reads a list of objects, experiences, and people in her life, grouped and numbered:
“Number of times I’ve questioned what teaching can be: countless.”
“Number of people I’ve been married to: one.”
“Number of apartments we lived in together: three.”
“Number of vows I wrote for our marriage ceremony that I’m still able to fulfill even after divorce: seven.”
“Number of students since I’ve been [teaching]: 297.”
“Number of cats I grew up with: one.”
They continue on, sometimes funny, sometimes sad: numbers that define childhood, career, relationships, sex, marriage, miscarriage, death, friendships, homes. She falls into a quiet rhythm, seemingly singing a question to herself and its answer. Occasionally she looks up with a characteristically modest curiosity. Without letting us in too deeply, she lets it be known that a life has taken place, with many memories that include a painful divorce, and she is beginning to pick up the pieces. Number of times she has slept with her ex-partner since filing divorce papers. Number of OkCupid profiles she has looked at, versus number of people she met in person.
Like reading a last will and testament, or in a moment of trauma finding oneself fixated on the mundane, there is a compulsivity and a fundamental arbitrariness to Vandenbroucke’s list. How do the numbers all add up, and what answer is achieved from their sum? Do they take on a mass that one can hold onto, call one’s own, and carry forward? The title of the work immediately comes to me, with a new melancholy: after a lifetime of numbers, yes, AND?
The word-wall now says In praise of uncertainty, and another film alights the right wall: footage of a bridge surrounded by brilliantly red and rustling trees in fall. Vandenbroucke hikes in and out of our sight, carrying a table on her back—the same one in the space now.
In truth, much of AND is only this: Vandenbroucke and a script, sitting in a room of utilitarian furniture with a single, changing word blinking on a wall over her shoulder, piecing together a story for us through various lists and recounted memories, intermittently interrupted by dance films. She describes her wedding in a Zen monastery, the books piled on the floor of her apartment, the particular approach she takes to the college classes she teaches, quotations she likes. Sometimes she wanders around and finds a new seat. When dance is a part of AND, it is what takes place on the wall—separated from us by degrees and dimension, as if to shield from direct contact.
Described as a work that employs various literary devices, AND is certainly part research paper, and it takes its inspiration from many sources: from structure and restraints to ecstasy and abandon. Vandenbroucke refers to “potential” literature, a movement in which writers place seemingly impossible obstacles on their work, such as Georges Perec’s 1969 book The Void, which entirely omits the letter “E.” It’s fitting for a dance piece in which a frame is built for live dance but never filled in, with Vandenbroucke steadfastly working in words and objects. Live movement might have been too presumptuous or distilled, and maybe it belongs further along in the process of rebuilding. But I also did want this vulnerability translated into motion. Layers of references are difficult to be on the receiving end of, with their sheer numbers and eruditeness leaving more of an impression than their meaning.
In another film, the scene is a wide, shallow and rushing river; it’s bitter cold outside, and Vandenbroucke teeters along the river’s rocky banks, still carrying the Ikea table on her back. It’s a heartbreaking landscape with the crackling wind, like something from Into the Wild.
Vandenbroucke begins to tell us a story about her introduction to restraints in sex, but at the same time finds a bulging and clanging sack offstage. She lugs it to the center and empties it, a tremendous clamor as tools and kitchen supplies crash to the floor. Banging a ladle against a frying pan, it’s impossible to hear about the sexual encounter: she disrupts a story made public with an aggressive privacy. Both are abandoned when a new projected dance film comes on, in which the film-Vandenbroucke wiggles, shimmies, and bounces, shifts her chest and smoothly pivots to house music, all with her hands tied behind her back. Beyond its literary and sexual connotations, it’s also a classic choreographic tool: there is new freedom in motion with a single constraint.
In a new chapter of the piece, Spalding Gray’s Terrors of Pleasure (1987) projects behind Vandenbroucke. Gray describes his misadventures purchasing a cabin in the Catskills with his girlfriend. In his pauses, Vandenbroucke tells her own story of finding the site that would become the Catskills’ Mount Tremper Arts, which she began planning in 2003, and then founded in 2008 with her boyfriend-then-husband Matthew Pokoik. Vandenbroucke and Gray’s experiences are eerily identical—from the same locations and thrills, to the same misfortunes and idiosyncratic labor—such that she starts to pick away at the foundation of authenticity. It’s confusing, and a relief when she departs from his monologue and picks up the pace on her own.
Photos of Mount Tremper Arts are projected as she describes building a physical structure: the particular knowledges one needs, from barnraising to septic systems, and the act of making public a space with so many private memories imbued in every inch. Form is not a fixture but an activity, she told us in an early lecture. Structure is outward work and inner, more subtle work. There is a thrill to building a home for the arts, like creating a life, side by side with a loved one. What makes a space feel right? Vandenbroucke asks. What about a studio’s structure impels one to dance? She pulls out a thick pile of notecards of special places in the house and their corresponding memories. One memory is of the garden, where her dog Tasha died on an exquisite day. Someone in the audience quietly weeps. Storytelling can be so simple and yet so strangely, quietly captivating.
Film-Vandenbroucke in the dead of a seriously snowy winter, still bearing the table on her back like an ironic cross of domesticity, hunches under its weight and plows on up a wooded hill. She begins on the right wall, hikes out of our view behind the word-wall, and reappears on the left.
Live-Vandenbroucke reads through the cards with increasing fervor, scattering them onto the floor as she does so. The lights lower to form late-day shadows around her and she pours water from a pitcher into a bowl and washes her arms and face urgently. She picks up yet another table and sets it on its side, and it becomes a small screen for a new film. It shows a final frontier: a waterfront view of the New York City skyline in spring. A tiny Vandenbroucke carries the table out along a jetty. Will she throw it into the water? Can she dare to part with it, or does it have to come with her into this new phase of life?
AND, a piece that treads lightly, made me aware of how rare it is to see dance that remains autobiographical and asks the viewer to make the effort of relation. Performance is often elevated to be sweeping in its grasp and affirmations, the choreographer’s identity more discrete. Vandenbroucke, by contrast, remained tethered to every line of this first-person narrative. She portrays personhood like a Calder mobile: dozens of identities and memories complete unto themselves, shifting and hinged at a single point. Teacher, devoted practitioner of ecstatic dance, reader, wife and ex-wife, property owner, house builder, city and country dweller, and wide-eyed performer, re-balancing these labels as someone newly going at life alone. AND is also about what it means to structure identities and be good at them: the specific skills and communities and quiet pleasures derived from any one.
In the final film of AND, the camera is planted in the midst of a garden of note cards clipped to photo stands, which flicker and wave, looming large as sails from this perspective. Each has a block print word that we have come to hear in quotations, memories, flaring on the wall—make, home, community, past. Though the cards dance and appear multitudinous, it’s really a harmless landscape: just another form that a word can take on. Printed and propped up like a photo, quantified, lined up in competition with others, a word has a strange, hollow relationship with the idea to which it refers.
SARIEL FRANKFURTER is a New York-based writer and dancer. She graduated from Columbia University with a BA in Dance and English.