A Little Misery Out There
LAURA PETERSON’S FAILURE
JUDSON MEMORIAL CHURCH | JUNE 29 – JULY 1, 2017
In 1923, New York’s Alma Cummings broke a world record by dancing non-stop for 27 hours. Her feat at the Audubon Ballroom inspired a generation of young Americans looking to one-up each other in the art—and sport—of marathon dancing. Spectators began to pack ballrooms and rec centers across the country to watch amateurs and professionals outdo themselves in these “bunion derbies,” “jitterathons,” or “walkathons.” The events were exhausting but also thrilling: they embodied the Roaring Twenties.
As the Depression Era came into full swing, though, these dance marathons took on a darker tone. Amateurs would compete against one another for thousands of hours straight—they would ration their energy, cling to their partners, take 15-minute breaks around the clock, and pray that their knees never touched the floor. At stake was prize money, food, and a sense of purpose—however flimsy. In the 1969 Sydney Pollack film about a dance marathon The Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, a slick emcee Rocky (Gig Young) characterizes the competition: “I may not know a winner when I see one, but I sure as hell can spot a loser.”
In Laura Peterson Choreography’s evening-length work FAILURE, this question of how someone can “lose” dominates. “What is failure,” she asks in the program notes, “and how do we deal with it—as individuals, and as communities?” Peterson first developed the work in 2012 for Temple University. She updated the performance this past year to “probe the national consciousness in the aftermath of 2016 Presidential election.” It is this expanded version that she and fellow dancers Darrin Wright, Jennifer Sydor, and Jo-anne Lee perform at Judson Memorial Church this summer.
In the opening sequence, the dancers, dressed in galactic whites and gold-plated metallics, present themselves as living set pieces; the choreography here is statuesque and slow. Peterson takes an imaginary sword from a belt sheath. Lee flexes her biceps. These are images often associated with power—physical, political, even financial. In including them at the top of FAILURE, Peterson sets up an expectation for the audience: this is a performance about titans.
There’s an undeniable air of artificiality to this opening, though. The dancers are robotic and their expressions vapid. Just as their movements are brittle, hollow, so, perhaps, is the nature of their success. Adding to this sensation, the dancers move under chemically harsh house lights and to cosmic club music here. And they share the stage with six pyre-like wood and canvas sculptures. Built by Peterson’s husband and collaborator Jon Pope, the constructions tower over the dancers. They are humbling reminders of one’s humanity at best; enemies of hubris at worst.
Peterson and her fellow dancers play out this thesis—those who appear successful are apt to become “losers”—over the course of the next hour and a half. In a duet, Lee and Peterson dance out the supporting argument that perceived success intoxicates, then suffocates. They shuffle around the stage and use their arms to gather an invisible currency. They chop through the air with their hands—cutting through competition, maybe. And their bodies shake like they’re looking for a fix. It is unclear, at times, whether the characters they play are deprived or oversaturated. In any case, the duet comes off as didactic, a cautionary tale of how the need to “make it” overtakes one’s body, one’s senses.
When Wright and Sydor step out for a duet, they, too, play out a rationale for why powerplaying is a destructive game. In sync, they row their arms like they’re using lawnmowers, then swing them like they’re throwing softballs, then bring them to their shoulders like they’re putting on backpacks. The imagery is not only familiar here but also emblematic of diurnal life. It might seem that the dancers are playing the “little people” on whose shoulders the reigning build their empires. But as the piece plays out, the dancers appear to compete with one another. Even at this basic level, Peterson seems to argue, there is always a power struggle.
Peterson is deft at demonstrating the “theme” of her work. But at times, her inclination towards the metaphorical confuses the mood of the performance. Peterson’s solo captures this conflict between movement and meaning well. She covers her face with her hair, lopes around on her knees, and sends trembles through her body. It is still tempting to make visual associations here: she punches the air like a boxer defending herself on two fronts, she evades a spotlight like she’s an escaped convict being chased in the woods, and she scuttles like a roach caught under a cat’s paw. But her dancing doesn’t necessarily vest the piece with a tone or mood. Is she being punished? Scorned? Sought after? Or is this apparent escape scene a sign of getting away with something, of prowess—maybe not success, but not quite failure? Even the scuttling soundtrack and lighting don’t lock in a feeling for the movement.
It is a difficult and potentially foolish task to pin down what a choreographer wants to convey through the crook of an elbow or arch of an eyebrow. Especially so for an experimental dance presented at Judson, the church of pure movement. Still, this work seems committed—in name, liner notes, and movement—to examining human error and downfall through pointed imagery. It begs interpretation, extrapolation, and connections. But does it really “probe the national consciousness”?
When the piece moves towards a climax, it also does so in a way that feels forced. All four dancers, back on stage, tread dangerously close to the sculptures. One of them bumps into a pyre; another follows. What first seems like a misstep among the dancers turns into a deliberate activity: forcefully sliding the set pieces across the floor, throwing them into a pile at the back of the stage, and then breaking them. The only sound here is that of wood on wood and canvas being shredded. It’s loud and unforgiving. A mosh pit with the lights on. The dancers give their all here, but they are outmatched by the sheer scale of the sculptures—and, beyond that, the chapel space. Perhaps this display is meant to look diminutive. No matter how hard the dancers work, they will fail in looking spectacular.
Out of this pyre piece, the performance segues into what could be called the dance marathon portion of FAILURE. The four dancers mark the start of this section by running with their hands above their heads and their legs kicking behind them. They look a bit silly, theatrical—and, in this capacity, endearing. To this point, they have been serious, even if one perceives hints of kitsch in their approach to this tone. Here, though, they give their first real wink to the audience: we’re exuding ego and excess, but we’re really just like you.
They proceed to perform a basic step pattern to one of the three sides of the audience. It is almost a “Cotton-Eye Joe” dance, and the dancers complete it with ease. They gallop from this corner of the audience to another—louder, louder, louder they go. For the next twenty minutes (or was it ten? was it thirty?), the dancers repeat this sequence for an attentive audience.
There is nothing remarkable about each round of the dance until the performers begin to deplete their energy levels. It is here that Sydor distinguishes herself as a marathoner. She gains energy with each round of movement, and she seems to challenge her fellow dancers to pick up their pace, to run to the farthest corner, to keep up with her. The entire time she moves, she holds a flap of canvas against her palm because she is bleeding from it.
This section brings into focus the different ways in which a person, a dancer, a character can “lose.” It becomes clear to the audience that these dancers will perform this same set of steps until they can no longer stand. It is simply a matter of time before each dancer taps out and retreats to a platform at the back of the stage. Is the first person to ascend the platform a “loser”? Or is he the dancer who knows himself best? Is the last person to hobble off the stage, the one who bleeds and bows under the weight of exhaustion, a “loser”? These dancers set up this closing movement like a competition. But when all four dancers stand together on the podium, worn out but also victorious, the line between winners and losers seems meaningless. The dancers have all collapsed under the weight of their own shoulders and dragged themselves up off the ground. They were all victims of their own need to project strength.
In Judson mainstay Yvonne Rainer’s 1965 “No Manifesto,” she claimed that choreographers and dancers should say:
NO to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformations and magic and make-believe no to the glamour and transcendence of the star image no to the heroic no to the anti-heroic no to trash imagery no to involvement of performer or spectator no to style no to camp no to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer no to eccentricity no to moving or being moved.
Here, Rainer argues for a form of dance that is visceral, spontaneous, and aggressively opposed to gimmicks. As she wrote in her 2006 autobiography Feelings Are Facts, she has since distanced herself from “that infamous ‘NO manifesto.’” And she’s justified in doing so: the manifesto should not be prescriptive. In the case of Peterson’s FAILURE, though, it seems particularly relevant. The performance says yes to spectacle, dramatic transformations for its “characters,” an air of the heroic, and recognizable imagery. In doing so, it shows that even the strongest collapse. But it is the “showing” that is an issue; Peterson’s audience is encouraged to be moved and even seduced by the glacial movements one moment, the repeated steps another.
In They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Rocky and dancer Robert (Michael Sarrazin) discuss the spectacle of marathon dancing. Rocky notes that everyone present is interested in “the show.” “No, it’s a contest,” responds Robert. “Isn't that what it's supposed to be? Isn’t that what you advertised? A contest?” Rocky replies: “Not for them. For you maybe, but not for them…. They don't give a damn whether you win or James and Ruby or Mario and Jackie or the Man in the Moon and Little Miss Muffet. They just want to see a little misery out there so they can feel a little better maybe. They’re entitled to that.”
Just as Rocky sees the dance competition as a performance, so Peterson’s performance might seem more like a competition. The dancers duke it out until only one stands; they war against muscle tightness, shortness of breath, and dehydration; they make bets against themselves. This competition is futile, though—no prizes, no acclaim, only a stunned audience that cringes when you trip too close to a floor light. An audience that, perhaps, feels a little lighter once the house lights rise. An audience that heaves a collective sigh, for they have no blood spatters on their blouses, no cuts on their fingers, no bruised knees to tend to tonight. It is exhausting to watch someone fail, isn’t it?
ERICA GETTO is is a writer based in Brooklyn.