Keen [no. 2]
Abrons Arts Center
June 1–11, 2017
The day after the 2016 presidential election, Ivy Baldwin left New York City for Peterborough, New Hampshire. The choreographer and dancer was scheduled to start her artist residency at the MacDowell Colony.
She was alone without the internet or a phone. And she tried to move. But, as she explained in a recent interview near her home in Brooklyn, “I would just cry. And I just wanted to scream. And neither of those things is particularly interesting to me, on a creative level. It was just what was coming out of me.”
Baldwin is an artist who embraces the visceral, although her dances are often rooted in the conceptual. In her 2007 piece It’s Only Me, she examines the relationship between human and animal instincts. She dresses her dancers in Revolutionary-era coattails, only to have them crawl and grunt. In her 2012 Bear Crown, developed during a residency in Bacau, Romania, she and her dancers consider cultural, spiritual, and personal transformations. The work is ethereal at some times; vicious at others. The dancers alternately push one another, chant together, and glide through glacial choreography. Her 2014 dance, Oxbow, spins space and time as vessels for human experience. For this work, Baldwin drew on oxbow lakes—crescent-shaped bodies of water that lay alongside a winding river.
It was dancer Lawrence Cassella who brought to life these lofty subjects for ten years. When he passed away in 2015 following a brief illness, Baldwin, a long-time collaborator, shifted her focus from working with Cassella to making works about his absence.
Baldwin has premiered two evening-length works since his death. Both are meditations on grief and loss. In Keen (Part 1), Baldwin and frequent collaborators Anna Carapetyan, Eleanor Smith, and Katie Workum paid tribute to Cassella at The Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. For years, Baldwin had been in talks with The Glass House to develop a site-specific work. And the location ends up seeming integral to Keen (Part 1). Baldwin and her company performed the piece in May 2016—only once, and for an intimate audience. These onlookers peered over sloping lawns and through glass to watch Cassella’s close friends and collaborators perform a meditation on the vulnerability of personal grieving.
Baldwin went into her post-election residency intending to develop the second installment of this study as a piece for the group of three collaborators. The work that emerged—Keen [No. 2]—features Baldwin alongside ten performers, all women. The evening-length dance premiered at Abrons Arts Center this June as part of the Joyce Theater’s Joyce Unleashed initiative. It makes no apologies for the space that it occupies, the sound that it projects, or the emotional depths that it scales.
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For Keen (Part 1), Baldwin’s challenge was to create a work against the backdrop of The Glass House, an iconic site with a distinct look and feel. For [No. 2], Baldwin had to create a set. Alongside artists Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B. Nguyen, she designed a wall of white paper that is both majestic and ominous. The paper sheaths look like a bleached willow tree—both at peace and stripped of life.
The dance begins with a gentle, contemplative solo. This opening bears some resemblance to a cleansing ritual. Wearing an orange leotard, Katie Workum flutters her arms wide, then points them in at her heart. She wipes the back of her hand on the floor, examines her palms, knuckles, and wrists. This sequence also prepares the audience for more roiling, tumultuous movements. Within minutes, the dancer’s hands morph into shackled limbs, then claws, then spider legs.
Baldwin’s fascination with extremities persists over the course of the performance, even though the dance features a larger ensemble than usual. In the first ensemble “event,” as Baldwin calls it, the dancers circle the stage like a pack of hyenas. They kick, crawl, and repeat, rolling their tongues in what appears as shared pain.
Baldwin cultivates a real sense of trauma here. The women on stage are creaturely, acting as if they’re trying to slough off something rotten. They voice their pain in unison, shouting as if a single blaring siren. It is painful to watch them; it is difficult to look away.
Looking back on Keen (Part 1) a year after it debuted, Baldwin describes it as a reactionary work. She notes that she had little critical distance following Cassella’s death, but a throng of pent-up emotions. Keen [No. 2] taps into the primal aspects of mourning, but it also offers moments that are more calculated. The piece is at once a projection of grief and a study of it.
Baldwin’s solo is emblematic of this dynamic. In it, she draws on physicality that is, one moment, calculated; the next, convulsive. The sequence begins with the choreographer splayed on the floor at the center of the stage, immobilized. Periodically, her limbs burst into action—almost like a body that spasms even after it has taken its final breath.
When she taps her hand on the floor and snaps upright, one could imagine Baldwin giving herself a pep talk: “Alright, time to get up.” She conveys a sense of critical distance here. Still, when she moves among the still bodies of her collaborators, her face is forlorn, lost; it is clear that her grief still pervades. So, too, do her emotional defenses: her hands are firm—clamped like pincers. As she hulks her way to the back of the stage, Baldwin drives home this haunting balance between control and the loss of it.
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Over the past two years, Baldwin has turned to mourning rituals as a way to sort through—if not come to terms with—her grief. Of particular interest to her is the Irish ritual of keening—a tradition in which women gather and wail at a loved one’s funeral. So, too, is the color white, which is associated with mourning in East Asia. The color is emblematic of a loved one’s purity. Baldwin incorporates keening into her choreography. And she incorporates the color white into the set design and the sheaths of paper that the dancers run up the aisles of the theater and slam against the stage at the evening’s climax.
Other visual and performance artists have played with the use of this color to connote mourning and loss—with or without the purity component. In 1998, British artist Tracey Emin debuted her controversial work My Bed. The work consists of Emin’s unmade bed and, scattered around it, household objects and detritus, including cigarette butts, slippers, and a razor. The sheets are white; so, too, are elements of the objects around her. While not explicitly about death, the piece does suggest a sense of loss—Emin owned the bed during a suicidal depression, and stayed in it for three days without consuming anything but alcohol.
Visual artists like Eva Hesse have also invoked the color white to convey a sense of emotional disarray, even if their works appear austere. Hesse’s 1966 installation Metronomic Irregularity II taps into the artist’s sense of loss following the breakdown of a marriage and the loss of her father. “Almost one year’s work,” she wrote of the piece in her diary. “There is lots. It is good! Very good. A most strange year. Lonely, strange—but a lot of growth and inward search.” The work features spools of white cotton-colored wire draped across painted wooden panels.
Even beyond arts spaces, this color has some association with death. White is the starched lab coat that the doctor wears for the patient’s last breath. White is the dove that lines a condolence card. White are the tissues found gripped in palms and shoved in pockets at the funeral.
Baldwin is clearly well-versed in mourning rituals and imagery. But ultimately, she achieves a different feat through Keen [No. 2]: though her choreography draws on these traditions, she has, ultimately, developed her own mourning ritual.
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For Baldwin, there are no stages of grief, and mourning follows no timeline. Still, her performance works towards a climactic “event.” At the top of this extended sequence, the eleven dancers take laps around the stage. Here, though, they do not crawl so much as fly: they all don billowing orange wraps over their leotards. There is ornithological imagery throughout Keen [No. 2], but it is most overt here. The women slip across the stage with their arms spread like wings, and they lean to the left and right on their toes like a flock of graceful doves.
Baldwin could have ended the piece here—with a triumphant cast of women, upright and smiling. Instead, she takes the audience for one last emotional turn.
What starts with a subtle rustling noise behind the audience seats transforms into a cacophonous cry of “HA!” among the dancers. They rush the stage, gripping crinkled white paper in each hand. They seem ready for a battle of sorts: strong, fearless, and relieved to have found a form of catharsis.
The dancers shift between gliding with the sheaths—which take on the appearance of floating clouds—and slamming them against the floor and walls. In this latter interaction, the women invoke the image of a person shaking dirt off of a rug.
As in the first “event,” movement is paired with a guttural element. They scream. They howl. They thrash. They burrow. They do not shy away from anger, horror, pain, or even pleasure. This is a moment Baldwin spent months building up to: “I’d had this vague idea of this one moment in the piece where the whole stage was filled with humans,” she recalled. “And I didn’t know if it would be men and women or only women—I just wanted this rush of humanity. And maybe it did represent Lawrence in some way.”
Keen [No. 2] is intended as an homage to a friend and collaborator. But it is Baldwin’s response to a particular social and political moment, too. The piece features a group of women who vary in age and appearance; they are unapologetic about how they move their bodies or use their voices. When they scream, they project both rage and release. And unlike Baldwin at the MacDowell residency, these women do not move alone.
As the stage becomes increasingly littered with blank paper, it becomes clear that Baldwin and her dancers have emerged from this piece about grief and disappointment fully present. Keen [No. 2] is a dance full of life.
ERICA GETTO is is a writer based in Brooklyn.