Fractured Dialogues: Juliana May’s Folk Incest
ABRONS ART CENTER | OCTOBER 9 – OCTOBER 20
Somewhere above Tallahassee, the descending Boeing 747 dropped from its place in the sky, free-falling for about two seconds as it hit turbulence. Inside the cabin, bodies hung upwards, suspended against the seatbelts cutting into their laps. People screamed; visions of violent death flashed across hundreds of minds at once, as people imagined the crunch and squeal of metal—the fuselage smacking against the earth, mangling and shredding all of us inside.
Only two seconds. Then the plane found a cushion of air and stabilized. Then laughter; a release from the shock of adrenaline. Part of that shock came from being suddenly thrust into your own body; you felt your ribs constrict, your intestines rise, your thighs clench. You remembered that sometimes all you are is a body, easily destructible. Seated behind me, a woman held her baby who had been crying only moments before. Now the baby was silent and the mother was laughing, and I wondered if she had imagined for those brief two seconds her child flying out of her grasp and crashing hideously around the cabin, and did that thought remain as she laughed?
Juliana May’s performances negotiate the complexities of trauma. Within the choreographies themselves, however, May often decentralizes trauma and catharsis instead of overtly addressing them; aggression simmers underneath the dance, occasionally surfacing before giving way to the work’s other occupations. May’s choreography, which earned her a Guggenheim fellowship in 2016, includes spoken text derived from a version of the Meisner acting technique. Her performers repeat scripted lines over and over, both in rehearsal and on stage, until the meaning of the words becomes distorted and what remains is a baser emotional charge. Language evokes textures—rhythmic, sonic—which can be composed and arranged free of meaning, or at least freer of meaning than is typical. Particular words stand out as contextual lifesavers in her otherwise disorienting dialogues.
May works with performers for years, recording hours of conversations, which she crafts into scripts—the months of talking akin to group therapy. I went through this process with May for her work Adult Documentary from 2016, along with four other performers. Our sometimes mundane, sometimes confessional outpourings became a script with significant details omitted and vital clues bleeped out. What remained was an obfuscation of our real selves.
Earlier this year I visited May during her residency in Tallahassee at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (MANCC), during the development of her latest piece Folk Incest, which debuts at the Abrons Art Center this month. (I was invited to take part in MANCC’s resident writer program.) The rehearsal space in Tallahassee had a black floor, black curtains, black ceiling, black fold-out chairs scattered around the edges of the room; no clock and no windows. A room for people to work in isolation with their bodies, to work through their bodies, to work shit out with their bodies.
Most of the text in Folk Incest—of which there is a lot, both spoken and sung—is written by May herself. This offers her greater control over authorship than her prior works, where she would derive the text from the performers. (Folk Incest is performed by five women—the bodies in the space. Dancers are sometimes referred to this way, as the bodies in the space. Referring to someone as simply “the body,” the reduction of their personhood, an erasure—this interests May.)
In Folk Incest, May’s writing eludes to particular traumas while still remaining opaque—Don’t fuck me up the head and row / Your upstream boat won’t get me down / I need to walk inside your crown / Your clown is perched upon my sill / It comes until you fuck me still. May thrives in this distortion, where the tidiness of expression devolves. She wants to show that people are messier than how they present themselves through language, and that the body, the site of dormant traumas, is central to that messier expression.
For May, the obfuscation is empowering, but how then does one write about the work without clarifying the intended obscurity? How do we speak about another person’s trauma without re-enacting it—or worse: without stealing it from them, denying them their storytelling agency? May preferred not to talk about it directly, and yet I was there to write.
One morning before rehearsal, May and I discussed this interplay of movement and language in a Tallahassee coffee shop:
Rennie McDougall (Rail): Because of our relationship, there is a question coming up of who is in control of what’s coming out when I’m writing. Obviously I have my own perspective, and that’s coming out, but we’ve worked together before and I know something about your process, so that’s also coming out. So there are two voices competing, and that’s interesting—dealing with who is actually speaking here. Whose ideas are these? Am I stealing your ideas to write my piece, or are you using me as conduit for your ideas?
Juliana May: But that is also what’s at play inside of the work—which I’m sure you were about to say, right? Because so much of it is about documenting the group’s experience as a collective, but also individually about people’s lives.
I feel like my work has been so much about disruption, transgression, and trauma, and now there’s something about harmony and friendship. I think those earlier ideas about something volatile or hostile are letting in something that’s really harmonious actually, and I don’t understand that. I don’t have to understand it; they can just exist together. But it is perplexing when thinking about how to construct or assemble the work.
Rail: Do you feel some kind of resistance to harmony?
May: Joy, life, harmony, togetherness. These are all things to really avoid [Laughs].
At the beginning of this process, I was thinking a lot about what a feminist proposal means in this piece. Can you be transgressive and volatile and hostile and a bitch, and also embrace harmony and togetherness? And of course you can; that’s the point of feminism. It’s about agency and control and choice. But can it also include destruction?
I don’t want to perpetuate destruction in the world, but I am interested in taking destruction apart and looking at it inside of the context of a woman-ness; can you have both? And is it too destructive to just be a question? It’s not going to resolve itself. We’re not going to solve misogyny or white supremacy or all of these lofty ideas that are at the head of this work. Is it enough to ask questions?
Also, I want to understand how abstraction is toying with meaning making. Can abstraction also be about evolving meaning or is it always just about obfuscation? Not having the right answer so we abstract it; not knowing what the answer is so we abstract it; being ambivalent about the answer so just make it less clear.
Rail: When you talk about destruction versus harmony, what I see happening in this work so far is that the things of harmony have within them a kind of volatile impulse, and the things of volatility have a care. There’s this impulse of going into the place to find the other thing inside of it, to not have to be one or the other. And maybe this is the same thing with abstraction and definition and clarity.
May: Absolutely. We know how to concisely construct a beautiful abstract composition.
Rail: And just to celebrate it for that fact.
May: And to just celebrate the form. That’s the other thing. That is what so many post-postmodern dance makers are like: I’m all about the form. It’s all about the form and I don’t see any of the other stuff. Well isn’t that the greatest privilege of them all? Not to see. It’s the definition of white neutrality. You’re just seeing nothing. Or you can see everything else over the whiteness, because that’s a given.
So what is the whiteness in this work if it’s not just skin color? It’s a sense of: what are the tools? What are the white compositional tools—I don’t know if I want to call them white compositional tools, but the postmodern tools? Repetition. Repetition is huge. Is the repetition there to actually figure something out, or is it pathological? Are you just perpetuating something over and over again? Is that healthy?
May has this dream where she’s taken in the woods: she throws open the door of a moving car and jumps out, rolling across the asphalt and coming to a stop in the dirt by the side of the road, running into the woods to emerge in a clearing where a woodsman is waiting; this woodsman is like a toddler-sized man, and what at first appears to be a pointed gnome’s hat turns out to be his fleshy cone-like head. Both man and child, he is an incestuous creation. In May’s dream, the woodsman rapes her, and she ends up carrying his child. This fiction is part of the play inside of Folk Incest.
The morning before Juliana and I sat down to talk, Fox & Friends was playing in the hotel’s dining room with the news that hundreds of Palestinians had been shot down and killed at the Palestinian-Israeli border for protesting the move of the American Embassy to Jerusalem. The banner headline under the Fox & Friends anchors read “Liberals blame violence on Israel, U.S.”
May sometimes jokingly refers to herself as a JAP (Jewish American Princess), although she considers herself an anti-Zionist. She is intrigued by the way in which remembrance for the Holocaust sometimes distorts into a fetishistic repetition of the trauma committed against the Jewish people, against the Jewish body. This body, a Holocaust body—decimated, stripped, dehumanized—lingers on the periphery of Folk Incest.
Once during a dance festival in which May presented her work, a European festival presenter told May that despite the fact that they admired her work, they would never commission it. May’s work was “too frivolous.” Her flippancy and humor cheapened the seriousness of contemporary performance, or at least this presenter thought so. May has a preoccupation with erasure—“Is this dead enough? Cool enough? Industrial enough? Serious enough? Postmodern enough?”—but what she really wants to make is a musical, something very American. Is there something oppressive about having to express one’s trauma only in serious terms? Why not frivolity?
Rail: Okay, here’s another problem: the thing about there being trauma as a kind of material…
Rail: …a fodder in this piece; the problem of how do I engage with that without actually talking directly to it?
May: What is “talking directly to it”? Something that happened?
Rail: We’ve spoken about the fact of a past trauma somehow playing a role in this piece, and it is there in the piece, but it’s not like “this piece is about this!” You don’t want that to be the lens through which people see the work. It’s part of the obfuscation.
May: Yes, right.
Rail: So it’s an interesting problem.
May: I feel like this is where the Holocaust comes in. We really geek out—and “geek out” is a really flippant term for genocide, but I’m Jewish so I feel like I can say it—but there’s this sense of we are going to hold onto our grief with such a force—like the term “never forget” is such a problematic term, because no one is saying that you should ever forget about the atrocities of the Holocaust, but never forgetting risks perpetuating. There is a terrible sense among a lot of people that if you are against the oppression of the Palestinians, you are against the Jews. It's a false equivalency; just because you are anti-Zionist does not mean you are anti-Semitic.
In a way I want to remove the trauma from the center; I want to decentralize the trauma. So I see how that’s sort of difficult; there is this idea of talking around something. But is there a way to remember and to actually heal from something without having to perpetuate it all the time?
Were you there yesterday when we were looking at all the Holocaust musicals?
May: We were looking at Cabaret, we were looking at Fiddler on the Roof—Fiddler is not exactly Holocaust, it’s Soviet rule—but Cabaret. I think that is also the line into “sexy,” the ways in which we stylize the Holocaust aesthetically. It feels important to me to be respectful, but also sexy and flippant with grief. Because in a way the sensitivity is patronizing to the act of transformation.
Rail: And it’s restrictive?
May: It’s restrictive. It’s not like you want to go around being an anti-Semite. I want to be really careful about teasing out these two things.
[My husband] and I have gotten into conversations about my own privilege in being an anti-Zionist in this country. I don’t live in Israel. My grandparents were part of the Holocaust, they were refugees, their family died. But you can’t quite understand the genocide. We’ll never understand it. If I watch Schindler’s List and Into the Arms of Strangers, I can totally go there. And in Israel they’re indoctrinated with it. That’s all they talk about. They’re constantly in a state of memorializing that moment. So that’s a repetition.
Inside of [Folk Incest] there’s an unconscious process of wanting to talk about all of these things, but not wanting to make a Holocaust piece. And not wanting to make a piece about rape. The “about-ness” is restrictive. So in that sense I’m not actually sliding out the back door of abstraction. I’m using abstraction to help me nail it in a different way.
Rail: To be in a kind of flux.
May: Yes, to be in flux, to be in conversation.
Also, I think, because this is so in flux structurally, I don’t get to rest on the laurels of those compositional neutralities. I’m really challenged to consider what a new kind of structural recourse is. I wonder if that’s also what’s happening for you. I don’t know what structure means to you, what you rest on.
Rail: In terms of composing writing?
May: Composing writing, composing a sentence, composing a word…How do words come to you? Is there a way that that can also unravel?
How might this writing unravel? When May asked, I answered yes, that in fact the unravelling had begun as I was writing in the studio. But as I continued to write, I held to clarity, perhaps in fear of what the unravelling might reveal (or destroy), or perhaps in resistance to May herself, rejecting the urge to mirror her fluctuating structures.
Back in the studio, the women were singing, sometimes two or three different songs at the same time, overlaid, like two radio stations drowning each other out. The songs were chipper and merry, but when combined they became overwhelming, eerie. Don’t fuck me up the head, middle fool, middle fool / Normal and repeat continue through, fuck me still.
A painful lightness; a disturbed positivity.
All this distorted and abstracted singing left me aggressively numb. Does life thrive inside of definitions? What of those definitions, those words, that speak directly to trauma or abuse? What of the bodies to which we prescribe traumatic definitions, while telling these bodies that they should never forget? Are those bodies enlivened or numbed by these prescribed definitions?
One of the dancers, Rebecca Wender, was dancing—speaking frantically at the same time—the words running into each other—rushed, harassed—she, spinning one way then the other—turning sharply—her naked breasts swinging—slapping against her torso—the fleshy, clapping sound—thwap—thwap—thwap—and she’s going:
Watching someone be physical in front of you is affecting in a language-less way, something vital. I can imagine someone watching May’s choreography and thinking it messy or unfinished. Because of the liveness of performance, choreographic mess poses a risk as the perception may be that the disorder is accidental. But mess can be a powerful choreographic tool precisely because of this risk; it instills a sense of dread and perplexity in us, an audience who seeks precision and clarity. The deliberate confusion is a thrill.
On the second day of rehearsal, Leslie Cuyjet, one of the dancers, started to cry. The group had been singing for hours, overlapping songs, making their nauseous chorus which required an intense focus. Crying came like an opened floodgate; it wasn’t about anything in particular, something just had to give. Her body was crying. The following day, Molly Poerstel, another performer, also couldn’t stop crying. For the past few days she’d been sending breast milk back to her child in New York. Poerstel sometimes sat during a break in rehearsal to pump. When she saw her baby over Skype, the lactation increased, along with the crying. The morning that she told us about the tears, she said, “It’s these moments when you think, just, so much living! So much life! It’s not tears of sadness. It just reminds me that at some point it’ll be over; no more living.”
May: It’s really helpful to talk about all of these things. The decentralizing of the event, the massacre of Jews, the incest, the sexual trauma. But those are even too vague. The thing; the day; the day that it happened. And you do need specificity, you do need the days. But I’m kind of making them up so as not to feel like it’s too personal, which is kind of interesting.
Rail: Making a fiction of it.
May: Making a fiction of the real thing.
Rail: Just to go back to that thing of having a compositional knowledge to then let unravel, it makes me think of the moments in the work where somebody really…like when Rebecca does that fast-talking moment, it reveals the compositional foundation that you’re able to move away from. Those moments pop out and the clarity of the “choreographed piece” all of a sudden emerges, and there’s a virtuosity to it that the sense of formlessness works against.
May: I’ve been really keeping my hands back from it, and letting it be. Sometimes it’s just bad, and you have to be like “okay” [mimes fixing something], to figure out how I’m littering the formality.
Rail: Littering is a nice word.
May: Yeah, how I can be sparse, but not too sparse. There are some sections that need tightening, or need some anchors; some lifesavers as you said.
RENNIE MCDOUGALL is a writer from Melbourne, currently living in Brooklyn. More of his writing can be found at renniemcdougall.com