Jennifer Nugent & Paul Matteson, another piece apart
October 10 – 13, 2018
New York, NY
Watching choreographers Jennifer Nugent and Paul Matteson discuss their creative process and personal rapport during one of New York Live Arts’ signature “Stay Late Conversations,” spoken language seems a limited vehicle to convey the intricacies of their decades-long artistic partnership. But, if a picture is worth a thousand words, then surely a dance is worth exponentially as many, especially in the hands of seasoned dance makers. And so, perhaps the best illumination of the partnership is their new work, another piece apart, a duet summarized in promotional materials as an “exploration into vulnerability and tension as artists and as people.”
another piece apart is a study of progression; both current and previous versions have been publically performed, including showings at New York Live Arts (NYLA) and the American Dance Festival (ADF). Judging by the pre- and post- show buzz emanating from members of this most recent audience, many are familiar with the trajectory of the piece and of its creators’ bodies of work. Perhaps through one of these venues, perhaps through Matteson and Nugent’s time performing with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company or David Dorfman Dance, or perhaps even through their respective teaching engagements in collegiate and festival settings. I myself became aware of their work as an ADF student, more years ago than I care to commit to print. Regardless, there is a sense that the house is well versed in, and rooting for, this new iteration of a familiar pair.
The performance, set on and performed by Nugent and Matteson themselves, is the pair’s first collaborative piece since 2006, and serves as a stylistic expansion of their previous duet work. (They first danced together in 1995.) In the post-show chat, they describe the stage as being like a screened-in porch, or “a private space that people are looking into,” featuring lighting design by David Farri. The aforementioned private space contains choreography that was initially created by each partner separately, using text-based systems. Matteson tethered his phrases to the biblical book of Genesis, each word representing a movement. Nugent merged her own texts and movements with qualitative cues, including notably, the sense of “funk.” And then what? In an interview with Bill T. Jones, Matteson pauses and smiles: “As we often [do], we collided it together.” “And then it changed a lot,” adds Nugent.
Both dancers begin in reddish sweaters, dark pants, and athletic shoes that look distractingly sensible in the theatrical space. Contrasting with their modestly covered bodies, the stage is bare of curtains or backdrop; no entrance or exit will be unseen. The only sound score is the variety of sounds Matteson and Nugent generate with their own bodies throughout the performance: labored, synchronized breathing and half-whispered words that the audience cranes to hear. We are forced to process our voyeuristic fascination: presented with the vulnerability of the staged private space, but still prompted to draw closer and know more.
The performers establish diagonal movement patterns, walking toward and away from each other, before sinking softly into the floor. Initially they move tentatively, pausing as they orbit closely over, under, and around each other’s bodies. The points of contact and weight-sharing are bold: between the legs, under the seat, forehead to forehead. Their movement speed and lighting increases, and they strip off their shoes/socks/sweaters/pants facing each other. Lean figures with close-cropped hair, Nugent and Matteson read as a reflection of the same person in their remaining tanks and briefs. Intensifying this illusion is the fact that they move with similar style; in a previous interview, Nugent once described Matteson: “I come from the inside-out and he comes from the outside-in, but we both get to the same place.”
To watch them move is to witness gravity at its weightiest; their descent is frequently disrupted or expedited by each others’ bodies. Heads hang low, upper spines curve, legs bend in parallel, the better to get down into the ground. They change directions with tidy pivots that feel like an accent mark, sharpening longer, lower movements. Sometimes they scoot on their seats together, legs outstretched. Phrases repeat throughout the performance, infused with the fluctuating energies that characterize a long-term partnership: exuberance, anger, fatigue (presumably a choreographic choice, though the movement is physically demanding). They drift through solos and duets, exhibiting moments of intimate comfort and provocation. In some moments they drape their limbs and slow-dance together; in others they trot separately in circles.
Despite both performers’ teaching backgrounds, the structure of the work does not feel like a professorial execution meant to demonstrate the choreographer’s toolbox. Despite the recent prevalence of creative products encouraging political discourse, toeing the line between dance and performance art, the work does not fit that mold, either. Instead, the piece creates intrigue by emphasizing variations on shapes, speed, sounds, and the emotional range that Matteson and Nugent create together. In one extended section, they work themselves into a constricted ball on the floor, appendages wrapped so tightly around each other, it is difficult to discern the owner of each limb. They shift a little. Then a little more. At first it seems racy—especially given the brevity of their costumes—but then it begins to feel labored. Eventually, it feels humorous, like a slapstick comedy between two players that can’t remove themselves from their own gag. It would be difficult to separate this movement from its makers, to translate the work onto different bodies without a significant change to the final effect.
Nugent and Matteson finalize their tableau with Matteson standing tall downstage, his shadow cast even taller on the back wall. Nugent scoots into the shadow and undresses, guarded by the dark outline of his form. The lights go down, and the audience loses sight of the intimate story laid in front of them, at least for the time being. While Matteson may have cited the book of Genesis as a guide for another piece apart, it draws its power less as an origin story than as the fascinating resurrection of an artistic collaboration in real-time, adding another successful chapter to the pair’s record of work together.
JEN GEORGE writes out of New York City.