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Karen Eliot, Laura Gaines and Lavinia Huang
Feb 20, 2019
In early February, Netta Yerushalmy's Paramodernities was presented to Wex audiences over the course of three performances. Below, Karen Eliot, a professor with The Ohio State University Department of Dance, and two students enrolled in her "Writing About Dance" course, Laura Gaines and Lavinia Huang, reflect on their experiences with the performance.
“I am not a black body: I am a black human!” thunders Thomas DeFrantz in “Revelations: The Afterlives of Slavery,” the final impassioned––fiercely human––installment of Netta Yerushalmy’s Paramodernities. DeFrantz’s cry focused my mind, making me consider the many questions that Yerushalmy poses in this frustrating, impossible, and yet revelatory new work. Are we our bodies? Our minds? Our souls? And, possibly the most profound question of our era: Where…is…our…humanity?
Yerushalmy expertly reminds us of our human frames: aging, frail, injured, hale, thirsty, fatigued, sighted and not, comfortably seated. The diverse cast she has assembled proposes that we contemplate black bodies, queer bodies, white, brown, elongated, and squat bodies; bodies that are voiced, bodies that are mute, that seduce, decay, and soar; bodies that are ill, die, struggle to hold onto life, bodies in wheelchairs or, even, those imprisoned in an iron lung.
Paramodernities is long. Very long. And, whether or not Yerushalmy intended it, the show made me feel my mortality. My body tired; I squirmed in my chair at the end of my very long day. Sometimes my spirit flagged. Performed in two versions, a “short,” and an “encyclopedic” version, the longer work––which I attended on Friday night––tests its audiences. Running more than three hours, the extended program has two intermissions during which audiences are provided with snacks and drinks. Sustenance for the long haul. Nevertheless, Paramodernities provoked me in ways that few performances have done of late. Yerushalmy poses brilliant questions, and they are questions that––as we flounder and tumble pell-mell into the 21st century––we must ask.
One question: How do technologies and bodies interact? Disembodied voices speak to us from antique cassette tapes; talking heads are projected on cubes. Speakers wander the stage, microphones amplifying their voices as they narrate often profoundly intimate stories. Or, speakers sit casually on the stage, chatting easily with the dancers who toil through predetermined pathways in laboriously-learned choreography. We glimpse a blurry film of Martha Graham––even then, a past-her-prime dance legend––dancing the role of Jocasta in her 1947 Night Journey in what must have been, for her, a memory of her younger self.
What do bodies express? Operatic in its scope and profundity, Paramodernities remains a spartan show. Other than a few clunky pieces of equipment, painstakingly and conspicuously manipulated by an undisguised stage crew, the show relies on bodies—speaking and not, dancing and not. It’s a simple idea that, ultimately, dancing is about moving bodies around a space. After that, though, the terrain becomes more loaded: Are dancers commodities? And, if so, what are they selling? Sex? Expressiveness? Virtuosic tricks? Do they speak to us? Do they move us? Do they tell us stories that matter?
More questions: What is left when a dance is gone? To whom does a choreography belong? Is a dance more than an assemblage of steps? What happens to a dance when its choreographer and original dancers are gone? What happens to a dance whose steps have disappeared from our collective memory? Yerushalmy confronts these questions head-on although I am unsettled by my own responses. Yerushalmy’s curiosity about dance’s history and its so-called “iconic” works prompts her to “deconstruct” and “reassemble” the steps, the building blocks, of a number of revered 20th century dances. Her study of the masters’ works is impressive; so too, is her dancers’ willingness to take on the building blocks as she has reassembled them. For the most part, the dancers have had no previous experience with the choreographers or their training practices, and their bodies have not absorbed the styles of the works they deconstruct and rebuild in front of us. Still, the dancers are devoted to executing the movement Yerushalmy has come up with, and they shape their expressive bodies to accomplish what they are asked to do. This aspect of Yerushalmy’s project––the dancers’ dedication to their task––is moving, heartwarming. But, for those of us in the audience who love (loved?) the dances Yerushalmy explores, there is loss. In their deconstruction, these dances feel impoverished. Dances are suggested but live only as vivid pictures in my memory. Their absence brings me pain.
But, I wasn’t entirely given over to loss and grief. With DeFrantz’s righteous anger resounding through me, I realized I had found some resolution to one of Paramodernities’ questions: What can dance do in these troubled times? The answer, of course: It shakes us up, reminding us that our humanity is gravely needed.
Despite only showing half the pieces, the shortened Thursday program of Paramodernities gave the audience plenty to contemplate. While a dance performance, the main focus of the show was not the movement itself, but the intellectual arguments presented. Each piece was a response to a previously choreographed dance, but instead of being accompanied by music, the dancers performed to spoken word by scholars who wrote something related to the choreographer’s perceived meaning of the original piece. Within each performance, a topic was explored, something not meant to touch the audience with its beauty, but with its importance. The topics discussed were not ones people generally talk about, but that was the point; to make the audience uncomfortable, to break their expectations, to get them to think about something that needs to be thought about, all supported by movement.
The first piece was like a warm-up for the audience––something to get them thinking, but nothing that would start too strong. It began with a single man on the stage with an old projector and a tape player. As he played his tapes, a male soloist danced about the stage, his movements reminiscent of the original piece they were constructed from (Vaslav Nijinski’s Le sacre du printemps). While their eyes were drawn to the movement on stage, the audience’s thoughts were probed by the tapes, which addressed issues such as the history of ballet, ballet’s perpetual intertwinement with politics due to its origin, and the meaning of ownership in relation to artistic expression. The crowd was pulled in intellectually, beginning to think about political issues and their relation to dance, while the soloist kept dancing, until the tapes stopped and the man left the stage.
The audience, now drawn into the thoughts of the scholars, were pulled in physically too, being asked to sit in chairs surrounding the stage for the second piece. Every performer in this piece was a person of color, picked because the choreographer was reflecting on race and slavery. Again, the main focus was not the dancers. Although mesmerized by their motions, the audience’s minds were not on the dance; they belonged to the speaker. Thomas DeFrantz spoke passionately about black faith, black reconstruction, and overall blackness in dance. He called out the false liberation in dance, because every dancer is told by another what to do with their body. He proclaimed that black should not be a modifier of something white, saying that it just needed to be. He spoke with such passion and command that everyone in the audience could feel the weight of what he said, and knew what it meant. He knew that he was the focal point, and the dancers his support. He held that attention until he exited the stage through the house, shouting “Don’t you wanna be free?,” the dancers yelling and stomping and clapping behind him, leaving the audience stunned as the intermission began.
The third and final piece, danced by a black male and a white female dancer, as was the original piece, was a commentary by the choreographer on race and disability. Both the choreographer and another scholar had speaking parts for this piece, the two taking different approaches. The choreographer discussed how the black man was used to support the white woman, and how in different contexts this means two different things. Within the context of the life of George Balanchine, the original choreographer of the piece whose wife had polio, the symbolism of the man physically moving the woman resembled how he tried to help his wife regain movement. Within the context of the perception of race at the time this piece premiered, having the white person leaning on the black person and forcing him to support her is a commentary on the injustices put against non-white people in the past. The scholar, on the other hand, took a different approach to the disability discussion and talked about the difficulty of translating the beauty of dance into words, and how this excludes people with visual impairments from the dance world. The speaker claimed that comments from multiple perspectives could lead to more clarity and greater appreciation from those who cannot see.
All three pieces dealt with heavy topics, but they did so in a way that the audience, while aware of the gravity of the discussions, was able to comprehend them. Unlike most dance performances, the dancers were not the focal point; the speakers were. The choreographer made this show a reflection of a collection of pieces and their greater meanings, and as such the meanings were the purpose. Because of this, I found this particular show to be, however unorthodox, very intriguing. It helped me to see how thought provoking a single piece can be.
Paramodernities is inventive, ingenious, and enlightening. The dissection of various momentous works in conjunction with audible discourse brought light to modern civic matters, including feminism, race, and sovereignty. Attending the shorter version that only consisted of three out of the six Paramodernities, I craved to experience more of the masterpieces that were just presented before me.
In Paramodernities #1: The Work of Dance in the Age of Sacred Lives, David Kishik announces that Netta Yeralshalmy will not be performing the piece because the choreography induced injury onto her, and that Marc Crousillat will be taking her place. This choice made me question whether Yerushalmy was never meant to perform the piece at all because she appeared perfectly capable of performing in the other pieces. It was almost as if Crousillat was meant to perform the piece with Yerushalmy sitting on the sidelines watching. Even though there were only three people on stage, it was difficult to give my attention to everything going on. With the different tapes being played by Kishik, the sharp and jagged movements made by Crousillat in a bright red dress, the projector displaying images, and Yerushalmy observing with a keen eye, I couldn’t focus on everything at once. My eyes were naturally drawn to the energy spewing from Crousillat’s hands. There was not one moment where the muscles in his fingers and forearms were relaxed, always animated or active in some way. Although the extensive context provided in the tapes illuminated the dance itself, it seemed a bit more like a history lesson. In attempt to link what I was hearing to what I was seeing, the modified movements from Nijinsky’s Le sacre du printemps resembled interpretive dancing. The turned in knees and tight choreography looked painful to carry out, but nonetheless impressive to say the least.
Paramodernities #3: Revelations: The Afterlives of Slavery can only be described as compelling and powerful. The decision to move the audience onto the stage and for the performers to move through and around the audience created a unique viewing experience. I could see the beads of sweat fly off the heads of the dancers as each of them individually danced, rarely in synchronicity, while Thomas DeFrantz read a script from a laptop with the utmost passion. Moving around the stage, DeFrantz occasionally interacted with the dancers which is something little that I found pleasing. Although they almost never danced together, the monotones of their monochromatic costumes and a constant motif of a dancer walking with one hand on the hip with the other hand wagging a finger in the air produced a collective unity in which I could tell that each dancer could feel in their heart what DeFrantz was preaching. The soundbites and humming from Jeremy “Jae” Neal added a certain live soulfulness that I could feel down my spine. I couldn’t take my eyes off the definition in the muscles of Brittany Engel-Adams, in each of the ballet positions that she flowed through effortlessly. Intermission followed, thankfully, because this piece left me in awe with a desire to commend what I just saw to my peers.
Paramodernities #6: The Choreography of Rehabilitation: Disability and Race in Balanchine’s “Agon” discussed a different concept of disability within the world of dance. The speakers, Georgina Kleege and Mara Millis, brought forth the subject of how art is portrayed to the blind. The idea that blind people don’t experience art in the same way wasn’t new to me, but the way that Kleege explained the lack of emotional information from interpreters provoked sympathy and understanding of an issue that I don’t see every day. The towering height of dancer Magdalena Jarkowic contrasted with that of fellow performer Gerald Casel, which was like the opposing skin tones of Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams. The light from the box Mills was projected onto created a lighting that illuminated the stage from the ground up. The piece ended with Jarkowic struggling to balance on point on top of the box which symbolized the crippling effects of polio expressed in the original piece.
A social commentary, these performances provided a great deal of insight to the bigger perspective of dance in the world today. The pieces were an examination that forced me to think deeper than taking in what I see on stage as entertainment for pleasure. Through incorporating an orator, Yerushalmy attempted to connect movement to context, dancer to scholar, and physical to mental.