This post is by Scott Schultheis, a painter based in Philadelphia, PA.
This is a short piece of writing about Choreographic Fellow Tommie-Waheed Evans’ new composition In Between the Passing…, a piece which is being performed at BalletX’s Spring Series 2017, at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia. It might be unwise — a literary version of an animal falling asleep outside of its usual refuge, limbs splayed, and various organs left exposed, but I’ll offer a disclaimer that seems important anyway: I’m a painter with an interest in dance. As you clutch your seat following that revelation, I’ll expand.
Once upon a time, I might have considered myself more of a hybrid type, since I practiced Bhangra dance with a group as much as I painted. But I likely would still have hesitated at calling myself a dancer. This could be evidence of my own personal brand of how to self-categorize, full of subjective criteria like: being part of an aesthetic lineage; having serious “chops” that result from a lot of work and putting in “the time”; being involved with a community that also engages the activity; learning from other professionals in the field. I loved Bhangra but never felt like I engaged those professional and mental criteria in the same way as I did for the visual arts. This is more fact than inferiority complex – I learned Bhangra from other 17 to 22 year olds, first as an extracurricular college activity and then on a traveling team. Bhangra really is like a sport in much of its contemporary performance; there is a competitive Bhangra ‘Circuit’.
Yet I was really Bhangra-Crazy. I found myself in the joyful, stimulating throes of one routine after another, not all that different from being in the middle of a painting that is going well. But a ‘dancer’? No, I just happened to dance, in that way. In comparison to my years of practicing painting and drawing and going to school for it, my experience with dance was, by my own standard, idiosyncratic.
I find it interesting how we each identify ourselves professionally and spiritually. It seems both a little sad and necessary to clarify those boundaries; these are boundaries of language and presentation, especially. Helpful, without a doubt, for various kinds of technical paperwork, census data collection, social gatherings with family members we don’t spend a whole lot of time around, and, in many cases, job interviews. But they are also boundaries of selfhood. I feel on some emotional level a stronger identity as a visual artist than a movement artist.
It may be a longwinded introduction to a (short?) piece of writing about Evans’ world premiere (you have to love the high drama of that expression) dance routine, but I’m including it for a few reasons. One is that Evans’ production is specifically inspired by the works of video artist Bill Viola. Viola has worked dedicatedly in the medium of video – and thereby also sound and installation – so his antenna seem alert to the emotional experiences generated by a visual signal. In a nutshell, his work gives the impression of a slowly moving painting, and the sound can be intense but is concise. My familiarity with Viola’s work made Evans’ especially compelling. I also bring up my relationship to dance because of Evans’ adventurous embrace of a hybridized creative process. Presenting my own confession is a way to put myself into a position of admiration – and oh yeah, envy too – of someone who has combined multiple categories of research, practice, and presentation, as well as a way for me to eschew a straightforward, written archive of the choreographic vocabulary of the performance – an act i think best suited to press releases or professional reviews of the sort that behave as a teaser or a textual transcription of a live work of art, which we must admit cannot substitute the experience of firsthand viewing. For anyone who does resort to think pieces as a helpful guide to generate interest in an event, I’ll get this out of the way quickly — In Between the Passing… is an interesting, emotive work. You should get to it. Watch other work by Evans and Viola too while you’re at it.
And there are aesthetic choices in the piece that make for pretty luscious mental post-production. In a majority of the first half, dancers side scroll along the back of the stage very, very slowly, and fog and light are used generously but judiciously to obfuscate them from the waist down. The effect is ethereal, a bit like video-projection (hello Bill Viola), and Evans synchronizes this somewhat decorative movement with separate layers of faster-paced choreography towards the front of the stage. The combination of the multiple tempos implies a conceptual and rhythmic risk. Riskier still, one might feel, were they to know that Evans taught much of the choreography to his team to the background of Kanye West tracks, before settling on the final cello and bass dominated classical composition Symphony of Sorrowful Songs by Henryk Gorecki.
Choices like this continue to make the production bleed into adjacent creative realms – this is kind of like a play, but wait, the throbbing, crescendoing score makes it feel like a musical event, and then, episodically, dancers tangle with each other in pairs, and it feels more conventionally dancerly again. Maybe the issue of genre-jumping is really my own obsession, as the quality of Evans’ work that set it apart from the other pieces that night was its sensation of being a paced, single movement inside a fluid world. There was no arbitrary pause from one moment to the next, nothing to literally point out the delineation of a thematic switch. Distinct choreographic decisions are apparent, and we sense Evans’ tactical sensitivity to how movement and sound can be entwined, but by composing the work as a cohesive, single unit, he leads us more deeply into the theme and sensory experience of being inside a body. The pulsing movements, slow motion, gradual transitions, and the singling out of the dancers in their jolting fits of pain or ecstasy one at a time gives us less space to intellectualize the actions on stage and more opportunity to participate in an animated physiological tableau. As in Viola’s slowly moving videos, I begin to focus intensely on the body presented to me, on the nuance of its mechanics, on the mechanics of emotion, and as my looking becomes this slow and deliberate, I become closer to my own body, conscious more of the pace of my breathing, my heart, and what I look like. The effect is varied: one oscillates between feeling a little hypnotized, a little bored, and a little unnerved.
There is a cheeky, overtly literal final move (you’ll have to see for yourself) by the front most dancer at the end, which I found to be a little cute yet somehow convincingly somber, and it felt like one of those moments that was explicitly Evans’ as it brought us right back to the stage, to the performance. Evans clearly loves bodily movement – the medium of dance – and he spoke to the ways he enjoys moving when asked how he begins creating a piece. I can only imagine that this kind of appreciation for the synthetic mechanics of dance is how a step like the moon walk enters multiple times into a piece dealing with abstract emotional concepts. That a move that codified was used in such a serious piece is a delightful achievement on its own and speaks to Evans’ adaptability. The siphoning of dance history meets the translation of universal not-art experiences. When asked to articulate his story after the show finished, he mentioned the human capacity for survival, as well as some of the tender moments of human interaction, and he asked: What might it be like to show, in dance, what it is to speak with someone who you know is dying.
Well, fuck. I spend a fair amount of time thinking about death and the passing and ailing of loved ones, but I appreciate anyone’s ability to reveal these sorts of absurdities before our eyes. In the case of Evans’ production, a question like this challenges his project to higher stakes than usual, and perhaps sets up a condition of inevitable failure if one expects a single piece to deliver on it completely. There are limits to every medium, when it comes to what they can lead us to think and feel. But this kind of thought experiment that he poses is useful in the creation of powerful work; it motivates the desire of the dreamer and the viewer to make the mental jumps between seemingly distant thresholds.
I guess I ended up writing something like a review anyway. Blech. Can’t retreat. Wouldn’t want to though. For a show that deals so heavily with the emotional discharge of the body, I am a little surprised that eating doesn’t have a role in the movements. I said before that I became especially aware of my body while watching, but this was in the absence of almost any reference to its physical needs. I realize I am now hungry. Maybe I’ll eat this dish a single grain at a time. No, I think I’ll just chew slowly.
BalletX Spring Series 2017 at The Wilma Theater, Apr. 26-May 7 Featuring the company premiere of Cayetano Soto’s Schachmatt, the return of Matthew Neenan’s The Last Glass (2010), and a World Premiere by Choreographic Fellow Tommie-Waheed Evans
Post by Scott Schultheis
All photos by Alexander Iziliaev, Bill Hebert