"Mercurial George" by Dana Michel. Photo by Dajana Lothert
What a week! Did I see you around? Here’s my diary:
It’s always a good sign when there’s an advisory warning: nudity, graphic imagery, strobe effects. Nudity, graphic imagery and strobe effects are what make live performance great! Sebastian Matthias’ x / groove space bodes to be loud. Really loud. So I pocket the free earplugs and head upstairs. In the stairwell, there’s a video of the black man mopping. And there he is, resting on big mop and bucket next to the bar. I tend to think that dance missed Brecht’s memo to let the wires show – to make visible the enormous amount of labor required by performance both on stage and behind the scenes. So much more so at a festival like Tanz im August. The number of venues, of support staff, of artists: everyone is working so hard. So I’m delighted that people are laying out a rectangle of Sophiensaele’s recycling paper on the floor – from Matthias’ own contract to rejected requests from plucky interns. Later, the audience will be handed brooms and asked to clean mid-performance. I have a fantasy that they will only open the doors once the place is spotless – but they’re not trying to put too fine a point on it.
The other strand in x/ groove space is a more formal one – rooted in the nature of immersive performance. Inside the hall, we stand around in the darkness. The dancers begin solos from within the crowd. They are dressed in a typical Berlin athleisure uniform and there’s the exhilarating feeling that any of us, in our elastic-bottom joggers, could be the next to move. The performers cut through the negative space between the audience, who mostly cluster in a circle, watching “the action.” They start to make eye contact, touch our shoulders. A dancer winks at me as I echo her shoulder-shimmy. At the end of the performance, we will watch a recording of the performance replayed on the square of recycling paper in the bar. During this coda, two of the dancers will point to the corner of the projected footage, where you can see them run up to where my husband and I stand, move around us, form a fluid cluster of bodies, weave between our arms and legs and then disperse. “Check that out!” one of dancers says as he points to this. “We had a moment!”
The performers’ gentleness with the audience – really, a shared enthusiasm – feels like the best form of this kind of immersive performance – a gift to us, rather than an imposition. Example: they bring out bags of shredded-paper confetti, and suddenly we the audience are giggling with delight, tossing “snowballs” and making “snow angels” and dancing in the gently falling paper. I will find these paper shreds in the cuffs of my pants, in my underwear, and in the corners of my house for the week to come. Because performance is so ephemeral, these little reminders of the materiality of performance are so precious. A strange souvenir, and kind of a pain in the ass, to be honest. But I am so happy every time I find a stray piece of confetti on the floor.
After Dana Michel’s Mercurial George I texted a friend, “THAT WAS SO BAD.” Which gets me thinking – what does that even mean? By BAD do I mean boring? Mercurial George is absolutely boring. It is also inscrutable. But I am a grown-up. This is my job. I can deal with being bored. I can deal with watching something I don’t understand. But I sent the message because I was angry. So – why?
I can intellectualize this anger, of course (getting a Ph.D. in the humanities is like getting goggles you never asked for and can’t take off). I was mad, I told whomever would listen, because Michel’s gestural vocabulary of shakes and tics suggests cerebral palsy, her cross-eyed soft focus, mental illness. Is she using this vocabulary simply to underline her own keen perception and athletic form? Why not leave these questions to the many artists who inhabit such bodies full-time? The sharp angles of her body and tremor in her voice – the lack of dramaturgical coherence between sections – the inexplicable props (dough, a pop-up-tent) and costumes (white leggings, no top, sneakers five sizes too big) – Mercurial George is an assault on normativity and narrative.
I asked the curator Virve Sutinen about her decision to not only invite but co-produce this piece, and her response reflected the festival’s message of openness and optimism: Dana Michel is going somewhere. Maybe she herself doesn’t even know. And it’s clear, during the curtain call, that this is deep internal work for Michel. It’s not a joke at our expense. She’s not, her tear-filled eyes suggest, taking on this physicality or mental state for fun.
I started thinking about my anger anew. I sat in a room for a little over an hour. How bad can that be? Why would a dance piece make me angry? That I didn’t get my money’s worth? That I’m wasting my time? That it doesn’t make SENSE? Mercurial George is – I am borrowing this here from a conversation I had over lunch one day – uneconomical. With her movement, with our time. Sitting with this piece has meant sitting with some troubling neo-liberalisms behind my own critical. Shouldn’t dance produce such states of intensity? Shouldn’t it make us feel more alive? So, you know, it’s grown on me.
Claire Cunningham’s Give Me a Reason To Live is the kind of spare, stripped-down solo performance that makes props look lazy. Cunningham attempts several impossibles throughout the performance – hopping over the lever of her crutches, over and over and higher and higher until she is exhausted; worming her way out of the corner with her crutches outstretched, as though crucified; lowering herself over the bridge of her crutches as though diving in slow-motion; picking herself back up from prone, the edge of her crutches skittering around the floor, trying to find traction. But the music: it’s not a discordant illustration of the movement on stage – the sound design by Zoe Irvine, a collage of Bach and silence – is transcendent, even holy.
At one point, Cunningham removes a layer of clothing and stands in front of the audience without her crutches. She stands and stares and shakes. She shakes. She stands. “Like an exclamation point” says Virve in a discussion Saturday. “Like an angel” someone echoes. It is powerful and immediate. The piece concludes with Cunningham silhouetted against the black rear wall: pinned, maybe. She lifts herself up and rubs her feet against each leg of her crutches – inching for purchase as though climbing a rope in gym class – but she doesn’t get any higher. Cunningham begins to sing a Bach cantata, and her voice rings out clear and loud: “Hallelujah. Hallelejuah.”