The Art Of Safety: Dance Review, Wally Cardona’s “Site”

Dance Review: Wally Cardona’s Site at Dance Theater Workshop
(Photo by Michael Hart)cardona_hart.jpg

Safety may not be the first thing that comes to mind when we think about performance. In fact, it may never cross our minds, because the safety, at least that of the audience member, is a subconscious agreement that exists between the presenter and the audience. When we attend a performance, we expect to leave with all of our limbs still in tact. That is because the experience of art must be an essentially safe place in terms of the body. Dangerous ideas and images are permissible. We even expect ideological danger from certain kinds of art. But the danger to the mind differs greatly from danger to the body, even if the body politic believes otherwise. Dangerous ideas seem vague, reversible–we can write over them with a contrary idea; but a severed arm or a gouged eyeball is a quite serious and permanent reality.

Why should this be a starting point for a review of dance? Because dance deals primarily with the body; the bodies of the dancers to be precise. And when we see dance, we reflect immediately on our own bodies. Often we can feel what the bodies of the dancers are doing, just by imagining. Therefore, when a dancer is put in a position before us that suggests there is a fair amount of real physical risk to them, the “art” of performance dissolves enough to drop our disbelief, and we are confronted suddenly with a real body in real space that is involved in a real, dangerous situation.

In Wally Cardona‘s new piece, Site, which ran last week at Dance Theater Workshop, five dancers run around, three of them barefoot, on a stage half-covered with brown butcher paper that has merely been affixed to the floor with blue tape. Then they tiptoe with mercurial speed across pieces of particle board that are strewn across the stage, then picked up, spun around, and replaced in a new location on the floor. Occasionally one of the boards tears up some of the paper, leaving a crooked arm of paper looming just above the floor–a serious tripping hazard. The dancers arrange around twenty panels of various size into an elegant house-of-cards style structure that you know if it falls over will cause quite a noise, and could hurt someone. Two panels come together precisely as one of the dancer’s fingers meet the joint. Cardona himself takes one of the panels and slams its edge onto the floor like a blade, over and over, just missing a dancer’s feet that flirt dangerously with the collision.

These are all images, or actually, real experiences that one observes during the course of Site.

The overall form is one of aimless development; there is development, but to what aim, one is never sure. Even the climactic assembling of the structure, one of the most powerful moments of the work, does not seem to be an end in itself; that is, it doesn’t seem like a direction that was led up to by the preceding actions, but rather, that is just happened, as much as anything else just happened in the piece.

But the material use in Site is problematic. First, the use of task oriented action here is aestheticized: a task must have a goal, otherwise the action is purely abstract. Cardona’s “tasks” shape the dancers’ moves but do not always determine trajectory. One of the boards could land where it does as well as it could have landed anywhere on the stage. There are arrivals–one a little too cute at the end of the first half, as the five dancers meet in an assemblage of panels while we hear the faint sound of an orchestra cadence on a major chord–but they pass without a context and without acknowledging the need for the arrival, or the meaning behind such an alignment.

The second problem with Cardona’s use of materials is the immanent danger it supposes upon the dancers. Whether a dancers’ toes fly frighteningly close to one of the corners of the boards, or whether they are straining not to lose their balance as they walk backward over enormous mounds of crumpled butcher paper that have been brought out voluptuously to cover most of the stage, there is always this element of impending disaster, and one that is not that predictable.

In Cardona’s previous piece, Everywhere, performed two falls ago at BAM, dancers hopped through a matrix of black two-by-fours, occasionally–and accidentally–knocking them down with their feet, legs, or bodies. Cardona creates this same environment in Site, where the terms of predictability in the materials used are not concrete and allow just too much skepticism to disengage the suspension of disbelief. Speaking of Site in an interview with Gia Kourlas in last week’s Time Out NY, Cardona’s attitude to this aspect of his work was casual: “…mishaps can happen. Some of them are okay. Some are an acknowledgement of “shit happens—just do it again,” and other times you’re stuck with it, and you just have to go on. It can either work or not, but when it doesn’t work that is absolutely a part of the performance as well.”

But claiming that the accidents are part of the work is an artful solution to a real problem. When it comes to a performance, predictability is a double-edged facet. On one hand, the observer likes a certain kind unpredictability; it keeps the attention, surprises, scares and delights. But the kind of uncertainty present in Site and other Cardona work is of the real variety, the kind that freaks you out when you think an actor is going to forget his lines, or when the concert soloist obviously stumbles over a passage of music. It isn’t fun or funny, and it makes the audience squirm in the wrong way.

All this is to say is that in putting dancers in these kind of situations, we are blurring the line between art and reality, or in the case of Elizabeth Streb’s company–which recently and notably sustained a devastating injury to one of the company dancers–dance and stunt. But where Streb’s company does this conspicuously–as Daniel J Wakin points out in his piece in The Times, the word “stunt” is written into Streb’s artistic statement: there is no such statement in Cardona’s mission.

It would be reductionist to look at Site through this one lens. Lighting by Roderick Murray is strategic. The sound variations designed by Phil Kline are surprising in the right way. Music, both live and pre-recorded, comes from all points of the theater; from speakers above and around the house; or live instruments faintly coming from the lobby or off to the side behind a giant wall of butcher paper, behind which were members of Montana’s Capital High School marching band, who were unseen during the piece, but showed their solidarity during the bows by coming out wearing no shoes.

Even the overall effort of the work is worthwhile and creates a wealth of relational responses. The play between dancers and objects is compelling to a large degree, and the manipulation of the set is original and often delicious; when one of the dancers pulls up a corner of the paper covering the floor and hoists it into the air, a tidal wave rises without warning behind two other dancers who perfunctorily shift forward.

If the goal of Cardona’s work is to interrupt the art of performance by infusing it with indeterminate elements, like the shaky motion of crumpled paper or the precariousness of boards leaning against each other to form a tower, then he achieves this. But as his own foot slipped on a piece of butcher paper while taking his own final bow, I couldn’t help but think that being that out of control is the kind of chance an artist shouldn’t wish to harness.

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4 Comments

  1. Countercritic: I adore your reasoning and daring. Your writing to me is like the best steaming iron pot of Singapore Noodles with no MSG.

    This commentary raised some questions for me that I hope you’ll consider.

    Might all performances that are framed theatrically (even those presented in parks and esplanades like the Lincoln Center, and even those that include pedestrian tasks and so called “everyday movement”) best be judged on their artistic merits, regardless of the inherent problems of physical, psychological, or even (considering the volatility of arts funding) financial safety?

    After all, as performers we are prone to mishaps of all sorts regardless of the production effects. Some would go so far as to argue that bare feet and pointe shoes pose a fundamental threat to safety when dancing (and sometimes they do).

    Given this, isn’t the degree of safety a matter of perception and assumption?

    Might WC’s less spectacle-oriented publicity materials (in comparison with Streb) be a good thing in light of the tremendous over-packaging and ideological announcement that often comes with performing arts—especially in press materials that we stringers wade through?

    Years ago, Yvonne Rainer [who, by the way, has an excellent new autobiography out from MIT Press called FEELINGS ARE FACTS: A LIFE] said “no” to spectacle (among other things) and helped start a short-lived trend whereby what seemed like dancers’ mistakes and mishaps were welcomed into the performance context as par for the course and signs of our grounding as inimitably flawed people.

    What if WC’s performance was about, in essence, the idea itself of building; and, for better or worse, the act of building essentially went nowhere because the work was more conceptual than goal-oriented? Concetualism in visual art is better valued than in performing arts.

    What if, as a part of his concept, he viewed mishaps as par for the course and just as welcome as a slip during a curtain call, which breaks the sheen of spectacle that is so adored?

    Is this intent a variant of anti-spectacle values?

    Take in mind that it was Jill Johnston (http://jilljohnston.com/), arguably the best and most daring dance critics of her generation that wisely pointed out that even saying no to spectacle WAS ITSELF a form of spectacle. I guess if you want to really say no to something you shut up, stay off stages, out of the public, and away from presentations all together.

    I admire your critique of the lack of artistic goals and decisive development in WC’s fascinating work. If I were to choose one problem in most of the new dances and new music that I see and have seen it would be a lack of development. Professor Vickie Blaine, the former chair of the Department of Dance at Ohio State University and one of the premier dance composition teachers of the last fifty years, saw this problem of under-development as a deeply serious one in contemporary dance. She also saw the lack of attention to qualitative dimensions in dance (apart from strong, constrained actions) to be another serious problem. In essence, she thought that, rather than being over-concerned with making repetitive steps and shapes devoid of physical intent and decisive development dance-makers might deepen their practice by making PHRASES that contain rich qualitative contrast—not just strong actions, but resilient actions, and light actions and the full range of dynamic possibilities for movement that so many dance-makers only access a teeny, weeny bit as they shape their movement palette. Professor Blaine was correct. Where are we thinking about problems like this as critics who review work? Where are our in-depth discussions of the movement medium and its use or under-use in our reviews? I mean, music critics probe the score and the access to the medium in their reviews with far more depth? I liked your extended description of the movement in WC’s work. Where are those extended descriptions today?

    So I admire your critique of under-development in WC’s work but have trouble with the suggestion that safety issues and seeming anti-spectacle values diminished the artistic viability of the work. Being unsafe is one of the grounds on which performers, and all of us, walk on, right?

  2. Great ideas, Bloodbelter!
    Some more ideas…
    In terms of “building”, an artwork that takes building as its subjects, but treats it in a purely conceptual manner, without consequences or results, won’t fully explore its subject. Again, it seems to be an aestheticizing of the task. But building is about goals, about ends and products, and these products have real, and often unfortunate consequences on our lives–what does happen when a building unexpectedly falls to the ground? Especially considering the rampant “development” that is besieging NYC at the moment (where can you look without seeing those enormous cranes???), “Site” misses an opportunity to explore what that means and how that can be explored on stage. Although, I could see how the presence of building in WC’s piece kept the piece in this precarious space. Maybe this could be a comment on our city environment, constantly sandwiched between the flux of building and razing.
    As for safety, this is really my only “must” in terms of what art is. I think it’s the responsibility of the artist to create an environment in which the audience participant feels “really” safe in order to experience the “art” of the work. When it comes to the performers, I think we have to ask ourselves to what degree the artist is responsible. It seems that of all the performing arts, DANCE is the only one whose practice does not seem to be oriented toward longevity and safe technique. With musical performance and acting–both physical activities, by the way–one is expected to train and learn techniques that will sustain long into life. AND, while composers and playwrights may push the envelope of technique for their performers, they rarely pose an immediate physical threat. Dance is different because of its inherent athletic quality–I understand that–but is it ethical to create work that not only threatens the immediate health of the performers, but that also could lead to hip replacements and joint pins before the age of thirty? And what does that say about dance, if it can only find new ground by putting its performs in more risky situations? There is a notable piece created by Angelin Preljocaj for two dancers with wine glasses taped to their bodies. This is the perfect example of what I would call “unethical” art: to cover a dancers body with an object that should that performer make a mistake (and slip and fall) could potentially inflict permanent and even fatal damage upon the performer. I definitely think dance is unique in its demands upon the body, but where will the line be drawn? And, I concede, should it be?

  3. You know: you have truly challenged my assumptions with your “must have” of safety in performance. I agree with and find your analysis of under-development very incisive…after all, a building that goes nowhere is hardly built. But, so much of the avant-garde performance that I have seen has been, in so many ways, unsafe, either psychologically or physically…I’m still not sure that the assumption or perception of safety should be one of our “must haves” or fundamental grounds of assessment. On the other hand, I am extremely dedicated to created healthy environments and safer places on many levels. You certainly raise a troubling, daring, and challenging idea that I need to think about more.

  4. […] Village Dance-Off Deborah Jowitt at The Village Voice give us her take on Wally Carona’s Site. […]


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