A New Beginning

Dance Review: Adrienne Truscott’s “genesis, no!” @ DTW

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There are gaps in Adrienne Truscott’s “genesis, no!,” which had a reprise mounting last week at Dance Theater Workshop, having first run at P.S. 122 last spring. The work, a kind of anthropological rumination on human culture, uses theatricality to isolate activities from their real-world, analogous contexts, and by doing so, generates a pointillist portrait of how culture promotes class division and distances us from our primitive, animalistic origins. Or, at least that’s what I took from it.

The thing is, a work like “genesis, no!” leaves room for all kinds of interpretation within the very semiotic gaps that make the theater possible, thereby emphasizing the responsibility of the audience participant to engage and come to certain conclusions based on their own experience with the work. This technique might not sit well with some, especially those averse to the idea that the audience need be responsible for anything other than getting their tushes into the theater seats; and granted, it is an achievement for any average individual to find themselves spending two hours on a Friday night at a venue that specializes in showcasing innovative dance-theater performance. The very idea of public responsibility is so de rigeur at present (i.e. Think of the every-man-for-himself attitude that everyone seems to believe with religious conviction when it comes to personal success), and is plied by an endemic cultural scepticism toward the intentions of art, that it is no wonder the kind of work Ms.Trucott produces might draw criticism from those who think it does not do enough, does not say anything definitive, and places too much of the burden of cognition on the poor, exhausted audience member who really just wants to get home and plop down in front of the couch for a few hours of facile, prime time television.

Ok, I’m going a little overboard. But a fellow critic, who happened not to like “genesis, no!”–at all–suggested that there should be some kind of comprehensive defense of this kind of work. I can’t say that this review will accomplish that, but, I’m going to allow myself to dive into the meat a little more. Umm…not sure where I’ll come out exactly, but, I’m sure we all can’t wait to find out…

When said critic–whose opinion I obviously respect enough to address–asked me what I thought of “genesis, no!,” the only thing that came to mind (as I’m not always able to come up with razor sharp criticisms I can when I have the time to sit and process) was: I liked what it did to my brain. I don’t think that means I felt “genesis, no!” was essentially intellectual or solipsistic, but that the work kicked my brain into high gear as it dealt with the innumerable points of reference presented.

Take the opening moment, for example:

Neal Medlyn enters the stage through a curtain wearing what looks like a diaper made out of toilet paper. He raises a recorder (the instrument of the woodwind family, not an electronic device) and begins playing horribly.

Ok. So, not only is this hilarious, because it’s Neal Medlyn in a toilet paper diaper playing horribly on a recorder, but there are also other references that immediately spring to mind. Let’s see what they are.

Well, I think first of Pan, the flute-playing mythical faun who awakes from a deep, existential slumber on top of a mountain: he even has a kind of flute named after him. Then I think of how many masterworks of Western culture have involved the tale of Pan. Well, obviously, Debussy’s “Prelude to the afternoon of a Faun,” which has been staged by dance artists from Nijinsky to Jerome Robbins to god knows how many others. Then there is the correlation of Neitzche’s “Alzo spracth Zarathustra,” from which the legendary phrase “God is dead” first rung and literally shocked the hell out of the world, on which Richard Strauss based his tone poem, which opens with the famous arpeggiated progression that Stanley Kubrick re-made famous to contemporary American film audiences in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which has been riffed on in every imaginable way ever since, from “The Simpsons” television cartoon to Ben Stiller’s 2001 fashion industry spoof, “Zoolander.”

I mean, I’m not stretching here. These are just the associative, this-is-like-this, knee-jerk responses. Yes, the bulk of the associations are working subconsciously (and the categories will be different for each person in the audience, although I’m sure there will be some associations that large portions of any audience will share). But just because they are working subconsciously, doesn’t mean they’re not working at all. And this is all in the first two minutes of the show.

I can’t think of any more authentic way to handle the presumably heavy subject matter, the treatment of which has largely been pre-set by nineteenth century standards of pathos, than in one cool stroke to reference the dawn of human self-awareness and simultaneously embody the absurdness of a.) human self-awareness, and b.) overserious art on the subject. When Zarathustra finally does come down from the mountain, I hope he’s a tall skinny guy wearing a toilet paper diaper. Honestly, it would make me feel a million times better about not believing that god exists.

Anyway…

Watching “genesis, no!” was a little like playing a three dimensional version of connect the dots. Everything presented in the work seemed to relate to at least one other of the work’s material elements.

Examples:

At the end of Medlyn’s “Pan” moment, a bundle of dried corn husks drop suddenly from the ceiling. Later on, Carmine Covelli erects a teepee in the middle of the stage. The association between indigenous North Americans and dried corn is obvious, and is later reinforced by a portrait of horses that is accompanied by a soundtrack of real galloping.

There is also an interplay between art at the service of zoology and art at the service of class and culture, which creates its own biased anthropology. Above and to the left front of the stage, a projected moving image portrait of Natalie Agee presides over the events on the stage. “The portrait” is a fundamental tool of art that Western civilization has used to establish class and power and to distance humans from the realities of being primates.

Tea is also used to similar affect. Just after Medlyn and Truscott have finished gallivanting about the stage completely naked, they do a Cro-Magnon-like crawl upstage, somersault—exposing their posteriors—and then lay slumped against the back wall. Just then, Covelli comes out with tea cups and saucers and a kettle and gives each what I can only assume to be a lovely cup of tea. By juxtaposing the potentially vulgar and the patently posh, Truscott is able to touch on the very agreements that make classism possible, and therefore, make humans look silly.

At the same time, Truscott has mounted taxidermied animals (a raccoon, a badger, a turtle, etc.) in wildlife vignettes throughout the theater (including within the audience), some of which you do not even notice until she uses smart spotlighting to draw your attention from one to the next, each vignette accompanied by its own “nature” sound. These evoke a kind of Museum of Natural History approach to using the material arts to provide cultivated information about animals. But then, when the same approach is turned on humans, as David Neumann is suddenly caught in-spotlight gathering kindling in shorts, a vest and a coon-skin cap, the “scientific” treatment of humans draws out an absurdness from the very idea of the dioramaic approach to zoology that the Museum of Natural History practices, and also points up just how much humans actively try to convince themselves that they are not animals. And when you contrast what we assume is the function of a dry frozen body of a dead fox nailed in the center of a box containing fake rocks and reeds (to objectify the animal in the service of scientific inquiry) with the painted bust of an aristocrat mounted and stuck inside a gilded frame (or, a totem), you can sense that the great pains we take to exalt ourselves with art, even if the effort is futile, since the portrait, like the diorama, will most likely be looked at with the same tired curiosity of bored tourists dredging through a museum after a long afternoon of absorbing “culture.”

So we can at least say these two major things are at play; the classification of humans through art and objects (the portrait, the tea, and two Greek columns in the middle of the set) and the zoological approach to anthropology that reduces humans to the status of animal (the taxidermy).

Now, this is how I responded to the work. Not everyone will. And I’m not even saying that Truscott necessarily means to evoke all of these associations. But I would bet that is her point, in that this kind of theater allows for maximum interpretation while still offering a lot in the way of directed composition and entertainment, unless, as I said, A.) we assume that she’s a complete retard, and again, I don’t think she is; or B.) we don’t believe that entertainment is of any real value to performance.

The work is smart; entertaining; funny but balance by moments of pathos, like the duet for Medlyn and Covelli miming a pair of lovers being stuck in a car listening to Kelly Clarkson’s “Since You’ve Been Gone”, where one half of the couple (Covelli) is clearly more into the music than the other. This moment, while funny, yes, also turns into something heartfelt when you see just how painful it is for Medlyn, who clutches his “car door” out of sheer disconnection, until the music works its magic, and the two lift off the ground at the song’s climax. The song, the culture, has transported them through experience. It has intercepted, played a trick, like Cupid, and restored the human connection. And all this from a pop song. The sublime through the mundane.

And there are moments of uncanny textual synchronicity in “genesis, no!”. Like when, just as Medlyn and Truscott are having their tea against the wall, and the teepee has been erected, Covelli emerges bundled in about twenty-five layers of t-shirts, which he promptly removes one my one. So, in one moment, you have TEA, TEEPEE, and T-shirts, all playing major roles in the performance composition.

Does this mean anything? Were there more “T” references that I did not pick up on? I don’t know. And I don’t think I need to. The fact of the matter is that “genesis, no!” provides such a wealth of interconnected material that it becomes a pleasure to sit and think about it even several days after the performance. I don’t mind doing this kind of work when I go to performance. I would much rather have a puzzle to figure out rather than a closed-case that leaves me no room to think or explore.

Inevitably, a work like this will leave much of the audience in the position of trying to figure out what it does mean, even if Truscott might not want to give a clear answer. That’s our ingrained cultural response to art, that is, we try our best to rationalize it. It’s also a response that can be attributed to a lack of practice of going to the theater for a large portion of our population.

I brought a friend of a friend to the show. She had never seen anything like this, and her reaction at first was generally timid. Immediately after the show, she wouldn’t even venture to take a stab at explaining what it was about. But she thought it was great that someone had put all the time and effort into making it. But later on over drinks, she opened up a little more and was able to speak about her reactions more freely, once she felt the pressure to have gotten the work had been lifted. Her one criticism was that she felt Natalie Agee’s character wasn’t incorporated fully enough into the piece. And I think she’s right.

But this brings us to a single phrase I heard six years ago that changed my relationship with art and performance forever. I was visiting with a famous playwright at his home, and I had just seen his latest play. I was terribly anxious to tell him that I loved it, but also didn’t want to appear stupid should I have not “gotten” something important. And when I told him I had seen his play, the first words out of his mouth were: How did you react to it?

I was stumped at first, because this particular playwright does not fuck around with words, and his phrase struck me as poignant. So I tried to think on my feet: How DID I react to it? I don’t think I came up with a very good answer, but the phrase did give me a clue as to how anyone can experience any kind of art and come away with an opinion about it.

Rather than going to a performance and try to “get it,” which implies a kind of need for oneupmanship on the part of the audience (the work isn’t greater than me because I get it), we should go to experience and react. And, if you can observe your reactions to the work, then you will have something to say about the work. At least, as a starting point toward a more critical discussion. I think taking this approach to new work will reap much larger rewards than expecting all work to have a finite, conclusive statement that can be “gotten.”

I’m just really breaking the surface here, there are brilliant moments in “genesis, no!” that I haven’t even come to discussing. But I think it’s important to point out that Truscott’s work is thankfully more on the surface, that is material, which paradoxically allows a more complex relationship with the performance. Compare this kind of cool surface of with the self-ingratiation that you find in say, Paul Taylor’s work, “de Suenos,” where the surface is more like a lacquered shell you can’t break through. How much better does “genesis, no!” feel to experience than “de Suenos”, a piece that’s supposed to be gotten, but that is so empty of any real point of connection. Taylor’s piece is like the portrait of horses that Truscott presents at the end of her work, where a couple members of the audience walk up and observe it, appreciate it, but never have any ultimate commiseration with it. You can’t commiserate with “de Suenos,” but when you leave “genesis, no!” you feel a much stronger sense of having shared a moment in time with the performance: AKA, theater.

Now, new art may also call for new methods of writing about it. And work that insists upon a high degree of ambiguity might necessitate a writing that leaves room for uncertainty. Traditional criticism prohibits this. The notion that critics can figure out a work of art and deliver it to a readership with explanation hasn’t gone anywhere. But why should I have to summarize a work that resists summary? And any review is still just a person writing about their individual interaction with a work of art. Now, there is a certain pleasure in mutual cognition, when you get what an artist is doing and you can enjoy the communion, but that is something different than demanding to walk away with a story or a mission statement or a single ribbon of idea that can wrap everything up in a pretty bow. The world doesn’t work that way. And I don’t think performance always has to work that way either.

And, more than anything, it’s okay not to get something! It’s okay to feel uncertain about what a work of art is. Uncertainty yields many gifts. It keeps you questioning. It induces wonder, and above all, reflection. The answer to getting Ms. Truscott’s work cannot be found in anything I or any other critic can write. Clues; yes. Answers; uh uh. Any answer at all will depend on one’s own ability to experience and reflect on performance. If you’re not willing to do that, then you might as well stay home and watch TV. Or go see Paul Taylor Dance Company every night for the rest of your life.

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6 Comments

  1. […] reading countercritic’s post on Adrienne Truscott and orientating new audience members to dance I was inspired to start a list of ways that dance […]

  2. are you a graduate student?

  3. used to be.

    are you employed?

  4. of course…and a grad student :)

  5. hot.

    that’s a fierce combo.

  6. […] participant to engage and come to certain conclusions based on their own experience with the work. read more digg_url = ‘http://www.dancetheaterworkshop.org/blog/2008/03/25/a-new-beginning/’; digg_title = […]


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