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Who Plays? Pedestrian Movement, Neumann Style

Lily Baldwin and Taryn Griggs in Neumann's <i>feedforward.</i> Phototgraph by Julieta Cervantes.
Lily Baldwin and Taryn Griggs in Neumann's feedforward. Phototgraph by Julieta Cervantes.

“Pedestrian” movement first flared on the radar in the 1960s in the dances of Judson Dance Theater. Whether walking or getting dressed, hauling mattresses or throwing pitches, Judson artists found in the familiar gesture a neat alternative to the theatricality of dance. But their desire for change was driven as much by the radical political change unfolding around them as by aesthetics. Enter the ordinary, whose tremendous power to serve as expressive shorthand—made possible by the visual familiarity of concrete lived experience—gives it tremendous political wallop.
Of course, the matter of how choreographers have quoted everyday movement—those moves we make habitually, without much consideration, often thought of as purely functional—begins long before the 1960s and continues long after with varying intents. Never, though, is the everyday in dance more important or more visible than in times of political turmoil—or those times when, as Steve Paxton has said, our senses are put on alert by means of some pending threat. Think of Quebecois choreographer Marie Chouinard’s short solo Petite danse sans nom(1980), wherein she walks on stage, drinks a glass of water, pisses into a bucket, and exits. Made during the height of Quebecois nationalism, the dance is a sly wink at control of and over bodies. Think of the gestural universe contained in Bill T. Jones’ Still/Here (1994), which blends modern, ballet, contact and the hand-made moves of the everyday people who attended his Survival Workshops. Made during another reign of fear—the AIDS epidemic and the culture wars—his work remains an elegant meditation on grief, mortality and love in times of crisis.

These days, nowhere is the everyday more in motion than in the work of downtown dance theater artist David Neumann. In feedforward, which ran at Dance Theater Workshop in November, Neumann offered a sharply observed study of play, performed by his superfine company, advanced beginner group. Then, in December, he danced alongside Mikhail Baryshnikov in director Joanne Akalaitis’s evening of short works by Beckett at New York Theatre Workshop. Both events were telling for what they reveal about ordinary movement circa 2008, reminding us that whereas culture is ordinary, as Raymond Williams so persuasively argued in the 1950s, the seeing of culture—not to mention the experience—is more often extraordinary.

In feedforward, Neumann offers up a sustained vision of play, animating the discipline and drive of an athlete’s world, alongside the absolute and arbitrary logic of the sporting event. Structured as a large-scale sporting event, complete with half-time show, the random and the formal collide as jocks, announcers, cheerleaders and a marching band comprising four trombones offer up invocations both of the solitude of training and the spectacle of play. Here, the everyday lives in the acutely observed movement sequences that lyrically mime the pitcher’s wind-up or the tennis-player’s shuffling ready stance, among other iconic moments in sport. But the pedestrian lives, too, in the rich heterogeneity on view, both in the range of actions performed, and occasionally in their simultaneous or overlapping sequencing. And then there is the company itself, a fearless collection of individuals whose shapes, performance styles, and identities shatter the same old, same old of the dancing body as it is typically marketed today. These folks are like us, they seem to say. But in their expressions—at times realistic, at times coolly post-modern, at times simply hilarious—they are always virtuoso.

Fun is, perhaps, most immediately apparent in Neumann’s work. With its shrewd physical comedy, Neumann has a gift for the gag, and a sparkling levity generally, as when the tension of a serious moment in competition is broken as one player gropes another. Or the when one play-by-play announcer says, “I’ve forgotten what game we’re playing.” But the laughter is only the starting line, a fast track into the work. Sometimes, for instance, it’s awful to be surrounded by laughter, when a sudden shift in mood suggests something way more serious is at stake. As feedforward ends, time slows. In the final scene, Neal Medlyn, playing a pitcher caught in an agonizing bit of performance anxiety, paces the mound. A recorded inner monologue, rendered exquisitely by writer Karinne Keithley, accompanies his action. As a video screen behind Medlyn offers up images of a full moon, the confrontation with the ball stands in for so many other confrontations. If the question all along has been, “What are we playing at and why?” the final moments suggest, rather bleakly, we play for keeps, we play alone.

To say that Neumann foregrounds the everyday is to situate him within a long performance history that includes early Dada experiments in simultaneity and contrast as well as Surrealist appropriations of the accident and the dream. Likewise, he follows the postmodern choreographers of the 1960s, with their interest in various tasks and everyday actions as a remedy to the limits of theatricality and psychology on stage. But whereas the Judson work has often been seen as a kind of readymade, Neumann emphasizes the frame and context of performance—through the theatricality of his dance, with its emphasis on text and image, as well as through the affect of his performers and the effects of humor. When it comes to the pedestrian, he seems to say, who and where you are in the game is everything.

Neumann once explained his love of the everyday as a lesser form of choreography; something to the effect that, were he a better mind, he wouldn’t need to borrow the tropes of everyday life. But I think his attitude is more rolling stone than real: a way to duck the deadening weight of over-explication. Still, there is something telling here about the debased stature of the quotidian; in its messiness and familiarity; and its inevitable link to politics and realism, it tends to be as suspect to vanguards as it is beloved for crowds. Neumann’s roots bridge this divide. He grew up in the avant-garde theater world—his parents are members of revered theater troupe Mabou Mines—and in the urban vernacular, as a part of the hip-hop, trance and club scenes of the 1980s. Born in and of the mix that is New York City, small wonder his work so consistently takes up the question of the everyday.

Later, in December, I saw Neumann dance for Joan Akalaitis’s evening of Beckett shorts set on Baryshnikov. Most thrilling for me were the Act Without Words I and II, wherein Beckett raises the question of how movement makes meaning in ways discrete from language. Baryshnikov was riveting, as much for taking on the material and refusing to dance, as in his handling of the challenges posed by the work for any actor. Whereas Baryshnikov attempted realism—in Act I, for instance, the conveyance of his falls, his turns and his frustration as props appear and disappear from reach—Neumann upstaged him using a style that can only be described as the pedestrian burlesque—familiar actions that are fragmented, as if broken apart and reattached in the way a mime might, but to a lesser extreme. Upstaging, of course, requires a useful dynamic and taken together, their performances offer a witty exposition of the everyday movement on stage, as if to say “It’s ordinary, see?” Whereas the avant-garde has a long history of making the familiar strange, Neumann makes the strangeness of our daily preoccupations familiar. And it is always a performance convention, a choice made by artist, choreographer or director and anchored in questions of mimesis, acting and the magical technique of making the thing recognizable as opposed to strange.

The place of the pedestrian in theater and dance theater reminds us, finally, of the felt intimacy between everyday movement in dance and language. Whether in the miming of stories or in the presentation of familiar body movements as if hieroglyphs; whether in the pantomime of the 19th century story ballet; or in the rejection of narrative announced by Cunningham in his own use of the pedestrian in 1952’s Collage. In all, ordinary movement seems readily ledgible, counting almost for the words assigned to the actions themselves. But, for Neumann, the everyday is less about precise translations and more the means through which he engages the popular, or what Stuart Hall describes as the closing of distance between artist and audience by means of a “pressure” to be understood. That collectively held and felt “pressure,” is nothing less than the immediacy of everyday life, and the urgency, especially now, of our attempts to make sense of it.


M.J. Thompson

MJ Thompson is a writer living in Brooklyn and Montreal.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2008

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