Finding Dis/orientation in Alexa West’s Triple Expo
July 25 – August 15, 2020
On a warm Saturday evening, an RSVP’d public organizes themselves outside Gymnasium, a glass-storefront art space in South Williamsburg. To ensure the safety of live performance during a pandemic, Gymnasium has accepted a limited number of reservations for distanced viewing of Alexa West’s Triple Expo. Behind the glass, four dancers sit on a flat, oval stage that takes up the entire room. The structure is sectioned into black and browns by green latitudinal and longitudinal lines like one would find on an atlas, evoking a “global stage.”
The performance starts with the dancers as bodies-made-objects; each balances on their hands and knees, stacking their weight on top of each other to compose a collective table. Who absorbs, labors under, and distributes the weight of the other bodies? As the dancers slowly dismount, this physical negotiation continues. Some gestures are mirrored; some are not reciprocated. Some bodies move with abandon, some with restraint. Some dancers leave the stage to watch the performance and later join again. Their arms reach out to one another as they share the width of the stage; there seems to be unspoken strategies devised for the dancers to cohabit the small space. Puncturing the electronic, vibrational soundtrack, the performers break their silence and exercise their larynxes in an attempt to sing an acapella harmony. Sound also becomes a strategy for co-existence.
Amid the chaos of abstract gestures, moments of familiarity emerge through the objects, sites, and activities that the dancers embody: they assemble their arms into a “V” for “Victory”; they shake hands like they’re in a business meeting; they fly like airplanes; they shoot guns with their hands like kids playing cowboys; they are mothers in childbirth positions; they pass an invisible ball in an imitation of an assembly line. Strewn together, these vignettes form an incongruent and atemporal timeline, but there is a sense of progression and networked labor. The dancers return periodically to a full-body sway that becomes larger, fuller, and faster. These isolated movements and social behaviors that we might recognize in architectural, civic, and surveilled spaces—sports arenas, offices, airports, schools, hospitals, factories—reflect the aesthetics of industrialized labor and connect the viewers and performers in an embodied, shared experience. Recognizing one’s own muscle memories in the dancers' movements, one feels a growing sense of unease. Is the dance accelerating toward an even more highly networked, industrialized future? How do we fit into this collective dance and how do we participate either through assimilation or resistance? Without a master narrative or self-evident script, the work asks us to inhabit our own discomforts.
As the dancers move across the stage directing themselves toward or away from others, Triple Expo explores what it means for bodies to be situated in space and time, for subjects and objects to take shape and meaning, evoking what scholar Sarah Ahmed calls “queer phenomenology,” the title of her 2006 book on the subject. Using as a departure point the notion of sexual orientation, Ahmed explores how queerness can disorient social relations for racialized, gendered, sexualized, migrant, and laboring bodies. Ahmed writes, “Orientation shapes not only how we inhabit space, but how we apprehend this world of shared inhabitance, as well as ‘who’ or ‘what’ we direct our energy and attention towards.”1 Inversely, habitual actions and repeated labors shape social relations and come to arrange bodies, communities, spaces, and temporalities. The choreography invites the question: toward “whom” or “what” are we oriented in the very direction of our desires, in the name of progress, revolution, or our own becomings?
If orientation depends on the physical inhabitance of a space, this queer phenomena easily extends beyond the personal to the public. Gymnasium is situated on street level and the flurry of noise, movement, and activity permeates the thin, glass boundary. Passersby in the neighborhood pause and join the viewing with curiosity. Just when one of the dancers in a yellow shirt mimics the movement of what seems like a motorcycle, a yellow transportation truck with vinyl reading “Nico Equipment'' drives by. The truck driver curiously looks over to witness this moment until the light turns green. The masked viewers outside Gymnasium improvise their own proxemic dance. On this Saturday, protesters against tenants eviction organized by Ridgewood Tenants Union similarly assemble and synchronize like the performers on the stage. The disorientation of the dance bleeds into the world and the latter becomes ever so slightly distorted: how did we get here in the first place?
How do we co-exist and what do we share? Triple Expo both culls and disassembles the movements of capitalism: the flow of objects, the accumulation of materials, the network of labor, and the bodies enclosed within. If the dancers are on a “global” stage, so to speak, and caught up in an economy of movement—i.e. extractive capitalism, industrialization, and urban modernity—West’s compositions unravel the fabrics of those systems, disentangling and disheveling to the point of vertigo. Sarah Ahmed reminds us, “In order to become oriented, you might suppose that we must first experience disorientation.” To rationalize these systems meant to classify, denominate, and stratify our bodies would be an impossible task. Instead of attempting to lend coherence, Triple Expo heightens the dissonance of our bodily relations: like the dancers, we move through spaces simultaneously supporting and opposing each other’s actions. In reflecting this, the dance questions what it is that draws and binds us together on this small stage. Sometimes, we don’t know what we have gained or lost in joining the synchronized movement of our friends, neighbors, colleagues, and strangers.
- Ahmed, Sara, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.