The title of Koosil-ja’s new Dance Without Bodies riffs off Body Without Organs, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattarri’s 1960s study on the necessary breaking down of all hierarchies. (I note that the choreographer—born Korean, raised in Japan—has dropped her last name, Hwang, perhaps to avoid marking herself as a member of a particular family group.) A dance without bodies? This exhilarating piece puts many “bodies” before us. We see not only the present and heavily breathing ones of the choreographer and her colleague Melissa Guerrero, but their life-sized images. The Kitchen has been divided in half, with two banks of spectators seated back to back. If we in one part of the audience are watching the flesh-and-blood Koosil-ja dancing, we’re also seeing a life-sized, live-feed image of Guerrero dancing in the space in back of us, and, behind her, facing us, her audience.
Then there’s the plethora of filmed human bodies and simulacra thereof flashing on banks of three video monitors (a set-up duplicated in five places within each space). In this video installation (by Koosil-ja and Geoff Matters) one monitor in each group mostly repeats brief episodes from films and videos, minus their soundtracks. A second screen shows Koosil-ja, dancing in a studio—alone or with Guerrero, and a third presents scenes from an array of animated films.
In terms of complexity, Dance Without Bodies, goes far beyond Koosil ja’s 2004 deadmandancing EXCESS. The earlier piece, a solo presented at the Performing Garage, featured the technique of Live Processing developed by the Wooster Group (she performed in two of the group’s productions). In it, the choreographer-performer channeled, on the spot, death scenes from a variety of movies and TV shows. As I remember, in deadmandancing, the monitors—all or some them—usually showed the same clip at any one time. The much more tricky live processing in Dance Without Bodies calls for the performers to echo instantly whatever gestures and stances they pick up from the films with live actors, mixing in dance steps from the studio video and, if possible, a hint of something from the animation excerpts.
deadmandancing was profoundly moving—the sad and or violent film clips contrasting with the dancer’s neutral yet physically full reflection of them. DWB is less powerful in terms of evoking emotions in the spectator, and its frenetic pace can make it seem a bit long, but it’s an exciting, provocative, sometimes hilarious illustration of the body as a vessel for nearly unprocessed data. The two women receive multiple visual stimuli that they then reproduce as fast as they can, without comment or emotional commitment. As Koosil-ja writes in the program, “We constantly bounce off the images before they tattoo on our skin. We move on to new clips like nomads keep on moving.” Yet the performers’ intentness on the screened images they must copy, their non-stop speed, their moments of rest and recovery, and the sweat that begins to drip off them emphasize the fact that they are humans endowed with organs, as opposed to the disembodied imitation humans on the flat screens.
Geoff Matters, who has created dance and video for a number of Koosil-ja’s pieces, produced his wild score by processing the audio tracks of the visual material and then responding in performance to the same changes that affect the dancers. He operates his equipment from a corner, occasionally popping up to assault his guitar in one “theater” or the other.
The two women have the look of extraterrestrials aiming for 1960s chic. They wear short, trim gray sleeveless dresses, with several mysterious attached drapes, and helmets of a slightly sparkly stretch fabric that tie under the chin like baby bonnets. Watching them in relation to the screens is a good game. When a black-and-white Japanese film of a person racing through a field of grain appears, the two women rush to changes sides. So, long, Koosil-ja; here comes Melissa. One minute, the women are yanking out the blue drapes tucked into their costumes so that, for a few seconds, they can imitate, however crudely, the delicate flourishing of a scarf by the demonic heroine of the kabuki drama Dojoji. Seconds later, they’ve put the drapes away and dropped into a barroom fight from Raisin in the Sun. A dance number from a Bollywood musical, a hip-hop class, a stroll by a well dressed animated couple along a garden path are only some of the human images that flit across their bodies and inform harried, twisting, jolting dancing in which their limbs often seem to work at cross purposes. Surprisingly often, the women are in unison, but they’re more likely to process slightly different aspects of what they’re seeing.
Periodically, instructions appear on the monitor, telling them to stand at a particular spot in their respective spaces, to turn off the TV (for a memory sequence), to start again from the beginning, to pick up or put away a mic, and so on. The mics appear so that the women can sing a couple of fierce, guttural songs with almost indistinguishable words by Koosil-ja (who, in the 1980s, founded the band Bosho and performed with it as singer and percussionist).
Like all innovative choreographers, Koosil-ja is seeking to break old habits and find new movement possibilities that are, intoxicatingly, a little beyond her control. In Dance Without Bodies, she has discovered ways both scary and wonderfully entertaining to make spectators feel in their guts the electronic bombardment and fragmentation of time that we’re subjected to in so many ways every day.