Have you ever felt cramped by statistics, boxed in by graphs? Does being told what percentage of what population you are and how you’re likely to shop, vote, and have sex enrage you? Do you gag on exit polls? Karl Anderson knows how you feel, although, unlike the man he impersonates in his 1998 solo Weaving through the Grid, you may not contemplate hanging yourself to escape. On the other hand, if you’re a man, you’ve probably never shed your jacket, tie, shirt, and pants only to find an identical outfit underneath. Except figuratively.
With his head mostly protruding from the top of a shoulder-width, cuboid cage that’s barred both vertically and horizontally, Anderson dances fitfully around, spouting data. He begins by telling us that there are 8.4 billion people alive today, but as his delivery speeds up, his facts become progressively weirder (27 percent of taxi drivers are cross dressers?) and politically charged in terms of racial discrimination and police behavior. The absurd can also be terrifyingly real.
Anderson is politically engaged, but he fences with the evil forces rampant in society obliquely. You may not always be sure exactly where he stands or what he’s trying to say, but, at his best, that obliqueness affirms the blurry boundaries between what we accept and what we reject, and mirrors the mixed responses most of us have to a complicated world.
His ‘retrospectacle” at Joyce Soho celebrates, says the program, “20 years of dancing & frolicking in New York City.” To that end, he presents six works dating from 1987 to 2004 (2006 if you count a revision of one of them). The opening combines excerpts from Public Showing and Malemade. While actor-singer-songwriter Ron Mesa gives us a wacky, tough talk about security precautions, Theresa Duhon, atop a ladder, pours tiny plexiglass spheres into a tank beside her. From there, the balls run through tubing into a clear, plastic cube that costume designer Naoko Nagata is wearing on her head. When Nagata, breathing tube intact, is buried over her eyebrows, Duhon climbs down and releases the spheres through another tube into another tank. Make of it what you will, but just recalling the spectacle gives me—claustrophic and environmentally aware—chills.
I think Anderson likes us not to be entirely certain where he stands. The lovers in the 2001 duet You and your Crack Baby need to get your shit together because we have a show veer from hostility to being very pleased with themselves and fake-charmed with each other. “We’re so lovely!,” Alethea Pace seems to say, swimming in air from her perch on Edgar Rodriguez’s shoulder, while Alberto Denis’s score ripples a pretty echo. But what about her turning Rodriguez into a settee? Or him scrubbing at her belly when she lies athwart his thighs? I think they had a baby at the end, and he ran off with it, and she went back to pulsing on the floor by herself (a bit too much of a mystery). Intercourse (2004), choreographed and performed by Anderson and Kate Weare, is a far deeper duet. Even the excerpt shown on these January programs reveals through the knotting of bodies the crooked ways of love and the rough edges of tenderness.
Words (1987) plays male behavior against female, but Linda Martini’s performance of a solo originally danced by Anderson explodes in even more ambiguous directions. This beautiful woman, now many pounds heavier than she was as a graduate from SUNY-Purchase’s dance department, appears nude except for four pasted-on dollar bills. When Anderson assumed the occasional pin-up-girl pose, he may have been testing maleness. Martini doing the same moves counters a stripper image with a kind of girlish innocence. If Anderson, poised in a pushup over an upright knife or brandishing it, was asserting masculinity, Martini looks like a neophyte amazon bent on contrasting warrior behavior with her exuberantly female flesh.
Having Martini perform this solo does create some confusion as to Evan Gray’s soundtrack, in which a voice that sounds like that of a young boy emotionally discusses his fears about heterosexual sex with a dark, electronically-slowed-down voice that might be his own rational self. Martini occasionally lip-synchs their words in between bouts of rolling, leaping, and back-somersaulting (an athletic display of rosy, voluptuous flesh that would have thrilled Renoir). The issue of the “male gaze” surely resonates differently when a man performs the solo. But, no matter who dances Words, nakedness scarred by dollar bills seems to symbolize purity corrupted. At the end, Martini kneels in candlelight to read from a piece of paper, “love, equality, justice, virtue, harmony. . . .” before she walks into a warm spotlight, strips off the last bill, and strides away.
Embracing Nothingness and Squint to Focus , both of which I saw at Dance Theater Workshop in 2004, affirm Anderson’s dedication to a humane and sensitive choreographic vision. The first, a solo he dances to the deep, chanting voices of Gyuto monks, suggests a journey in which physical discipline and meditation joust. The second explores how three gently intense and aware women compose and re compose the spaces between one another. There’s a lovely moment in which Duhon walks back and forth, almost questioningly, between Rachel Lynch John and Erin Reck; these two gradually come closer until each can put a foot on Duhon’s shoulders, as if to say quietly, “There. And?”. The delicate changes of position and affiliation combined with the softly energetic movement suggest a ritual of discovery.
The clean white space of the Joyce Soho, originally designed as an art gallery, has a fairly low ceiling and limited places to hang lights. Jay Ryan works dexterously and imaginatively within those limits to create lighting that, without calling attention to itself, transforms the room.