Some people worry quite a lot about the meaning of dances. Perhaps they think, “There are human beings like me (well not quite like me) on stage, so they must be telling some story I should be able to understand.” Musical notes, even paint on canvas, are not so burdened with elusive significance. But puzzling over whether that white rope in Martha Graham’s Night Journey stands for the fatal umbilical cord that bound Jocasta to Oedipus is nothing compared with the identity games and deconstructive gambits dear to some of today’s adventurous choreographers. The answer to the question, “What does it mean?” might well be “What do you mean by meaning?”
The very title of Koosil-ja’s latest work, Blocks of Continuality/Body, Image, and Algorithm, is enough to alarm the faint of heart. The fascinating piece, like her 2004 solo deadmandancing EXCESS and her 2006 Dance Without Bodies, uses projected video as a source for generating dancing. Before your eyes, the living performers instantly process and reproduce what they see on suspended monitors. But Blocks is much more elaborate and technologically complex.
The monitors—some of them two-sided so that both audience and dancers can see them—are divided into six compartments, several of which may hold a different video at a different time. Three larger screens hang closer to the audience. Robert Ramirez and David Or (part of the large team responsible for creating and programming the startling animations projected later) join Koosil-ja and stage manager Madeline Best at the laptops in the front row that control the images. If you don’t know the process behind the improvised dancing, you may figure it out before long. For instance, in the second solo, Melissa Guerrero is trying to respond to three sources: a little Balinese girl performing a legong; a man (I think) doing a peacock dance from India, and fashion advertisements. You see bits of these alight on her body and take it over fleetingly; sometimes she’s able to channel elements of all three videos almost simultaneously (those lifted and crooked Indonesian elbows are unmistakable). Koosil-ja calls this technique “Live Processing.”
In a trio by Guerrero, Ava Heller, and Elise Knudson, the three women base their moves on what they see in simultaneous slides of famous paintings in the Louvre and quick-changing videos of traditional dances from Africa, Tibet, the Middle East, and India. Imagine the effect when Guerrero slides her folded, Mona Lisa hands apart as a belly dancer’s shimmies possess her shoulders. You know for sure you’ve caught on when a bunch of red-clad Masai warriors start jumping straight up, and the live dancers join them. Composer-guitarist Geoff Gersh used some of the music that originally accompanied the videos and processed them in various complicated ways to create his score; he also recreates some of that source material live, along with pre-recorded elements.
Watching the videos and the living dancers, I feel as if I’m a sort of conduit myself—interpreting and processing the interplay, watching how movements change in new contexts. I’m also enjoying myself in ways that transcend the transformative digital dance of actual and virtual. The movements that the heroic dancers perform with such powerful awareness may be recognizable in terms of incremental images, but, taken as a whole, the dancing looks like nothing I’ve ever seen.
After the six short dances of Part 1, Part 2 offers an explanation of the technological wizardry behind Part 3. Omigod! Each of the three larger screens will house an animated avatar. Each of these will be controlled by sensors that the dancers strap on, and gestures drawn from Part 1 will now be calibrated to move the avatars in ways that, to my eye, have nothing in common with those gestures. In other words, the dancers have had to master the art of digital translation, but without, I’m guessing, an absolute certainty of the outcome. Meanwhile Gersh sits hooked up to sensors, meditating; his processed brain waves (don’t ask) trigger an installation of some kind that periodically taps on the wall of the theater. The procedure is analogous to that generating the avatars’ moves, if more cerebral.
One of the avatars, a woman, never leaves her lonely onscreen room, just looks out the window or up at the ceiling. Another, a thieving street kid, roams in and out of bookstores and markets. The third avatar, a slim, shadowy man, can be “everywhere and nowhere.” Simultaneously, each of the three women studies “her” screen and controls the avatar’s motions. It’s amazing at one point to watch Knudson’s arm gestures make the subtlest of adjustments in the third figure’s reclining position. I’m not sure how or why this happens, but the central screen gradually fills up with silhouetted doppelgangers of the avatars until the space resembles a crowded New York gallery opening. Every now and then, Gersh masterminds another thud.
The performers’ bodies and invisible minds (and the musician’s as well) form conduits and networks that link virtual and actual, interior and exterior, and create new, slippery (and bewitching) identities. You can ask all the questions you like and get technical explanations, but no answers explain the mysterious power that emanates from Block.
David Neumann deconstructs identity in less technologically ambitious ways in his Big Eater, but his edgy games with events and his absorption of material from a variety of disparate sources (films, ballets, books, TV shows, articles, YouTube, his own life, and more) disrupt any attempt of yours to process what you’re seeing in any traditional way. The towering stack of askew folding chairs in one corner of the Kitchen’s black-box theater is a good symbol of the carefully arranged confusion. Two small mirrors, one set very high on the back wall, one very low, also tell you to take nothing for granted.
Here the question is how much homework you may have to do to understand Neumann’s choices and what Big Eater meant to mean, as well as the related question: Should you need to do that?
Neumann is a gifted performer and choreographer (he doesn’t appear in Big Eater himself, alas). He also has a sure sense of theatrical timing: when a performer should freeze, delay a reaction, go for broke; how long to hold a pause. The result is an excruciating, perplexing, sometimes entrancing and hilarious piece of entertainment. But what do you take away from it beside vivid memories of its shifting pace and wild moments, plus a slight knot in your brain? What is the whole thing?
I decide it’s my responsibility to try to figure it out. One of the interlocking narratives of Big Eater is drawn from the embarrassing YouTube video of actor David Hasselhoff, so fallen-down drunk he can’t manage to eat a hamburger, while his young daughter (off camera) tries to get him to promise to stop drinking (another lingering question: Who shot and posted this 6-minute, 11-second scene?). Neumann lets us hear the sad conversation on tape, watch Andrew Dinwiddie and Will Rawls present twin images of the mumbling drunk and his falling-apart hamburger, see Natalie Agee channel the daughter to harangue Dinwiddie, hear Rawls and Dinwiddie deliver the daughter’s anxious lines in brisk unison. Hasselhoff’s poses, words, and gestures recur in various ways through the piece, along with a host of other references.
Threaded through this material are visions of Fred Neumann (David Neumann’s actor father) in a bucolic landscape, delivering snippets of text—why a three-legged stool wobbles less than a four-legged one, how many ropes you need to hang yourself efficiently—as well as voicing deeper, vaguer thoughts, such as “the sky is as alien to me as I to myself.” Reenactments of passages from the ballet Giselle crop up. So does a flurry of violent fragments from the 1980s television crime series Knight Rider, in which Hasselhoff starred. Then there’s a panel, whose assembled members are so lethargic that—despite chairperson Weena Pauly’s business-like briskness—a dialogue about life and death and our dreams exceeding our grasp dissipates, and everyone wanders off.
The performers—Dinwiddie, Rawls, Pauly, Kennis Hawkins, and Neal Medlyn—are profoundly talented at all this smart, mixed-up madness—hauling chairs around, changing their personas midstream. Medlyn, wearing sparkly trousers, a shabby fur vest, and no shirt (costumes by Kaye Voyce), pauses occasionally to stare at us like a deer caught in the headlights and daring anyone to run him down. It’s a pleasure to watch Pauly doing a slow handstand to Adolphe Adam’s music for Giselle, or to see Medlyn (a spectacular performer-as-nerd) attempt the hero Albrecht’s desperate beating-feet passage as the Wilis try to dance him to death and Agee, his Giselle, spin until she faints from dizziness. The balancing acts with chairs and tables and the rushing around never entirely stop.
At one point, a reverse black-and-white image of forest is projected to fill the whole backdrop (video by Richard Sylvarnes)—an imaginative image of Giselle’s haunted woods. But it also refers to the full-color landscape in the monitor. Once when passing out is being depicted onstage, we see white-haired F. Neumann stretched out on his green grass (Neumann mentioned in a recent interview for The New York Times that alcohol played a role in his own family life). At the end, Medlyn sits in a tiny leather armchair, repeating (and maybe twisting) some of Hasselhoff’s words, while Agee plays daughter cum shrink. Medlyn is deeply depressed and, when pressed for an explanation, finally says with difficulty, “I don’t have me in my life.” And then, something like, “Now it’s dough and drinking.”
I come away from all this with the bits and pieces of what I’ve seen whirling around in my head, as mysteriously connected and disconnected as the human and technological elements of Koosil-ja’s work. I love the fact that on the Web, you can find “Big Eater” defined as a “trope as used in popular culture” and further down advertised as an air purifier. Neumann’s Big Eater is, in a way, about an artist sucking up all that comes his way and trying to refine it. It’s also about outsized, possibly self-destructive appetites—not just for alcohol and food, but for fame, love, and death.