Friday, April 24, 2009

Stations of the Cross coming down

I managed to get by Xnihilo Gallery this week to see the unveiled final piece in their Stations of the Cross show. J and Tyndall Wakeham are the artists on the resurrection station (which isn't part of the traditional stations of the cross and is an Xnihilo innovation) and it's a large computer generated print of either a sunrise or else just a sunburst through clouds, as one might see from an airplane. I couldn't tell which, but that's not exactly the point. It's photograph of a burst of light, yellows and reds and darker hues from the clouds, and on top of it are superimposed four contemporary faces. Honestly, I only recognized Bill Maher but the artists' statement identified the others as Margot Kidder, Jeffrey Skilling, and an unknown face from the street.

I'm tempted to leave it at that and let you puzzle about those faces. In fact, I think I will for now. It's one of those pieces that works best with the artists' statement beside it, and I'm not sure that means it works at all. But I'll try to remember to come back in a couple of days to reveal what the artists said about those faces and see if anyone has responses to those faces in an art piece about the resurrection.

In the meantime, if you're in Houston, stop by Xnhilo and take a look yourself. The show is only up through this weekend, so hurry! 2115 Taft St. (And have a beverage at the coffe house and browse their bookstore while you're there!)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Ros Warby's Monumental (and the Places it Took Me)

This past Friday evening (April 17), I waded through a torrential downpour to the theater district to see Australian dancer/choreographer Ros Warby in her solo piece, Monumental. This is going to be part review, part personal reflection. I'll try not to ramble.

There are some thing that I really appreciate about performing artists and one of them is a willingness to be still. The opening moments were very satisfying to me as Warby stood on stage, lit from the side, making small gestures with moments of stillness between. I was with her immediately, enjoying her stage presence and her willingness to simple let us look at her in her skull cap and tutu.

For the next hour, Warby moved about the stage with an almost matter-of-fact-ness. That is, she maintained a stage presence without doing particularly flashy dance moves. There were turns and dips and floor work and all kinds of dancerly things going on---don't get me wrong---but there was also a lack of pretense of the work. More on that later.

Warby was playing with images from classical dance, specifically the swan and the soldier. She danced in front of film and video projections of large waterfowl and her own dancing. The archival footage of the waterfowl were often grainy and lent a certain feeling of nostalgia. It reminded me of nature films in grade school, back when teachers had to know how to thread a film projector. The moments when her own dancing was projected behind her gave us that impression of dancing with herself---something that also often fascinates me. There were many elements of what she did that captured my attention in these small ways.

As for her actual movement vocabulary, her referencing the ballet images worked for me because she looked like someone who was playing at ballet, not trying to actually do ballet. (I was a bit surprised in her talk-back after the show when she said she was classically trained and much of her work is trying to undo that training---I'd say she's done well in the undoing.) There were no virtuoso turns or leaps. The most articulat part of her body appeared to be her shoulders, which I admit I found fascinating. Her shoulders were the source for most of her arm gestures and I was amazed at the range of motion there. There were times I would have sworn that her shoulder blades slid halfway around her rib cage or her clavicle might fold in half

All of which to say, this performance kept my attention. It played with conventions and devices that I find interesting and engaging.

This is not true of everyone in the audience.

Early in the performance---with all that small gesture and stillness---I heard a couple behind me make comments about falling asleep. They were not engaged and left about halfway into the performance. A man and a child two rows in front of me left just before the performance ended. The child especially appeared bored.

And I thought---This is not dance for a beginner dance audience. It is, in fact, advanced dance viewing. In hearing the comments behind me, I realized that I might have been in the same frame of mind several years ago. I would have been a bit more judgmental, also thinking, "would you please just DO something!"

But I brought to this performance not only a history of dance viewing, but also a knowledge of dance history. There was a point in the performance when I thought, "this owes so much to the Judson Dance Theater." That performance style I mentioned early---no pretense, no virtuosity---brought to mind the "No Manifesto" of Yvonne Rainer, who was a founder of the Judson group. It came as no surprise, then, when Warby told us in her talk-back that she was a student of Deborah Hay, also a member of the Judson group.

Much of this dance history is the result of my time at Columbia College Chicago, studying for my M.A. in Interdisciplinary Arts. One of the strongest aspects of that program was the dance history we got in out "movement images" class. When I lived in Austin, I had taken a couple of classes with Deborah Hay but was mostly befuddled by them---I didn't understand where she was coming from or what she was doing. After the movement images class, I had a much better appreciation for what she was doing. I understood more where she was in the spectrum of dance.

All of which raises the question: Do you need a master's degree to appreciate this art?

I'm not sure. Certainly there will be people who will pick up on the thought and intention behind post-modern art, just as I believe there are people who can pick up on the energy behind abstract expressionist painting without knowing the art history behind the movement.

At the same time, I sympathized with the people behind me. They simply didn't have the eyes for what Warby was presenting. I'd attained the eyes for it relatively recently myself. For me, that took studying for a master's degree.

Does that make what I saw Friday night "high art," or at least "higher" art?

I wouldn't say that. I would say that I've seen dance by, say a company like Philadanco, that was high energy, full of razzle-dazzle, full of crowd pleasing feats of physical prowess---and I would suspect the same amount of thought and creativity went into making that dance as Warby put into hers. It's different art. To use a loaded term, it's more accessible art. But low art?

Let's not kid ourselves. There is plenty of bad dance to be found. A lot of it is easy, move-and-pose dance, no matter how much energy goes into it. It's simply not that interesting. It might be entertaining, but it's ultimately eye candy. And I'm all for some eye-candy now and then---I sometimes say I like broccoli and I like Hershey's kisses, but I know the difference between their nutritional value and which is likely to better sustain me.

I enjoyed myself Friday night. I'm also glad that I didn't try to take certain friends with me to the show. It isn't the type of show that will fill a venue like the Cullen Theater and if it weren't for the huge projections, I would say it was better suited for a more intimate space. It's a credit to the Society for the Peforming Arts that they will book such challenging shows.

I often ponder the place of arts education in expanding an art audience. The above doesn't begin to cover all my ruminations over the last 48 hours since I left the theater.

But these are the places this performance took me. I would very much welcome comments on personal experiences with education and "getting" different styles or forms of art.