Do remember this

Virginia Baxter: Antistatic 99

As part of antistatic, choreographer-dancer Julie-Anne Long and I created Rememberings on Dance, a performed conversation in which we attempted to harness a little of the electricity generated by the event. Looking at the ways memory operates in performance and its reception by audiences, we began by admitting to personal lapses: when Julie-Anne is taken by a particular movement, she has a strong desire to see it again and finds it difficult to see the rest; whereas I retain overall atmosphere and feel but rely on conversation to recall precise moves. We spoke from a table covered with books (about memory and dance), notes, pens and markers. Julie-Anne had a knot around one finger with a large ball of string handy beside here. At one point she rolled up her sleeve to reveal more reminders scribbled in biro.

We began with “Doing a Dumas”, a conversation about Julie-Anne’s recent experience working on Russell Dumas’ Cassandra’s Dance which opened antistatic. I quoted Russell from an interview in Writings on Dance: “(The dancers are) not trying to produce how they’re being seen. The trick is to have the work just out of grasp so that the dancers’ focus is just on doing the task rather than displaying the task or mastery of the task.” In answer to my question about the task, Julie-Anne demonstrated a fragment of the process:

JAL “Well, okay, you might take a move like this (SHE LIFTS WEIGHT ONTO THE RIGHT LEG, LETTING THE LEFT LEG ROTATE BEHIND AND SWING BACK OUT TO THE SIDE). We’ll go over and over it for hours, days to learn where the weight is, how the muscles respond to this particular way of moving. The next day, Russell might come in and teach the move in an entirely different way as if the other had never existed.”

VB So you’re forgetting at the same time as working towards a deep memory of the moves…And is the audience witnessing your remembering?

JAL Once we enter the frame we concentrate fully on executing the task. The audience is peripheral.

Along with memory in performance, the idea of the audience and its acknowledgment in the works presented at antistatic became a focus for our talk. In “Susans”, we concocted a conversation which might have occurred following the performance of Ros Warby’s original home. The conflicting memories of 2 women with almost the same name competed with Dionne Warwick’s of Always Something There to Remind Me.

Susan: I felt I had entered some strange terrain in which time had stopped. The bodies had forgotten themselves. Movement was absolutely ineffectual.

Suze: I remember something unnaturally “natural” in which 3 performers were either totally uncomfortable or too comfortable.

Later I confessed to a theory I’d started hatching as I watched original home. One of the pleasures of events like antistatic is the opportunity to see a lot of work and suggest some connections.

VB When Shona Innes rolled across the floor and landed against the wall and seemed stuck there as though she’d forgotten what happened next I was wondering why dancers would be feeling forgetful about their bodies? Why now?

JAL Oh, I think they’ve been thinking like this for a while—too long I’d say.

VB Thinking what?

JAL How the dancing body feels to the dancer, simple as that.

The ensuing awkward pause in the conversation forced us into the next section, “Something else”, in which the hazy memories of one were prompted by physical clues from the other. The topic—Rosalind Crisp’s work proximity.

VB I took a friend who said to me afterwards—(SHE STOPS AND JULIE-ANNE GESTURES WITH HER EYES) “I’ve never seen a dancer so self-absorbed. She almost didn’t need an audience”…I was shocked. Then she said this didn’t mean she hadn’t enjoyed the work. On the contrary she admired the dancing…it’s strength and lightness.

JAL Why would that shock you?…The audience watches the dancer…(VIRGINIA FEELS HERSELF ALL OVER)…feeling how her dancing body feels to her.

In the same program, Lisa Nelson’s remarkable work Memo to Dodo produced more divergent memories.

JAL I couldn’t work out whether this was Lisa Nelson or a personification of something else. Was she looking at us, was she seeing us as those eyes shifted in and out of focus…

VB This one added some more to my theory. So did Ros Crisp’s “dead hand” as you call it. Lisa Nelson’s body looks like it’s asleep…it’s alert, then barely conscious, forgetful. It moves to instructions from an invisible presence on a crackly recording.

JAL The movement is expert but it has no ulterior purpose.

VB Meaning bounces round the room, just out of grasp.

(Later in the week, Lisa Nelson said of this work “My dances are vision-guided, not eye guided. At first I saw this as a way to flex my visual muscles and to stimulate the imagination in my body. The muscles, the lens—it’s the full orchestration. I just have tremendous sensation there. I always have had, ever since I was kid.”)

Jude Walton’s elegant Seam re-surfaced in slow stabs at memory—screen, film, pen, hand, writing, hysteria, translation, paper, pins, breathing, a body beneath, breathing, a curtain revealing, red, screams red, slip, screen, ocean, endless ending…

Whereas our memories of Helen Herbertson’s Morphia Series—Strike 1 tumbled over each other.

VB That sense of senses deprived. Forced to peer, squint into the dark, into the ghostly glow of the proscenium and…

JAL Love, love, LOVED the fire!

But when we tried to remember precisely—

VB Do you remember what Helen Herbertson was doing? How she was moving?

JAL (ATTEMPTS THE MOVEMENT BUT CAN’T CAPTURE IT). Whatever it was, I know I just loved it.

To elicit a bit more detail from our memories of the Femur program which featured highly memorable works by Ishmael Houston-Jones, Jennifer Monson and the improvising duo Trotman and Morrish we tried Lisa Nelson’s workshop technique in which dancers create complex improvisations triggered by a set of instructions (Enter, Play, Reverse, Repeat, Exit) called from the sidelines. We improvised with a set of sentences, discovering our memories of these works were less conflicting.

JAL They take the space. Demand our attention.

VB Her body is charged, circuits kicking in, synapses snapping. Body at full stretch.

JAL Presentational. Acknowledge the audience. The dancers stood in front of us. I settle when I feel that.

VB She goes about her work, as we watch. Like that song, “Busy doing nothing working the whole day through, trying to find lots of things not to do.” Occasionally she acknowledges us. Just enough. Dean Walsh swears she winked at him.

In the final sequence in the performance, “Butoh Memory”, we substituted objects on the table for memories of the performances in Spur.

JAL Needles in eyes (scissors).

VB Speed contained (a book of matches).

As we lifted each object/memory we placed it in a bag and left the room and the table empty.

As always, the conversation continues. Julie-Anne’s memories affect my own recall of antistatic as do other conversations had at and after the event. At the dinner conversation on the penultimate night, Lisa Nelson talked about the dilemma of people being able to look at dance. It’s “so removed”, she said. She thinks dancers need to re-invent, reframe the ritual and share some of the incredible things that happen in a dancer’s body-mind, to show the intelligence at work behind the movements. Dancers need to ask themselves, why do that? Why add another move? And sometimes, “Oh, God, take some away!” The aim should be to make something visible not to support “an illusion of necessity.” She says, “Sometimes it feels like it’s important to someone but it’s hard to say why. And sometimes, let’s face it, it’s hard to watch someone so….committed.”

On the same night, Ishmael Houston-Jones talked about performing his work Without Hope. “It’s changed a lot. Sometimes I find it too emotional to tell about my friend who’s dying. Suddenly one night I find myself talking instead about a picture I’d seen about what elephants do, how they go off by themselves to find a place to die…” Having felt the power of his performance, such a significant change was at first inconceivable. And then it wasn’t.

Axis: Julie-Anne Long & Virginia Baxter, Rememberings on Dance, April 11

RealTime issue #31 June-July 1999 pg. 14

© Virginia Baxter; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 1999