The more than visual

Eleanor Brickhill: Antistatic 99

Jennifer Monson, Keeper

Jennifer Monson, Keeper

Comparing each artist’s entrance, I watched the tiny envelopes of ideas unfold in those first few seconds. Jennifer Monson made a racket climbing down a ladder in the dark, a hand-held light bouncing off chunky bare legs, strong feet; but also a feeling of precariousness, a rattling looseness, of missing her step. Ishmael Houston-Jones did not want us to see him at all, yelled to make the lights go out, sang a song in which he called a moth, “Here mothy, mothy, mothy.” He calls our focus to his voice. Trotman and Morrish entered with all the subtlety that epic minimalists might muster, quietly opening doors onto soft cross-roads of light, their de rigeur portent and tracksuit pants making us immediately remember every dance workshop we’ve ever been to.

In Keeper, Monson extends physicality into sound: vocalising and resonances like slurping, blowing raspberries, whistling, laughing, breathing, stamping, humming, guttural and animal-like. Her movement often seems comical, burlesque. We wait for the punchline but there isn’t one; the dance itself is that. Her sounds give her movement a feeling of clarity and form. At first, with a kind of childish simplicity and demand, she plays at the obvious, wanting grand gesture, practised physicality. A child’s imagination might aspire to finding form, making sense of things that way; an adult might want innovation and breaking that form up in order to find sense. Monson has captured both these levels.

Her movement can be fast, powerful and complex, integrity without a falter. Sometimes she finds soft, peculiar muted sounds, odd archaic movement, more fantasy than animal. At one point she is dancing with her shadow on the wall, not with that abstracted visual artistry that we have seen before at The Performance Space, but with the kind of immediate, gutsy demand for attention, a foil for high art.
In the Dark, Houston-Jones’ first work, gives us the sound and effort of movement, boots crashing round on the floor, uneven breathing, his voice telling us about Darryl who could only criticise dance in purely visual terms. We can’t see his body, but the amount of distortion in his voice and breath shows what sort of energy there is. We know where he is; we have images; there are things going on. Rather than invisibility, the work seems more and more to be about exploring what is revealed.

Rougher is really softer. Wearing a blindfold, he sees only by the direction of light and the shadow of his hands in front of his eyes. He randomly switches a hand-held light off and on, illuminating parts of his body: palm, calf, chest, under-arm. He swings it around, shifting the shadows, creating lines, setting up images of flesh, fleeting art. In a spotlight, we watch as he lifts his long shirt to reveal his crutch, a peculiarly vulnerable gesture.

In Without Hope a heavy concrete brick becomes a tool with which Houston-Jones vividly illustrates a series of horrific injuries suffered by some fragile human. He speaks clinically, an autopsy report, but the weight and roughness of the concrete is real and felt. Sometimes it pins him down; it is cradled, kissed, drunk from, dropped. Sometimes he lies over it, as supplicant or penitent we’re not sure.

Other no-win, no-choice stories: a New York law—if someone is dying, then doctors may prolong that life by mechanical means. But then, removing that mechanism amounts to manslaughter. Frida Kahlo’s text provides the title, “Without Hope.” Her suffering, while sometimes thought to be self-inflicted, is still real, both subject and impetus for her work.

As a subject of scrutiny, a body that is just itself, flesh, nerves, hormones, is defenceless in a way, open to whatever description an audience provides. To be scrutinised, to come face to face with mass judgment, does not seem to be a choice that ‘people who do gigs for a living’ can make. It is a heavy weight to bear if you know it can also destroy you.

Lastly, we see his eyes for the first time, looking up, engaging. His gestures are protective, indicating exposed jugular, glands, areas of fragility. It is then we know that this body, substantial, weighty, but full of the delicacy of nerves, breath and blood, is a vulnerable thing, capable of immense complexity, but easily damaged. The reality of humanity is not something one has a choice about.

Peter Trotman and Andrew Morrish, Avalanche

Peter Trotman and Andrew Morrish, Avalanche

The practice of ‘reverend awe’ and a sense of the ‘moral high ground’ have often been visible aesthetic qualities to which serious students of new dance apparently aspire. The wit of Trotman and Morrish lies in their expert physical capacity to reveal such idiocy, having an eye for every pretentious nuance and cliché in the new dance and theatre improvisation hand-books. Epic meaninglessness, vacuous intoning, deeply felt superficiality, or just standing round looking enigmatic, are faithfully reproduced in Avalanche, along with impeccable timing, flexible structure, compelling story telling, and some really good tricks with imagery, which make Trotman and Morrish’s commentary priceless.

All deal with more than the visual. Images and ideas coming to the mind’s eye give substance to the works. The tail ends of these pieces have brought us quite a way from their beginnings, but always with that palpable feeling of the body moving, causing, acting, creating.

Femur: Jennifer Monson, Keeper; Ishmael Houston-Jones, In the Dark, Rougher, Without Hope; Trotman and Morrish, Avalanche: The Convolutions of Catastrophe and Calling, the Creeping Spectre of Chaos and Collapse; Antistatic, The Performance Space, March 25 – 27

RealTime issue #31 June-July 1999 pg. 10

© Eleanor Brickhill; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 1999