On September the 13th and 14th I will be taking on a short dance research and artist residency at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Rutgers is a public Ivy League school and is the eighth oldest institution of higher education in the U.S. Among many appealing attributes, including an incredibly landscaped ‘old-world’ campus, the university has a strong history in feminism, with the New Jersey College for Women opening up within the school in 1918. The New Jersey College for Women was pioneered by Mabel Smith Douglass who worked tirelessly for 6 years to establish this liberal arts college at a time when higher education opportunities for women were sparse. In 1955 the New Jersey College for Women was named the Douglass College to honour its founder.
At the beginning of this week I strolled around the lush-green picturesque campus with Professor Jeff Friedman (Rutgers Dance Faculty), who organized the residency for me. Jeff is a dear friend and mentor of mine who I met as a student when he was teaching me Oral History in Performance at the University of Auckland. Oral history methods (involving the recording of stories told orally) was one of the five methodologies I used in my mixed methodological approach to writing my thesis Choreographing Self-Determination for Indigenous Women and creating the work Playing Savage which came out of this research. My work is but one example of a plethora of socially active performances that Jeff has spurred on around the world with his incredible and inspiring teachings.
During my residency I will be giving three lectures – one to Asia-Pacific Histories students titled Memory Retrieval in Maori and Pasifika Contemporary Dance and two to dance students titled Re-organizing Cultural Stereotypes in Choreography. I will also be giving a public performance of my solo Playing Savage (hopefully for the last time)! in the beautifully intimate yet spacious Loree Studio Theater.
On Sunday the 10th of October Berlin-based performance artist/choreographer Alexa Wilson and I will be showing our collaborative cyberformance Die Totezone in the 101010 UpStage Festival. Upstage is a web-based venue for online performance – online audiences anywhere in the world participate in live performance events by going to a webpage, without having to download and install any additional software. For this year’s festival, there’s going to be a “real life access node” set up at Tapac in Western Springs as part of the Tempo Dance Festival in Auckland, which basically means the two festivals are joining forces to promote access. Yipeeee! There will be a programme of 5 shows starting around 8pm, with each show being up to 20 minutes long.
Within Die Totezone, Alexa and I are going to play around with the relationship between two physical spaces far away from each other in distance yet closely tied – that is the ‘Deadzone’ of the former Berlin wall (between parts of the two former east and west walls which were policed for 30 years during the GDR reign) and the ‘Queen’s Chain’ (the contested foreshore between the high and low tide on the beaches of New Zealand). In honour of the dead and to performatively heal these ‘warlike’ liminal cultural spaces we combine forces to present an ‘avant-garde tourist video-dance’ of both educational and entertainment proportions. Please do come along! (either cyberly or physically) and check out the madness that insues when two activists of the somatic persuasion get hold of a couple o’ computers.
Irregular flashes of light across the stage reveal an electric guitar, speaker and mic-stand to the right. There is a sense of loss and abandonment here, instruments incomplete without their players. A half-round curve of heavy blue-grey curtains provides an unusually shaped backdrop, which as the flashing fades to darkness and the light ever so slowly grows again, is revealed to be a wry suggestion of an empty small-town cabaret lounge. The huge image of two dandelions being blown in the wind stretched wide in front of the curtains echoes the sense of romantic wishing that tends to linger in such an environment. Two figures are positioned centre-stage, sitting side by side on the carpeted floor with legs stretched out and backs to the audience. Slowly they recline in unison until lying submerged in their world, and as the man apprehensively stretches his arm out to grab the woman’s, their intimate interplay begins.
Awkward engagement and disengagement is at the core of this restless folding and unfolding duet. Man and woman dressed in every-day clothing roll and struggle across the floor, stopping every now and then for long periods, finding it difficult to make prolonged physical connection. The choreography has been given all the time and space it needs, allowing the work’s message to gradually and undetectably seep into the hearts of its audience like love-sickness. Penetrating insight into the nature of a steady declining relationship is delivered through the movement’s calculated clumsiness, which in its disregard of the balletic code provides an astonishing unpredictability.
The man and woman stirring uncomfortably in each other’s presence are Europe-based choreographers Meg Stuart and Philip Gehmacher. In 2007 the two came together in collaboration to create Maybe Forever, which has been touring the world ever since and is performed as part of the main performance program of the 10th Indonesian Dance Festival in Jakarta. Although both very different in their approach to choreography, space and design, the two arrive at a complimentary meeting place that, unlike the disintegrating relationship they demonstrate, has proven to be a winning point of departure.
Stuart and Germacher are joined by Brussels-based singer/songwriter Niko Hafkenschield, whose shiny blue lounge jacket surreptitiously reinforces the tired pub-like environment. His sweetly melancholic series of love ballards infuse the dancing with a fragile and delicate darkness. Quite indie-blues and up-to-date in its retro character, Hafkenschield’s performance contextualizes the story of love in a contemporary setting, helping to transform age-old issues into radically progressive performance. With his soft and vulnerable lilting he is a modern day angel of sadness – honest and open, almost unbearably so, in that he demands us to be honest with ourselves.
Stuart performs two text-based solos in the work spliced with abstract gestural arm movements, each solo positioned at either end of the stage. The first she performs in a skirt and heels, both rather drab and forgettable in colour, the skirt at an awkward just-below-the-knee length. She also wears a restrictive dark leather or vinyl jacket, completing a rather incoherently assembled outfit. The loud squeaking and crunching of the jacket amplified by the microphone emphasizes the ongoing feeling of unease, of everything being not quite right. Interrupted by gestures and silences that drag her away from the microphone, her text is broken and incomplete. Right down to the very last detail, this work is a tour-de-force of struggle.
Gehmacher’s solo is performed in his signature style of timid apprehension towards space. Shoulders inelegantly reaching for the ears and gawky transfers of weight as he walks from one position to the next create an uncoordinated language of movement that speaks volumes for the uncoordinated relationship he is in. It is almost as though he is embarrassed, self-conscious of the fact that there are people watching him. He pulls back the curtains and reveals part of the backstage area. Stuart enters and together they perform a phrase of ‘almost-hugging’, difficultly manoeuvring around each other, he often failing to complete the connection. The cold black concrete of the theatre’s walls are exposed and so too is a cold and dying union.
The startling final act of the work plays out like a Lynchian memorial service, spooky enough to send shivers down my spine as I sit in disbelief. In a bright yellow shirt and black jacket and trousers, Gehmacher performs a final confession to the one he has lost – he moves abstractly around centre stage and as he does so, a recorded speech is laid over the top, the text broken up and slightly nonsensical. Without warning Stuart enters from the right in an intensely garish orange sequined dress, slinky and shimmering under the lights. We are caught off guard by this over-excited outfit, which after the previous dowdy and monotonous clothing makes a raucous and unsettling statement. She takes a seat next to the musician’s speaker. He enters and stands behind her as if to claim her as his. Almost menacingly she simply sits and watches, looking ridiculously fabulous and no longer Gehmacher’s who is now out of his depth in this uncomfortable situation. And with a painstakingly slow lighting fade, the image is crystallized.
After seeing Maybe Forever I dreamt that I was having a conversation with the woman an ex-boyfriend of mine is seeing. She was crying hysterically, trying to make sense of their crumbling connection, demanding that I give her insight whilst simultaneously refusing to accept any advice I offered. For some reason this was all taking place on the sports field at my old primary school, an aptly surreal continuation of Stuart and Gehmacher’s performance which somehow managed to bleed further into my consciousness than I had hoped. Obviously this work affected me profoundly and like the memories of failed relationships will continue to stay with me, maybe forever.
Choreography and Dance – Meg Stuart and Philip Gehmacher, Live music – Niko Hafkenschield, Dramaturgy – Myriam Van Imschoot, Lighting Design – Jan Maertens, Scenography and Costumes – Janina Audick, Assistance Choreography – Sigal Zouk, Production Manager – Tanja Thomsen, Assistance Scenography and Costumes – Inga Timm