by Linda Shapiro   November 26, 2013

Dense, sly, rampant with references and footnotes, HIJACK s collaborative dance work marries tight composition and form to a rampage of ideas.
HIJACK: Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder
HIJACK: Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder
Photo: Gene Pittman

WRITING ABOUT HIJACK, the dance duo of Arwen Wilder and Kristin Van Loon, is a little like trying to dance the writing of David Foster Wallace. Dense, sly, rampant with references and footnotes, HIJACK ‘s work brings tight compositional form to a rampage of ideas. While Wilder and Van Loon yearn to find the connections between unlike things, to capture the way imagination really works, their work also possesses an essential bluntness that waylays pretension. Like Katniss Everdeen bellying up to a target, these smart, articulate women know what they’re doing -- even if we don’t always.

Here’s a description of a performance of their duet Colin Rusch and Angelina Jolie, which I saw a few years ago at the Rogue Buddha Gallery. It was my direct response to the work, not a review, written off the cuff for a zine that Emily Johnson, who organized the performance, was compiling:

“They seemed to be trying to figure something out about being friendly aliens in a baffling world, and that’s enough for me. What did they do? Well, they came onstage in glittery green outfits, looking like a cross between Disney undersea creatures and leprechauns. They had a long pole that functioned as a ballet barre, a penis, a prodder of various sorts. They pulled down a map and pointed some things out. As usual, they infected everything they did with sweetness and gravitas. “

That was HIJACK at around age fifteen. Now the two are preparing for a new group work, HIJACK at 20 redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye, commissioned by and premiering at the Walker Art Center December 5-7. I have attended some rehearsals, chatted with Van Loon and Wilder, and done some back-and-forthing with them by email. Looking through my morass of notes, I’ve decided to rig up a sort of call and response format that mixes their thoughts on the work (in italics) with my own observations. Let the games begin.

With this dance, we aim to change what it is beautiful. Our value judgments have been changed over the course of the three-year creation process. A lot happens in the course of the evening. The nine of us dancing on stage experience and express evolutions in our own judgment and aesthetics with every run of the dance. We invite and challenge the audience to change by viewing this dance and, as a result, re-enter the world seeing beauty in new and unexpected ways and places.

At a rehearsal on the McGuire Theater stage, the group (seven women and two men of various ages and temperaments) do exercises at portable ballet barres, or wander, or lounge, or languish. Oh, and this is the dance itself, not a warm-up. There’s a kind of doggedness about the way they perform their various tasks, and a lot of restless shifting around. They execute a more-or-less formal ballet barre, almost in unison. Little dramas occur. Moody solos suggest the expressive modern dance of, say, Martha Graham. There are fleeting interactions between performers—sometimes brusque, sometimes playful. Different things happen in various areas of the stage—one dancer seems to be rehearsing her destiny, another biding his time, others enduring non-specific events that read as traumatic, distressing, or just plain annoying. Sometimes they move en masse.

We are so slow and deep and arching and aspiring to perfect sequentiality and line that our physical limits are plainly exposed. Here, see our individual strategies for survival. We invite The Ideal (in your imaginations) to hobnob with The Reality (of our effort).

At first, the movement is in unison. As it shifts and evolves we ask, ‘how soon do we register that change has occurred? When something changes does it ever return? Is anything inevitable?’ As a group we ooze across the stage, in and out of unison in a complicated shifting of loyalties and groupings.

In a section they refer to as “Mr. HIJACK,” Van Loon and Wilder perch on a small platform assisting one another in simple gymnastic maneuvers--rolls, somersaults,  backbends. They spout syllables like “Tag, Fo,” which sound Chinese. Van Loon says to Wilder, " It would be great if you would not automatically respond with aggression when I try to give you feedback." Later, she does a little go-go dance, while sing-songing, “I got my degree in just four days!” Meanwhile, Tom Lloyd and Craig Van Trees flow in and out of holds, like an Oldenburg soft sculpture-version of wrestling.  Then they run around, opening various curtains, doing sporty guy stuff, poking one another. Finally, all four pose for a photo—or is it an interrogation? (bright light, startled looks).

I get the feeling this piece is not so much about fragmentation as it is about layering one thing over another, shifting figure and ground so there’s a bleeding through, an infection from one to the other. As in David Foster Wallace’s writing, there are stylistic shifts of register between casual and formal, abstract and personal, disciplined and free-form. Things that might at first seem arbitrary reappear in different contexts: the sense of small spectacles and rituals, for instance, scattered throughout the piece as performers are wheeled in on platforms, sometimes ringing little bells. It’s a pageantry reminiscent of Asian theatre, mixed with an unsettling sense of ordeal as, for instance, two women are ceremonially dragged in clinging to barres.

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Don’t get us started on the discussion of ballet barres. They are parentheses. A pigpen. Sol LeWitt lines. Barres are a concrete local environment in the cosmic floatiness of the black box theater.  

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Don’t get us started on the discussion of ballet barres.  In this dance they are parentheses. A pigpen. A concrete local environment in the cosmic floatiness of the black box theater. Barres are Sol LeWitt lines. Barres are support for practice or warm up.  Morgan Thorson heaves the barre overhead, heroically balancing on one foot.  Then in one fluid descent, she dangles below it like seaweed on the hull of a boat. They are like ropes around a boxing ring: Arwen and Kristin lean on them, coaching their fighters. Jennifer Arave and Morgan cockfight. Arwen and Kristin fill in the negative space below the barre with the grid of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photos of nine water towers. Barres broadcast that ‘this is a dance.’

Two chairs sit in tandem on the stage. Wilder lifts Van Loon and carries her from the front to the back chair. Then Wilder re-positions the front chair behind Van Loon and repeats the process over and over. Gently and resolutely, everything is re-positioned exactly as before. Even when seated, Van Loon’s feet are held aloft so they never touch the floor; she is transported. Wilder does the work, but doesn’t seem to mind. The whole sequence is both meditative and forlorn, impersonal and intensely intimate. Each exists in her own ether.

As writer/director Lee Breuer once said, “Subtext is like a virus that gets inside the body of a story and turns it into itself." And this dance is all subtext. Present onstage is the history of HIJACK, their years of collaboration in the alternative performing arts scene of the Twin Cities. There are the histories of every dancer and actor onstage -- how they train, how they survive, how they relate to one another and to the act of performing. There is the Walker Art Center itself, a bastion of modernism. No slouches in the plastic arts department, Wilder and Van Loon gave a talk about the piece at Walker that focused entirely on the artists who have inspired them. They went through the list alphabetically, starting with John Baldessari and ending with Andy Warhol.

Our set is made of the Walker’s grand piano, crappy ballet barres borrowed from Zenon and stolen from the old SpaceSpace then repaired by Bedlam Theatre, and platforms from Bryant Lake Bowl.  In striving to make a dance which is site-specific to the Walker, we ended up putting all our favorite small “alternative” theaters in Minneapolis, like Red Eye, either into the title or the set. What is this mess doing on the pristine McGuire stage? Isn’t it beautiful? Doesn’t it look like modern art? There are appropriate things to do with ballet barres. We do those things, too. Here, they frame our movement like text boxes.

Four performers nudge a  barre slowly across stage. Van Trees stands apart, noodling to George Harrison singing "My Sweet Lord, ” getting it on while Morgan Thorson plays stern ballet mistress doing barre exercises with hips occasionally twitching. Eventually Thorson, Van Trees, and Lloyd wrestle the barre to the ground, even as Thorson maintains her ballet stance. Saving her art from the barbarians? Tradition persisting in the face of marauding new forces? There’s a serious energy about Thorson throughout this piece, and a febrile intensity. When she lies down, it’s as if she’s prostrating herself. Her presence is iconic: part Joan Crawford, part Tilda Swinton, part uncompromising Soviet heroine.   She both grounds the piece and startles it.

We have carefully built a sound-score out of hundreds of edits from dozens of sources of found sound. We swim in the sonic pool of our contemporary environment: how-to videos interrupted by pop-up ads from the internet, classic rock on car radios, austere avant-garde piano compositions confused with jazz improvisations confused with kittens frolicking on the keyboard. Hard and soft edges between songs (abrupt, elided, layered transitions) suggest beginnings and endings the dancers join or ignore. Silence is framed.

This is how it ends. Wilder and Van Loon undulate to samplings of vintage sentimental songs, each in her own world. They could be channeling lyrics into movement in the kitchen. Their unassuming musicality and the slithery math of their precise moves read as both lush and austere, miraculous and mundane.

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Related event information:

HIJACK at 20, including the world premiere of redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye, will be at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis December 5, 6, and 7. For details and ticket information: http://www.walkerart.org/calendar/2013/hijack-2.

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About the author: Linda Shapiro writes about dance and performance. She was the co-founder and co-artistic director of New Dance Ensemble, a repertory company, from 1981-94.