NOT MANY PEOPLE ARE THERE WHEN I FIRST GET TO SOO VAC to see gallery performances by Kristin Van Loon, Katharine Hawthorne, and Chris Schlichting. I can wander around the gallery in peace and quiet, which I do, twice. The art, like much visual art, strikes me as a bit uncompromising: it sits there on the wall, presenting its glossy surface, and I look at it; if I want more, I have to invent it, have to narrate it to myself, while the art sits on uninterested in me. But then, on my second circuit I notice a spider calmly perched on the wall at the corner of a vitrine, legs arched, ready for motion.
The spider is a harbinger. People begin to come in, livening up the space with their gestures, their hair, their going-out clothes. The art becomes a plant for reactions; people especially enjoy reacting to Erin Hernsberger's Pig Embryo and Cottage Cheese -- which is exactly what it sounds like, gross-out food porn. But no one is grossed out. People are enjoying putting on a gross-out face for a moment, for the entertainment of other people.
Soon we gather for more formal entertainment -- marginally more formal, anyway: there's no stage, so we huddle together on the floor. There is a curtain though, red velvet, hung across a corner, and from behind it emerge Kristin Van Loon, her three dancers, and two potted plants. Finishing Early is a crowd-pleaser. Partly it's the '70s soundtrack, partly it's the dance jokes (hands milking air, comic book hero poses, replays), partly it's the mood we're already in; mostly, I think, it's because we're all watching Van Loon's face, and she looks so happy. She looks even happier because her expression changes all the time, now a little vulnerable, now surprised, now a moment of worry about what comes next, now delight again. Energy fills her: When everyone does a swivel-hips turn, Van Loon does it farthest, turning her bottom half almost all the way around. The piece's most exhilarating moment is an instant replay, Van Loon leaping sideways off the floor. How does she do it? No time to wonder: Van Loon and her crew scuttle out a back door as if they were feeding out line down a cliff face.
And in comes San Francisco-based Katharine Hawthorne with her composer, Christopher Jette, to set up a theremin-ish device for her Soundlines. Giving off pops and squeals, the device extends its invisible zone of sensitivity towards a corner of the room and Hawthorne plays in it, sometimes patting and leading its effects like an animal she's training, sometimes twining about it like a partner or abruptly stepping out of it, one arm up for silence. It strikes me that this scene is so preciously art-world -- a crowd of people huddled on a gallery floor, watching a serious young woman's dance doodle with rapt attention -- that it wouldn't be out of place in a Woody Allen film. And yet I still find it worth my while to sit here, with my foot falling asleep. Hawthorne may be young and her idea a little one-dimensional, but her wonderful intentness makes the moments matter, gives them weight and complexity. Sometimes she looks like she's trying to escape her instrument's laser eye; sometimes she's a preacher feeling for the spirit in the air. Sometimes I think she's afraid of it, afraid to begin it again; I love the moment when she's stepped out, her hand in her hair. I love it when she seems to find the instrument's cause and effect in herself, when one tap on her sternum causes her whole body to open out like wings. She makes me wonder what we are, what I am: trigger or response?
The scene is so preciously art-world -- a crowd of people huddled on a gallery floor, watching a serious young woman's dance doodle with rapt attention -- that it wouldn't be out of place in a Woody Allen film. And yet I still find it worth my while to sit here, with my foot falling asleep.
For his Untitled, Chris Schlichting pushes us all back out of the long room we've been sitting in and into the hallway that leads to it, so that when the dancers approach from the far end of the long room, it's "Here come the shadows" for me. My view, like that of most in the audience, is partial: sometimes I see people, sometimes limbs, sometimes shadows, and sometimes I just hear more advantageously placed spectators reacting.
Perhaps you're thinking, "Poor you! I didn't see anything at all -- this is the first I heard of this event, and it's already over!" Well, we should both just get used to it, because with the all-but-demise of the Southern, independent choreographers like these are out in the cold, showing work in galleries and studios without much advance press. True, these pop-up events have always been part of the local avant-garde scene, but Schlichting was supposed to show work at the Southern this summer. Until something arises to fill that gap, we'll all have to be more enterprising, I suppose -- choreographers taking up the challenge of offbeat sites, audience catching these performances where they can. (To stay abreast, I recommend subscribing to the local dance newsletter.)
At any rate, the partial view is its own experience. For me, it tinges Untitled with darkness. I can believe that Schlichting's three running-gear-clad dancers are shades, killed in some tragic road race accident, and now come to visit us for a moment, like modern Wilis. They sprint around, they sexify their running shorts with a strange caressing walk, they wave with one hand while they run. They also perform a lot of that semi-vocational motion everyone seems to do now (Van Loon throws in some of itm too): invisible dial-twiddling and lever-throwing, like the heroic engineer in a space opera. This stuff is starting to distract me. It reminds me of those 80s dance crazes based on mundane motions -- The Lawnmower, The Cherry-Picker, The Shopping Cart, The Sprinkler, The Windshield Wiper. When Schlichting's dancers are not doing this sort of thing, though, they create a mood of otherworldly threat or promise, enticing in their prolonged goodbye. (All the dancers are good, but I especially like Sam Johnson's fey gaze.)
Someone opens the gallery door. "There a bathroom?" he asks. A gallery worker makes short work of him, but when I turn my attention back to the dancers, I feel I'm watching a sort of dead air, the camera left running after the scene is over, after the spell is broken.
Noted performance details:
The local dance newsletter Lightsey mentions is "Dance Community News" - which used to be a courtesy of the Southern, but has since been taken over by Laurie Van Wieren and Kaleena Miller courtesy of 9x22 Dance/Lab and Springboard for the Arts.
About the author: Originally from Tallahassee, Lightsey Darst is a poet, dance writer, and adjunct instructor at various Twin Cities colleges. Her manuscript Find the Girl was recently published by Coffee House; she has also been awarded a 2007 NEA Fellowship. She hosts the writing salon, "The Works."