The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2010

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MAR 2010 Issue


If the current environmental crisis proves anything, it is how unnatural “nature” actually is. Which is to say, how increasingly what has been perceived as “natural” is contingent on human involvement and error. Kathy Westwater’s latest work, PARK, conceived in collaboration with poet Jennifer Scappettone, extends her preoccupations with the horrors of the body, a subject which she explored in her 2008 work Macho. Only whereas in Macho she attempted to “unmake” the world via evocations of the “body in pain” during the Bush regime (philosopher Elaine Scarry’s terminology), in PARK Westwater performs both an unmaking and remaking of worlds in the midst of ecological calamity.

Kathy Westwater's <i>PARK</i>
Kathy Westwater's PARK

The sites of this process of remaking are at once somatic and linguistic. Seeing PARK (still in progress) at Dance Theater Workshop’s 3rd floor studio on February 18, I was acutely aware from the start that I was witnessing bodies deforming themselves through movement techniques. These deformations occurred during Abby Block’s parts, whereby she would thrust and gyrate her pelvis violently with her back towards the audience. They also occurred when the dancers writhed on the floor, seemingly in agony. The violence of these bodily struggles were punctuated by a soundtrack by Sean Meehan, Toshimaru Nakamura, and Keith Rowe, which featured an almost super-audible high frequency pitch that, along with the florescent lighting of the dance studio, at times proved intensely irritating.

Correlating the many physical deformations of Westwater’s choreography was poet Jennifer Scappettone’s score of “pop-up choruses”—image- and word-based collage-texts Scappettone wrote after her extensive research on various public parks, Superfund sites, and other sites of human intervention into natural landscapes. Having seen Scappettone’s work on the page and heard her speak about it in conversation, I found it fascinating to see the work spoken (and often sung, grunted, and screamed) by Westwater’s dancers. One of the most difficult tasks I’ve found in dance and theater works that use disjunctive texts (Scappettone is writing after a tradition of American and European Modernism and is a scholar specifically of Italian Modernist poetry and art), is to effectively incorporate these texts into performance. Attending Scappettone’s language performed by Westwater’s dancers, I found the language particularly effective when it became cacophonous (such as a moment in the performance when the dancers pulled a Mylar tarp over the audience and proceeded to intone together) and when it used repetitive structures (such as the last scene of the work when the performers stood behind the audience speaking the same phrases together with different inflections and iterations). In both of these scenes, I had the sense that the language was more like song, or even opera, as its musical and gestural qualities exceeded anything being communicated.

While there were many memorable moments about Westwater’s highly episodic work, two particular moments of the performance struck me as particularly evental. The first occurred when dancers Rebecca Brooks and Ursula Eagly rolled out a large sheet of Mylar over the studio floor and proceeded to walk on the Mylar in shoes fashioned from wood logs. Gradually and in synch, Brooks and Eagly walked towards each other, turning at the center of the sheet to face the audience. They then walked towards the audience until they were nearly at the front row. As Dan Hurlin rightly pointed out at the beginning of the post-showing Q&A, the ritualistic walk was “mythic,” conjuring simultaneously both dryads (tree nymphs) and some kind of evolved humanoid creature of the future. Crouching before the audience, the dancers transformed themselves into something at the limits of the human. Their slow movements and pronounced breathing patterns struck me as otherworldly and strange.

In addition to this “episode” or “event” (I have been pondering what to call these dramatic interludes which invariably erupt in contemporary dance) there was another, where a pile of socks was placed on Rebecca Davis’ back, and Davis crawled backwards until the socks shook off. There were also the events of wrapping a dancer’s face in cellophane, following a dancer with a flashlight with the studio lights off, and sculpting the Mylar sheet into peaks and valleys.

But if any one scene spoke to the word “remaking”—a remaking of the world that must occur in relation to our ecology—it was Kazu Nakamura dancing with the shoes fashioned from logs. Using the shoes as a crutch at one moment, a pillow at another—putting them, in other words, to multiple uses—the log shoes became metaphorized. Other uses for the log passed into consciousness, other relations of Nakamura’s body to the log shoes. Nakamura’s dance reminds us that in order to “remake” the world, we must change our objective, physical relationship to perceived “nature,” and that this transformation begins through what we do with our bodies.  How our bodies use and are used. How they form new use values with things—whether shoes made of logs, or language as a material shared in common.


Thom Donovan

THOM DONOVAN edits Wild Horses of Fire weblog, and co-edits ON: Contemporary Practice, a journal committed to writings about one's contemporaries. His poetry, criticism, and scholarship have been published variously.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2010

All Issues