July 25 – August 15, 2020
You encounter Triple Expo, a new performance choreographed by Alexa West, in a shop window on a nondescript corner of a residential block in South Williamsburg. The performers are behind the glass, you are not. You hear waning sirens and stereo systems of passing cars, and through the glass you see their bodies writhing and shifting and cavorting in unison and discord, always in contact but rarely in sync. Your thoughts, meanwhile, might drift toward assessing how close your own body is to the other spectators around you.
Context is everything, or so the cliché goes. In watching Triple Expo it was the context—our collective context—that I could not escape. I might exhaustively describe the roughly 20 minutes of intricately paced movements, carried out by dancers Sharleen Chidiac, Megan Curet, Owen Prum, and Susannah Yugler, to a soundtrack of industrial static created by West. But to describe Triple Expo without context would betray my experience of the performance: it was the first I had seen in person in more than four months. In that time, the way we experience art has fundamentally transformed and Triple Expo is not exempt. Our ever-changing context of pandemic torques the performance’s axes of meaning.
Conceived as an examination of the aesthetics of communal labor, Triple Expo has now been refracted through our viral existence. This distortion of meaning is exemplified by the foundational shape upon which the dancers move: the elliptical stage. Not a circle, instead warped and oblong, the black and brown wooden ellipse hovers a few inches suspended off of the ground. Neon green latitudinal and longitudinal lines chart unknown courses across its surface. Designed by West and fabricated for the performance, it recreates the stage as the dancers’ own flat earth, a world almost like our own but, crucially, not quite.
The performance opens with Sharleen Chidiac, Megan Curet, and Owen Prum approaching the platform. Then Curet and Chidiac delicately stack their bodies and rest their heads on top of Prum, who crouches on all fours. Under the gallery’s fluorescent lights, this opening sequence creates an uncanny feeling of déjà vu, as if, in a world now defined by distance, you are watching close human contact, dimly remembered, somehow take place for the very first time. Chidiac and Curet untangle their bodies as Susannah Yugler sets her own body atop Prum’s back before he slowly stands and she slides off. As the four performers take turns on the platform in different pairs and triads, Triple Expo becomes a performance in the round, almost as if the elliptical stage is rotating.
If certain kinds of dance seek to obscure the labor of the body under the guise of feigned ease and grace, West’s athletic choreography foregrounds it. Dancers lunge, jump, and jog as if performing calisthenics, all underscored by the staccato noises of hands slapping together or forceful feet hitting the wooden platform. West’s choreography stresses the relational nature of these laborious movements. Though at times each performer engages in their own individual movement, they always return to collaborative postures, often physically supporting each other’s weight. In Triple Expo these networks of labor can be burdensome: there are moments when a dancer strains to lift their partner’s body. Perhaps the most striking collaborative movement is tucked away in the second half of the performance. Chidiac is seated on the platform and Yugler steps onto her thighs. Chidiac then begins to scoot backward, and with great effort slowly transports Yugler’s upright body across the platform, as if Yugler stands on a moving sidewalk. This poetic labor of support is accentuated by applause provided by the other performers as Chidiac arduously pushes her way backwards.
For all the ways the pandemic has remade society, it has been even more effective at stripping away its artifices. Perhaps instead of asking how our context has changed the meanings of Triple Expo, we ought to understand the performance as a looking glass, and the gallery’s windows as a lens that allows us to see our actual context—the one that was always there—more clearly. In the pandemic, it is made painfully plain that the labors of bodies lie at the heart of capitalist structures of oppression. If West’s performance began as a meditation on forms of communal work, now it speaks more profoundly to our reliance on collective labors and the affective registers of these networks. Dancers show the strain of their physical efforts, but they also clap and cheer for one another. Another form of affirmation, the “thumbs up,” appears conspicuously throughout West’s choreography. At times it reads as a hollow gesture, like an employee forced to pretend that they enjoy exhausting, underpaid work. Yet, at the end of Triple Expo, all four dancers unite once more on the platform, slapping its wooden floor before falling in slow motion to a seated position, as if the logical conclusion of their labors is rest or defeat. But then, as a final gesture, the group salutes the audience with their thumbs up. In its moments of optimism, Triple Expo also reminds us of the glimmers of joy that can be found in the work of supporting others.