Sunday, November 21, 2010

ASTR/CORD in Seattle

Just back from Seattle, and the joint American Society for Theatre Research/Congress on Research in Dance Conference. Kugler, Rob Kitsos, and I participated in a Thursday evening workshop purportedly aimed at coming up with some bombasts, manifests, and all-around provocative first principles regarding the creation, performance, and reception of a “bastard” form of dance-theatre that somehow wouldn’t be called that. You can check out the group’s preliminary blog posts on the topic at

The actual workshop discussion was decidedly disappointing; not only did the co-conveners have an agenda for the evening that seemed to obviate completely—if not be totally antithetical to—the work we had been asked to do prior to the conference, but one of said conveners was further intent on reducing everything to her own delimited and circumscribed performance practice, training, experience, and biases. Then, too, it became very clear that no one—least of all the conveners—was very interested in hearing about our experience of cross-disciplinary collaboration on The Objecthood of Chairs, which we had very clearly stressed would be our primary reference point in our initial proposal to join the workshop.

All of this may have something to do with the unique structure of the ASTR working groups model, which has now been in existence for some years. This replacement for the traditional panel paper presentations (although those still do happen at ASTR, in the plenary sessions) does have the benefit of encouraging participants to dialogue and share work and ideas before the conference proper. However, it also—by virtue of the workshops being open to auditors/audience members who haven’t been a part of this prior conversation—forces speakers to distill, at times extremely reductively, very complex arguments (that might have been part of a much longer paper) into pithy sound bites of no more than one or two sentences, the reverberations or connections between which the convener then assembles like some sort of choirmaster (or director, or choreographer). It’s perhaps for this reason that the convener’s voice tends to dominate, and everyone else ends up looking to some extent like a performing monkey—with audience members for the most part passively absorbing the spectacle. Alana’s workshop on Saturday morning, “Risking Encounter,” looked extremely interesting on paper, and, indeed, some very provocative ideas about the “ethics of touch,” in particular, were bandied about; but the number of participants (13) was just too large, and again one of the co-conveners (who hadn’t even circulated a paper!) spoke way too much. Where is the pay-off, I wonder, in someone journeying half way around the world to present their research for at most five minutes worth of speech?

To be fair, this is my first time at ASTR. And I did only attend two sessions… I’m a fairly grumpy conference-goer as it is, and I’m not very much of a fan of the traditional format either. Still, I think I’ll need to do a careful reading of the workshop proposals for next year’s ASTR meeting (sans CORD folks) in Montreal before I think of interrupting our planned semester sojourn in the UK with a return visit to eastern Canada in mid-November.

Conference-wise, Seattle may have been hit and miss—and they could have done better with the weather (though all the American announcers were uniform in their blame of the “arctic air from Canada” for the unusual cold snap)—but culture-wise the city delighted, as is so often the case. We had a fine post-workshop dinner with Kugler, Rob, and Rob’s wife, Lorraine (a quasi-Seattle native), at Tulio, which also doubled as a kind of deferred celebration of the Chairs production—which we measured by raiding our box-office take for the three very yummy wines the table shared. Then there was the incredibly comprehensive Picasso exhibit on at the Seattle Art Museum. There was a crush of bodies, but there was much work I hadn’t seen before, and it was mostly accessible for more than rudimentary contemplation.

Finally, on Friday evening we caught Ralph Lemon’s new show, How Can You Stay in the House All Day And Not Go Anywhere?, at On the Boards. I haven’t yet processed all that was going on in the piece, and I think in some respects my reaction was both pre- and over-determined by all that I had read in advance about the background to the work (in particular Lemon’s successive losses of his partner and then his longtime collaborator, Walter Carter). Still, I was definitely struck by the mixing of media—live narrated text, video, and recorded and live dance—and how what can be said about, what can be shown of, and what is felt as a result of grief could be tracked along two parallel (and inverse) tracks of abstraction and (in)articulacy. The dancers’ frenzied movements, their convulsive writhing (which is almost as painful to watch as it must be to perform), embodies both the release and the absorption (indeed, the reincorporation) that is a necessary component of the work of mourning.

Lemon’s artistic sensibility is as capacious and prickly as his view of the world, which he presents as vast and amazing and complex, but also as raw and unfinished and filled with thorny thickets. Grief is an especially painful and constricting brier-patch, but as Lemon here suggests via Lewis Hyde and Uncle Remus, a wily hare or rabbit can eventually find his or her way out. So too with this very challenging work of art. Lemon doesn’t make it easy for his audience, but just when it seems like he’s completely boxed us in as spectators/witnesses/co-supplicants, and left us “no room” to maneuver (and only one way to react), a hole opens up and a possible way forward is glimpsed.

Talk about an ethics of touch…


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