To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artists Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney of Fire Drill shares their perspective on last night’s performance of Still Standing You by CAMPO/Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
The audience for Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido’s Still Standing You on Thursday night did not behave like a contemporary dance audience. On a visceral level, we behaved more like we were watching a circus or a wrestling match. We gasped, we winced, we recoiled, we craned our necks to see the action. We heard a few obliging gagging noises when a performer’s mouth was full of underwear. As a group, our timing was impeccable–we made rowdy laughs as if on cue, and we fell to a hush together. If typical contemporary dance audience behaviors include focused contemplation, parsing of references, and ironic chuckles, this behavior belonged more to an arena. They were the gladiators and we were the masses.
In Still Standing You, two men build a vocabulary of competitive behaviors that push physical and social boundaries. After an opening bit that establishes a) a gently antagonistic relationship between the performers and b) casual banter between performers and audience, the two men merge into a state of deeply performative play. They grunt like bulls, they strut like lions, they hiss like lizards. Garrido puffs out his chest, playfully winks at the audience, and wipes his sweat onto Ampe’s face. They fake each other out, pretending to be hurt or pretending to say sorry. The scenario escalates as they rip off their clothing, whip each other with their belts, and toss their pants into the audience. Ampe puts his Superman underwear on his head and Garrido chews it like a goat until he has (impressively) stuffed it all into his cheeks.
Steve Paxton is famously quoted as saying, “If you’re dancing physics, you’re dancing contact [improvisation]. If you’re dancing chemistry, you’re doing something else.” Ampe and Garrido are not dancing physics, nor chemistry–they’re dancing anthropology. While they’ve certainly upped the ante on partnering technique, they’re not doing it to explore weight shifts or body mechanics. They’re in the realm of the social. They hark back to the animal roots and the childhood memories of play, transposed into highly able adult bodies and keenly adjusted for pacing and format. This is what we would see if adults with post-pubescent strength continued to play, using the abandon that children exhibit.
Ampe and Garrido ape the behaviors of masculinity and expose the constraints of homosociality. Garrido tells us about his recent trip to Deja Vu–a moment that both places the performance here in Minneapolis in a casual, somewhat improvised statement, and announces that he’s into women. This prompted an ickier “no-homo” feeling initially, but it made the extensive penis play later in the piece a lot less sexual. And it is important representationally that we don’t see it as entirely sexualized. The penis play isn’t the sexual culmination of a playful meet-cute, and they don’t propose their aggressive play to lead to anywhere romantic. The one-upmanship logically extends their feats of physical endurance and line-toeing from subjecting each other to belt lashings and drop kicks, to foreskin-twisting and, well, more drop kicks. It wasn’t asexual in that it definitely recognized the naughtiness of nudity–much in how it relished the naughtiness of saliva and bravado–and they deliberately focus on the weirdness of penises as opposed to, say, the weirdness of earlobes. But based on their approach, it feels wrong to even delimit “penis play” with their other play. It is all the same research and relationship: how many ways can we relate to our bodies and each other?
In addition to avoiding an oversexualized lens, the playfulness also keeps the power dynamics and aggression readable as temporary competitiveness, rather than a character or even a performer in distress. They put on airs and knock each other down a peg, only to change the situation and dynamic immediately. The choreography often dictates that one of the men is horizontal while the other is vertical, in a shifting exchange of dominance and temporary power. This is a crafted give-and-take, and we as an audience understand that everything is consensual. These moments of combat are often peppered with a word or two of banter indicating the scripted nature of the tricks. (“Onion rings,” moans Garrido as Ampe breathes in his face, with the comedic timing of a Benihana chef.) There are also several moments of truce–a literal time-out is called at one point–and affection between the exhausted bodies as well, before launching into the next bit or provocation. We can laugh because we’re confident in the performers’ comfort and execution.
Of course, the tenderness and aggression that Ampe and Garrido display are conceptually, experientially, and aesthetically tied. Theorist Sianne Ngai links these affects to our relationship with commodities in late capitalism. Objects that call for our protection (think of babies, animals, stuffed animals) simultaneously inspire feelings of aggression or the desire to possess and to dominate. For Garrido to caress Ampe’s beard and then try to suffocate him with it does not display two conflicting desires, but rather they are integral components of the same impulse. Moreover, this twinned motivation “depends entirely on the subject’s affective response to an imbalance of power between himself and the object” (Our Aesthetic Categories, 54). The performers display shifting balances of power between themselves, but there is also constant interplay between them and the audience. Their tender/aggressive relationship and the framing of this work for the audience both have a close relationship to the commodity.
We consider this piece’s inclusion in a festival of performance alternatives–because Still Standing You is the most accessible contemporary dance work we’ve seen in a while. We find it accessible because it depends on comedy, physical feats, and culturally broad experiences of play, intimacy, and aggression. Appreciation of this piece doesn’t rest on one’s knowledge of form and the history of its innovation. The performers (particularly Garrido) often appeal to the audience for recognition, and we as viewers are not especially asked to shift our perception or mode of viewing.
Although some level charges of elitism or esotericism at contemporary art in general or the Out There festival in particular, Still Standing You does not support those claims. Instead, we’re reminded of Ben Davis’s assertion to the contrary:
One major contemporary trend in art is away from difficulty, toward really big objects, toward fashion: splashy gestures that go down easy. The old charge that museums are “elitist” doesn’t really feel totally right to me. MoMA’s doing a Björk show. The big institutions have found that buzz and long lines can replace intellectual cachet at a certain level, for the purpose of pleasing funders.
Still Standing You does not exemplify this form of celebrity pandering, and it may or may not be creating buzz. Discussions of accessibility, however, are always bound up in discussions of the bottom line.
Here’s another way to illustrate this tension, taken from a performance we saw last week at American Realness. Ivo Dimchev’s Fest (also presented by CAMPO) stages a conversation between the artist and a festival director who wants to present his work, an interaction that becomes increasingly warped and sexualized. The curator tells him that she thinks a lot of people in Copenhagen will want to see his work. “Are you saying my work is commercial?” he asks. “No, I’m saying a lot of people will want to see it,” she responds. Ivo concludes, “It’s the same thing.”
For Fire Drill, this piece’s accessibility creates a small crisis, because we actually liked the piece. Still Standing You bears many hallmarks of entertainment, and we get suspicious when they are mixed too liberally with art. If art must appeal to the widest possible audience, then how can it produce experiments that fail? If art can’t produce experiments that fail, then how can it produce new forms of thought and experience? But does that mean art has to be tedious and unappreciated within our culture? Still Standing You, in the context of the Out There festival, offers a kind of middle path to those questions. It appeals to a general audience without going for the lowest common denominator; it’s inventive and well-crafted without being obscure. When we view performance, we hope the work will revise our definitions of what art can be and do. As wary as we are of the proximity of art and entertainment, Still Standing You did challenge our definitions of both categories.
Still Standing You continues tonight (Friday, January 16) and tomorrow night (Saturday, January 17) at 8pm in the McGuire Theater.