Content Warning: Sexual violence
On Friday, Oct. 4, Wesleyan’s CFA theater hosted the Connecticut Premiere of New York City-based dance artist Netta Yerushalmy’s show “Paramodernities.” The show is composed of six dance performances, which are based on the deconstruction of iconic modern choreographies. These were performed while the contributions of writers—whose work on dance history and dynamics—was simultaneously read on stage.
In four of the six distinct dance-experiments presented Friday evening at the CFA, “Paramodernities” explored core issues of contemporary discourse, ranging from race and feminism to power and domination, while still maintaining a relatively humorous and ironic tone throughout. The dancers and scholars join Yerushalmy in challenging ideas of authorship, and raising questions about the different directions taken by modern traditions in dance and beyond.
“Paramodernities #1: The Work of Dance in the Age of Sacred Lives” is a response to Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography of Igor Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps” (The Rite of Spring) (1913), a landmark, and controversial, ballet performance which is said to have been one of the harbingers of the age of Modernity. On stage, dancer Marc Crousillat performed certain pieces of Nijinsky’s original choreography, with repetition and variation in speed, amplitude, and intensity of certain movements. This included the straight lines and right angles formed by the dancer’s arms and legs, reminiscent of the Ballets Russes’ original choreography. Strong facial expressions and assertive posture effectively conveyed emotions such as fear and pain, and the heavy breathing of the dancer—which is usually concealed with great effort in most traditional ballet choreographies—was given a special emphasis throughout the show.
Sitting at a desk, dancer David Kishik used an old-school slide projector and tape recorder to insert different cassettes of prerecorded texts. Meanwhile, fellow performer Crousillat danced around the desk to the rhythm of the pounding of his own feet and the clapping of his hands. A spoken narrative broke the silence—either from the recorded voice or from Kishik himself, who addressed the audience directly—eventually coming to tonally mimic a soundtrack.
One of the most thought-provoking aspects of “Paramordernities” was the meta-questioning of its own performance. Questions about the deconstruction of choreography arose, alongside ones about the positioning of choreography as writing, and dance as a “form of reading something that has never been written.” Dance—or rather choreography—in this piece thus becomes a tool of power and knowledge, offering a unique insight into political issues that could not be “read” or seen in other forms of art.
Dynamics between dance, the body, power, domination and conventionality were at the center of the performance, as the show transitioned to the second part, “Paramodernities #2” which mainly focused on “Female Trauma, Interdiction, and Agency in ‘The House of Pelvic Truth.’” The violent choreography was based on seminal modern dancer Martha Graham’s “Night Journey” (1947), a ballet choreography which makes references to “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles, but shifts the focus from Oedipus to Jocasta, Oedipus’ wife and mother.
Unison and staggered clapping, stomping and heavy breathing again permeated the show, this time creating a much more brutal tone, as if to reproduce an atmosphere of trauma, pain, and anxiety closely linked to sexual abuse. The effort and strain that could be read on Taryn Griggs and Yerushalmy’s faces reflected the vulnerabilities of being on stage and of being a woman. Power and intensity sprung from Carol Ockman’s reading of the text, which explores the story of a woman’s father, a dentist who “penetrates” her mouth to examine her teeth.
The performance moved on to “Paramodernities #4: An Inter-Body Event,” with bits of choreography from Merce Cunningham’s “Rainforest, Sounddance, Points In Space, Beach Birds, and Ocean” (1968-1990). For this piece, some members of the audience were invited onstage and were able to sit alongside the dancers, watching the show from another viewpoint and thus deconstructing the traditional idea of the stage as a binary space, with the audience on one side facing the performers on the other.
Both dialogue and silent interaction with the audience were a crucial part of the staging, and Croustillat and Brittany Engel-Adams took part in a dynamic and perfectly executed, yet airily relaxed, duet, which was accompanied by a poem.
“The body exalted. The body breaking. Here we go again…” poet Claudia La Rocco read. Space and time were at the core of this dance-experiment, with the dancers’ straight and circular lines imitating the movement of a clock. One of them most striking features of this part of the performance was the fact that the dancers, as well as La Rocco, were in a state of complete improvisation.
“How are you doing? Do you have stage fright?” The readers asked the dancers, who presented anecdotes and comments on the very choreography they were executing—“I’m done,” they said, at the end of their solo—breaking their prior silence.
After the intermission, the audience was invited to assist in a performance of the provocative “Paramodernities #3: Revelations—The Afterlives of Slavery,” danced by a majority of the ensemble, in a response to Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations” (1960).
“How does the modern, as a conceptual mechanism, make space for Blackness, Africanist aesthetics?… Are these modernities of the body always white?” asked Duke Professor of Dance Thomas F. DeFrantz.
It is interesting to note how “Paramodernities” was designed to additionally be presented in de-theatricalized environments. The performance has the potential to move out of the contemporary experimental scene and into other indoor or outdoor places, big or small. This deconstruction of the idea of the stage could be felt throughout the show—although there was a stage, the audience could unconventionally sit on each side of the dancers, who had the freedom to improvise a conversation between them or with the audience. Yerushalmy also reserves the right to arrange the “units” of the overall show out of order, giving the possibility to “tailor” the performance each time it is presented.
“What are the power relations between a moving body and a speaking body? What gets excluded from the modern stage? What do staged bodies signify, other than their mere form? When can choreography shock us into though? Is a legacy public, and what can we legitimately do to it?” were some of the questions asked of the audience before the beginning of the show. Yerushalmy’s “Paramodernities” was sure to spark thought and offer several roughly sketched-out answers through her work, a work that constantly questions itself in an endless and ardent echo.
Claire Femano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.