In the last month I was given the gift of Witnessing, of being present for, shows by artists who are making very different work but who are united by an experimental, process based vision of performance. A time based artform, performance tends to disappear as it emerges. This is one of my favorite things about the form but it does make it feel urgent to get some thoughts in place about these works before they have faded and been distorted by memory. So in the spirit of activating this blog, and of somehow preserving my experience of these performances: here are some thoughts.
My friend Bruce Brightly wrote eloquently about choreographer and polymath Eric Mullis in a recent issue of QC Nerve qcnerve.com/eric-mullis-motive-forces-camp-north-end/
I won't retread the details that you can read there but I do want to talk a little about the experience of seeing Motive Forces for myself.
Taking place in the cavernous Ford Building at Camp North End, in many ways the real triumph of Motive Forces was it's nimble, painterly use of scale, perspective and depth of field. Mullis's management and transformation of Space is what resonated most with me.
Of course, there were movement sequences of real virtuosic beauty (including a duet with Mullis and Joy Davis, as well as a fugue wherein a trio of performers executed a movement score chopped and screwed by a digital brain (see Brightly's article for context...I promise this isn't just word salad) and the sound design by Brent Bagwell was a brilliant hopscotch of noise and rhythm and mood. And while I find the philosophical questions Mullis is wrestling with compelling (again...see the Brightly article for context), for me the real pleasure of Motive Forces came from being ushered into a mirror world, very much like our own but distorted (at other times clarified) in a way that prompted reflection. This space felt familiar and strange...it felt like the future.
This was, somehow another world, real first only in Mullis' imagination and then made manifest in the material realm. That it was crafted beautifully is just gravy as far as I am concerned. The real achievement (for us fallen westerners at least) is the demarcation of existing space as somehow different, set aside, unsame and sacred. A coherent conjuring of a new world inside of and concurrent with our old one...when an artist does this it resonates with their audience (even if only unconsciously) that reality is malleable and that the world we live in is formed (and can be changed) by choices made and action taken. The expansion and contraction of space in Motive Forces allowed the numinous to emerge briefly into the mundane.
More recently (Just this past weekend), XOXO was honored to be able to host our friends The Hinterlands, a theatre ensemble who live and work in Detroit, Michigan. We brought them to Charlotte as a part of Goodyear Arts' AvantGoodyear Series. The ensemble performed their newest work Will You Miss Me? at the Mint Museum on Randolph and led a workshop at Goodyear on the specific methodology behind their creative process (a process steeped in the lineages of Grotowski, Lecoq, traditional Chinese performance (xiqu), and the U.S. laboratory theatre movement).
The performance is staggering, a funeral for all the specific (let us say place based) cultural identities given up by European descended peoples in exchange for the dubious collective flattening known as Whiteness. It is an examination of White Supremacy that avoids the usual hand wringing and faux allyship by actually interrogating whiteness as erasure, as a bum deal that separates "Whites" from their real past in exchange for diminishing returns as pawns in a larger project of extraction and domination ruled by the invisible hand of Capital.
The content of the work is worth a thorough examination but right now I'm most interested in the process by which it was made and what that has to tell us about Time.
It is obvious when you see actors who train together. So many of the "best" performances that I see locally, regionally, nationally, have strong acting but very often these performances are islands, existing on their own inside a beautiful frame assembled by the design team, and coordinated to seem to be in concert by a skillful director. But when you watch a group like The Hinterlands you see what an Ensemble is: a group of performers who are performing together. Maybe that seems over simple? Maybe you read that and think "So what?" But I don't see it very often at this level...at the level of breath, at the energetic, or even molecular level. I think it worth remarkable to see a group of people being present with each other in time. I want to ask us all to work towards that, regardless of the aesthetic goals of our production. It's about Attention. We're asking audiences for their attention, so don't we owe them our own? To them, to the world, to the work, to each other?
2. It should take time to make a performance. The Hinterlands work together as an ensemble, for YEARS developing their work. And this time spent makes room for care, for thought and for that most precious of resources: attention. In their work you see that these people have done the thing again and again and again, asking the question "is this really how it should be?" and so you get artistic investment, depth of metaphor and strength of dramaturgical structure. And because they are a trained ensemble...it doesn't feel like they've done it a thousand times...it feels like it's happening RIGHT NOW. There is something of Eternity there in the moment of performance, an exercise outside of time. What a delicious paradox: working over long hours, months and years, taking time in a very real way, so that in the moment of performance something timeless and eternal is allowed to bloom, escorting us all outside of the limits of time.
We performers and humans could perhaps benefit from paying closer attention to these basics, these building blocks of performance...how are we managing our (and out audience's) experience of time and space. Perhaps the first step here is to stop. to look. to listen. The first task is to allow ourselves to bear witness: to be penetrated by the real, to hold the weight of each moment before letting it pass. Let us begin the work of making performances, that is to say the work of living, by bearing witness.
Let us bear witness. in our work and in our lives.
Let us bear witness. to the journey from imagination to reality.
Let us give the gift of our attention as we bear witness, onstage and in the audience.
one of my favorite poets wrote:
"Instructions for living a life
tell about it."
Thanks Eric Mullis and Company!