Published in Offerings magazine
Introductory note: this piece is based on a conversation I had with Ame Henderson who is currently working on creating what we are saying with an amazing group of collaborators, who are all an integral element of the piece and who I had thought about trying to also include in the interview but, logistically, just couldn’t do it. These are their names: Frank Cox-O’Connell, Katie Ewald, Mairéad Filgate, Sherri Hay, Brendan Jensen, Alexander MacSween, Bojana Stancic and Stephen Thompson.
what would happen if you listened with your eyes
In many ways things are always kind of about the most basic thing possible. That sentence for instance is only about the basic thing that it is saying, which is not very much, but that is to say that a lot of us live our lives trying to just figure out one thing, or a few parts of one really basic thing (probably for all of us that thing is “how do you live”). Maybe this is me being decidedly un-critical, but also I think there is something to be said for paring down what you are trying to say and trying to figure out: what do you mean?
Ame Henderson’s work has maybe been going through this process for a few years now, a paring down process, a revealing process of what is it she means, what is it she is saying. Her newest work, what we are saying, is a kind of political and kind of choreographic gesture towards what her work has possibly always been about. “Kind of” is not really appropriate to use in that last sentence in either instance because this work is totally political and obviously choreographic, and remains obviously choreographic despite being, in Ame’s own words, “a sound work, ultimately”. what we are saying is a group work for Public Recordings, a group of collaborators that acts as a platform for projects under Ame’s direction. At the heart of this work is a curiosity about togetherness, a curiosity that she admits has followed her for a long time: “The project is a continuation of this research that’s been at the heart of all my artistic output for the last 5 years, questions about togetherness and formal interrogation…interrogations of form, as a way of making proposals for alternative models of sociality I guess, but using dance as a site.”
Ame referred numerous times to her approach here as being one of “choreographing sound” – describing “the spatialization of sound being something that is inherently choreographic.” This thought gets kind of literalized in what we are saying: first with the amplification system, a series of many little amplifiers that get moved around the space, while the performers speak into microphones that can then get projected to anywhere in the room. Secondly there is spatialization in the timing and movement of the speech itself, where all involved are speaking and listening at the same time - so “instead of one voice speaking to another voice it’s a bunch speaking to a bunch.” Simultaneously asking questions and answering each other, and trying to come up with a way of speaking, a way of communicating, where there is no clear leader or dominant voice.
Despite having seen some videos and a (very) early version of the work one time at a party (those last two statements actually maybe explain why I had this next reaction), I had a hard time visualizing (hearing?) how sound is choreographed and how that is different from musical composition. But this is part of what I think is going on: The goal of participation (if there is a goal) is not about just an auditory experience, and is perhaps not about the shape that the sounds make. Instead, the goal is noticing what is happening to the bodies that are sounding, and to the bodies that are in the audience listening, and, here’s the kicker, to all the bodies while they are ALL listening. I want to put the word “bodies” in smaller font there, because I don’t get the sense that this work is of/about the body in the same way that many choreographies are of/about the body, but that it recognizes the body as an inescapable site for/of sounding. Ame spoke on the togetherness of listening, the nature of the act of listening that includes/implicates everyone around: “Listening feels like it’s the first condition required for the piece to function and we are understanding listening as a participatory act…[Listening] of performers to each other, the audience, but the audience being asked to participate in that way. And so…listening is the one thing that we all are doing in common … I’ve always thought about that in music performances. How at a concert the performers are listening and the audience is listening and that’s a shared thing and one I can never make a comparison to (in dance)]”.
Yvonne Rainer said one time, “Dance is hard to see”. This is true in a lot of ways: it’s hard to see something that is slipping away from you as it appears, yes, but maybe it is also hard to see something if you are not on the inside of it, not familiar with it. I often wonder if going to a dance show for a non-dancer has something of the experience of watching a play in another language, – you can get a lot, can appreciate visual and spatial patterns, shapes dancers are making, interactions with each other, how they are relating to the music, but not having a “dance vocabulary” (or maybe not having the kind of familiarity with the body you get when you spend a lot of time putting yourself in a lot of different positions) puts you outside of the work a little. [Sidenote: Is this true? Please email me and tell me what you think of this. email@example.com - I am so interested.] what we are saying opens up the performance experience to the entire audience present by putting them in the exact same conditions as the performers. Everybody, EVERYBODY, is listening to each other somehow.
This is where it gets to the “obviously political” (if it’s obvious, maybe you got there yourself already). There is an openness and a friendliness in these ideas for me that feels refreshing, particularly for any dance work that often gets described by critics as “cerebral” (I hate hate hate hate hate this word in dance criticism almost as much as the word “edgy”. God, when is it not cerebral?) I don’t think there is any way to view this work without seeing its inclusiveness – the space is open, there is no stage (they are in fact performing at The Power Plant), there are chairs everywhere, audience members can sit wherever they want. (In their rehearsal process, the presence of audience is so important that they draw straws at the start of every day to pick who will perform and who will be audience that day.) This collective level shared by the audience and performers means that verticality takes on an exciting importance – since most of the work happens with the audience and performers sharing a horizontal plane, any changes that might occur in the vertical become immediately more dramatic (think of the way that space changes when you are sitting around in a meeting or a conference room and one person stands up and moves around) In this way, everybody listening, everybody sitting together on the same horizontal plane puts everybody in a sort of equal power footing, and the performers’ work of maintaining this kind of equal horizontal space, all listening to each other at the same time they are speaking to each other, points at a way of being that is non-heirarchical. Ame spoke better on this than I ever could so in goes a long quote:
“…if we figure out how to speak together all at the same time, both listening and talking, maybe we will then find out what we need to say to deal with where we are at and the times we are in. If we work on the apparatus of language, maybe we’ll be able to say something we didn’t know we could say…Zizek spoke at Occupy NY and said something like we don’t have the language to talk about how we’re not free, and that…that feels really important, that the impulse of this project is to find the language to speak about what we need to speak about, it feels like we’re dealing with the lack of language to speak together about what is at stake. The Occupy movement is hugely inspiring to me because of it’s lack of central focus, polyphony, divergence, that kind of rhizomatic way of thinking about social organizing and then thinking about that as choreographic practice. And as resistance.”
This work is approaching so many topics so head-on that I really worry some critics will use the words “edgy” and “cerebral” while describing it. But a word I think they might miss is “playful” – this work is so much about a kind of play, of words, of sound, of structure, of communication, that it is coming across to me as, well, fun. And I think it is OK and maybe even important to have fun while talking about difficult topics. Ame said, “I think maybe all of my work is playfully asking why do we do things the way that we do them? What if we do them this other way? Why is this the best way?”