In Gillian Walsh’s premiere of Scenario: Script to Perform at The Kitchen, four performers—Maggie Cloud, Nicole Daunic, Mickey Mahar, and Walsh (and sporadically Jesse Hart)—built a rhythmic, durational structure on an otherwise empty stage. They alternated silence and stillness with small unison or near-unison movements dictated by the recitation of letters and numbers read from scores they each held in their hands. The performers never made eye contact with one another and only rarely glanced up. Sometimes, Scenario felt like sitting on the beach far back, watching the waves; rhythmic and repetitive, they come in and out, audible at a distance. As I watched and listened, I became aware of slight variations, cross currents that split the wave into intersecting, diagonal trajectories of water breaking just out of sync with one another before returning to a singular crashing meter. Like clouds passing in front of the sun, shifting the light, Zack Tinkelman transitioned between the harsh glow of overhead fluorescents and a vibrant spectrum of pink and blue stage lights. Long, hypnotic moments passed in this trance-like state.
At other points, I considered writing down the letters in order to decode them, but decided they were random (they weren’t; they spelled out lyrics from a Britney Spears song) and focused instead on the relationship between the movements and the numbers. Although the numbers the performers read off the page seemed to dictate the movements, all of which were centralized in the performers’ lower bodies, they came after the steps. In other words, we saw the step just before hearing the text aloud. Because of this slight delay, I found myself “reading” the movements, turning them into a score in their own right. On stage the performers would cross one leg over another, and I would think “four” an instant before they said it. Yet I could not decode the work completely, could not gauge what dictated the pauses between sections, the shifts in and out of unison. Furthermore, I came to feel the absurdity of the “movement text” I had just managed to read. Unlike a code in which nonsense is rendered into communication, moving from numbers to movements or movements to numbers was simply a substitution, a verbal cypher swapped out for a physical one that only applied to this single score.
Of course, Western dance has for most of its history used just such a numerical shorthand to designate the five standard leg and arm positions in ballet, and at two moments during Scenario, Maggie Cloud did indeed lift her arms into a high fifth position and descend slowly into a grand plié in first. In a recent interview in the Brooklyn Rail, Walsh described being “curious about mass patterning and mass dance, corporate choreography, pervasive hegemonic form, rhythmic infiltration, and the collapse of inherited/learned forms.” Her numbers swap one “hegemonic form” for another, the French court of Louis XIV for corporate America. In the same interview, Walsh declared that she wants “to move away from the absolutely expired addiction to meaning and understanding. There is nothing to understand.” If there is “nothing to understand,” than the question becomes what is the character of one’s experience of the spatial and temporal structure that the performers construct in the process of interpreting Walsh’s score? This is where duration comes into play.
As the piece extended in time, I moved from beach-like meditation or analytic decoding into an experience of constraint. Stefan Tcherepnin’s soundscape became more intense, with a high-pitched buzzing tipping over the edge of “sensation” into the realm of pain. The duration felt by the end like another form of control mimicking the “hegemonic form” Walsh made visible through her temporal distention and recordings of found texts. I felt choreographed into my own stillness and silence, with the lights and sound working to refocus me by the end, bringing me back into my body anytime I nearly escaped in thought. A sense of resistance to this constraint developed in the audience during the last few minutes of the performance I saw—people chuckled, one woman got up to leave, others shifted in their seats and jotted notes to their neighbors. These were not merely the antics of contemporary viewers disappointed because they had not been sufficiently entertained. Instead, this palpable shift in the space marked the moment when Scenario’s incisive exploration of form as such turned into a form of control in its own right.
Hannah Yohalem is a Performa Magazine 2014–2015 Writer in Residence. She is a Ph.D candidate at Princeton University in the Department of Art and Archaeology.