During intermission, lounge music is playing in the theater, the curtains are open. People mumble. A man in a suit stands on the very front lip of the stage. Or is it a dancer? (Is a dancer—then—not human?) He is moving, a weird and quirky little shuffle. He full-body fidgets for eight, maybe ten minutes. Performance? But the house lights are still on.
In her 1980 essay, “The Novel as Polylogue,” psychoanalyst, art critic, and literary scholar, Julia Kristeva, discusses how one might approach a work that has seemingly irreconcilable parts. She writes: “… one must grasp the rhythm of the whole text, hence the poly-logic of the speaking subject, in order to pick out, in reverse fashion, the meaning of the smaller sentence or lexical units. One does not begin with the part in order to reach the whole: one begins by infinitizing the totality in order to reach, only later, the finite meaning of each part.” I saw Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16 for the first time in the fall of 2004. This piece was in some senses responsible for my sister leaving ballet. This piece helped me turn my attentions back to dance after eight years away. This piece, 45 minutes long, was a signature work of Hubbard Street Dance Company during an entire decade, sometimes their only closing piece in a given season—performed every night on tour and back in Chicago. Minus 16 is a marker for me, with a life that stretches beyond the theater, before and beyond the time of any given performance. Art can alter lives, and when art does—I believe that those moments, and those works of art, ought to be attended to.
I am pregnant again. Number three. I fidget in my seat in the theater at the University of Georgia where, during the day, I am working toward my Ph.D. in English; the discomfort is starting earlier this time. I am beginning to understand the term “confinement.” My sister Taryn is on tour with Hubbard Street. She has been with them for three-and-a-half years but this is only the second time I have seen her perform with her new company—because of my growing family, my studies. I meet her bus when it comes into Athens. I go with her to the hotel, meet some dancers. I watch their warm-up class in the theater, just across the street from the English department. I sit in the dark and take notes for a novel I am writing. Tonight I will return to watch the performance.
More people join the man onstage doing his old-man improv. (My sister will later tell me its nickname: the geriatric.) Soon, fifteen other dancers are dancing near him in suits, the house lights have gone down, the audience has stopped tittering. Their costumes are versatile; they can point to orthodox Jew, to CEO, to undertaker, or to hip musician-hood, but are never rural, never blue-collar or non-Western or feminine. The dancers stay in their own little spaces, as if the stage were a grid, shrugging their shoulders, moving their hands in front of them like they are buttoning an imaginary doll’s clothes or conversing in elven sign language. I try to identify my sister among them, but they are anonymous—like Elizabethan players—ready for comedy, romance, tragedy, history—any of it. Then, they explode. Massive jumps and spins, their coats following their barrel turns over their bodies in the space. The audience applauds and cheers in relief after all the strange, non-dancerly dancing. I can hear them thinking, “Oh, thank GOD it’s not going to be postmodern…” A dancer-man comes forward, gesturing and talking at the audience, but I can’t understand what he’s saying. The curtain goes down, and he is caught beneath it. He falls to the floor still motioning but not-quite communicating, and is pulled back and through. The curtains are down and the electric guitars start playing “Hava Negila.”
In the early 70s Ohad Naharin began dancing with Batsheva Dance Company, after his required military service and before coming to the United States to train at the Juilliard. He then danced with Béjart and Bat-Dor before founding his own company. Eventually, he returned to Israel to direct Batsheva, simultaneously developing a movement technique now known as gaga. Naharin’s pieces run the gamut of subject matter and style, but the transitions the dancers make from absolute stillness to explosivity may be said to be one of his hallmarks, as well as a tendency to gestural (un-pin-downable but seemingly meaning-filled) movement initiated in one area of the body before being carried to others—quite often to them all. Hedy Weiss, dance critic of the Chicago Sun Times, wrote about his work: “Naharin suggests a sense of order and then suddenly fractures it, sending it into an exquisite chaos that ultimately resolves itself back into an ordered state again.” Fragmentation and order, one-ness and isolation and anonymity—these are the paradoxical ingredients I sensed in Minus 16 when I first watched it. Here is a recipe, I thought, that shouldn’t work; some parts are playful, some combative. There is no dancer-to-dancer partnering, nor any of the exciting changes of level that lifts can produce, nor the witnessed intimacy of watching dancers touch. On stage is a company, in and out of the same all-purpose costumes (dark suits), but there is no over-arching story, no meaning, not even a musical plan that holds this together. Why does this work? Because it did work for me, not only the first time, but the three times I’ve seen it since. The piece moves me.
I am back in school. My second and last year of course work in Temple for my Ph.D. in dance. I think I am handling things when I realize my third son, Koen, now four, is drawing things he calls “torture prisons.” Things that look like this:
I think he must have heard me talking about Guantanamo Bay—how disturbed I am that it is still open—or about the Bybee torture memos, recently released by the U.S. Government. I have been thinking of incorporating their bureaucratic horror into the score for a piece of choreography. Or maybe Koen has heard me talking about the Joseph Fritzl trial (a man held his daughter in an underground cell in Germany for eighteen years and fathered seven children with her, three of whom saw sunlight for the first time in 2008), or about Jaycee Dugard (another long term child abduction and rape). Such things plague my imagination and find their way into my art—I don’t want to poison my children’s dreams with these images. But he keeps drawing and I don’t know what to do.
“Hava Nagila” plays on in electric guitar glory for two and a half minutes. The curtains come up but the lights stay down. When they rise, a semi-circle of dancers sit on chairs, their legs spread like cocky CEOs around a board table. A woman’s voice speaks seductively. It says, “The illusion of beauty, and the fine line that separates madness from sanity / The panic behind the laughter, and the coexistence of fatigue and elegance.” The dancers lower their hat-covered heads, elbows on knees, cuffs protruding from their sleeves. One chair is empty. They look like the Blues Brothers (more Aykroyd than Belushi) but without sunglasses and very tired. A chant (in Hebrew?) begins and the dancers suddenly fling themselves one-by-one into an ecstatic arch—flinging their hats off behind them—and then sit down again. When they rise, they rise together and join the chant. It is a repetitive chant, and they perform repetitive gestures, sitting and nodding and covering their faces and standing and sitting and nodding and so on. The chant accrues syllables, and as it does, the violence increases and clothing is lost: coats, then shirts, then pants. They toss all into the center of the semi-circle. It is a powerful striptease, with one dancer slow-walking through the first half of the section to the empty seat and then occasionally jumping up to stand on his chair. Another falls down after every flung arch. When the chanting ends, the dancers are in baggy, flesh-colored underwear. They seem angry, naked. A few dancers bend down in the fading light to gather the discarded clothes. They walk away leaving the others, hunched over with mincing steps. I am thinking of the Holocaust.
Eight women are lined up across stage. They have different types of bodies, although they are all muscular and white. They begin moving in unison, in silence, in and out of ballet positions, with gestures and contractions and leanings and swivels in between. Although they seem to be moving as one, they execute their movements very differently. Actually, the angles, lines, and shapes they hit are not identical at all. Instead, it is as if they move from the same will—as if the impulse that drives them manifests differently in their different bodies while still being somehow of a piece. This is an idea that will come back to me—unison of intention. The silent Metronome section (Taryn tells me this is what its called) is a stripped-down study which incorporates gestures of conformity and of despair. It is a pivotal moment in Minus: a nod to the fact that although male and female dancers are not much-differentiated in this piece, their realities beyond the stage are distinct.
Another long silence, and then a re-suited dancer going nuts on stage. To me, it is clear this is a constructed improv, such quick full-body quirky dancing cannot be minutely choreographed. A voice begins telling a story about how someone began dancing. A dancer’s voice?—that seems to be the implication. I’ve seen autobiographical modern dance of this type before, many times (thank you Bill T). So why doesn’t it feel autobiographical? A line of dancers crosses the stage, walking. The soloist is swallowed by them. Another dancer is left behind with another monologue. I’m not entirely sure that this voice is matched to the dancer. Five more crossings, five more solos. The language is confessional, much of it is about dancing or about the body more generally. I do notice that when a male voice is speaking, a male dancer is dancing, and the same is true for the women. Everyone has a story. But we aren’t getting to know the dancers—we are being shown the impossibility of knowing them. These are but glimpses through a studio window: how dancers feel about dancing. Such tiny glimpses. This, I think, is how art is made. And it is the main subject matter of this piece as I understand it: an acknowledgement that choreography can be a collection of found materials. Choreographer as conductor. During the final monologue, a second dancer appears center stage with the last soloist. The throbbing beat of electronica, and the two start dancing together without touching. Soon they are joined by what appears to be the entire company—joining together in a stomping, pivoting pattern.
Koen seems happy. Yet I can’t let go of the feeling that something is terribly wrong. He is still drawing those pictures. Now, attuned to his mother’s anxiety, when he accidently goes to say “torture prisons,” he stops himself. He gives them new, less-disturbing-for-mommy names like “just-little-cells for people,” and “a house with small rooms,” and “a labyrinth for people instead of minotaurs.” Maybe it isn’t the current news, but our readings of Greek mythology I should rethink his exposure to. His father points me to a picture in our house that is not unlike what Koen draws—by Paul Klee. He is trying to to make me feel better about our youngest’s propensity toward stick people in tight spaces.
Okay, I say, but I am not completely convinced, nor am I that comforted. My children may have my need to obsessively work out their problems in art, but does art make the problems less problematic? Has it for me? And what is the nature of Koen’s problem?—all these people with no faces in spaces that do not contain enough space. His confined beings are too reminiscent of his mother’s problem with the world—that it doesn’t seem possible within it to be everything that I am. I’ve been allotted not enough cupboards. Koen’s boxes are my boxes. Maybe Koen’s people are how they are because everyday he witnesses a woman whose angles are acute.
The dancers come to the front of the stage, and we applaud, and the dancers continue out into the audience to gather partners. When they return with them, the music changes to a cha-cha and the dancers begin a routine—one reminiscent of old Broadway. The audience onstage just stands, not knowing what to do, while those around me are in hysterics. The dancers continue their mugging, and then finally start dancing with them (little girls picked up and spun, older men maneuvered into awkward dips, others haphazardly waltzed and turned). More cheers, and the dancers walk their people to the front of the stage. A bossa nova—the dancers do the old-man improv from the beginning… a lifetime ago. One by one, the dancers somehow tell their partners to go back to their seats, all except one. When the dancers drop sprawling onto the floor, a single elderly lady is left standing center stage amidst a sea of suits. The audience goes wild as the disoriented-seeming woman picks her way over the bodies as if in the aftermath of a battle, back to her seat. I feel real discomfort for her—there is too much entanglement of movement and music and culture here to navigate—too much meaning. Yet she seems unphased. I remember that the musicals of the thirties and forties were made as Nazis occupied much of Europe, before and during WWII.
While editing my novel (about art/performance/siblings), I am suddenly making connections, connecting dots, boxes from long ago. The proscenium stage is a box, framed like a painting, but Minus 16 is nothing like a painting. It is colorless—black and white, no tint on the cyc. And it is discontinuous, its disparate parts gesturing to fragments of history. It doesn’t remind me of paintings, but of collage or the 3-D version of collage: the assemblage. Joseph Cornell was a master of these accumulations of found objects.
Now the dancers form a circle—they all take turns doing high jumps, kicks, and turns at the center. The audience claps in time. There is a sense that this is the finale. One dancer starts moving slowly, facing back, and the others stop dancing to build a house-shaped structure. The music and lights fade and come right back up so that the audience sees the dancers getting awkwardly out of the structure to bow. An arbitrary end to the piece—a piece, I think, that would have ended more successfully at the close of any of its other segments. Nevertheless, I am breathless, and shocked at the length of the piece when I check my partner’s watch. We get up to go backstage to see my sister.
By following an improv danced as if by Methuselah with flamboyant acrobatic tricks and a man lecturing in gibberish, then giving the audience a secular cue for the Jewish religion with Hava Nagila, Ohad prepares the audience for a reference to war at the end of a semi-circle of “men leading lives of quiet desperation.” Naharin engages these referents and then lets them quickly go. Broadway, boardroom, concentration camp, ballet studio, breakdance circle, ballroom, battlefield—they mean. Taryn tells me that his gaga class is one long image-driven improv, task after task. Flesh melting off the bones. Ants crawling all over the skin. Such images create similar energies within dancers, without creating matching lines or timings. Despite the fractured imagery—they seemed unified—a company rather than an amalgamation of disparate personalities. Although the dancers are given a great deal of freedom in their execution of the movement, they seem driven by a purpose that is larger than they are. In Minus 16 I recognize a deep nostalgia for a community I have never experienced: the artistic unit. To create something outside confines of a notebook, part of something greater than my own contribution to it. To make, and make meaning, in the company of others.
To understand how this piece means, in the words of Julia Kristeva, I cannot “begin with the part in order to reach the whole.” Instead, I try to take in the whole then let it move outward. Art is perhaps always made of stories, but they are not always immediately available to me—and this is not a terrible thing. Minus helps me think... about the accumulation of boxes, of categories, of the roles people play defined in part by facts of gender, of education, of religion, while managing at the same time to transcend them. Taryn is not only a ballet dancer, I am not only a mother: we are not only sisters. I can feel manipulated but also enriched by Naharin’s work. Taryn can adore his movement without ever feeling at home within it. (Interestingly, this is what made her an astute rehearsal director for Minus—her analytical struggle with it.) Taryn is, in other words, a careful tender of Naharin’s work because she was a slower student of it. We bleed between our boxes in unexpected ways. Ways we can’t know until we experience them. Until we live with the art that we are.
Koen has been drawing fewer of his “torture prisons,” but one morning, after his Cheerios and my coffee, he handed me this one:
He asked me, “Do you think it’s beautiful?” I looked down at it, and I saw bodies. Bodies creating the space around them, bodies and not boxes as the compelling reason for the design—bodies bending, stretching, circling—bodies striving to meaningfully exist in close quarters within a tight world. I answered honestly.
“Yes,” I said, “beautiful.”
Kirsten Kaschock is the author of three poetry books: Unfathoms (Slope Editions 2004), A Beautiful Name for a Girl (Ahsahta Press 2011), and The Dottery (University of Pittsburgh Press 2014). A fourth poetry book, Confessional Science-fiction: A Primer was selected by Eric Baus as winner of the Subito Poetry Prize and is forthcoming. Coffee House Press released her debut novel Sleight in 2011. She teaches at Drexel University and writes and edits for thINKing DANCE (thinkingdance.net).