On Beasts and Dancers: Atlanta Artists Bring Identity into the Mix

Corian Ellisor dances in Be(A)stie, a performance he cocreated with Alex Abarca that debuted Saturday at Atlanta's Beacon Hill Theater. Photo by Bobbi Jo Brooks.

A dancer is not a racehorse, but the two career paths can have discomforting parallels. After many hours, months, and years spent in strenuous training, both perform for relatively brief periods in the light of public admiration. Both earn accolades for excellence; injuries take them out of sight to some depressing pasture we never have to see; and when performance is no longer possible, we call for younger, fresher, less broken specimens. We applaud exertion and prize certain individual attributes, but the performer often remains wordless, even somehow anonymous.

Dancers, however expressive, often lack a literal, declarative voice in the space where they perform. This problematic dynamic is not just a relic of the past: controversy erupted recently in Los Angeles when performers—mostly young dancers—were asked to work in depersonalizing circumstances for low pay under the creative direction of Marina Abramović at MOCA’s annual gala (click here for an article from ARTINFO.com).

A dancer’s humanity has always been a central aspect of any dance, but only recently have contemporary artists begun to resist the old dynamic by pulling identity out from the dark wings and into the light of the stage. These performative acts are not necessarily meant to be confrontational, corrective, or admonishing. Nor are the best such works merely self-revelatory. They show a new interest in using dance performance to examine the individual lives of dancers themselves, and in doing so, they create a space for audience and performers to contemplate a complicated, often unexamined relationship.

Click above for a video excerpt from Jérôme Bel’s Veronique Doisneau for the Paris Opera.

Perhaps the most well-known recent example is Jérôme Bel’s Veronique Doisneau in which a low-ranking member of the Paris Opera Ballet stands alone on the stage of the Palais Garnier. On the eve of retirement (literally, that evening was her last performance), she speaks in short, declarative sentences about her life and career, and she dances several of the high and low points from memory. It’s almost unbearable to watch Doisneau assume the motionless pose of a corps member in Petipa’s famous choreography for Swan Lake. On a crowded stage, the pose is one element of a lovely picture; performed alone on the same stage by a dancer who had dreamed of better roles, it’s something else entirely. “I think I was not talented enough,” she says, “and too fragile physically.”

Jerome Bel's performance for the 2010 Spoleto Festival examines the private frustrations of a contemporary dancer. Photo by Jaime Roque de la Cruz.

Bel’s more recent piece Cédric Andrieux—which was performed at this year’s Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, and likewise takes its name from the dancer performing it—deals with the life of a dancer trained in the Cunningham technique. For all its strengths, for all its modernity, the famous technique is not particularly known for a touchy-feely concern with dancers’ interior lives. Andrieux makes it clear that his immersion in such contemporary performance practice—though it had its moments of clarity and triumph—was often marked by confusion, frustration, and humiliation. “For me it was totally depressing,” he confesses about the hours of daily Zen-like repetitive movement demanded by Cunningham.

Helen Hale's choreography for Dashboard Co-op's ANTI-MANNERS is one of many local examples of a trend towards communal artwork devoted to personal themes. Photo by Dylan York.

In Atlanta, recent works created by dancers (as both choreographer and performer) also have shown a remarkable interest in making dancers’ identity and interior life part of the show. This year, Greg Catallier’s TEMPO: A Non-fiction Dance Performance examined the nature of time—its scientific mysteries and its subjective effects and accumulation in Catallier’s own personal history. The list of local examples continues: Zoetic Dance Ensemble, who contemplated the aftermath of unfinished emotional conflicts in Undone; dancer Helen Hale, whose piece presented by Dashboard Co-op for Art on the Beltline, ANTI-MANNERS, manifested a personal, idealistic vision of an earthy communal feast; Juel Lane and Ursula Kendall Johnson, who created an ambitious ensemble work that examined difficult and often unspoken issues within the African American community in What Cha Don’t Wanna Tap Into; and Emily Christianson, who examined her abiding fascination with the James Bond films in Shaken.

Alex Abarca and Corian Ellisor, Be(A)stie, 2011, at Beacon Hill Theater. Photo by Bobbi Jo Brooks.
Alex Abarca and Corian Ellisor, Be(A)stie, 2011, at Beacon Hill Theater. Photo by Bobbi Jo Brooks.

Most recently, Corian Ellisor and Alex Abarca performed Be(A)stie this past Saturday and Sunday at Beacon Hill Theater. The autobiographical show examined their longtime friendship in the competitive world of professional dance: Abarca and Ellisor trained together at University of Houston, and they both are current members of the Decatur-based CORE Performance Company.

Be(A)stie opens in darkness with Ellisor and Abarca taking their places in folding chairs, as they sing an a cappella version of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” adding a funny, ironic gesture of shining flashlights on little silver handheld disco balls. But the bubble-gum lyrics also carry a hidden, genuinely plaintive note: “When the night falls / my lonely heart calls / I wanna dance with somebody.” Their linked, tangled needs for companionship and performance became an underlying theme of the work that follows.

The show alternates between precisely choreographed, concisely articulated dance segments and looser, chatty, improvisational spoken word. Two contemplative solos, one for each dancer created by the other, compliment several up-tempo duets—including a psych-out gunslinger duel, set to the Beastie Boys’s “Intergalactic,” in which neither dancer quite trusts the other to put away his weapon, flinching to a quick draw just when it seems mutual trust has been achieved.

Alex Abarca and Corian Ellisor, Be(A)stie, 2011, at Beacon Hill Theater. Photo by Bobbi Jo Brooks.

When not dancing, the performers answer questions from an off-stage interviewer. At first, Abarca and Ellisor share stories in a relaxed, improvisational style, describing the intricacies of their friendship with some affectionate jokes and self-deprecating jibes. Then the questions take on a slightly more invasive, menacing context when the dancers are separated and interviewed individually. Seated alone in a chair in a spotlight, the subjects speak of longtime fears and anxieties: “being alone” was a big one.

In a sequence near the end, the dancers chat amicably as they don hazmat suits. “This is really unflattering,” says Abarca. The two suddenly become impersonal after they put on animal masks, dancing to a slow, creepy, acoustic version of “Intergalactic.” Like the first song, the lyrics take on a new significance that speaks to the nature of performance: “Don’t you tell me to smile / You stick around I’ll make it worth your while ….”

Alex Abarca and Corian Ellisor, Be(A)stie, 2011, at Beacon Hill Theater. Photo by Bobbi Jo Brooks.

In Atlanta as elsewhere, artists are contemplating the conventions that all too often demand that performers leave their personal identities in a loose pile by the stage door. The urge to create shows that shape the dynamic differently is clearly common. In all of these works, you can identify a desire for—and perhaps a parallel resistance to—exposure, a longing for communion, and an urge to manifest the personal and to put it into the context of the communal. Perhaps these are the same impulses that motivate someone to dance in the first place?

The part that’s particular to Atlanta, though, is an unabashed and unapologetic delectation in performance, friendship, and community. We the audience may be a little late to this party, but it’s clear we’re being graciously welcomed to the table nonetheless.

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