The first time Tahni talked with me about the project that would become Duet Love, she had me hang my head off a bleacher. We had just finished a final rehearsal for her 2012 piece SUN$HINE. Laying there, the studio upside down, she instructed: “Take in the room, its depth, its volume, the lights, the mirrors. Just notice it all. Now, gently close your left eye, and again take in the room.” An inverted moment later, “Open your eyes. See the whole space. Now slowly close your right eye.” I let the room slide between perspectives, my head warm with blood, Tahni upside down next to me. It was, as one might suspect of an empty dance studio, a tad underwhelming for all the fuss—but all the greater for it. “You get that? You see what I mean? I’m just planting that seed. That’s all.”
This was fucking hilarious to me. It was super open, teetering on trivial, but also genuine and carefully directed. It ranks as one of the more amazing things Tahni has ever asked me to do in a long list of amazing things Tahni has asked me to do (There was the defense solo in a yellow unitard on a city basketball court, or spray painting cardboard on a Brooklyn sidewalk, SATISFACTION in hot pink, moments before hopping a cab to perform at Judson Memorial Church). Back in the Portland studio—winking slowly—I had an experience; that’s how Tahni chose to start the conversation. Duet Love would take shape over the next two years.
This has been my first time working as a dramaturg, a role that inevitably begs explanation. I tell most people I’ve been the choreographer’s outside eye, providing observations and feedback and making myself available to discuss the work as it develops. I would attend rehearsals around once a month and archive my notes online. Tahni and I determined my role was to report on the material from rehearsal with as much candor and clarity as possible. What did I see? What did I think? What did I feel?
As a dance writer, I’ve learned to situate myself as an audience member full of impressions and contentions. I try to self identify, so folks know a bit about who’s writing. I work to align my feelings with a few ideas about a performance, and I like to address salient conditions of production and presentation. There’s a rigor to attending a performance and transforming your perceptions and sensations into language. Pursuing that rigor, I’ve become familiar with a few concepts that I’ll try to relate to Duet Love.
I like to consider the distinction between perception and sensation as it pertains to dance viewership. The things I discern as I attend a given dance are my perceptions. Perceptions are what I’m consciously aware of during a performance. Ezra looked excellent with the flannel around his waist and the collared shirt and his disheveled hair. Allie directed her gaze one way while directing the rolling light another while Keyon walked downstage on the center line with a spotlight squarely on the wall behind him. I register these as thoughts and index them in the part of my memory that holds out until the end of the performance so I have something smart to say after the show. Of course, sometimes these perceptions lodge in our minds more deeply and persist there for years to come, inscribed as another layer in the body of experience we bring with us to our seats.
That said, perceptions far from account for the totality of my experience when attending dance. What is produced in me as the embodied subject who attends a given dance are my sensations. Indeed, perceptions are a form of sensation. But perceptions are by definition conscious; whereas sensations can just as easily be unconscious. Excessive and unruly, disobedient to principles of perceptual organization and often diagonal to language production—sensation can include but is not limited to: interest, exhaustion, elation, bemusement, boredom, inspiration, frustration, a numb ass, disdain, expansion, self-consciousness, a desire to urinate, emotion, a rapid heart beat, nodding off.
Sensation always inflects our perceptions, but isn’t always accounted for. For instance, I get so hangry. Attending a dance performance is one of the exceptionally rare occasions in my contemporary life where the option to press pause or simply get up and grab a snack is not a viable one. I wonder what would happen if I got up in the middle of Duet Love and went out to get a hot dog and came back and ate the hot dog. I don’t even know if I could do it. Would they even let me back in with a hot dog? Everybody would hate me, or want a bite. Point being, if I’m not mindful, my irritable self is prone to project its local sensation onto the dance: I didn’t eat dinner; therefore the dance is enervating, dull, listless. Sensation affects perception. Our existential conditions reflect back through the prism of time-based art. This is a powerful asset of live art forms, as well as a terrific liability.
As someone who lives in a neoliberal social order, I privilege perceptions over sensations in my economically operative daily life. To achieve tasks, I must perceive effectively. Those twenty emails I need to write get written much better when I leverage a willed (and normative) constraint on the scope of my lived experience—stoicism and sublimation, yes, but also obedience via the imperative of efficiency.
All this to say that when I’m considering dance, or any contemporary art, I feel a critical need to clean up and reconsider my interface between sensation and perception. Sharing time with live arts allows me to interrupt and complicate the conditioned efficiency of my perception. Performances are exceptional. And in their window of exception, I try and rejig the dynamic between perception and sensation to give the latter a bit more sway. Sometimes this means relocating the site of my perception from the stage to my seat.
There’s a moment in Duet Love when the location of the performance predictably collapses on me. Compositionally, I like where Tahni put it, but it always kicks my ass. The first ten minutes of the performance build a rapport with me based on the presentation and reception of highly visible objects. I attend imagery—a relatively stable object of consideration. Then a shift occurs, and the location of the performance snaps in two. The dancers recede to an island that I am not on. I’m in my seat, and I’m uncomfortable. I will wallow in ennui unless I buck up and reorganize my strategy as an attendee of this performance. This is an in-house drama. It takes place in my seat. I almost always adjust my posture four times watching the dancers sway a mile away.
And then the thing that happens next happens next, and I find a tremendous release.
It’s worth noting that many audience members are not successful navigators of challenges like the one I just described. Tahni knows it. I know it. This section I allude to will be the death of the show for a handful of people every performance. I don’t know whose responsibility that is.
What I do know is that every time I attend to it, this section confronts me with myself. Sensations flare. I sense heat building near the surface of my skin. I feel how I’m holding my jaw, every surface my breath touches and the way my skull falls slightly ahead of my rolled-in shoulders in the seat which is inevitably too small for my awkward big body. I pass through resentment and recollections on the way to reasserting my own accountability for my navigation of time.
Sharing time in studios with the developing Duet Love, one tension I’ve detected in myself has been the way my attention oscillates. First, from a position of composure I contemplate the identifiable contours of imagery. Then from a position less composed I must activate my attendance to keep pace as those once discernible contours recede into their own velocity.
These dual modes of organizing attention are a feature of Duet Love. On the one hand, the performance offers us imagery that reflects photography—specifically photography of iconic romantic couples. As a visual object of consideration, photographic imagery is very accessible to me. A lifetime of visual media saturation leaves me sitting pretty when it comes to encountering and thinking about dancers looking like sculptures chiseled from photographs—stable imagery as a conduit for association. On the other hand, Duet Love presents touch-based and sensorially-driven duets that evade my capacity to readily attend them as convenient objects of consideration. I have less to grab onto. The material slips away as I form an image of it. In order to engage with these sections, I must mobilize my attendance into a running relationship with the dance. Disconcerted but animated, I enter into a becoming with the performance rather than a consideration of it.
I find these two modalities jarring and surreal to bob between—especially once the more symbolically-laden costumes emerge. Signifiers and representations operate and deflate in quick order. This implicates me in a dash from relationality to analysis and back again.
A central component of Tahni’s choreography in Duet Love is the relationships the dancers have built between one another and within themselves. There are some sections where all I’m witnessing are the months these dancers have rehearsed touching each other and moving together—all those hours, unfolding in their immediate interactions. Those moments in particular test my capacities of perception.
From my internal dramaturgy notes after a June rehearsal:
Touch therapy warm up is so different than how I use my body texting and checking my smart phone calendar. Even sitting here writing. It’s somehow easy for me to devalue what the dancers are doing as “just a warm up,” undeserving of much consideration. Yet what they are doing is producing so much—almost in a shadow realm where the mode of my normal perception and valuation of time and application are inapplicable—so that the very tools by which I appreciate or perceive action or time needs to shift or transform.
That shift is time released, and I sort of resent it because it seems to puncture the vacuum of my productivity regime. Being present with the warm up and not knowing how to watch is an initiation. My ability to hold onto my personally calibrated outlook on perception slowly slips away. The many strategies I employ to navigate being in/with time have their volume slowly turned down. Not that I want them to go. I might struggle to stick with that fading broadcast.
There’s a certain withholding from visibility, from legibility, in the subtle contact between bodies in Duet Love. I’m not only seeing here and now, but sensing then and there. The common hours Allie, Lucy, Keyon and Ezra have shared are folded into their bodies and evoked somehow in every jointly-negotiated movement. I perceive the bodies dancing while I also sense so many potential histories.
What’s tricky and political is that I have no incentive to engage in this minor practice of partially visible perception. Again, dominate modes of perception reward my capacity to discern discrete objects and to parlay that observation into astute commentary post-performance that will increase my social capital.
But attending dancers exploring the soup of sensitive touch, healing touch, aggressive touch—just to name a few of the ingredients—can only flummox my quick transfer to language. This is an encounter that compels me to enter into an ambiguous relationship. One that demands my psychic and emotional investment without promising to yield a readily appraisable object of language.
Despite the seeming inutility of this expenditure as an audience member, despite the symbolic inefficiency of the substance it may or may not return, I have faith in the aspects of presence we exercise when attending to dance that demands a new calibration of sensation and perception.
Exercising our capacities for presence in this way is one of the softly marching political projects that draw me to contemporary dance. In all the hours I’ve spent with Duet Love, I’ve found myself uniquely enlivened slipping between the two modes of attendance I’ve outlined above. I hope describing my own experiences might offer something of use, in whatever small way.
As I write this, I’m all too aware that strife and calamity afflict a great many people—from the recent terrors of Gaza, Iraq and Syria to the terribly familiar police brutality against Black citizens of the United States in Ferguson, Portland, Seattle and so many corners of this country. While I’m sure convincing cases could be made to the contrary, I personally do not believe that exercising our capacities for presence is isolated from broader social and political contexts. In its modest micropolitics, I believe that mindfully attending to art can play a small part in building a better world; though I do not believe it’s a substitute for more direct action, activism and involvement in civic and community life.
To end in a direction, I’ll quote a paragraph closing a chapter entitled “The Future is in the Present,” by the late José Estaban Muñoz in his remarkable book Cruising Utopia. While Muñoz is here concluding a chapter in which he details various cases of queer citizenship performed in the transforming cultural context of New York City, his concise letters align for me with our current considerations of sensorial endeavor.
Adorno provided a succinct rendering of utopia when he described it as existing in “the determined negation of that which merely is.” This negation points “to what should be.” The work I have considered in this chapter looks to what is and fashions important critiques of the present by insisting on the present’s dialectical relation to the future. Our criticism should, like the cases I have surveyed, be infused with a utopian function that is attuned to the “anticipatory illumination” of art and culture. Such illumination cuts through fragmenting darkness and allow us to see the politically enabling whole. Such illumination will provide us with access to a world that should be, that could be, and that will be.
(Robert Tyree fosters initiatives to empower artists and engage audiences of contemporary performance. Tyree grew into dance between the University of Washington, all-night parties and danceWEB at ImPulzTanz (2011). He has performed for a number of choreographers in Portland, Oregon—notably for Tahni Holt. In 2013, Tyree’s collaboration with Romanian poet Andra Rotaru, Lemur, briefly toured the US, Romania and Austria. Tyree is co-director of FRONT, a newspaper devoted to writing from the field of contemporary dance. His own writings on performance have been published online (Performance Club, PICA) and as an indie book (Intensive Dance). roberttyree.net)
This article has been updated since its publication.