If you want to catch a glimpse of where dance and performance are headed, look no further than Ivy Baldwin’s Ambient Cowboy, on view last week at New York Live Arts.
It is fitting that a dance piece inspired by Philip Johnson’s famous Glass House should have a set design made of light. And not just any light—but a ribbon of light that glides over wall, floor, and dancers, then suddenly vanishes.
If this set design technique has been used extensively in a dance performance before now, I’d be surprised. I’m flummoxed why the reviews I’ve read haven’t made more of it. This is cutting edge technology—a live drawing combined with live movement—a technique that has the potential to forever alter the future of the performing arts. Think of Nam June Paik or Wolf Vostell’s pioneering use of television sets in their work in the late 50s and early 60s, and you’ll have a better sense of the landscape-altering possibilities new technologies are creating at this critical moment in contemporary art.
In this case the artist behind the iPad is MacArthur Fellow Anna Schuleit, who also designed the set for Ivy Baldwin’s Here Rests Peggy. Schuleit is never visible during the performance, but the immediacy of her mark is both intoxicating and suspenseful, like watching a tightrope walker balance on a wire. There are no erasers or ESCAPE buttons available to Schuleit. We are accustomed to watching performers on the stage, and performers do what they do in part because they find the immediacy of a live experience exhilarating to some degree. But not every painter has the stomach for live theater. Luckily, Schuleit is up to the task.
It is a daring concept on Ivy Baldwin’s part—a live performance inspired by a seminal work of architecture combined with the excitement of a live set design. Johnson’s work alone offers many ideas ripe for exploration: transparency, the manmade versus the natural, boundaries, wild versus the civilized, open space versus the contained. There were moments in Baldwin’s Ambient Cowboy when I sensed some connection between the performance and Johnson’s Glass House. When the stage was bathed in green light, for instance, I thought of the large, grassy lawn surrounding the house in New Canaan, Connecticut.
But early in the performance I decided to stop struggling to make such connections and to simply go with the experience. There were powerful moments in Ambient Cowboy that transcended any lingering confusion. While I may not have understood how Lawrence Cassella’s Lamaze-style panting or the dancers’ arched backs and rhythmic chest scratching connected with the larger whole, I found these movements compelling. Baldwin’s choreography also has it’s humorous side, and at times the dance becomes infused with animalic gestures that resemble tail wagging or deer darting and leaping through the forest.
Lawrence Philip Cassella was particularly riveting to watch on stage, though Ivy Baldwin, Eleanor Smith, and Molly Poerstel-Taylor all had their luminous moments. Eleanor’s Smith’s solo a quarter of the way through Ambient Cowboy was a stand-out. Her ability to convey suffering and sadness through shaking, rocking, and facial expressions was haunting, The moment when Smith collapses onto the floor on her stomach and Schuleit’s lines begin to furiously scratch out her body was the most mesmerizing point in Ambient Cowboy, and also the best expression of this new technology’s potential. I would have liked to have seen more live drawing in Ambient Cowboy.
Justin Jones’ music and sound design was a strong addition, especially during the last half of the performance, and Chloe Z. Brown’s lighting design, with its wash of contrasting yellows and greens, blues and yellows, was a beguiling stage for both the dancers and Schuleit’s light drawings.
Margaret Fuhrer eloquently describes the closing scene of Ambient Cowboy in her review in the Huffington Post:
There are a few lovely moments in Cowboy when Baldwin, with her keen eye, captures something ordinary in a way that’s so right it becomes extraordinary. In the solo that closes the work, Molly Poerstel-Taylor falls to the floor and appears to sleep. Rather than lie still, she makes the small, unconscious adjustments of a slumbering child, repositioning an arm slightly, nuzzling her head against an imaginary pillow.
It was at this point in the performance that I was reminded of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (a book that has been on many reader’s minds this week). I thought of Max in his wolf costume in his bedroom, suddenly enveloped by a sea and forest and the land of Wild Things, and how at the very end, after his adventure, he is once again safe in his tiny bedroom. It is a far cry from Philip Johnson’s Glass House, and yet referencing Sendak’s classic book somehow provided me a useful lens for better understanding Ambient Cowboy. We may curl up in bed at night, but we all have some wildness in us. And what exactly is our relationship to the outdoors? To the animals in the forest? How alike are we? What are the boundaries? Where does the manicured lawn end and the untamed forest begin?
Ivy Baldwin’s Ambient Cowboy is both elegant and spare, which is not surprising for a dance piece inspired by a house made of glass. On the New York Live Arts website, Baldwin says that she “is interested in choreography that is abstract yet conjures a powerful emotional response in the viewer.” Baldwin’s choreography is highly original, but much like her dance style, is more cerebral and abstract than emotional. I suspect that her work would be strengthened by bringing these two forces into better balance.
As a choreographer it is Baldwin’s role to be in control of the performance, and yet, so much is beyond control. At some point, she must surrender her vision to others–the dancers, the lighting and set designer, the composer, the audience. Isn’t this the very reason we attend live events–to have a living, breathing, organic experience that isn’t produced by machines or a room full of market researchers? To watch real artists balancing on that tightrope?
In order to work at the highest level, performers must make peace with these uncertainties and be in the body and in the moment. The minute an artist loses this focus and starts thinking about how they appear in the audience’s eyes, self-consciousness kicks in. (And there is a big difference between self-consciousness and awareness.) The best performances usually involve the greatest amount of risk, and self-consciousness is the arch enemy of risk-taking. It will beat risk back into its dark, cobwebbed corner every single time.
I raise the issue of risk-taking because it’s directly related to the future of dance as it embraces new technologies like the live drawing seen in Ambient Cowboy. Soon, some incredibly brave team of artists will come along and dare to walk the tightrope, this time without a safety net.
Imagine the possibilities for a collaborative improvisation between an i-Pad wielding visual artist and a company of dancers. What if the choreographer gave the mark of the artist an equal role to the dancers? What if the dancers responded directly to the drawing in real time, and the drawing directly to the dancers? What if artist and dancers worked with only a rough outline for their performance, much in the way a group of jazz musicians might play together? How would a particular visual artist’s style affect the end result? What variations could be realized by altering color or the weight of the line?
As you can see, we’re entering a new era, one where technology is going to present artists with numerous options for originality. Hats off to Ivy Baldwin and Anna Schuleit for giving us a rare glimpse of these future possibilities.
This is New York Live Arts’ much-anticipated inaugural season of programming since Dance Theater Workshop and the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company decided to join forces and re-invent themselves as NYLA in 2011. This new Chelsea-based organization has expanded it’s scope to include “movement-based artists,” as well as dance.
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