A response to As the Crow Flies, an evening of “mid-western dance improvisers and performers” presented by Selene Carter
March 1 & 2, 2018 at Links Hall, Chicago
Performed with Kent de Spain, Leslie Dworkin, Julia Mayer, Kora Radella, and Chris Seibert
image of Julia Mayer by: Kier Briscoe
CONFESSION: this was a long show. I didn’t have much to say about the 2nd and 3rd piece, so I decided to just focus on Selene and her work, the 1st and 4th piece. There was an intermission, and it was already almost 9pm, I’d been up since 6am, somebody took my chair when I went to the bathroom and after sitting on the steps behind her to wait for the conversation to end for 5 minutes, I left. I didn’t watch the second half. I already had enough to write about and was falling asleep and feeling awkward.
“She has childcare, we need to get to Links on time”
I met Selene Carter on Wednesday morning, she was beaming coming through the doors with the sun backlighting her entrance, ready to enter a performance weekend in her old Chicago digs. I wanted to talk to her before the performance to hear about her process and learn more about her from chatting rather than in writing. Selene remembered we had met briefly once before and the age of my child at that time. Clearly she holds mental space for those around her, which you could see from how she curated the performance with Midwest colleagues she’s connected with over the years. She was rehearsing with Julia Mayer that morning, who was hosting her during her visit from Indiana, and these mothers were concerned with my scheduling, the day before their own show. They are seasoned performers, improvisors, and, very thoughtful.
“The Gorgeous Nothings”
The evening began with an improvised trio performed by Leslie Dworkin, Julia Mayer, and Kora Radella. It was scored and directed by Selene Carter. A point of reference for the work is a compilation of envelope poems, scraps of envelopes with cursive handwriting, written by Emily Dickinson in her later years. The book by Jen Bervin & Marta Werner, “The Gorgeous Nothings” is a beauty to flip through, the weathered yellow scraps printed in full size and placed in a stark, blank expanse of bright white paper. I was reminded of Rauschenberg or one of those other guys, but this was 100 years earlier. In performance I could see the poetic response to space and the storytelling confined to an edge here, a long line there. The score began with the space restricted by lighting and by two large pieces of corrugated cardboard, just the wavy part. The dancers seemed to have different histories that have intersected here and there over the years, but that is my guess as a viewer. I enjoyed their very different personalities that came out in performance. One had a desire to be close to the others and another had an impulse to take a large solo orbit away and when mirroring the choices of others it was in her own time. Selene’s rehearsal process was to meet with them separately and their term was she “primed” the work from conversations about the dancer’s past influences, teachers, or performers or artists that captured their imagination at impressionable times in their lives. Selene would respond with suggestions to mix two disparate influences together. From there she molded the score, acting as outside eye and director.
At one point the cardboard was scratched, adding sound to the environment. My thoughts went to the Krannert Center in Urbana, Illinois, Krannert’s fortune was from inventing corrugated cardboard, his factory based in Chicago forever changing how things get from here to there. I laughed at myself for this randomness, meanwhile the performers were shifting from formalism to humor, and playfulness. Like kids with a refrigerator box, the plainness of the cardboard took their imagination in unexpected directions.
Despite being called open score, the piece was in the style of allowing the audience a glimpse of the structure, numbers were called out, maybe words as well, but I remember the numbers. Between these numbers, Selene told very short stories, images of the wilderness encroaching on urban landscapes. A squirrel that was maybe a cat, but actually a skunk; the bright eyes of a deer dangerously near the road, her son calling it magical while she was probably fearing a collision. Meanwhile, a volunteer corp of improvisors created a landscape of passerbys who had different ways of holding themselves in performance. An experience that is so real to life. Do you acknowledge being watched, or not? Is it comfortable? Do you want to be seen or blend in? Yesterday my son, 4 years old, was wearing a very loud and mismatched outfit, he looked out the car window as his dad ran a quick errand and said “look how funny, daddy is wearing black pants, black jacket, black shoes, and his hair is black too. You can’t see him.” Yes, sometimes adults prefer to disappear in their environment.
Selene had offered to send me a copy of the score to “Open Score” but I was happy to be not in-the-know. My attention was primed to be there waiting for events to unfold. In the program notes she quotes a student evaluation, “we sometimes weren’t really told exactly what to do so we all were lost for a small portion of time.” As the piece progressed, with hints of story and space, I was reminded of a tangential conversation we had on Wednesday while watching her swirling, grounded movement. We both acknowledged our histories with contact improvisation, I told her I lost interest when I was about 30 and was tired of people lifting me, and it was rarely about composing and mostly about touch. Now, post-baby, I’m so touched out. She laughed, and told a story of lying on the floor in a workshop going through developmental movement and feeling deep in her gut she needed to stand up and keep an eye on the horizon. This was a post-baby moment for her, that she was an adult and needed to keep track of her surroundings. I have always enjoyed seeing performers of every stage of their practice, and that knowingness of who she is, and where she is in relationship to everyone else in the room, and her history was visible and grounding.
“my post-modern past”
Selene is a professor at Indiana University, Bloomington. Teaching an introduction to improvisation and composition has been a large part of her dance practice for the past 10 years. I asked about how she approaches that with 19 year olds coming from a competition dance background or other fixed views of dance. Selene: “I’m influenced by my own history in post-modernernism, but I try to teach towards their dancing future rather than my past.“ Lately, when I watch work I’ve been pushing myself to listen to what the artist is saying, and not get caught up in aesthetic preferences. I hear that in how she talks about teaching, advocating for the student to be true to their influences and to their personal story. Those scraps of envelopes from the 1800s with poems constrained to a certain amount of space, of characters, I think of haikus, tweets, never-ending blog posts, the form can define how we express ourselves. The values, the “No Manifesto” of each generation shifts, but is still understandable, relatable. Before sitting down to write, I had just turned the news off, and I’m still hearing the voices of teenagers from Florida in my head. We learn to see the world, to be truly empathetic from our teachers and our students.
Jessica Ray is a dance artist based in Chicago. She was a 2017 Co-MISSION resident at Links Hall. Her work has been seen nationally at AUNTS at the Pulitzer Foundation, Roulette Intermedium, the Movement Research Festival and Judson Church, the Chocolate Factory, and Pieter PASD.