Right now, a relic: a response by Joanna Furnans

Anna Karenina presented and performed by the Joffrey Ballet

a co-production with The Australian Ballet

World Premiere, February 13, 2019 Auditorium Theatre, Chicago, IL

Artistic Director: Ashley Wheater, Conductor: Scott Speck, Choreographer: Yuri Possokhov, Composer: Ilya Demutsky, Libretto: Valeriy Pecheykin, Costume & Set Design: Tom Pye, Projection Design: Finn Ross, Lighting Design: David Finn

Starring: Victoria Jaiani, Fabrice Calmels, Alberto Velazquez, Anais Bueno, Yoshihisa Arai, and vocalist Lindsay Metzger

image: Cheryl Mann

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I’ll admit I was giddy. Giddy from the pomp and circumstance related to a world premiere.

I mean, the resources that go into a production of this magnitude!

The hours spent, the hair lost, the debates had, the muscles tightened, the strings snapped, the sequences cut, the donors appeased, the private tears, the communal pride.

I was also nervous. Nervous with opening night jitters. A sympathetic nervousness imagining the dancers backstage in full makeup, hair plastered to their sculls, wearing cushy slippers and loose sweats over their tights and bodices keeping them supple and ready for the

explosion

of energy. of perspective. of tradition.

The role of a lifetime for some. A dream come true for others. Exactly what the multitudes want to see.

Right here. Right now. A relic made in 2019.

Conservative and out of touch.

And at the end, what I expected and what most disappoints:

A curtain call revealing the creative team of all white men, the “genius” underneath/behind/above it all,

holding hands, taking their reverential bows to a most exuberant standing ovation.

They could have made different choices but they didn’t. They could have hired masters in the field, practitioners at the top of their game, individuals brimming with fresh imagery and electrifying new steps who were women and people of color.

Wouldn’t you at least have been curious to see how a former Bolshoi prima ballerina might have approached this choreography? This story?

Welcome back, killjoy.

I know, let’s fantasize about the possibilities of new contemporary story ballets. But be careful not to make them too radical because we still need to fill the auditorium.

I’ll start: Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Plath’s The Bell Jar. Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. Erdrich’s The Round House. Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. Woolf’s Orlando. Butler’s Kindred. Myles’s Chelsea Girls.

 Surely these titles are mainstream enough.

Alright, maybe

it’s absurd.

But what stirs you now? You, the audience? You, the funders? You as liberals? You who—as a group, in theory—vehemently oppose Trump and disagree with misogyny, and inequality between races, classes, and genders?

Do you go to a ballet and happily (gratefully?) leave those lenses behind?

I did it at first too. I couldn’t help but get swept up in the surge of an original sound score performed live by the Chicago Philharmonic.

And the magnificence and power of the truly remarkable Victoria Jaiani as Anna.

And Yoshihisa Arai as Levin absolutely took my breath away.

And the choreography at the racecourse was superb. Oh, and the ballroom scene full of self-assured, sharp lined women in delicious costumes of tulle and chiffon.

I was enchanted.

Because I let my fairytale mind take over. Me, as a girl again watching Disney with all its color, feeling, and song. Me as a girl dreaming about a life in dance and the possibilities of what that could mean. I had no idea of its potential. Then.

I think it was the projections—cheesy, obvious, disruptive— that pulled me out of my child mind and brought me back to now.

2019. Chicago. Shootings. Corruption. Disparity. All the isms.

I want to be punitive because I feel angry. And now that anger is directed at:

The Joffrey: for their missed opportunity to stage a work that could have been THE seminal ballet of NOW. For not aligning politics with practice.

At the audience: for being so swept up that they were blind. Or maybe not blind, but willing/wanting to turn the other cheek (because it is an insult) in favor of a “great ballet.” For excepting entertainment as it is.

At myself: for doing the same. For not knowing how to reconcile the dreams with the realities. For wanting to escape and enjoying the escape.

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Joanna Furnans is a Chicago-based dance artist and writer. She is co-founder and managing editor of the Performance Response Journal. www.joannafurnans.com 

Be There for Her: A response by Joanna Furnans

A response to The Triumph of Fame

Concept, Text & Performance by
Marie-Caroline Hominal

February 24th, 2017 5:40 pm

Dfbrl8r Gallery, Chicago IL

Performed as part of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events On Edge Series

image: courtsesy of the artist

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I didn’t realize there was a basement in this space.

My boots are making an incredibly loud, well-paced, heel-striking sound with every step down the stairs. Reminds me of all those beloved/groan-worthy scenes of dominant women intimidating and titillating with their slow, intentional, echo-y, high-heeled walks.

But I don’t mean to be making these sounds. If I had known I was going to walk down wooden stairs, alone, while a woman waited for me at the bottom, I would have worn sneakers.

I get to the bottom of the stairs and there she is, standing in profile on a grey carpet, positioned in its upper-left-hand corner, taking a swig from a water bottle. When she hears that I have landed, she turns her head to look at me. It is so perfect. It’s the swivel of a head that us trained dancers have learned, anatomical, rotating only from the occipital joint, no additional muscular effort, no superfluous movement. Just the scull.

It is beautifully precise. And utterly creepy. Because she is wearing a mask- technically a half mask- that just covers the eyes and forehead but leaves the nose, mouth, cheeks, and jawline exposed. The mask is also quite human. There is nothing fantastical about it. It matches her skin tone (peachy-white) and it depicts some relatively natural looking “hair” up high on her forehead in a 1960s- era bouffant. She is also wearing a brilliant muted gold coat that falls to mid-shin and has three-quarter length sleeves, funky platform heals, and tight, shiny, black rubber gloves.

Otherwise she is naked. And pregnant.

So she turns that head back and nonchalantly gestures for me to sit down in the chair. This chair is on the carpet too, much closer to her than I want. I briefly consider moving it farther back. In this moment of deliberation, I feel the pressure of time. I realize that since the moment I made my entrance down the stairs, the time of this piece has begun and I am IN it. Not just in the piece as a performer but actually caught in the space and time of it. Somehow I am aware that the timing of my movements, decision-making, eye contact, whatever I do, is already wrapped up in the meter of the piece. I have sensed the silent time structure and I do not want to disrupt its signature. So I wait for a beat. And sit.

I sit plainly, with both feet on the floor, a pleasant distance apart. My hands remain shoved deep in my coat pockets. I do not move for the entirety of the piece. I concentrate on my breathing, trying to keep it normal and steady. I pay extra attention to my face, keeping it open and shock-free. I want her to know I am present and watching. I want to give her some supportive energy and not demand too much energy from her in return.

I am definitely feeling intimidated. I assume there is at least the slightest bit of that going on for her too.

She begins. She gets closer to me, standing with her legs crossed at the ankles, and starts to remove her black rubber gloves, slowly…

Ah. I see. This IS actually going to follow a tease structure. Shit.

I’m a little disappointed because I’ve had a lifetime of people (usually men) assuming I am a stripper when I say I am a dancer, assuming my dances will be sexy, assuming my one-on-one experimental performance will be a lap dance or strip tease. We deal with these assumptions in different ways and make choices around what we do and what we make accordingly. I just wasn’t expecting this choice. I was assuming (given the costume and the set up) that the tease would remain implied, not executed. Alright, it’s fine. I quickly regroup and refocus.

Reframed with this information. Still watching.

There is a mirror in the back upper right corner of the carpet. There is a speaker and iPod on the floor. It is mostly silent but a soundtrack is playing. There is a heavily accented woman’s voice that comes in and out of the track. I can’t recall everything she says. The sentences are non-committal. She repeats herself. There is something sort of apologetic in her tone. Or maybe she has simply acquiesced. I hear the word “tease.”

I can also hear some raucousness going on upstairs. Footfall, laughter, loud male voices. For a split second I think about all those atrocious stories of girls being held captive in backyard sheds or basements with their abusers right upstairs. What fucking torture.

I know I am safe. I know Marie-Caroline is safe. And this circumstance is consensual, mostly.

At some point she gets down on all fours rather close to my knees. (I’m glad I didn’t cross my legs.) And I think, man, haven’t we all been here before? Why is this configuration of bodies and postures still so vulnerable and exciting? It is so easy and yet so fucking complicated.

She crawls backwards on a slight diagonal until her platform heeled foot hits the back wall. She stops. Her expression doesn’t change. But did she just cock her head a little? Like a dog who just heard something? She hits her foot against the wall again. Repeats. In a rhythm. “Knocking boots” as they say… It is actually funny. I offer a gentle little laugh.

Eventually, the shoes come off and the coat comes off. It is not grand. There is no climax. When she removes the coat she is kneeling, legs tight together, belly exposed, mask still on. I realize that her backside is in full view if I look at the mirror. But I don’t want to look. I really want to give her some privacy.

At this point I’m starting to feel protective, overwhelmed, maybe slightly sad and definitely saturated. She starts to untie her mask and I get nervous. I realize I am going to be confronted with her full face and the depth of her real eyes. I start worrying about how I will look to her. My body temperature rises and I remind myself to stay soft, to stay open, to BE THERE FOR HER.

She frees the mask but keeps it at eye level and extends her arm slowly forward. I still can’t see her eyes but I will when she drops her arm. And she does. And she looks sort of, tired. And raw. And maybe a little defensive. Or not defensive exactly. Her brow is furrowed but that could just be an expression of effort. Our eyes are locked and I’m trying my best to see and be seen. To give as much as I receive. I’m trying to meet her. There is a glorious tension between us. Not negative, powerful. We are suspended, holding each other. She is in control of this time, it is hers to wield and mine to witness.

Eventually, she lays down on her side, picks up a pencil and opens a notebook. She quietly asks my name.

“Joanna” I say.

She nods and says “Joanna” and writes it down. Then she looks up at me and wipes her eyes.

(Is she crying? Does she always cry? Or is it me? Was there something between the two of us that made her cry? I hope so. And I doubt it.)

“It’s done” she says.

I nod. I clap a little, but it sounds dumb. I’m pretty sure I said “thank you.” I leave. But this time I make sure to walk on the balls of my feet as I walk up the stairs.

I get to the other side of the upstairs door and stand there. I rest my head against the wall and try to digest what just happened. My body is buzzing. My mind is sloshing around the elements of the piece trying to find steady landmarks. I don’t know when or how exactly it happened but she moved me. She exposed me, differently than others at other times. She triumphed. Not over me, with me.

I realize that I can hear chatter from the back room. I know I won’t be able to hold on to what happened down there for very long. The power will dissolve as soon as I round the corner.

So I wait a couple beats. And leave.

A Pile of Sincere Questions Specifically For and About Our Postmodern/ Contemporary Dance/Performance Community(ies) in Chicago by Joanna Furnans

What follows is a deluge of questions that routinely cross my mind as I consider Chicago an artistic home. I am a white cisgendered lesbian who has extensive experience in the field of dance and performance and am deeply invested in the continuation, visibility, sustainability and advancement of the form. I am a critical thinker and tend to be just as hard on myself as I am on others. I do this because I desperately want to challenge the status quo as reflected in the art that we make and the infrastructures that support it.

 These questions are certainly biased but are absolutely genuine. I am not sure I can respond to every question and there are hundreds more I could have asked. I am interested in the all the possible answers.

 A Pile of Sincere Questions Specifically For and About Our Postmodern/Contemporary Dance/Performance Community(ies) in Chicago

 1. Do you feel seen as an independent artist? If yes, how do you know you are seen? If no, why do you think you are invisible?

4. What is the appeal of the company model? Does forming a non-profit dance/performance company help you organize and secure funding and performance opportunities? If you have a “company” but are not legally incorporated what purpose does that label serve? Does using the word “company” legitimize your work in Chicago? Elsewhere in the US? Outside the US?

10. Do you have a sense of where your work “fits in” to current postmodern/ contemporary dance/performance zeitgeists in Chicago? In the US? Outside the US? Can you put words to what those zeitgeists might be? Do you think you make work that contributes to current “conversations”? Or are you happily oblivious?

16. How many shows do you attend a month? How many are shows that your friends are in? If you do go to a show conceived of and performed by folks who are mostly strangers to you, do you feel like you can make a connection with them afterward? Do you feel like you should? What do you do if you don’t particularly like the show? What do you do if you love the show? What keeps you from attending shows?

23. How much or in what way does the audience influence the work that you make? Are you making work that speaks mostly to your creative peers? Or do you imagine your audience is unversed in your form? Which is the more appealing prospect? How successful do you think you are in reaching both groups?

28. How much effort do you put in to identifying and expanding your audience base? Do you dream of reaching people who prefer to spend their money on “high art” (or pop music or sporting events or expensive dinners or nights out drinking) with your less mainstream art? What would you need to do to attract those people? Should you? Do you dream of reaching audiences with little disposable income? Should you? Do you feel comfortable using marketing strategies that identify and target specific potential new audiences? How do those strategies apply to/support the specificity of our field? Are you a member of Audience Architects? Do they understand what you do?

38. How are you editing your work? How do you decide which move/action/design element stays or goes? Do you participate in works-in-progress showings? Do you surround yourself with people who can offer constructive criticism? Do you feel like you can get honest feedback? Do you want honest feedback? Do you feel safe presenting work in this community?

45. Dance Makers- Where do you show your work? How much money (on average) do you fork over to show there? Does that venue provide technical/production support? Should they? Whose responsibility is it to present work? The artist? A private or public presenter? How much does the reputation of the presenting organization contribute to the success of your work? Do they continue to support you after your show? Should they? Do you find yourself in situations where you can talk to presenters about your work? Do presenters intimidate you? Should they?

58. Performance Makers- Where do you show your work? Do you need/want/receive technical support? How much money (on average) do you fork over to show there? Whose responsibility is it to present work? The artist? A private or public presenter? How much does the reputation of the presenting organization contribute to the success of your work? Do you find yourself in situations where you can talk to presenters about your work? Do presenters intimidate you? Should they?

68. If the expected cost of producing or attending a show is different for “dance makers” than it is for “performance makers”, what might that say about the relationship between economics, class and aesthetics? How do those relationships play out in an evaluation of artistic success? How do those relationships play out in the opportunities for presentation? How might race and gender contribute to these dynamics? How does economic disparity effect the potential for artistic collaboration/conversation between dance makers and performance makers? How do you feel about the distinctions between “dance” and “performance” in Chicago? Elsewhere in the US? Outside the US?

76. Do you feel like you are at an advantage having graduated from SAIC or Columbia College as you create/perform in and around Chicago? In what way(s)? Do you feel like you are at an advantage if your art/dance/performance degree is from somewhere outside of Chicago? Do you feel like you are at an advantage if you do NOT have an art-related degree as you create/perform in and around Chicago? In what way(s)?

81. In what ways are your experiences of privilege and/or disadvantage reflected in your work?

82. Who’s work do you like in Seattle? In Portland? In San Francisco? In LA? In Austin? In Minneapolis? In Detroit? In Philadelphia? In DC? In Northampton? In Miami? In New York City? In Chicago?

95. What might someone who does not live/work in the Chicago Pomo/Contemporary Dance/Performance scene say about the Chicago scene? What do you think the perception of these particular communities might be to outsiders?

97. If you overheard this statement, “Hubbard and Joffrey aside, there is no notable dance/performance happening in Chicago” what/who would you use as an example to refute such a statement? And if they asked, “Well, why haven’t I heard of them?” how would you respond?

99. What do you imagine success looks like in this field? What do you imagine your life will look like in ten years? Do you think/feel the Chicago Pomo/Contemporary Dance/Performance scene can sustain you? Do you think it should?

image by Christine Wallers