|Pictured: Kelsey Gerber|
Photo: Rob Best
ka·nei·see | collective presents
Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco
Oct 8th, 2016
The stage was bare, except for three flexible strands of paper stretched across the back wall. Dancers entered the space, arms cycling through simple port de bras (fourth position to third arabesque to first), while simultaneously interacting with the bands of paper. More performers joined, and tenderly, carefully, with both attention and affection, stepped in and out through the porous structure, even developpé-ing from front through passé to the back while holding onto the fibers. Next the cast moved to the center of the stage and began pulling toilet paper from the wings into large piles in front of them, like meringue pillows or the skirt of a billowy tulle ball gown. In these first moments, it was clear that the rolls of toilet paper were to be an active participant in the work, not merely a prop, not only an object to be arranged, not just a set dressing, but a functioning theatrical device in Readymade.
ka·nei·see | collective’s newest world premiere looks to Marcel Duchamp’s Readymade art movement of the early 1900s, where ordinary objects were proffered and set into an artistic container and frame. But it does so with an abstracted approach. In the program notes for Readymade, Artistic Director Tanya Chianese shares this statement as a guide to her piece, “Readymade is not about Duchamp’s work, but instead aims to invoke his iconic idea of do-it-yourself power to reshape one’s own life by changing how we view things.” And this contemporary dance composition certainly lives into that vision. While deskilling frequently arose in the discourse around Duchamp’s work, Chianese’s Readymade is more about disrupting assumptions, subverting expectations and reshifting perceptions, challenging its audience to parse out their own modes and patterns of viewership.
A fifty-minute ensemble work for ten women, Readymade is constructed as a suite, fourteen small scenes flowing seamlessly from one to the next. Set against the growing toilet paper backdrop, the early vignettes were dominated by Chianese’s formidable choreography, innovative yet technically grounded at the same time – a modern release solo accompanied by a Greek-style chorus, a contact improvisation inspired trio, a varied quartet and an accumulation phrase of recognizable movement gestures (fanning one’s face, shushing, etc.). Then the dancers retrieved the rolls of toilet paper and carefully unfurled one long stream in front of each of them. Pressing their palms to the paper, they directed its gaze, guiding its view like a beam from a lighthouse. And what happened next was the crystallization of the entire piece. It was a quiet moment, but so narratively rich and revelatory. The cast picked up the rolls, turned them on their side and looked directly at the audience through the hollow center. In that instant, the questions of viewership sang from the stage. What are we seeing? How do we edit our lens? How broad or narrow is our scope? Are you watching us or are we watching you?
Alongside these simple and profound statements were contrasting high-octane choreographic phrases. Following a diagonal line of toilet paper rolls, the ensemble vaulted from upstage left to down right. Energetic dynamics, level changes, long extensions, grand rond de jambes and wafting arms filled the space. And watching these dancers travel full out at full speed, it is impossible not to mention the company’s noteworthy and impressive spatial awareness. Humor also played a role in Readymade. Another soloist stood still on stage, while roll and after roll of toilet paper were lofted and hurled towards her. Joined by three other dancers, a choreographic sequence from earlier in the work recurred, this time amidst all the tatters and clouds of paper – reminiscent of Pina Bausch’s Carnations (1982). And while this scene was very funny, it also continued to pose penetrating narrative and structural questions – how does context change a phrase; how does setting affect the physicality?