Performance Musings

Ariel Osterweis


I have contributed a chapter, “Disciplining Black Swan, Animalizing Ambition,” on Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film, Black Swan, to The Oxford Handbook of Dance and the Popular Screen (2014). You can find it here:

Osterweis Black Swan

and on the Oxford website, Amazon, and Google Books (links below).





I wrote these context notes for John Jasperse’s Within between. Premiere: May 28th, 2014 at New York Live Arts.

As far as I can tell, John Jasperse doesn’t do small talk. Yet, he isn’t afraid to make himself small, vulnerable, always one to cite failure in his own work and to let out an anxiously knowing laugh in response to the absurdity of millennial life. In contrast to his aversion to discursive drivel, Jasperse immerses himself (and his dancers) in small movements. But such kinetic minutiae couldn’t be further from empty gossip; instead, it is the choreographic equivalent of the refinement and experimentation of the American postmodern poets. Jasperse possesses an uncompromising commitment to detailed investigation of micro-movements, down to the directional gaze of a single eyeball.

What had stood out to me from his previous work was a consistent engagement with objects that moved—things with agency. Recalling players such as jeans, leaf blowers, sculptures, penises, mattresses, emptied water bottles, and inflated pool rafts, I was continually struck by the way Jasperse was able to create choreographically political ecologies. Without disregarding the formal precision of a nuanced tilt of the head or the spiraling energetics of a connected trio moving across stage at 20mph, he maintained an undertone of socio-cultural critique. In Misuse liable to prosecution (2007), Jasperse brought to our attention the desperate financial mechanics of putting together a dance performance, commenting on the scarcity of resources for artists working within a commodity culture of waste, investigating capitalist materiality through corporeal materiality (money through the body).

Working with Jasperse in a dramaturgical capacity, I have had the opportunity to talk with him, watch videos, and attend rehearsals and showings over the course of this year. Where did the objects go? No rafts, hangers, orange cones, or boxes! I noted a shift from the ecological to the cultural. What do I mean by this? Whereas Jasperse’s stages were once littered with animated things, they had been stripped down to bodies—people! Just people. He told me he wanted to try on culturally foreign movement styles. (This worried me; did he mean appropriation?) As opposed to mimicking a new dance style, he wanted to translate dialogue about such styles into movement, which is a type of abstracted praxis, a “doing” of theory. Such abstraction skirts around embodiment. Rather, it means to embody an idea about a dance form instead of embodying a dance form itself, privileging the affect of translation over the integrity of precise replication.

But when Jasperse’s dancers play with an abstracted version of, for example, stepping, what are the stakes, culturally, racially, and economically? How do we as audience members perceive movement passages that allude to such cultural experiments (if we perceive them at all)? Jasperse could be commenting on Eurocentric classicism, race, modernist abstraction, “high” and “low” culture, or the idea of “America.” At the level of choreography, what qualifies as “American?” We encounter stepping in black colleges; both entertainment and competition, it is a performance of aspiration. Jasperse contrasts and integrates culturally disparate dance techniques and evacuates them of their aspirational qualities. For example, in one section, the four dancers (the exquisite Maggie Cloud, Simon Courchel, Burr Johnson, and Stuart Singer) execute methodical tendus and port de bras you might find at the beginning of the “center” section of ballet class—fifth position, croisé, etc. There is a creepy nonchalance to this sequence of movements, a restraint you wouldn’t find in a ballet class in a classical ballet academy, but the kind you might find in a “ballet-for-modern-dancers” class, like a rejection of épaulement’s reach, its aspiration. Then we come into a collegiate section with allusions to cheerleading, and the dancers barely crack a smile, a far cry from the plastered, patriotic glee of televised cheerleaders or effervescent frat boys. Is this Jasperse’s way of rejecting America or of refiguring its commoditized affects and rendering them banal? Who owns these images? How are they felt in our bodies?

Recently, a thing has reentered the studio. Within between now features a pole dance. Instead of the transparent, light-catching attributes of clear plastic bottles and blow-up pillows, this piece begins with a nudge. A pole threatens to penetrate the audience. Contact? A probe? A rifle taking aim? Initially weaponized by a dancer, the pole becomes a structure of support, and two dancers lean on it while somehow keeping it suspended atop their toes and shoulders. Ultimately, Jasperse has reintroduced his penchant for the ecological to the otherwise cultural landscape of Within between, creating a meeting point between political things and social people. We might ask, then, where does identity reside in this work—in the dancers, in Jasperse, in the pole, in the idea of “America,” or in the choreography itself? It has been said that movement is fleeting, but what, then, of the way we attach ourselves to a dance? It’s mine, isn’t it?


My article, “The Muse of Virtuosity: Desmond Richardson, Race, and Choreographic Falsetto” is published in the December, 2013 issue of  Dance Research Journal.

Please visit DRJ at

or click this link to read the article:

The Muse of Virtuosity: Desmond Richardson, Race, and Choreographic Falsetto



Hi John,

A quickie…

I’m thinking about the different registers, stakes, and impacts of the symbolic and of appropriation in your current work. Early on, you said you were interested in the symbolic. And then in the NYLA showing, a lot of what I saw I was framing through appropriation. There’s an aspect of snatching or stealing to appropriation. A reductive example is Madonna “taking” voguing in the 90s from underground ballroom culture into the mainstream. Lots of people would agree that this is some kind of appropriation. But then, what I was loosely referring to as “appropriation” in your current piece didn’t contain the kind of violence (of ripping off from minoritarian culture) you find in Madonna’s voguing antics. The question of money and circulation adds a certain dual celebratory and violent patina to Madonna’s practices. Within the context of experimental concert dance, however, appropriation operates as a kind of meta-appropriation in the sense that the blackbox theater provides a reflexive space for you to comment on appropriation by engaging in small acts of appropriation…without disseminating these acts through mass media, music videos, and other such widely available commodity platforms. What I find in your stepping and cheerleading section is dependent on the symbolic: appropriation is only really possible in the symbolic realm of signifiers. I am reading the stepping/cheerleading section not as a lived-with habit of appropriation, but as a transitory glimpse of appropriation that functions through the logic of the symbolic. It stands in for something–black fraternities? College cheerleaders? African American “collective effervescence?” If we posit that appropriation is only possible in the symbolic realm, the “glimpses” I mention are moments of appropriation (in and of the symbolic order). If appropriation seems less apparent in other sections or movement passages, is this because you were purposely being less explicit or because appropriation is often inherently latent, hidden? Who hides it and how does it get hidden? I don’t want to get bogged down with Lacan right now, but he distinguishes the “symbolic order” from the “imaginary” and the “real”; the signifier and the Other are important aspects of the symbolic. The Other is, of course, at the crux of questions of subjectivity, identity, and belonging. The way we have toyed with titles such as “u   s” and “we” speak to this. (Later I think we should delve into Lacanian psychoanalysis even if we find it unhelpful in the end. I also want to bring in the writing of an art historian who reads the symbolic in relation to the museological production of death and decay.)

The “something” above is not insignificant, as we must ask, why stepping? Why the MLK speech excerpts (in Singer’s solo)? What I find symbolized in these sections—and I must specify that this is especially and only within the context of the 35+ minutes of other movement material we have been privy to while watching the piece—is a generic “America” (which is itself a symbolic way of actually referring to the U.S.). And the way I see these symbolic glimpses into “America” functioning is through an acceptance of the view that America is inherently Africanist, that black performance is already an aspect of America’s whitenesses, blacknesses, Asiannesses, hispanicnesses (I pluralize here to make a point about racial and ethnic plurality…of felt experience). Moreover, these symbolic moments that call upon collegiate marching band-derived dances and performances stage questions more than they provide definitive answers. After all, answering is not a Jasperse-ian gesture. We should also examine the components that contribute to the symbolic in this work: music, image, language, even (perhaps especially) movement. The more time I spend in rehearsal with you and the dancers, the less I feel that we can demarcate a true shift between a “Jasperse style” and a “post-Jasperse style.” Trying things on seems to be how you’ve arrived at your idiosyncratic and highly explored movement style, and no matter how “foreign” a trope might be–whether a collegiate dance form like stepping or a theoretical concept like perception—I’m inclined to say it functions as a symbolic instance along an otherwise self-knowing choreographic landscape. If we consider Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “minor literature” (which refers to Kafka’s writing), we might ask ourselves if these symbolic moments in your new piece generate a minoritarian choreography…or, if they point to minoritarian culture within a choreography that is already (differently) minoritarian in its queerness, its careful embrace of a rigorous vulnerability. Would it be too crude to ask, how does choreography that emanates from a white gay masculine consciousness inform and ingest black performance (oration, music, dance)? Alternatively, the collective effervescence of university sports arenas (the occasion for marching bands and their accompanying cheers and dances) are hardly a comfortable context for the queer kid, the experimental choreographer, or the contemporary dancer. While I think it would be overwrought to claim a “post-Jasperse style,” I want to leave a question out in space (a queer space?): how is Jasperse’s new choreography racializing and gendering its “America?” Does a generic America exist? Or is the US only ever a personal, particular amalgamation of disparate cultural, historical, and symbolic images, experiences, and commodities?



I contributed this short essay to Dirty Looks NYC (Creative Director Bradford Nordeen), a monthly platform for queer experimental film and video. It is on Narcissister and Josef Kraska’s video, The Basket. Here is a link to the site:


It takes a person about four minutes to read aloud one single-spaced page of text. That is one minute less than Narcissister and Josef Kraska’s video, The Basket. Skimming here and there, you should get through this particular text in a time frame that corresponds with the video. While The Basket is based on Narcissister’s performance piece of the same title, it is not merely a documentation of that performance. It is an archive of another sort, a simultaneous weaving and unweaving. During the course of this five-minute journey, The Basket crisscrosses temporalities such that an Eastern European woman morphs into an African American mammy figure who, in turn, finds herself stripping down to a shiny red Louis Vuitton bra, exploring the impossibility of nakedness in commodity-driven culture. Bound to the moving image, cinematic time weaves multiple temporalities—historiographic, imaginative, textual, musical, and choreographic. By stripping off layers and layers of clothing in real time against various painted backdrops of lost times, Narcissister juxtaposes the disparate temporalities and visualities available to her through her combination of performance art and visual arts. Welcome to the melancholic mash-up of Narcissister’s post-Soul, mixed-race feminism. Drawing from her family heritage, Narcissister’s scavenging of imagery takes us on a trip from pre-war Eastern European folk dance to the blinged-out sexuality of Lil Kim’s millennial hip-hop America. Because her timeline seems to terminate with the year 2000 (the year “How Many Licks” debuts), Narcissister is afro-futurist not in her choices of source material, but in her mutability. Her stylistic quick-changes and her insistence on wearing a mask and merkin engage a kind of magic, one in which we are impelled to believe in a utopic fluidity of identity.


In Narcissister’s performances, things are also scavenged. Embracing a DIY craft aesthetic, she appropriates both material and image, constructing her own sets and costumes out of found fabrics. Narcissister recontextualizes tropes typically associated with the objectifying gaze and commodity fetishism of capitalism by placing them in reflexive performance settings that lie on the fringes of capitalist modes of commodity circulation. Her disavowal of theatrical virtuosity—and its fetishization of the cult of individual persona—asks us why and if we want to know what lies under the mask and what we expect of racialized performance. Denying us a consistent character, Narcissister’s dance performs ruptures along a continuity of striptease. For her, surface is supplemented by material thing; even when a piece of clothing is removed, it leaves a trace. Her mask and merkin are things that haunt even in their presence. Robin Bernstein tells us in her book Racial Innocence that “performance is what distinguishes an object from a thing” (74), an idea that gestures toward Jane Bennett’s vital materialist theory of “thing-power.” For Bennett, Kafka’s Odradek functions as a kind of remnant of culture—neither subject nor object, animate or inanimate.

In “Racial Kitsch and Black Performance,” Tavia Nyong’o expands Clement Greenberg’s proposition that kitsch is failed seriousness to include the idea that racist kitsch, from historical ceramic figurines of black children to the self-conscious curating of such imagery in the Spike Lee film Bamboozled, generates in the African American and anti-racist viewer shame and oppositional spectatorship. Nyong’o’s hope is to locate a way to transform the shame of feeling less than human that comes with racist kitsch’s oppositional spectatorship into an experience of racial kitsch that escapes scapegoating and instead engenders self-recognition. He wonders if there is a way for the African American spectator to regain innocence without the bloodletting of—and identification with—the scapegoat in black performance. Narcissister calls upon the objecthood of racist kitsch, then complicates it with the performance of the moving body. By donning hard masks and placing doll-like heads in various orifices, Narcissister places the brittle surface of the racist kitsch object (such as that of Nyong’o’s figurine) onto—and into—the mutable, muscular surface of a live fleshy body. Her performances are costumed (and un-costumed) in a way that questions the fluctuating status of objecthood and subjectivity in performances that cite racialized and gendered figures such as Josephine Baker, Marie-Antoinette, and Whitney Houston. While auto-, object-, or thing-based penetration can perform self-care, Narcissister’s appropriations of culturally rehearsed images such as the Topsy doll can also evoke masochism and rape. As Bernstein writes, “The scripts of black dolls often merged servitude with violence (206)….A scriptive thing [is] an item of material culture that prompts meaningful bodily behaviors…a script for a performance. The script is itself a historical artifact” (72). Bernstein provides the example of “rape imagery…of the skirt-flipping topsy-turvy doll” (206) and asserts that, “All dolls in play…trouble the boundary between person and thing—the terror at the ontological core of slavery” (222).


Ever one to try to take down the insistence of Marxist theorists that society is defined by economic relations, structural anthropologist Pierre Clastres reduced the division between men and women in primitive Guayaki (Aché) Indian society to bows and baskets: men handled bows for hunting and women handled baskets for gathering. Queer theory doesn’t love this limited view since it fails to acknowledge the possibility of queer or trans* gender roles in primitive society (Clastres said that men who carried baskets metaphorically became women). There is a certain uncomfortable tinge to the stereotype of women as basket holders (and weavers); at the same time, we find evidence of the feminization of baskets in almost any culture. Narcissiter’s entire oeuvre depends on the recognition of stereotypes—both our belief in them and our desire to dismantle their hold. Moreover, she situates us as viewers within that shameful space of perceiving the degree of truth inherent to any stereotype. In The Basket, Narcissister is the basket holder: she does laundry and folk dances in a white mask which gives way to a mammy in a black mask doing chores to Nina Simone’s pained rendition of “Wild is the Wind.” Regardless of race, Narcissister’s women-selves are subjected to basket holding, even once stripped down to a merkin and a shiny red bra with metallic Louis Vuitton logos.


Throughout The Basket, Narcissister’s flow is interrupted by calls—a call to change, a call from home, a call from the unconscious, a call from the future? She answers old school phones buried in laundry baskets. Evoking a decaying filmstrip, the edges of the frame are blurred; every time the phone rings, Narcissister answers her own call, and her present and future selves are indicated by a split screen. Curly phone cords eerily conjure umbilical cords which she does away with upon answering a first generation cellphone. Finally, Lil Kim’s confident cunnilingual anthem, asking, “how many licks does it take till you get to the center of the?” is interrupted by another ring, the sound of a more recent cellphone. No licker in sight, Narcissister points to the way popular culture withholds images of black women being taken care of. Her hand (one presumably practiced in acts of self-care) reaches down to remove a cellphone from her pussy. Narcissister brings the phone to her ear, pivots around with a basket overflowing with dangling phone cords atop her head, and inaudibly answers this final call. At once deliberate and unhurried, she saunters upstage in beat-up yellow pumps, her bare ass shifting from left to right, all while balancing her precarious load. Here we consider the abject, the penetrability of the feminine in the face of the impenetrability of Narcissister’s gaze, ever-hidden by the neutrality of the mask. As her subject consumes and ejects its object, we are left to wonder when and how the object will speak, when it will become thing-y, even person-y.



This is fast writing…returns will happen later…

This is my second post on the dramaturgical process with choreographer John Jasperse. These posts will appear intermittently, sometimes frequently. They will vary in terms of format. I suppose that, alongside Jasperse’s rehearsals, they function as a way to expose process itself. Just as Jasperse’s piece is refined over time, my own observations (and modes of interaction) will be subjected to some sort of alchemy. Because he had never before worked with a dramaturg, and because I can only claim that label with a sense of continual revision, naiveté, and curiosity (as Ralph Lemon’s dramaturg Katherine Profeta reminds us, the dance dramaturg’s role is as diverse as it is specific to the artist in question), I was surprised to learn that John was comfortable with the idea of these blog posts. If that changes at any time, I will respect any need for introversion on his part. For a few years now, I have been “dramaturg”/“theorist” for performance artist Narcissister. Sometimes that resembles lonely essay writing; other times it consists of pouring over texts on masks over tea and soaked almonds in Brooklyn together, interrupting task to discuss relationships and funding. While she comes from a dance place, she does not linger in a dance place. Dance betrayed Narcissister (as love can), and I try to keep that fragility in mind when I work with her. You see, she would rather keep her eyes closed and mask on. Jasperse, on the other hand, seems to maintain an unflinching commitment to the potential of dance, of form, of choreography.

This is where things get weird…

Jasperse says that the main thrust of this current project is to depart from dance vocabularies and modes familiar to him. Early on, he told me that he is trying to figure out what is “native” to his style and what is external. What would it mean to work with dance styles outside the cultural/experiential range of Jasperse and his dancer-collaborators (the exquisite Maggie Cloud, Simon Courchel, Burr Johnson, and Stuart Singer)? To both of us, this sounded like it was about colonialism and colonizing, at first. But then Jasperse made mention of decidedly American traditions. For example, how might stepping (African American step-dancing) function in a Jasperse-oriented studio in which dancers are versed primarily in postmodern dance and ballet? What Jasperse was proposing was a theoretical and process-oriented exploration of such Africanist American forms—working with what emerged from discussions of, say, stepping with the dancers, as opposed to precisely trying to replicate or “capture” its style. “Capture” here points to my initial unease with what I perceived as a project that was not only going to explore appropriation, but had the potential to ignite appropriative violence itself. Paradoxically, having attended rehearsals and showings, I noticed that stepping was not fully “captured,” but merely indicated and played with: do we find that incomplete mimesis ultimately renders cultural “borrowing” more appropriative than exhibiting full command of a style? (Isn’t that what got Miley Cyrus into trouble?) Needless to say, without specific attention to the nuance of the choreography at hand, all this discourse of colonial and/or appropriative tendencies gets us tangled in over-rehearsed debates about cultural ownership. Thus, I now turn to the movement in the room.

Let’s dance…

When I sat down on the metal bleachers in a sweaty studio in Brooklyn’s Center for Performance Research (CPR) on December 19th, it all became eerily clear to me—not legible, no (I have a preference for the illegible anyway), but what came into focus was what the piece was NOT. It was not a piece that was casually and irresponsibly trying on “black dance.” What I saw before me—even in its infantile manifestation—was what I am inclined to call (for now) a fictocritical choreo-history. Bear with me here as I rationalize my italicized academic gibberish. Jasperse’s work does not strive for any universal interpretation, so what I perceive in the work betrays a certain idiosyncrasy; nevertheless, I presume a few others (perhaps even Jasperse at times) will come to similar observations. What I saw/heard/sensed/felt before me that day was a particular unfolding of American history through dance. By “history” I don’t mean anything strictly chronological, but the temporality and development of movement was far from nebulous or scattered.

1. The movement began with the kind of methodical tendus and por de bras you might find at the beginning of the “center” section of ballet class—fifth positions, croisé, etc. There was a creepy nonchalance to this sequence of movements, a restraint you wouldn’t find in a ballet class in a classical ballet academy, but the kind you might find in a “ballet-for-modern-dancers” class, like a rejection of epaulement’s reach, its aspiration.

(Done to Debussy, was this some sort of already-not-classically-European distortion? This could be Balanchine! And Balanchine is SO AMERICAN.)

2. Then the eyeballs. The SIDE EYE. (Here is your Urban Dictionary definition of side eye: Mid-por de bras, the dancers started darting side eyes here and there. Were they disapproving of something? Being coy? Throwing shade? Becoming “other?” I asked Jasperse later about the creepy side eyes, and he said they emerged from an exercise he calls “Twisted Sister,” in which areas of the body spiral in isolation and/or opposition to other parts of the body. What I initially perceived as an active directionality of the eyes was actually the result of leaving the eyes behind and/or being led or left by another spiraling body part. In other words, the side eyes came from a strictly formal place, but left me with a culturally inflected response. (I asked myself, are they becoming “Asian?” Is this supposed to point to an Indonesian or Indian tradition?)

3. This is not Asian. Then wrists started breaking, elbows started bending, side eyes engaged throughout. Surely THIS was some sort of commentary on colonization in Indonesia? I gave myself license to go there with my affective speculation, but as phrases were presented in a sequence (which might not be the final sequence in May) and after talking to Jasperse, it became clear that what was occurring before me was a process of intentional distortion, seeming disfigurement that came about due to formal anatomical choices (for example, letting the outside of the foot spiral and drop such that the foot seems to supinate (this is a no-no in ballet).

Bye bye Balanchine…

A supinating foot is too much distortion for Balanchine. We were entering “contemporary”/“postmodern” Jasperse territory. (I will not enter the terminology debate on what constitutes “modern,” “postmodern,” etc. dance here.) Twisted Sister had led the dancers to a Jasperse style…masked as some kind of colonial dance encounter fantasy. What appeared to be wholly foreign was, in fact, one of the most “Jasperse-ian” passages I would view that day.

(Seemingly decorative at first, I wonder if the side eyes—even as lingering body parts—were enacting a judgmental gaze, reversing for a moment a more familiar dancer-audience relationship. Or, are they the result of a hailing, an interpellation: when one is called, one often reacts first with the eyes, to see what identity she has been subjected into. What would Frantz Fanon say?)

(Composer Jonathan Bepler is currently working with Matthew Barney and therefore unavailable to create music for Jasperse until a bit later. So, in rehearsal, we heard some Dolly Parton, some Go Go’s, some silence, some hip-hop, and some Debussy. In the NYLA APAP showing in January, the music choices differed, and I will elaborate on those in a subsequent post.)

4. Mimesis. A beautifully tender, private (if exposed) duet between Courchel and Singer, who give each other directions for movement, eyes closed, facing each other at first. Barely audible to the “audience,” these directions (things like, touch your left shoulder with your right hand) were meant to be performed in mirroring fashion. The doer would sometimes interpret the command/suggestion differently than the director/suggest-er. Those are the “aha” moments for the audience. So, what is the meaning of blind following? In such mimesis without visuality, is sight lost, or are other senses awakened? There is no music in this section. What is asymmetrical symmetry? Where does power lie in such mimetic exchanges, and how can choreography enliven (or distill) such questions?

5. Here it gets collegiate. We are learning and we are watching learning and we learn that histories are told in many ways. This is at once troubling and refreshing. After a general energetic accumulation, step dancing pops up with aerobic vigor and the sound of a college marching band. Even Cloud (the lone woman in the cast) smiles a bit; it is not so Japserse-ian to smile. So, where are we? What does this movement mean to Cloud (from Florida), on the one hand, and to Courchel (from France), on the other (they are both white)? How do they feel while stepping? Do they think they are stepping? In the January showing, this section is preceded by a limb-flinging (I had written “limb-joy” in my notes) duet by Cloud and Johnson (Baudrillard’s “extremities?”) and a solo by Singer done to juxtaposed speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. and Margaret Thatcher.

6. “Live and Let Die.” This is how it ended, after rap. What is living, what is dying, and who is doing the “letting?”

…I will share more in my next post…off to rehearsal tomorrow afternoon…



This is, in part, a solicited musing. Choreographer John Jasperse approached me to do some dramaturgy for (and writing toward) his current project (premiering in May, 2014 at NYLA), one whose title rests precariously between “From once between,” “[…],” and (our most current play with double entendre) “u s.” But first he wanted me to attach some words to a “Jasperse style” and a “post-Jasperse style” (coined not by us, but by critic Chris Dohse) to help him understand how—and if—there were some perceived differences between his older and newer work.

(This section was written in Fall 2013, before entering the rehearsal studio or seeing live showings.)

I feel a certain amount of intimidation embarking on this process because I get the sense that my visceral knowing of Jasperse’s work comes from a certain affective power generated by the work’s very resistance to the structuring and legibility of language. The time he and his collaborators (dancers, composers, musicians, lighting designers, and set designers) spend preparing—and subsequently living in—worlds is profoundly perceived by us witness-participants in the audience. Jasperse has stated that he still believes in skill, amidst a terrain of postdramatic choreographers such as Jerome Bel and Xavier Roy, who present a choreography of deskilling and nondance. As far as post- or postpostmodern/contemporary/nowish-but-not-just-born American and European choreographers go, William Forsythe comes to mind as a contemporary of Jasperse who also holds onto skill. Nevertheless, Forsythe’s is a choreography that embraces classicism and certainly a relationship to ballet (whether enlivened, dissected, distorted, or displaced). It would be amiss, however, to mistake Jasperse’s ever-footy articulations with something balletic. They are decisively not. (And herein might lie the crux of how my thinking on Jasperse’s work emerges.) The balletic foot is pointed; it is pointed by discipline (somewhere between the Foucaultian sense of the state’s disciplining of the body into subjectivity and a more aesthetic sense of ballet’s decoratively-inclined training regimes). The Jasperse foot is un-disciplining and re-disciplining, adhering to something more modern or postmodern. What I mean by this is that the Jasperse foot is bare, it is born after Judson, it collects dirt, it sweeps lightly while digging its roots into a ground it is at once questioning and repaving. It is also simultaneously idiosyncratic and communal. During early viewings of Jasperse’s performances over a decade ago, the relationship of foot to ground is what lent the choreography such a strong visceral pull for me: as someone trained in ballet and modern dance, my body’s kinesthetic response to the very unique ratio of foot-pointing, to sweep, to weightedness, to loftiness was challenged. Was this Cunningham? Not exactly. Moving up the body, the swing and momentum of the legs and arms was too circular and risky to be Cunningham. (It certainly wasn’t Graham; the spirals were more outwardly directed by limbs, as opposed to drill-like into the ground.) In sum, the Jasperse foot is both highly articulated and unapologetically pedestrian, gritty even—a great oxymoron in terms of concert dance. A seemingly minor issue, the foot indicates something more profound about Jasperse’s work.


What I’m getting at here is that Jasperse creates his own ecologies. (And here I refer to work before 2013.) These ecologies run according to their own logics, and we are not necessarily privy to them, at first. The knowing I speak of above is incomplete; perhaps sensing is a better word—sensing that a world is being created before you. The audience experiences the unfolding of this world in real time with the dancers. It is never fully apprehended, but it reveals itself element by element. I use the word “ecology” as opposed to “culture” because culture presupposes (or emphasizes) an anthropology, the recognition of certain sets of human practices. Jasperse, however, tends to strip his work of all but a few cultural markers, which he only ever deploys very pointedly. He also avoids culturally marked dance styles, for example. Although his movement style comes out of a generally western tradition of postmodern dance, it seems more personally explored than culturally derivative. This is a point to which we will need to return in relation to his current work (as in, is derivation—even mimesis—now embraced?). Most significantly, his ecology is one in which objects, sounds, and humans share equal weight, reorganizing what it means to be subject versus object, animate versus inanimate. Liveness for Jasperse does not necessarily entail some kind of emanation from the human. Rather, liveness in his work is actuated through the interaction all the disparate elements of his ecologies, and we are made to feel that objects are just as animated—and possess as much agency—as humans. Just as Jasperse highlights the animated quality of material items, the human herself is rendered an object, and duets between people become duets between objects. But I should clarify: by “object” I really mean “thing,” and this is an important distinction. In political theorist Jane Bennett’s theory of vital materialism, live objects are things. She calls this “thing-power.” For Bennett, Kafka’s Odradek functions as a kind of remnant of culture—neither subject nor object, animate or inanimate. Similarly, historian and race theorist Robin Bernstein says that performance is what differentiates objects from things. When we think of humans and material objects as live and animated—vital—we lend them a thingy quality, equalizing the terrain of their existence. Things are political. While vital materialism may seem dangerously blind to very real cultural factors of class, economics, or racial-gendered violence, I take it to be a way of perceiving, of imagining relationality differently, ultimately allowing us to think about what and how things do things in (and not outside of) very culturally and politically charged environments. In pieces such as CALIFORNIA (2003), Prone (2005), and Misuse liable to prosecution (2007), Jasperse’s practice of creating what I might call ecologies of things figures very prominently.



Although designations such as “post-”anything tend to be exclusionary and unhelpful, they help us think through how style changes over time—moreover, how our theoretical paradigms reframe and reshuffle, archive and forget. So, what would it mean to believe for a moment the provocation that there is a “post-Jasperse” style (and that this supposedly came into being over ten years ago)? I would be inclined to dismiss that befuddling claim, choosing instead to think about the shift that is occurring now with Jasperse’s From once between (working title), a deliberate project of what he refers to as “transmission” and “stylistic drift.” (He has rejected an earlier exploration of the “symbolic” order. I, however, cling to this word a bit, after initial resistance, as Baudrillard reminds us that symbols circulate differently than signs.) The shift I detect in Jasperse’s work (and this is before setting foot in rehearsal, where I’m sure I will revise my musings) is one from the unmediated to the mediated, from ecology to culture. As such, mimesis and transmission come into focus with this project. I don’t think the “post-” or “post-post-”Jasperse style can be thought wholly detached from issues of ecology and thinginess, however. What might be happening (and eventually process will tell us) is that a cultural/anthropological paradigm is entering into Jaspserse’s otherwise ecological/materialist landscape. As opposed to human things and material things (like jeans and water bottles and sculptures) interacting, what Jasperse currently privileges is interaction between human things and other human things. (The idea of the Other forms the basis of anthropological inquiry. I wonder how thinginess and “othering” relate.)


This review first appeared on PICA’s blog on September 17th, 2013

Here is a direct link to the blog:

Since the 1960s, contemporary dance has been burdened by two predominant taboos: religion and emotion. Heartily challenging these taboos today are choreographers Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido (the duo comprising Campo) and Trajal Harrell. During one evening here at PICA’s TBA13 festival, I saw Campo’s duet Still Standing You immediately followed by Harrell’s Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made to Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (M2M). Both casts are comprised entirely of men, unabashedly yet jaggedly burrowing into fraught spaces of becoming, the kinds of liminalities that reek of cohabitated dorm rooms, dried cum, and the sweat of dresses being aired out after a hard night at the ball.

Pieter Amp and Guiherme Garrido Still Standing You Photo by Phile Deprez Courtesy of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art

Pieter Amp and Guiherme Garrido
Still Standing You
Photo by Phile Deprez
Courtesy of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art

Entering the theater, the audience happens upon Still Standing You’s Ampe lying on his back onstage, his feet raised perpendicularly, with Garrido seated atop. Although Garrido could tumble to the ground at any moment, he addresses the audience with small talk (while wobbling a bit on the temporary seating of Ampe’s legs), asking about Portland’s rumored “vegan strip club” and its label of the “Rip City.” As Garrido nurtures this playful rapport with the audience, one detects Ampe’s fatiguing support, the increasing discomfort of the seemingly impossible task with which he has been charged. Herein lies the crux of the piece’s aesthetic: nonchalance amidst precariousness. Still chatting up the audience, Garrido clarifies, “What you’re about to see now is a contemporary dance show” and then instructs the crowd to utter in unison, “Pieter Ampe, we love you!” Encouraging a shift in tone while stretching his arms in front of him in an exaggeratedly stiff, straight parallel position, Garrido states, “Here we go. Contemporary style now. Here we go. Serious.”

What ensues in Still Standing You is the kind of dangerous play you find in many a boy-filled household. I say “household” as opposed to “playground” because Ampe and Garrido’s passages of roughhousing are punctuated by intimate moments of care and experimentation, that of two brothers who rip their clothes off like superheroes, one-up each other in absurd penis-slapping games, and tenderly nudge each other to assuage the brutality of boyhood. Here, the wild growls of lions and loud thuds of crashing robots are tamed by the domesticity of the barely detectable pitter-patter of two fingers catching up to each other across a patch of floor to indicate walking.  Such snippets of gestural storytelling appear in sharp contrast to the magnitude of Ampe and Garrido’s exaggerated risks and crashes. Finally, after an inventive pas de deux of penis-grabbing, foreskin-twisting, and Pilobolus-like body-pretzeling, the roles of support reverse and Garrido takes Ampe in his arms, generating an iconographic image reminiscent of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus in the pieta. In Campo fashion, the hold is precarious, and Ampe could slip out of Garrido’s arms at any moment.

Whereas Campo evokes the Bataillan incommensurability of the four-legged, sensory creature and the rational, upright human, Harrell depends on our recognition of the ubiquitous postmodern players known to us as supermodels. Moreover, in M2M, Harrell experiments with layers upon layers of performance, in which contemporary white dancers elicit black and Latino voguers of all genders from ballroom culture who, in turn, try on the hyper-feminized looks of fashion magazines. Throughout his series, Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church, Harrell has taken up gendered and racial performance, in which one gender performs another gender performing another gender, and so on. In doing so, he poses questions such as, what would happen if a voguer from Harlem’s 1963 ballroom scene went down to the Judson Church to hang out with the early postmoderns? M2Mreverses the series’ original provocation, exploring the imaginative limits and possibilities of an early postmodern (dancer) finding himself in the balls of Harlem. Drawing from the colloquial use of “giving church” found in ballroom culture—already a mix of high fashion posturing and the church-inspired lyrics of the deep house music that drives many a voguing competition—Harrell takes his audience to church with M2M. Needless to say, the aesthetic of “difficulty” central to Judson-inspired work tends to obscure the church service structure of M2M for the average viewer (at least according to my own surveying of audience members after the performance).

Ondrej Vidlar, Thibault Lac, and Trajal Harrell  Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made to Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (M2M) Photo by Chelsea Petrakis Courtesy of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art

Ondrej Vidlar, Thibault Lac, and Trajal Harrell
Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made to Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (M2M)
Photo by Chelsea Petrakis
Courtesy of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art

Like Still Standing YouM2M opens with audience address. The irrepressibly handsome Thibault Lac, awkwardly lanky and modishly coiffed enough to be—or at least stand in for—a Rick Owens model, coyly tells the audience in a French accent, “What you see couldn’t have been performed at Judson or the balls. I’ll ask you to forget this happened.” Lac suggests that the cast is merely trying out a possible beginning for the piece that they will likely discard. Yet, at no point is the culmination of the trial overture indicated, leading the audience to believe that the entire piece is a potentiality in itself, never etched into the tablets of history. Lac leaves the stage and the audience is met with the heavy bass and driving beat of a house remix of Adele’s impassioned (and widely played) “Fire to the Rain.” Unacceptable as it will seem to my academic cohort, I have lost nights upon nights of productivity to the emotional pull of this very song. An uncanny mnemonic, to hear it resonating throughout the theater, in public, is to sense a coalescence of queer community and mainstream cheapness. On the one hand, the song creates an affective commonality: conjuring a club, “Fire to the Rain” played as a danceless dance song points to dance’s potential. (My other favorite danceless opening to a dance piece done to dance music is that of Jerome Bel’s The Show Must Go On, in which, in a similar postdramatic mode, the lights take the entire length of the song “Let the Sunshine In” to rise on an otherwise empty stage.) Aside from an electric fan sitting on the floor, the stage is empty at this point. Finally the entire cast of three (Harrell, Lac, and Ondrej Vidlar) enters, clad in adjustable long black dresses by Complex Geometries, and sits down on wooden chairs. Seated upstage of Lac, Harrell immediately dons the pained expression of a woman wailing in church (a nod to Alvin Ailey’s iconic Revelations?). Because the audience is not privy to any emotional build-up that could have led to this moment of climax, Harrell’s expression reads as either a droplet of melodrama or grief stripped of context. Film scholar Linda Williams refers to melodrama as a “body genre,” as a film genre (or “mode”) that is excessive to the degree that its affect spills over beyond legibility (despite its recognizability).

Ever challenging established historical narratives (or the way they get “written”), Harrell has a knack for jogging the audience’s sense of temporality in two distinct ways, namely, through his strategic use of pop music and by deploying facial expressions of grief that function as signifiers. Harrell and company have explicitly stated that they are not voguers and that they do not completely embody its technique. Thus, pseudo-voguing here is a signifier of virtuosic dancing (but not its complete fulfillment). As such, Harrell points to the historical imperative for African American dancers to be virtuosic, to “be fierce.” Harrell is astute in drawing our attention—however opaquely—to the way melodrama and sincere emotion are easily conflated. In doing so, he arrives at the crux of ballroom culture (where voguing emerged), namely, its preoccupation with “realness,” the ability to pass such that one cannot be “read” (called out for faking it). In focusing on resemblance over reality, Harrell utters, “Sounds like the souls of black folks.” His fellow performers are white, dancing to a soulful soundtrack of house, disco, and hip-hop. Despite racialized and gendered ambivalence, however, M2Mconcerns itself with queer belonging, evoked at one point by the longing of Antony and the Johnson’s lyrics, “I need another place…will there be peace? I need another world, a place where I can go.” The dancers alternate between pious gestures of prayer (while holding phallic microphones) and frantic freestyle dancing that lies somewhere between runway strutting, voguing, and imitations of hip-hop. Evoking the demands of ballroom culture typically uttered by voguing MCs, Harrell, Lac, and Vidlar repeatedly say, “Mama said don’t stop the dance” as a command at times and a lullaby at others. In self-reflexive fashion, the dancers also state, “Contemporary dance is over.” However, in more play with colloquialisms, they could be saying “Contemporary dance is ovah,” which is a huge compliment, meaning “fabulous!” Perhaps one of the most hauntingly ambivalent commands Harrell preaches to the dancers during M2M is “Don’t think; work.” Which, of course, could be “Don’t think; werq,” and to werq is to fulfill ballroom’s realness, to be an utterly convincing performer. Nevertheless, the danger Harrell points to is our culture’s expectations for (and assumptions of) black performance as unthinking labor, far from the self-reflexive, critical terrain of Harrell’s imaginings. What does it mean, though, that the dancer “working” the hardest is Lac, flinging his limbs every which way in a sinewy, breakneck solo that tries to defy stereotypes of white boys and rhythm? In following the command to work/werq, the dancers emerge from M2M covered in sweat. Things wind down and fire returns via a lonely plea into the mic: “Won’t you wet my fire with your love, baby?” “M2M” could also stand for man-to-man. Both Campo and Harrell remind us that, underlying boys’ huge capacity for play is the threat of violence: what risks will you take for (and to perform) your identity, whether heterosexual, homosexual, or otherwise? (Is Jesus watching? And, who’s there to support you when he fails?)


Ariel Osterweis is Assistant Professor of Dance at Wayne State University (Detroit, MI). She earned her Ph.D. in Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and B.A. in Anthropology at Columbia University. At work on her first book, which theorizes virtuosity, race, and sexuality in the dance career of Desmond Richardson, Osterweis also researches contemporary African dance and the disavowal of virtuosity in feminist and transgender live art and performance. Publications appear inDance Research Journal, Women and Performance, e-misféricaTheatre Survey, The Oxford Handbook of Dance and the Popular Screen, and more. She danced professionally with Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Mia Michaels, and Heidi Latsky, choreographs, and is dramaturg for choreographer John Jasperse and performance artist Narcissister. Osterweis is currently living in New York City.


This interview with Trajal Harrell first appeared on PICA’s blog on September 13th, 2013

Here is a direct link to the blog:

Trajal Harrell Interviewed by Ariel Osterweis over email in early September for PICA’s Time-Based Art Festival.


Ariel Osterweis: The last time we sat down to discuss your work, we reflected on Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (S). What struck me from that discussion was your claim that, for you, voguing functioned as a “theoretical praxis,” that you refused to embody it. How has that notion changed, developed, or remained the same since that time? For example, does taking a voguing class (if you have) undo that claim? And how has your idea of voguing as a theoretical praxis brought you to your current work, which you will be presenting at PICA’s TBA festival?


Trajal Harrell: I think it is always important to say that I am not a voguer. I don’t make voguing. I make contemporary dance. I work with voguing and early postmodern dance as theoretical praxes. I am not trying to learn voguing moves and fuse them with postmodern dance moves, if those exist. I am addressing the theory and tenets underneath the two different aesthetics. Mainly, I am working through voguing’s idea of “realness” and postmodern dance’s “authenticity.” Yes, I have taken a few [voguing] classes, but class is not the praxis I speak of. When I speak about voguing, I am speaking about the voguing ballroom scene. You cannot learn that in a class. It is a form of social performance and a practice of community.


In terms of the two pieces I am presenting at TBA, it is the same thing—“twirling,” so to speak, between “authenticity” and realness. Too often, I think people forget about the early postmodern dance part, and they focus solely on the voguing. With the Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem piece, the early postmodern dance praxis is hard to miss.


AO: Twirling between (voguing’s) realness and (postmodernism/Judson’s) authenticity! (Do we want to make explicit a discussion of quotation marks here? I’m more inclined to put quotation marks around “authenticity.” I feel the ballroom scene and Judith Butler have done a pretty good job of defining realness, allowing the word to mean what it performatively means—performing to the extent that one passes and cannot be “read”; whereas, “authenticity” opens up a huge can of worms.) I’m excited about Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made to Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (M2M). How does it differ from the other “sizes” I have seen (such as S(M)imosa andXS)? You suggest that your praxis is a sort of practice-meets-theory in which a particular socio-cultural history (of ballroom culture) informs your choreography and interacts with Judson’s postmodernist explorations of authenticity. Do you even like that word, “choreography?”


I agree that the term “fusion” has no place in describing your work. First of all, fusion indicates a mixture of two or more elements, and when it refers to dance, it typically indicates the blending of codified techniques (or at least highly stylized forms). Whether embraced or shunned, the word “fusion” tends to emerge alongside a colonialist or exoticizing impulse, at least in common discourse (think “Asian fusion” cuisine, for example. The “Asian” is inevitably effaced or bastardized at best). And there’s something anti-colonialist or recuperative about your project, about exploring what could have happened if a Harlem voguer from the ballroom scene in the 1960s had gone downtown to collaborate with the Judson Dance Theater (famous for Yvonne Rainer’s No Manifesto, which declared “no to virtuosity” and “no to spectacle”). Of course, voguing’s end goal is virtuosity, specifically virtuosity that can be described as “fierce,” virtuosity so precise and breakneck that it can’t be touched by questions of realness (so “unreal,” colloquially speaking, that it is undeniably “real”). If size S served us deceleration and (M)imosa’s exploration of drag was a total gender-fuck, how might you distill “(M2M)?” 


TH: Church! And, yes, I like the word “choreography” and think we should indeed place quotation marks around “authenticity.”


AO: Church. You had mentioned gospel. Are we now going uptown to a church in Harlem? What does this mean for Yvonne and her Judson cohort? I mean, on some level they must have loathed having the name “Church” associated with them, as in the Judson Dance Theater rehearsing at the Judson Church. Do you think postmodern “authenticity” embraces the idea of the secular person devoid of religion? So often in concert dance training (especially, in my experience of ballet and modern—think, Graham and Ailey), one speaks of a “calling,” a “gift” of talent that one holds a responsibility to fulfill (similar to but not identical to Weber’s Protestant ethic of capitalism), and this is not far from a religious mentality. However, the Judson aesthetic seems so stripped of religion and spirituality. I’m curious to hear how you envision Judson at church. What kinds of praxes are at work in this project (M2M)?


I know it’s not my turn to email, but something just struck me. I was reading a Time Out magazine interview of Wendy Whelan describing her new project, and she says she found Kyle Abraham so “hot and passionate and intense” that she wanted to “feel what that feels like” and subsequently asked him to choreograph on (!) her (8/15/13). We don’t need Miley Cyrus’ recent VMA antics to tell us that appropriating blackness is one of the foundations of American popular culture. But what of high art appropriations? Claims of “authenticity” often come with charges of appropriation. So, what would it mean (and what would be the stakes of) appropriating the Judson aesthetic? What happens when we accuse (or don’t accuse) performers of appropriating whiteness?


TH: Ha! That is super-loaded, and here I have to quote myself a bit: “My position in all of this is not without problematization. Though I am African-American, I am not a voguer from Harlem. I am much more from the legacy of postmodern dance [and Judson Church]. I wanted to problematize this location and the space I occupy within it. Therefore, I also felt the series had to have the classic double migration. So, we go back from Judson Church up to the balls in Harlem. For this I wanted to go directly to my own personal cultural roots and see how they affix themselves between these two locations. The Made-to-measure size, thereby, activates a singular position that I needed to acknowledge in the final piece of the series.” That’s all to say, most people do not come to me to appropriate blackness. My work is steeped in post-blackness (maybe the “post-” isn’t fulfilling enough). My roots are also in “white” culture. I don’t feel at all that I am appropriating whiteness. I am aware that the Judson aesthetic was developed by white artists, but I don’t think minimalism and pedestrianism nor any of Yvonne Rainer’s anti’s are white, per se. Sure, we cannot separate the means of production and distribution from the realities of sex, race, class, and sexuality, etc. Regardless, authenticity was a fiction that Judson constructed as well. In terms of performativity, we find it very useful in the work that we do. What people do appreciate in the work is this problematization, because if we are honest, that’s where everyone sits. My career and Kyle’s have blossomed in the same historical moment. I hope one day someone looks specifically at the links and differences.


I turn the proposition around: what would have happened in 1963 if someone from Judson Dance Theater had gone uptown to perform in the voguing ballroom scene? What would it mean to come from Judson Church, to go uptown from Judson to Harlem? In my imagination, you would have to “give church” at the balls. In a voguing context or African-American context, “giving church” means giving it your all or taking it to the umpteenth degree.


AO: I appreciate your reflections on authenticity and appropriation. Because of my mixed-race identity, I am continually preoccupied with the idea of belonging. Your discussion of “roots” and your use of the pronoun “we” intrigue me. What exactly do you mean by your “cultural roots” and who is the “we” to which you refer?


TH: By cultural roots, I mean the topography of influences and socialization that have informed my personal identity and history: Polo Ralph Lauren, Madonna, The Flintstones, country and western music, the Clintons, CNN, Andy Warhol, Ralph Lemon, Adele,  fried chicken, South Beach, bell hooks, Andre Agassi, Mark Rothko, Marguerite Duras, the Indigo Girls, Patti Labelle, the list goes on and on. And the “we” I refer to are me and the dancers with whom I work.


AO: Can you tell me about your upbringing and your experiences growing up? I mean, (pop)culturally, we are urged to “own it,” on the one hand, but not to steal it, on the other. I wonder if “owning it” is only a message for the marginalized or weak, or if it gives license to appropriators at large, regardless of race or class. You and your fellow performers own it all over the place!


TH: I grew up in a small town in southeast Georgia. There were no voguing balls and no contemporary dance, but I did lie when I was eight years old about what time my gymnastics class got out. I said it was an hour later so I could stay and watch the girls’ ballet class. No boys took ballet, but I was always there with my head in the door, watching from 4pm-5pm.


AO: Ha!


On the one hand, you seem to point to blackness (and/as gay black men and queer black masculinity), but on the other hand, you are working with forms that you haven’t necessarily lived with for a long period of time (voguing and postmodern), relatively speaking. What I’m wondering, more specifically, is, how and when do you find yourself an insider in ballroom culture (whether or not you vogue or don’t vogue) and how/when do you find yourself an insider in the Judson tradition (and perhaps more broadly, in “Western Civ,” since you tackle Antigone and Greek mythology in one piece you present at PICA)? Conversely, when do you find yourself an outsider?


TH: As an artist I am constantly shifting my location between insider and outsider. It goes beyond Judson and voguing. As an artist it is important for me to simultaneously occupy that dual positionality in order to experience the world.


AO: I assume that these terms (insider/outsider) are problematic for you, which is why I ask these questions. Especially now that I teach in a university environment, I find the issue of education very interesting in relationship to dance. Those of us who grew up in conservatory environments (not to mention the ethic driving American pop culture) were encouraged to “shut up and dance” and the trope of the dumb dancer persists today. Nevertheless, we find tension in the dance world between those who speak and those who do not (by choice or otherwise). More “conceptual”/”experimental” dance makers rely on text, discourse, and dramaturgy in a way that is sometimes looked down upon by more traditional/presentational concert choreographers. Few compelling contemporary dance makers steer clear of such reliance on a discursive backdrop, one informed by certain bents of critical and performance theory.


TH: I think that relying on text, discourse, and dramaturgy can be limiting when you want to engage more than a (S)mall audience. That’s what I worked on in the series. Too often in experimental dance, that’s where dance makers stay, and it blocks engaging a larger audience. In (S)mall, the performative operation is transparent. That is what makes that work important. But after (S), [my concern is] that too much focus on the performative operations can block the experience of the work.


I have never heard someone say, “I can’t wait to go read that dance.” My work is founded in theory, but I work to build on the theory, not to rely on it as a status symbol. So both sides have a point—the presentational and the conceptual. I’m interested in making Art with a capital A; and for that, I must always remember that theory and discourse are tools, not the thing itself.


AO: It’s interesting to hear you discuss size not only in terms of a piece’s scale, but in terms of the size of an audience in relation to a piece’s reliance on (or exposure/concealment of) theory.


Ariel Osterweis is Assistant Professor of Dance at Wayne State University (Detroit, MI). She earned her Ph.D. in Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and B.A. in Anthropology at Columbia University. At work on her first book, which theorizes virtuosity, race, and sexuality in the dance career of Desmond Richardson, Osterweis also researches contemporary African dance and the disavowal of virtuosity in feminist and transgender live art and performance. Publications appear inDance Research Journal, Women and Performance, e-misféricaTheatre Survey, The Oxford Handbook of Dance and the Popular Screen, and more. She danced professionally with Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Mia Michaels, and Heidi Latsky, choreographs, and is dramaturg for choreographer John Jasperse and performance artist Narcissister. Osterweis is currently living in New York City.


This interview with Karen Sherman first appeared on PICA’s blog on September 12th, 2013

Here is a direct link to the blog:

Artist Karen Sherman Interviewed by Ariel Osterweis over email in early September for PICA’s Time-Based Art Festival.

In anticipation of PICA’s TBA13, Karen Sherman and I exchanged several emails about the role of dance, gender, and carpentry in her performance work. Because emails can quickly blur boundaries of style and appropriateness, some shuffling and excising took place. What ensues may appear to be an arrangement of words following other words, but our exchange was, in virtual-reality, temporally and visually fragmented, punctuated by roving, unreliable returns. (A dance?)

Karen Sherman, One With Others. Photo: Jeffrey Wells

Ariel Osterweis: Hi Karen. Your new piece, One with Others, proposes a set of questions: Can movement be a refuge from words? Can objects be language? Can words be visuals? Can we, in our groping toward self-realization and being with others in the world, do without even one of these? How have you gone about exploring these questions over the past year? Did you begin with them or did they emerge from observing your own process?

Karen Sherman: Perhaps some of both….I didn’t ask myself those questions in that language at the time, but we experimented with all of those ideas….The piece we made is one arrangement of material, one troubled response to those questions. There is choreography, text, talking, conversation, music, crude carpentry, but I’m not sure there are any answers. I’m interested in space and objects and design and all those things that are part of art-making, but I’m more interested in how people are together. I think the things that pulse from project to project for me are presence and feeling.

AO: Of course, “dance” is such a tenuous term. I should ask you, what does “dance” mean to you in your own practice?

KS: I used to say that the dance world was the only one that would have me. (I shouldn’t presume the feeling is mutual, though!) There is definitely dance in One with Others….and we do talk in the piece about what a dancer is supposed to be and if any of us fit the bill. I should say that while we [do] address it head-on, the piece is about more than Dance. I have a pretty open-minded idea of what dance is, including that it can be a tool and not a product. Sometimes I make pieces that don’t have any dance in them. That being said (maybe especially with that being said) I do like to see that tool wielded by those who know how to use it. (Depending on the day, I may or may not include myself in that club.)

AO: In a description of One with Others you relay your troubled relationship to dance, that you came to it late and found your experience of dance-making in conflict with the comfort you felt with language. Are you referring to language’s capacity to signify, a certain correlative reliability (or lack thereof)?

KS: It’s not so much that dance was in conflict with a reliability of language (and in fact, I can think of fewer things less reliable than language). It’s that dance was causing me pain—not physical; psychic, emotional, artistic pain. One of the things I find fascinating and horrific about dance is that you are the in-person representation and embodiment of your artwork. A painter doesn’t have to stand next to her painting in a gallery for the entire run of the exhibition and endure critiques about the painting as critiques about her body, brain, skill, etc. Here is the unique locus of judgment in dance: you are physically scrutinized, assessed, and evaluated, and this is inseparable from the conclusions made about the artwork itself and the art-maker’s skill….I think I was drowning in the frustration to separate, not even drowning in the judgment of others. The abstract nature of dance—the way you have to start over every day because the dance doesn’t exist unless you’re doing it—all that was wearying. Words on a page stay until you change them. I always talk about that in regards to building physical things, that I find relief in how, say, the cabinet you’re building (or even the painting you are making) doesn’t change overnight when you leave. Your opinion of it or plan for what happens next may have changed, but ithasn’t. You can see it (and in the case of words, read it) and go from there. But with dance…well, it’s a constant apparition, especially if you dance in your own work. I think a few years ago, words were not only offering a kind of tangibility but they suddenly felt so much more accurate and efficient. I didn’t need many of them and the ones I did need already existed. I didn’t have anything to say with movement. It was all a bunch of babble. White noise. I was forcing myself to use it because of a sense of obligation. But after a while, I realized that my untrained dancer-ness and my weird movement and my physical failures were a language of their own.  In this way alone, dance has changed my life. It has changed how I see everything in the world. It has reordered my brain.


AO: In looking at your images from One with Others, I notice that you name objects after sex toys: “strap-on,” “clamps,” for example. You seem to remove the fetishistic aura of these sex toys, imbuing them with the everyday use value of DIY woodwork. While a strap-on typically conjures a rubbery faux cock and leather belts, your strap-on consists of a couple of unevenly matched wooden planks (about a foot long or less) that have been haphazardly drilled into, held together by a metal hook and, well, strapped onto the performer’s hips with a bungie cord. What has been done in your dance to arrive at this point of being strapped into the strap-on? Similarly, what is going on with your “hand clamps?” Any nipple involvement? If not, why not? Why the hands? How does gender function in this de-clamping of the nipple fetish and novel clamping of the hands? Will the audience know that you have called these items “strap-on” and “hand clamp?” Do you want to evoke sex? For you, where does sex live in dance…or does it?

KS: Regarding the objects, no, the audience will not know we call them strap-ons and hand clamps (though, er, maybe they will now). I wouldn’t say I named them after sex toys. The strap-ons, yes, that’s pretty much a perfect pun because they do indeed strap-on and a couple of them are sexually suggestive. Joanna does wear a big broom handle. But Jeff’s is more of a chastity belt. The clamps are called “clamps” because that’s exactly what they are. “Clamp” has more of a hardware/woodworking connotation, I think. And they literally are clamps that tighten down over the hands. There is a sexual component to them in that they evoke torture (a bit of BDSM) but also in that with them on, you cannot use your hands or feel anything with them.

One with Others is a trio: two lesbians, one gay man, and all pretty identifiably queer. I find it interesting how in this piece we are freed from certain restrictions and readings on our interactions because of our sexualities….The three of us can touch each other however we want because of it (technically, I suppose Joanna and I should have some restrictions but it doesn’t function that way)….We do address the fact of a trio—and in sex, a menage a trois (or polyamorous situation) is fraught with potential pitfalls. Whereas, in carpentry, a tripod is always stable.

AO: I want to pick up on this because in your thoughts on dance/Dance/”dance” you seem to accept a certain amount of failure, and this failure (at least in relation to codified techniques of concert dance) seems to be part of your aesthetic. Because your coming out and your foray into dance occurred simultaneously, I get the sense that your audiences have been privy to a kind of stumbling onto the scene on your part, that you have made visible the imperfections of the process of skill acquisition—a grappling with grace? You also indicate an embrace of the messy with your term “crude carpentry.” Why is it that you are comfortable revealing to us the hangnails of imperfect/failed Dance and carpentry but you, as you say, are interested in streamlining the awkwardness out of otherwise awkward sexual scenarios onstage? Do you value expertise differently on and off stage? In your estimation, what kinds of intimacies demand what kinds of expertise? On the one hand, there is the intimacy of a lover (or lovers), which the audience does not experience, and on the other hand, there is the intimacy of the audience (the audience-performer relationship), especially as found in smaller performance venues such as blackbox theaters, spaces that aren’t threatened by the blinged-out distance of the stage-lit proscenium. Well, do you even consider the audience to be in an intimate relationship with you in the first place? Or is the audience always abstracted, at an arm’s length?

I like the idea—especially in relationship to the “crude carpentry” in your work—of dance as a tool. I think many artists still haunted by classicism (and even modernism) think of the arts (and dance) as a tool of expression; whereas, you seem to indicate that dance is a practical tool like a hammer or drill or…language (?). I noticed that you worked at Judson for many years. Would you say your work is at all influenced by the legacy of Judson and its eschewing of its predecessors’ concert dance spectacle and virtuosity? Is that kind of what you’re getting at with the idea that dance is (just another) tool? I don’t think you mean another object, per se, as you say so beautifully that dance is a “constant apparition,” a wonderful recasting of the idea that performance is ephemeral (as discussed by Peggy Phelan and others). Whereas ephemerality is fleetingness, an apparition conjures the sense of an absent presence (or a moving-toward absence), like a ghost. It is there, but we cannot quite grasp it, hold onto it. Slippery.

Speaking of slipperiness, you astutely locate the dissimilarity between the instability of the trio/manage a trois (choreographically and sexually) and the stability of the tripod. I mean, sure, with actual humans (as opposed to tripods) we are dealing with sex and jealousy, but as I paused to more fully consider your observation, I realized it all comes down to movement. People move—physically, psychically, emotionally. They don’t always support. Tripods always support.

Do you want to talk about support? You overtly discuss your queer identity in (and around) your work and you claim that you and your performers read as gay and lesbian. While you find that people are compulsively trying to read sex into dance, I find that in the scholarly pursuit of dance studies, sex is often brushed under the rug as the field incessantly tries to legitimize itself. I also find that it can be difficult for queer-identified artists to find the same kind of support for their work as closeted artists or those who present a heterosexual aesthetic. Sure, many queer artists receive funding and may even benefit from discussing identity in their “supporting materials,” but I’m wondering about scope and type. Because you have worked on virtually every side of dance, from admin to scenic to choreographic, what have you observed in terms of the support you (and others) receive and queer subject matter in the work (performed by queer artists)?

You said you “didn’t move at all” before your simultaneous coming out and dance beginnings. Well, surely you moved! Sports? Walking the dog? Anything? I’m hearing from you that dance really opened something up for you. I think that some practitioners use dance as a hiding place or an escape. Does dance make you more you?

KS: I was very physically shut down before I started dancing in college. I did theater all through growing up and worked professionally in theater while in high school. So I did have a basic relationship to my body (“the instrument!”). But I had a few really awful experiences with dance when I was little and again in my teens, where it was glaringly clear that my version of femininity did not pass muster. I felt shamed, shunned. I stayed far away from dance and certainly from any kind of activity where my body was on display. Theater, for some reason, was the exception to this rule. I didn’t play sports (except with my brother and friends when I was really little). I do recognize now that when I was little I was very physically engaged with the world, even at ease with it on that level. That left me during most of my youth, but the facility came back immediately in college. Thank god! Dance made me more of who I once was but also asked so much of me I became someone new.

Within contemporary dance there is such a range of “technique”—and aesthetics. I’m not making work that seeks to show mistakes all the time or to cover them up. My work is…actually fairly structured and considered. I also like nuance and keeping things a little shy on dial, not too far in one direction….“Crude carpentry” isn’t about messiness; it’s about making the thing instead of being bogged down in perfection—using the materials and skills at hand. I usually call it “cowboy carpentry.” The objects themselves are a bit crude. They aren’t apologetic even as they are sometimes incomprehensible. There is a desperation in the objects, as if it had been urgent for them to come into existence. They are like the visual manifestation of a grunt, maybe. I love the hangnail image, too.

Ironically, I absolutely value expertise. I love to know how to do things well and to know information. I’m pretty fastidious in my approach to most work-related things, whether it’s dancing, choreographing, building things, or doing production work, which is what was so freeing about those objects when I started making them. I used to want to build something but wouldn’t have the right piece of wood or the right tools and so then the thing would never get made. I’d stall out before I started. But one day I just said fuck it and grabbed two pieces of scrap, put a hook on them. That became Jeffrey’s strap-on. All of the history, scars, mistakes, and missed targets on them (I had used them as backing boards for another project) exemplified so much of what I was already thinking about the dance. I had no idea until I’d made that object. This is typical for me: I’ll be working on a dance and will start making visual work or objects as a kind of distraction or downtime activity, usually thinking they have nothing to do with the dance at all, but in the end they are entirely related to the dance. This has happened enough times that I just let myself make things and try not to get in my own way too much. But I am the most anal stage technician ever. The crew I work with at the Walker Art Center’s theater will attest to that. I care a lot about straight tape lines. And one time I literally ironed the floor.

You wrote, “I think many artists still haunted by classicism (and even modernism) think of the arts (and dance) as a tool of expression; whereas, you seem to indicate that dance is a practical tool like a hammer or drill or…language (?).” I think of dance as all those things, but its deployment can change from project to project. Dance can be a tool to make something else entirely. It is a language in this piece (one of several).

Anyone making dance today is influenced by Judson, I think. I recently saw In Creases by Justin Peck of City Ballet in NYC….You could clearly see the influence of the past 50 years of experimental dance in that piece but it was very much a ballet….I didn’t know anything about dance until I started going to downtown work in NYC in the late ’80s, so the Judson influence was really all I knew for most of my career. But working at Judson for 10 years was fascinating for far more than its dance legacy because it included that dance legacy without being limited to it (visual art, theater, and poetry, not to mention social justice). The Judson dance legacy has been held in the amber in many ways, especially by the dance world…but it has a whole different dynamic within Judson itself. Social justice work has been at the core of everything Judson has done since its founding in the late 1800s, so its reasoning for giving itself fully to experimental art (not just dance but theater, poetry, and visual art) comes from a wholly realized sense of its mission and the power of the radical….To me, that’s what Judson is (that and the building itself, which I had to take care of for so long). The arts were only one place where Judson facilitated radical change. I really encourage dance people to learn more about the other aspects of Judson’s work in the arts and progressive politics.

While it’s not “eschewing predecessors,” I do feel something related living in Minneapolis. I lived in NYC for almost 20 years and when I moved to Minneapolis it was partly to shake up my process. NY taught me great rigor in my work and it serves me really well in Minneapolis where I can actually make my living as an artist (meager a living as it may be). I go back to NY a lot and can clearly see trends in dance. There is tremendous value placed on originality and yet, having some remove, it’s so apparent when everyone is being influenced by the same thing when a trend is happening. Not that I’m immune from it but working in a smaller city like Minneapolis, you can really turn your attention to how you want to say what you want to say. Most of my Minneapolis friends and I see enough national and international work to know what’s going on in our field, but a city like Minneapolis lets hear your own voice in a particular way. There are drawbacks, to be sure, but that is not one of them.

AO: As someone who spent her entire childhood (and subsequent adulthood) raised by queer mentors in an otherwise aesthetically “straight” dance world (ballet and modern dance), I became increasingly aware of the disconnection between dance company aesthetics and the identities of its makers. I think a lot of us take for granted the fact that much experimental dance is practiced by out performers and choreographers, but dance (more than performance art, perhaps) grapples with that delicate brew of identity, aesthetic, and funding. We thus detect cultural dynamics of passing, on the one hand, and announcing one’s identity, on the other. From what I can tell, you address this in the Tyra Banks section of one of your pieces in which a voiceover of an artistic proposal is juxtaposed with a panel of assessors on Tyra’s show. Hilarious. You point to the need for the artistic judging panel (I assume for a grant) to hear more about community engagement (a huge imperative as we find the arts having to do the work that the educational system should be doing in terms of teaching kids and “communities”).

KS: What you say about the gendered environment you grew up in is really interesting to me. I’ve almost never been perceived as straight. Makes me think of an op-ed I read the other day: “Why It Matters that Diana Nyad is Gay.” The argument was that if we don’t acknowledge that she is, she will be perceived as straight. That made me laugh because I took one look at her and I knew she was gay. The Tyra Banks [excerpt] is an actual panel review of one of my failed grant proposals (it was a state grant so the audio is publicly available). But the video is of a group of gay men giving fashion and sex advice to straight women on Tyra’s show. The politics of that—gay men as the arbiters of art and women)—in a piece that was partly about the gay man inside of me, felt a little dangerous!

I absolutely agree that dance is often de-sexed. Although to brush something under the rug entails giving it a lot of attention and energy. I think you’re right that legitimizing is probably a part of it. With the recent hubbub around major institutions like MOMA presenting (curating? appropriating?) dance, the field’s need to come off as intelligent and scholarly has come at a great cost to the languages and logics that make dance what it is, which are already so exceptionally sophisticated on so many levels….One of the things dance has to offer other fields and forms is its unique vocabularies, which can describe, embody, and posit all at once. It’s a gorgeous intelligence that has been mucked up by a lot of silly verbiage. It reminds me of the whole gay marriage fight. I think it’s great to have the option to get married but I really think we as a society can do better and gay people could have led that charge. Instead, we’ve pushed to be part of a problematic institution. Dance has at least as much to offer the visual art world as it stands to gain. Maybe even more. I think some of this is due to the smell of money, which, talk about apparitions, is an olfactory one.


Ariel Osterweis is Assistant Professor of Dance at Wayne State University (Detroit, MI). She earned her Ph.D. in Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and B.A. in Anthropology at Columbia University. At work on her first book, which theorizes virtuosity, race, and sexuality in the dance career of Desmond Richardson, Osterweis also researches contemporary African dance and the disavowal of virtuosity in feminist and transgender live art and performance. Publications appear inDance Research Journal, Women and Performance, e-misféricaTheatre Survey, The Oxford Handbook of Dance and the Popular Screen, and more. She danced professionally with Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Mia Michaels, and Heidi Latsky, choreographs, and is  dramaturg for choreographer John Jasperse and performance artist Narcissister. Osterweis is currently living in New York City.