Ladies Who Launch

Everyone took a side.
Depending on who you asked, the warehouse was too big and too cold, or the audience was too big and too drunk. The event’s organizers encouraged anarchy and violence, or they might have sold peanuts with the booze. The lobster lady was right to throw a mike stand at the woman with the rat-a-tat toy machine gun strapped across her bare breasts, or the topless chick had good reason to put the lady in a chokehold. A ladies’ night of theater is dangerous, or theater is dangerous, or people are dangerous–more dangerous even than lobsters, who eat each other whenever they get a chance.
Actually, you didn’t have to ask, people would just start talking–on the margins of the vast performance space with plastic party cup in hand or on the bus back to civilization.
Chez Bushwick, a visionary artist’s collective that emerged in 2002 from the living room of composer Loren Dempster and choreographers Jonah Bokaer and Jerome Wade, had been staging group shows in alternative spaces in its industrial Brooklyn neighborhood every month since September. AMBUSH–a clever mash up of “ambulatory” and “Bushwick”– arose because the collective’s monthly Shtudio Show had outgrown its living room. For “Ladies Who Launch,” however– the November event hosted by Brooklyn Fire Proof at the Nut Roaster–“ambush” returned to its original sense.
With a group show, you hope the individual works will add up to more than the sum of their parts, but usually you’re lucky if even a few pieces have anything to say about one another. “Ladies Who Launch,” however, offered a cohesive vision–of gruesome womanhood. Together the night’s dances, film, video, and performance art told a contradictory story of paralysis, inertia, and explosive self-destruction–the self being both the individual and the sisterhood (as people used to call it). Only the drag act that came at night’s end, with both sexes in girly getups, expressed any glee at being female–and by then we weren’t in any position to believe it.
The first piece and only repertory work, Dara Birnbaum’s 1978 video “Technology Transformation/Wonder Woman,” foreshadowed the night. In the popular ’70s TV series based on the long-lived comic book, Wonder Woman (Lynda Carter) executes her worldwide missions by materializing and dematerializing at will — like Sabrina in “Bewitched” except more fiery. Made in the post-Vietnam era, the Birnbaum video splices together those zap! moments until the mind stumbles from superheroine in spangly red, white, and blue mini-outfit to the self-immolating Vietnamese monks who by 1978 had burned themselves into the American conscience.
Unlike the Vietnamese, Wonder Woman remains perfectly intact. In all its perky innocence, American imperialist aggression always blows up in our faces, but not for Wonder Woman! She fulfills America’s fantasy of eternal renewal.
With the Iraq rerun of Vietnam far from its finale, AMBUSH’s other launching ladies don’t dare presume any superheroine gumption. They work the more dreary (and real) female terrain of passivity, immobility, and self-sacrifice–or at least until the improvisations begin midway through the night.
Like many experimental pieces lately, Beth Gill’s untitled dance focuses less on moving than on not moving. Dancers lie in piles and get mixed up with stuff.
A shovel, a paper bag, standing speakers and a heavy-duty bike chain are laid out artfully in a modest rectangle of this warehouse the size of a city block. In the refracted light of floor kliegs pointed toward the wall, the dancers lunge and fall among the objects as deliberately as the objects are arrayed, with one of their moves to lie facedown in the dirt. In this still life with people, Gill mixes delicacy with the grime so that even inertia seems a careful aesthetic choice.
Choreographers often toy with the way a dancer shifts from willful individual to tool of motion, because it’s one of the artform’s strange and unavoidable givens. And other dancers have resembled trash–for example, break dancers gyring on their backs, shirts whisking around them like empty plastic bags in the wind. But there’s a note of defiance with the breakers: “You think I’m trash?” they seem to demand, “I’ll show you trash.” They show us treasure in the form of trash. Gill’s dance is also treasure–a very beautiful object–but without the defiance.
In “Gloria,” dancer-choreographer Maria Hassabi blends with the environment, too. The sound score sets the dance on the shoulder of a highway where trucks roar by. A column of Port-a-potties marks the side of the stage. At one point, a man shambles over and ducks in for a leak.
In a fuchsia wife-beater and white sweatpants soon streaked with dirt, Hassabi–from Cyprus, the homeland of that other beauty, Aphrodite–inches her back down a wall until she is sitting with legs spread and torso collapsed, her head almost level with her crotch. This kind of pose appears in magazine ads for jeans, but Hassabi (who knows from poses, having modeled to support her dance habit) isn’t selling anything. She seems not to even notice us. Her gaze is withdrawn into a despondency so complete, it lacks a point of focus.
But she doesn’t stop moving. She brings to mind Eadweard Muybridge’s shots from the early days of photography. With clinical precision, he documented the sequence of moves in a horse’s gallop, for example, or a man’s walk. Hassabi holds each of her mundane positions–from a slow crumple toward her right elbow to identifiable yoga stances–long enough for a 19th-century camera; her only apparent aim is to complete the moves.
First, “Gloria” seems a disabused expression of art for its own sake, then, more terribly, a metaphor for life. “You can ask for poses, while I am stranded on the shoulder of some highway with everyone rushing by,” Hassabi seems to suggest, “but you can’t ask me to inhabit them.” Again, dancer as trash, sapped of her conventional use and meaning without having acquired another.
Later that night during the talk portion of the program, Elizabeth Zimmer– dance editor of the Village Voice from 1992 until 2006, when the New Times bought the paper and shrunk the staff–tells MC Technopia (a.k.a. Topiary) that she’s lost her appetite for dance. It no longer fills her with language, she says, or has to do with time.
Of course dance still has to do with time–what else does it have?–but Zimmer is right: the movement phrases in New York postmodern dance have grown so short that “phrase” overstates the case. “Pose” is more like it–the movement equivalent of silence. If Gill’s or Hassabi’s dance were on the page, they would be ellipses–the three periods that indicate something has been left out. Dance has been rendering Zimmer mute because it has grown mute, the urge for expression dying in the bodies before us. That’s the drama of recent postmodern dance.
These still lifes–“dead nature,” the French call them–inevitably exude a feminine air, given women’s long association with immobility and posing. Hassabi’s beauty tightens that yoke. We want to hold the look of her as long as possible. So she takes refuge inside the poses, dilating the time they take so they lose their edge. There is pathos in this subterfuge.
Up to this point, the pieces have blended in with the raw space, as well as being about blending in. On different patches of the massive nuttery grounds, the work has sometimes begun before we knew it and we’ve had to hurry over to watch. The two dances, especially, have been so quiet in mood, they have kept us quiet.
But then conceptual artist and expert cook Elaine Tin Nyo takes the stage. From two Fairway grocery bags, she removes a knife, a pan, fresh chives, and two live lobsters, pinchers duct-taped closed. In blazer, matching skirt, and pearl earrings, she looks formal and strict, like a professor whose Ph.D. is recent enough she doesn’t realize ratty jeans and a t-shirt from high school will do. She gives us a straitened role, too: not boozy warehouse habituate, but attentive student. She tries to, anyway.
We each receive a 5-page printout. (Instructor: Elaine Tin Nyo. Lobster course prerequisites: Biology 101; Knife Skills 101; Basic Crustacean Anatomy.) It includes diagrams of a lobster’s life cycle and anatomy, female and male; bulleted facts about the lobster’s social life and molting; and a recipe for pan-roasted lobster with chervil and chives. What an odd course–biology and cooking in one!
Did you know that before the lobster arrives at Fairway, it has lived at least five years, molting some 25 times? When a lobster molts, it liquefies its shell with its own secretions, then feeds off that jelly shell. The lobster is so precisely made, it’s hard to believe it’s the product of accident and circumstance: in the course of Tin Nyo’s talk, you start to wonder how ever you are going to eat it. You might as well be asked to carve up Miro’s “Birth of the World” or snack on the blood and body of Christ. (Oh, yeah, people do that.)
Or you might as well be if you are one of the few dozen people in the 200-person audience who can hear Tin Nyo. The audience breaks down like most classes, with the good students in the front and the bad ones in the back sending out loud waves of interference.
“Lobsters transmit messages to each other through their pee,” Tin Nyo explains. “They dominate. ‘Look at me. I’m the guy who–‘ ” The sentence gets swallowed up in the din.
“Can you be a little quieter in the back, please?” she asks crisply. A little quieter will hardly do. People are shouting to be heard over her: communicating by pissing.
“There will be a test,” she announces.
“Give it now!” someone shouts.
Someone snatches the bottle of Jack Daniels meant for the lobster dish and takes a few swigs.
A young woman with a rattly toy machinegun slung across her chest a la Patty “Tania” Hearst (except she’s bare-breasted) wanders onto the set. She is a member of the performance collective the AUNTS, who in the next act will scatter small origami sculptures over the stunned audience like snow. Tania puts Tin Nyo in a chokehold. Tin Nyo seems to have stopped breathing. For a moment, the crowd is paying attention: Is this part of the act?
Later–exactly how much later I don’t know, because time has begun to shred–another aunt walks off with a lobster. Does Tin Nyo toss the mike stand at this aunt or a different one? In any case, the stand bounces off the back of a topless woman’s head and there is a moment of dazed silence when even the drunks forget they can’t keep quiet.
After the interruption (to put it politely), Tin Nyo strips down to a pink negligee while explaining how lobsters mate by eating each other. She would have settled in an audience member’s lap before the final rite when she cooked the lobsters if the MC hadn’t told her her her time was up. The MC says it like it’s no big deal.
“Okay,” says Tin Nyo in a small, tight voice, and even before we can register what’s happening she has collected her clothes, slipped on her boots, and walked off. For the second time during “The Lobster Course,” the audience falls silent. You can hear the steady click-click-click of her heels all the way to the door and out into the freezing night.
“For the sake of the lobster,” the MC says uneasily, to break the silence.
Later, via email, one AUNT justified the group’s mutiny of the performance by saying they needed to get the piece moving. “I want to be activated when I see work,” Michael Helland complained. If it isn’t “activation” to want so badly for the performer to stop that you put her in a chokehold, what is? “The Lobster Course” not only tells a story of sacrifice, it enacts one through the relationship between performer and audience. Like psychoanalysis, this piece works by transference. Tin Nyo assumes the role of the lobster; whatever feelings she arouses about the anatomy of sacrifice–who’s doing it and at what expense–gets directed at her.
“Experimentation isn’t always pretty,” Helland continued. Sure. A performance about the patience of passion–the slow unfolding of identifications and projections and defenses by which we put ourselves in the place of others–demands that you sit through your unpretty feelings of revulsion and resistance. You can’t hurry the punch line, because there isn’t one.
ChameckiLerner’s short film “Boxing Study #1” is the “Lobster Course’s” perfect coda. The boxers are the Brazilian émigrés and longtime artistic partners Rosane Chamecki and Andrea Lerner. They wear mouth-guards, helmets, boxing shorts–the works. In cinematographer Marco Caruso’s grainy black and white –mixing memory and cinema verité à la “Raging Bull”–the women punch each other out. A tinkly music-box ditty winds ’round and ’round as Lerner knocks out Chamecki, Chamecki knocks out Lerner, then they both go down. When two women fight, they’re both defeated.
The only people to get off scotch-free are the men–and the women in their company. In the final number of “Ladies Who Launch,” a drag act where both men and women play female, Glen Rumsey and a squad of dancers in identical luminous gray sack-dresses and bright-colored high heels strut up and down, roll their hips, and flip their fake tresses. On the sound system, the Peaches shout, “Let’s face it: we all want toosh./If I’m wrong, impeach my bush.”
The girls just want to have fun–and want us to–but they’ve come too late to the party. All we can do is stare at them numbly and wonder who are the real girls–the ones who will end face down in the dirt or in a chokehold.

The Brooklyn artists collective Chez Bushwick has many roles, including renting rehearsal space at rock bottom rates and, together with the John Jasperse troupe, building a home in its industrial neighborhood so it won’t soon be calling itself Chez East New York. (With tongue only half in cheek, they’re titling this LEED-green building, the first of its kind in Brooklyn, “CPR”–officially, Center for Performance Research.)
Clearly, the collective is also active in ferretting out and presenting experimental work, with the monthly shows last year, under the rubric AMBUSH, including such nifty themes as “The Changing of the Garde,” “A History of the Main Complaint,” and “Post Modem.” This year, Chez Bushwick is changing the focus–and name–of the performance series to FORCE MAJEURE. It will feature young choreographers from Croatia, Spain, Canada, Chile, Romania, Italy, Germany, France, etc. Organizer–or, as he prefers to be called, propeller–Jonah Bokaer explains:

It’s time to do this: Pina Bausch and Preljocaj every couple of years is NOT an answer to international work here. There’s so much young and interesting work happening!

The series begins in September. For details, visit Chez Bushwick’s website in August.
For more on the slide toward inertia and paralysis in postmodern dance, here’s my post on Rachid Ouramdane’s ruminative antiwar dance, at DTW in spring 2008.

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  1. Kevro says

    A few thoughts run to mind…
    So many support the arts, so few support the artists.
    Everyone’s a critic. Matisse (?) said it best: “Creativity takes courage.”
    I say, ‘if it were easy, everyone would be doing it.’
    Ayn Rand said, ‘It takes two to make a very great career: the (wo)man who is great, and the (wo)man -almost rarer -who is great enough to see greatness and say so.’
    Deb & I continue to discover that where there’s a will, there’s
    a way.
    Hat’s off to Ladies Who Launch.
    We too are realizing our dreams.
    Refreshing, thought-provoking blog.
    Apollinaire responds: Thank you, Kevro

  2. says

    Okay, you’ve sold it to me! I’ll have to go to the next one! It sounds kind of Ann Liv Young-esque with crowd participation…
    Apollinaire responds: a nice comparison, Tonya, in the sense that both arouse strong reactions. Ann Liv Young is probably the only show in recent memory I couldn’t stop myself from booing. (I wasn’t on duty as reviewer, thank God. It wasn’t the Kitchen show, but a piece at an anti-Iraq invasion benefit.) Elaine Tin Nyo is much more classy and subtle–but in this setting, that ended up being a liability.

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