RoseAnne Spradlin’s X at New York Live Arts, January 13 and 14.
Is this dance I’m looking at boring? More graciously put: am I bored? Etymology kicks in: do I feel as if something is being bored into my brain? I don’t deal with this issue while watching RoseAnne Spradlin’s compelling X at New York Live Arts. Well, maybe I do, briefly, since I notice that, near the end, I am uncrossing and re-crossing my legs and that the choreographer from overseas seated near me shifts slightly in his seat. Still, when the piece is over, he praises X enthusiastically. I nod.
Decades ago, when Kenneth King was still a college student and presenting a piece at Dance Theater Workshop, I had the nerve to ask him why he had a trio of dancers enter, strike a pose, hold it, break it, exit, and repeat that sequence over and over. He stared at me and said, “so you never have to see it again.” In other words, sometimes art has to poke you into waking up, into thinking.
The audience at NYLA was unfazed, even though this performance occurred during the grueling conference week of the Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP), and mini-festivals and showcases were taking place all over town. Spradlin; performers Asli Bulbul, James Raney, Connor Voss; and composer/musician Glen Fogel were applauded, cheered.
Here’s a glimpse of the piece:
Raney, taking over the role played by Kayvon Pourazar in the 2016 premiere of X, is the first to appear in the space that’s outlined by a square of white tape on the gray floor. In the darkness, before we see him, we hear a deep, distorted howl. Raney seems to have been hurled into view—thrashing, scrabbling along the floor, dragging himself along. “Uh, uh. . .” we hear, plus a barely distinguishable word or too emanating from the console just offstage, at which Fogel is seated.
Raney is resting, prone, when Voss walks in, straddles him, lies on him, slides backward off him, slides forward onto him again. This initiates a complicated duet in which the two men juxtapose or link their bodies in ways you might not have thought useful. Do feet usually brace themselves there? How do knees intersect? This is not like fighting, nor is it like lovemaking, but although it could cause you to think fleetingly of either, it’s performed as a task that takes skill and meticulous timing. Gradually the men speed up, always close together, while other sounds emerge in Fogel’s score: a high melody, a four-note pattern with a bass tone underneath, etc.
Bulbul carries in a portable barre, but it’s definitely not ready to serve in a ballet class; one stanchion is missing, and she can carefully walk up the slope it offers; later, she also levers the long top bar upward—a steel (iron?) erection. The sound mellows, more singing voices creep in, and Joe Levasseur’s lighting design alters for Bulbul’s solo. This is sweep-away dancing. Her feet keep stepping about the space, while her arms wreathe and swing and swat and mold the air around her. She too has moments of writhing on the floor. Drums thud. When Raney and Voss reappear, she removes her shirt. The other performers’ attire (costumes by Voss) alters too. Raney goes bare-chested; Voss briefly sports white underwear with a red ball basket, then—even more briefly—goes naked. They may use discarded garments to wipe away sweat before leaving the stage.
After a pause during which a light flashes in blackness, all three reenter protected by leather or cloth hand guards and scrupulously mime aiming rifles, their hands curled around the invisible barrel, their gaze intent. They pose, as if firing, but don’t—just move on to another place and do it again. Suddenly bright lights shine on us. A deep voice (maybe channeling Barry White) says things like “Never, never gonna give you up.” I’m too mesmerized to wonder how all this fits together or what “X” stands for.
The last half of Spradlin’s work is exhausting—for the three marvelous performers and, in another way, for us. They bring in three more barres, and Raney, equipped with tools, makes the original one stand straight. Assembled to create two side-by-side aisles from the front of the stage to the back, the structures are ready for. . .what? A game? A sport? The three race along the passageways, roll under the barres, swing their legs up to vault over them. An organ produces intermittent hymn-like tones. A voice gives orders: “Turn off the sound system. Close all windows. Turn off the lights.” It is ignored.
Finally, another pattern emerges. I can’t quite discern its logic and wonder why, since the moves are so clean and the interwoven elements so clear. Watching it is both exciting and unsettling. Alone or in pairs, the dancers hoist a barre and carry either to the front of the stage or the back and set it down; when all four are arranged, parallel to one another, they are again picked up, one at a time, and moved to the other area. This happens many, many times. Each of the performers has moments to lounge precariously on the structures. To travel between the areas, one person bends over; facing him, another bends over and is smoothly lifted, carried upside down (his/her feet pointing up like rabbit ears), and set down, either on the barres or on the floor. Also, at times, someone (most often Bulbul) just stands quietly atop the structures and turns her/his head to stare at us. Some of X may involve improvisation. Not this part.
In contrast to their stoicism, Fogel’s sound score erupts out of silence in festive bursts and is stifled. You can see Voss, Raney, Bubul tiring, sweating, slowing down a little. Stopping entirely doesn’t seem to be an option. What does Spradlin want us to feel? That these people have chosen to do this? Clearly, they have agency. But the task can also feel like a penance or a regimen that they don’t question. And where does it get them? I find myself thinking that, over the course of this section of X, the barres move a bit more toward stage left. Perhaps I’m imagining that development, willing it. And is this a “better life” for these workers than what they were doing earlier? Does it matter?
I am not bored.
Spradlin is currently at work on Y. I can’t imagine what Z will be like, thinking only that it may be the end of something more provocative than the alphabet.