GILLIAN WALSH: STRUCTURE PERVERT
Scenario: Script to Perform April 9 – 11, 2015 at The Kitchen with Maggie Cloud, Nicole Daunic, Jesse Hart, Mickey Mahar, Stefan Tcherepnin, and Zack Tinkelman
I learned from my last piece that if you want anyone to look at form/structure, you can’t dance and you gotta keep your clothes on. –Gillian Walsh
When I met with Gillian Walsh to talk about her new piece, Scenario: Script to Perform, I immediately asked her about the write-up on The Kitchen’s website. It was the language, after all—phrases like “numerical codes,” “toward form and away from performance,” and “structural choreographic thought without a dance”—that got me curious. Walsh told me that she had written the text herself, in conversation with curator Matthew Lyons. Over the course of our interview, Walsh articulated the conceptual underpinnings of her work, and even more importantly, the stakes raised in making it.
Score: A musical composition with its distribution of parts
A score is a message laid out number by number, letter by letter; it is lines on paper, a language of its own. A score is a method of composition; once a performance takes place, the score usually fades away. For Walsh, the score is not a means to an end. It is the very focus of inquiry itself:
I’m thinking about what constitutes dance in 2015. I’m curious about mass patterning and mass dance, corporate choreography, pervasive hegemonic form, rhythmic infiltration, and the collapse of inherited/learned forms…The score started as a way to work within the material conditions of making dance without resources, but has become a profound tool in my interest in structure. The code/language—derived from corporate choreography (Hasbro’s Twister Dance Rave), military communication (Morse Code), and pop cultural messages (song lyrics and other language)—is both internally saturated with meaning and entirely meaningless.
A self-described “math brain” and “structure pervert,” Walsh coded the pre-programmed Hasbro dance sequence, which, she points out, exists in 4/4 rhythm and engages only the feet (and thus, is “anti-body”). The song is a Hasbro Original, sung by Britney Spears. The resulting scores, which spell out fragments of songs and theoretical texts, are interpreted live by her dancers rather than learned. Using found text is crucial for Walsh, who wants to make explicit the inheritance of forms from both popular culture and dance lineages, pointing to the inescapability of “hegemonic pop cultural infiltration in the body and its rhythms.” The dancer’s body becomes the site in which these received forms meet.
Score: A line drawn; a stroke, mark; a line drawn as a boundary
A score is this and not that. Is text. Is a position. A score can be an invisible line between the performer and the audience.
When asked about her relationship to Doris Humphrey, Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, and other choreographers who have worked with scores, Walsh places herself among the line of “formalist perverts in experimental dance.” She cites as particularly influential her work with Vicky Shick on Brown’s Solo Olos, a piece that requires the dancers to perform sequences backwards at random times. Walsh said:
I’ve had some issues with being compared to Yvonne [Rainer]’s early work and the “No Manifesto.” I think it is a vast oversimplification and tragedy…I don’t think of this work as oppositional or as a rejection, but rather as revealing what is underneath, the dance underneath the dance…I think to frame it as rejection erases the work we are doing. Framing it as orienting toward form, or focusing on structure, feels qualitatively much more truthful and very different from a ‘rejection’ of theatricality.
Walsh’s focus on decoding and recoding rhythms is certainly distinct from Rainer’s set of concerns in the ‘60s, but it does strike me that some of the objections she articulates might be similar in structure to those voiced by Rainer. The “No Manifesto” has often led to a mischaracterization of Rainer’s work as primarily invested in rejection rather than in generating new models for performance, specifically between the performer and the spectator. Rather, to quote the scholar Carrie Lambert-Beatty, Rainer was attempting to occupy “the space between interest in performative communication and resistance to exhibition, between body and beholder.”
While Walsh’s work is informed by and aligns with some of the politico-aesthetic positions taken up by members of the Judson Dance Theater, her attentiveness to the workings of late-capitalism reflects her own historical specificity. This is evident in Walsh’s attention to the repackaging of dance and remapping of bodies by corporate entities. Walsh’s work, although likewise occupied with the conventions of performance, is rooted in contemporary questions.
Even in more experimental venues, Walsh notes, there are still fairly rigid expectations of what a contemporary dance performance should feel like. The audience wants to be entertained, to be moved: “Affect is theatrically employed as didactic proof of content in contemporary work,” she says. Walsh recalled taking composition classes in which the underlying objective was to prevent the audience from experiencing boredom.
Score (fig.): The essential point or crux of a matter; the state of affairs, the (present) situation; how matters stand
The score is what’s at stake. What’s at stake is a question: What constitutes dance in 2015?
Taking up Walsh’s terms of introversion and extroversion, we might think of her work as reversing a conception of the score as the invisible “inside” of a dance and the dancers as the visible “outside.” She says: “The visibility of ‘hard work’ is still located in how traditionally difficult the dancing looks—physical relentlessness. How often do you leave a show and hear, ‘Wow, they worked really hard,’ as if that makes it good.”
Pointing out the way that performance can become “glossy,” or an “extroverted shell of research,” Walsh figures her score work as a kind of “introverted saturation.” The live reading of the scores by the performers requires a level of immersion in instruction. “I have no interest in making theater,” she says, “I want to move away from the absolutely expired addiction to meaning and understanding. There is nothing to understand.”
Rather than taking up a didactic approach that manages the response of the audience (“This is the thing you’re meant to feel.”), Walsh hopes that the liveness of the event will yield its own kind of experience. As the performers “absorb the energy of the space,” they are not “performing selves” but rather, suspending their “subjectivity in service to form.” Perhaps the score can be thought of as a place that the dancers work inside of, and at the same time, build.
Score: A record or account kept by means of tallies
A high score brings you to the next level, a low score keeps you down. How will Walsh score? The dance economy is structured such that positive reviews and reactions lead directly to presentation opportunities and funding. What might be activated, and what might slip, in the space between conception and reception? In positioning her dancers “toward form and away from performance,” will the audience feel the coldness of backs turned against them—or the heat of fresh discovery?
Walsh is placing a wager. She is not interested in irony. She is seriously working with games.
JAIME SHEARN COAN is a poet and Ph.D. student in English at The Graduate Center, CUNY.
ContributorJaime Shearn Coan
Jaime Shearn Coan (he/him/his) is a writer and editor who holds a PhD in English from The Graduate Center, CUNY. He is the author of the chapbook Turn it Over (2015) and co-editor of Marking the Occasion (2020) and Lost and Found: Dance, New York, HIV/AIDS, Then and Now (2016). Find him at jaimeshearncoan.net or on twitter: @jaimeshearncoan.
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