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Hierarchy, Hedonism, and Hemlines in Walter Dundervill’s Arena

Omagbitse Omagbemi holds a pose at Walter Dundervill’s Arena. Photo: Maria Baranova.

New York
Jack Art Space
July 30 – August 1, 2015

Walter Dundervill chews gum. The sleeves of his button-down shirt are ripped as if he has tested his wingspan one too many times. He has a sheet of bobby pins in his back pocket. He paces, purposeful, among a group of stone-still dancers. He is the most powerful man in the room.

In his installation piece, ARENA, Dundervill and a rotating troupe of dancers descend upon the Brooklyn art space JACK. Dundervill encourages spectators to enter and exit the three-hour performance as they please, but those who come late or leave early stand to miss out: the evening develops in a linear fashion, transporting spectators from a prim Elizabethan era to a raging postmodern party to a futuristic tableau. Dundervill also encourages spectators to see ARENA as a piece about drapery and set design—a study in how different fabrics can dance on bodies, under lights, and in layers. But what ruffles the fabric in ARENA is more enthralling than how that fabric is draped.

The performance begins with Dundervill’s adjusting the hem of one female dancer’s billowing canvas dress. She is patient, somewhat apathetic, and deferential to his every touch. He spins her, prods her, pokes her, places a wobbly gray wig over her cropped hair, and then deserts her. This is Dundervill at his most authoritative: he shapes his muse, and she allows him to do so. But, without creative tension, this is not the performance at its strongest.

After fiddling with two dancers who look like Marie Antoinette and two dancers who look like Greek gods, Dundervill paces toward a male dancer who looks out of place. While his counterparts are clad in canvas smocks, this dancer is fitted in a mottled gray fleece onesie and hood. Lying on the ground, he snaps his ankles and flaps his arms, etching out an invisible snow angel. Here, Dundervill confronts his first conflict: he slings his body over the dancer disapprovingly, undresses him, and replaces his shreds with the same canvas the other dancers are donning. Then, Dundervill undresses. He steps inside the other man’s clothing and experiences how it feels to be, in his opinion, a disgrace.

Benjamin Asriel and Omagbitse Omagbemi share the stage with audience members at Walter Dundervill’s Arena. Photo: Maria Baranova.

As the dynamic between Dundervill and his dancers becomes more precarious, the performance becomes more riveting. When Dundervill first tinkers with his dancers, they are cold to his touch. They do not move, even after he has transitioned to another set of shoulders, another rib cage, another skull. Soon, though, they begin to slump over in their seats after he has left their sides. They float to another edge of the room. They begin to shimmy, somewhat catatonically, out of their costumes. They begin playing dress-up—and dress-down—with one another.

As a soundtrack of garbled glam rock blares on a speaker, ARENA transforms from a somewhat staid and stately performance to a psychosexual acid trip. To the tune of Sylvester’s “Do You Wanna Funk,” Dundervill flits around the room, increasingly frenetic and, it seems, distressed. He dresses his dancers in strips of pink, plum, aqua, and charcoal ribbon. He pastes geometric color blocks to a backdrop. He pulls sheets of colored Plexiglas to center stage. His dancers flock to these splashes of color and, like children with a sugar rush or rebellious teenagers, they tramp all over Dundervill’s constructed scene.

Dundervill is able to tame some of these lusty dancers: he drags them, at one point, across the floor on a silk ribbon leash. He jostles a mop-haired, half-naked young man who acts unaware that Dundervill is ARENA’s alpha male. When the dancers appear more interested in one another than in him, Dundervill rips strips of fabric away from them, building a mountain of cotton and silk at the back of the room. But the performers, defying Dundervill’s calls for attention, continue to pet one another. Dundervill even drags a door-sized, flexible mirror around the stage, perhaps to shame them for the chaos that they have created. But, of course, ARENA is his creation.

As the evening comes to a close, Dundervill’s power rematerializes: moving from jewel tones to silver, he methodically wraps each of his dancers’ bodies in tinfoil. With their heads capped, like shining armor without the knights, the dancers are both indistinguishable from and inaccessible to one another. Only the crinkle of their tinfoil casts proves that this mummified troupe is still breathing.

Walter Dundervill drapes fabrics on Omagbitse Omagbemi and Jessie Gold at Dundervill’s Arena. Photo: Maria Baranova.

After the dancers hold this silent scene for nearly half an hour, Dundervill re-emerges. Clad in black sashes, he gingerly approaches the frozen dancers. He seems to be in mourning: his seamless universe has not played out as he planned. The result of his indulgence is a stage stripped of color, sound, and synergy.

Dundervill does, ultimately, reintroduce some of the performance’s richness: when he strikes up his soundtrack, spectators are treated to the same rendition of Roxy Music’s “Mother of Pearl” that opened the evening. The breathy rock track not only revives ARENA, but also restores it to its initial mood of high-intensity-but-playful photo shoot. Dundervill’s dancers peel tinfoil from their faces, their torsos, and their thighs, which are bruised and raw from rolling around for three hours, and depart the stage.

Walter Dundervill slips away from spectators, and then returns. He is back in street clothes. He pretends to not notice that the room is still filled with people, or that one of his dancers is inching, slug-like and tinfoil-clad, towards the back of the stage. He methodically folds the fabrics that are strewn across the risers. He acts as if he hasn’t acted at all.


Erica Getto

ERICA GETTO is is a writer based in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2015

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