Sobs have torn me from sleep three nights in a row. They always feel like someone else’s, remnants from a world of half-forgotten nightmares, whose vivid images linger as distant memories. Mere seconds ago, I was trying to deflate the rubbery body of a colossal cockroach with violent stabs. Now, my tears testify to the strange realness of this imagined world, or at least to the very real hold that its memory has on the room around me. Blackbirds scream as I fall asleep again.
My own tears came back to me as I watched How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere?, a performance comprising choreographies, film scenes, and a lecture, first staged by Ralph Lemon and his dance company in 2010 and currently available to stream via OntheBoards.tv. In one scene, the rattling sobs of a cowering body release grief, desperation, and pain as unbound movement. Limbs are folded over and across like the rickety parts of a dismantled music stand. Wailing sounds form in the chest, then break their way out through the throat. As a whole, the piece is deliberately difficult to classify. It is a lecture about the impossibility to lecture to someone, a choreography about the inability to make a choreography, or a non-dance about how anything can be a dance. How Can You Stay in the House All Day is about the vanishment of people and the persistence of memory, it is a quest for weightlessness and groundedness all at the same time.
As someone else’s howling filled the stage for seven endless minutes, I remembered the exhaustion that creeps in after emotional dams have burst, the burning feeling of swollen eyes, the cleft of pain and grief that can slash the surface of an ordinary day. Yesterday grabbed the present by its frayed hem. Lemon turns toward such moments of remembrance in his work, much of which grapples with the loss of his partner Asako Takami, who died of cancer in 2007. For Lemon, the present is as fleeting as the movements of a dancer on stage, and a moment points toward its aftermath as much as it reaches into the memory of a before. He reflects on how the past can erupt into the present or how the pain of an anticipated loss sometimes makes itself felt prematurely, like a memory of the future: “What you just experienced is not really there, it’s gone.”1
How Can You Stay In The House All Day is also a performance about the long, dragged-out process of dying, the countless last times and farewells that weigh heavier than the event of eventual death. In the lecture that precedes the piece’s choreography, Lemon speaks about his visits to the home of his longtime collaborator Walter Carter, a former sharecropper who lived in Yazoo City, Mississippi, for over a century before he passed away in 2010: “He said it would be the last time I’d see him each time we parted over these last few years.” We see a video of Carter at home, waltzing with his wife, then disappearing at the end of a hallway, a preliminary goodbye. He returns at the end of the reading, walking down a forest path toward the audience. Humid air and lush trees surround his small figure, now dressed in shimmery overalls and wearing a fishbowl helmet. He looks like an astronaut who has landed on earth and is still getting used to the gravity that grounds each of his steps, frail but directed, in the red dust of this strange place called home.
Years ago, in a cold and breezy steel blue town, I came across a painting that oozed heat, sticky humidity, and windless languor. I placed the scene in Mississippi, where I had never been, and cared little about fact-checking my imagination. To me, the boat was a river steamboat and the instruments sang the blues. Ghosts from the violent history of the US South haunted the image. As I watched Carter walk down a dirt path in the forest near his hometown, I remembered that painting and the sweaty stasis I read into it, because the green abundance of the forest near Yazoo City matched that of the dangling vines. Back then, I had looked at the painting as if the scene was somehow removed from time and change. For precisely this reason, its elegiac mood seduced me: here I was, swept up in a world of movement, rush, and aims, while Peter Doig’ Some other people’s blues (1990) lured me in with the promise of a drifting calm. A part of me was in awe of the grandeur of this lost world, and that part of me found it all too easy to forget its horrors.
Lemon’s performance is strongest when ghosts of the pasts do not float by, but are set into context, and give visibility to the history of the South. Such as: an image of Lemon, dressed as Br’er Rabbit, a notorious trickster from the Uncle Remus stories set in the South. In Lemon’s words, the rabbit is an “unreliable storyteller” who keeps talking even though the truth cannot really be mentioned, “and so [he] creates exquisite lies in order to share something mentionable to an unsuspecting world.” The rabbit seems to be Lemon’s alter ego, who keeps talking despite his inability to name so many things. A humorous clip of the human-sized rabbit in a play-fight with Carter cuts sharply to found footage of police brutality against African Americans. Later during the lecture, a memorable scene from Lemon’s choreography for Come Home Charley Patton (2013) appears on the screen: a Black body attempting to dance as the forceful jet of a water hose makes movement more and more impossible. Falling down and standing up again, in ever faster rhythms.
At other times, How Can You Stay in The House All Day approaches Lemon’s stated desire for a transcendence of time and the body. Then, he revels in the agony of never being able to fully reach that stage: “I wanted to make a dance about ecstasy. Some lovely, transcendental, illusory thing, marking where we had been.” He presents a video from a “drunk and stoned dance,” which he asked his company members to experiment with. Grown bodies, having given up most control, stumble over one another. Arms swing loosely back and forth, one foot traps the other. These staggering movements are light years away from the ethereal floating in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), scenes of which Lemon has also included in his lecture. At first glance, the drunken dance is silly, then it seems desperate. Weightlessness? Not in this world. Even the elation of a substance-induced high eventually crashes and one lands on the floorboards, rolling around like the clumsy cousin of a sunbathing seal. Only the hand of another can help to pick the body up again, joined forces become necessary. Wikipedia knows that gravity “is a natural phenomenon by which all things with mass or energy … are brought toward (or gravitate toward) one another.” Gravity is the tie that links one body to another. Without it, we would be floating around freely, terrifyingly freely, without the need to hold onto each other in ever-changing times. When I wept in my sleep, someone else’s hand shook me back into the waking world.
There is a beauty to the melancholy that ensues when, once again, things reveal themselves to be anything but eternal. Lemon calls it “an elegant sadness, [about] how culture must always shift and change,” which he finds in the films of Yasujirō Ozu that he watched with his partner during her years of sickness. I think about James Baldwin’s description of his urge to preserve the ephemeral, this line that I first heard in a summer filled with love and troublesome changes: “When I was very young, and was dealing with my buddies in those wine- and urine-stained hallways, something in me wondered, What will happen to all that beauty?” What will happen to all that beauty? It can become a sentence, a verse, a photograph, a painting, a film, or a dance.
The most memorable dance scene from Lemon’s performance shows him and Okwui Okpokwasili in a dynamic tumble. They run away and toward each other, twirl and jump in bursts of unchoreographed energy, embrace and kiss with unquenchable desire, famished for love and a sense of belonging. They embody, according to Lemon, “the human destiny for partnership, however spectral,” that can also be the source of insurmountable loss: two will never be one. Throughout the dance, Lemon is missing his second white sock, and it is this imperfect detail that heightens the staged performance’s intimacy, as if the scene took place inside a home. Again, it is a loss of gravity that he strives for, to lose the self, the ego, all form, all intentions. The pair dances in order to exhaust themselves to the point of ecstasy. But the single sock speaks a different language: that of life’s most mundane activities, like getting dressed in the morning and being interrupted by a ring on the doorbell.
I have come to think about How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? as a performance of gravity. The fragment of a second, when a dancer’s body seems suspended in mid-air, but is actually already falling, forever floor-bound. Damn the weight that pulls us down to the factual ground: nothing is eternal, life is short, vulnerable, chaotic, painful. But praise it, too: without this weight, we would drift off in solitude. No other body would pull our own toward itself.
We fall in love and do not float.
- “Ralph Lemon on How Can You Stay In the House All Day,” interview by Justin Jones, Talk Dance, Walker Art Center, October 14, 2010. Audio: https://walkerart.org/magazine/ralph-lemon-on-how-can-you-stay-in-the-house.