NOW SERVING: A review of works by Esmeralda Kundanis-Grow, Nol Simonse, and Embodiment Project

D.I.R.T. Program A
Dance Brigade’s Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco
Friday, January 23, 2015


A Review of Esmeralda Kundanis-Grow’s SENSITIVE PRESSURES

Two metal clothing racks and a small black end table appear downstage. Hanging on the racks are an assemblage of this season’s haute couture: a blazer, a beanie, a bike helmet, a black trash bag, a wig, a pair of Converse, a pair of gloves, and some tattered gauze.

Four dancers enter in darkness. Warm orange light begins to glow from two circular floor spots upstage. A high-pitched industrial drone whines and ramps up. Beautifully backlit, the dancers carry the table and roll the racks back, in what I thought was a subtle and genius way to begin.

It’s runway time.

In the program notes, Kundanis-Grow writes:

The D.I.R.T. is the emotional withholding and displacement that occurs when faced with continual aggression and anxiety from our surrounding environment. “Sensitive Pressures” is research into the presentation of the contemporary, female experience and how our body/bodies have been affected every day by a history of male possession and power. The work explores what it takes to identify where in the body we hold our environmental pressures/aggressors and how we might use this awareness to shift the physical, emotional, and spiritual states of the body towards greater self-empowerment and presence.

I was intrigued by Kundanis-Grow’s decision to use a runway, as well as the performance of “runway,” as a site in which to not only interrogate the male and misogynist gaze, but to also reveal the very internal landscape of nerves and soft tissues affected by these micro- and macro-aggressions.

The genre of the runway fashion show embodies and advertises certain types of desired, socially acceptable, yet highly idealized or romanticized femininities. One is sort of blank or overly neutralized; the models have bored, vacant faces and their bodies seem to be frail, emaciated, blank slates. Another is hyper-charged and sexually objectified; the female body is loosely and minimally covered, exposed.

But there’s also a disturbing collision of these two that creates a vacant, seemingly sexually available female body, one that does not speak and seems indifferent to the heavy scrutiny of the crowd, to being constantly watched. She returns again and again in different garments, but does the same walk, walks the same track, pauses in the same places, stares straight ahead, silent. She becomes a kind of magazine cover specter haunting the western imaginary of the feminine.

Performers Caroline Alexander, Hallie Dalsimer, Dominique Nigro, and Rebecca Siegel each have a distinctive and very specific physicality to their walk, which is either sourced from, satirizing, or otherwise responding to these representations. One is very subtle and reserved in a ruffled blouse, blazer casually flung over the shoulder. Another has an austere and angular severity. A third wears splattered jeans and a slightly confused look, her strides wide and somewhat lost. The faces each of them give at the end of the runway before turning around are priceless.

As they cycle through the runway again and again, it’s fascinating to witness how each person’s walk begins to erode. Their physicality and embodiment, with its strict autonomy and tight boundaries, begins to decay and bleed. They start running into each other and stepping in front of the other, competing for attention, and turning their respective states up 300%.

Part of this erosion involves incorporating accessories from the racks and table. One does her walk with the absurdist flair of a paper napkin, another with a toothpick, a third with swimming goggles, or a set of keys, or a bike light. In a climactic moment, Dominique Nigro makes her final runway pass with a piece of floss, running it between her teeth, making her cavities choke and devastating the competition within a mile radius. Hers isn’t fourth-wall face or fashion-model-vacant face, but a captivatingly intense face full of teeth and the whites of her eyes. A face full not of passivity, but of raw unbridled agency.

As the dancers performed their erosions, I thought about the daily micro-aggressions that women and people with non-normative genders face in their homes, workplaces, on the bus, at the grocery store, from loved ones and strangers alike—the subtle ones no one notices, and the offensive ones that have been repeated so much they are now ignored. I also thought about the kind of normalcy in popular television and film of sexism and violence against women, such that these violences are absorbed into our bodies. If we could chart the resonance and rate of that absorption, if we could manifest these aggressions in the physical realm, what would they look like?

The runway is a performance of gender, of a high class femme ideal, and it is a performance that must necessarily be continually repeated in order to maintain its own fantasy. What does it take, then, in the body, to maintain this kind of face to the world, for public consumption? Where are those things absorbed and held, where do they condense into knots? Are they ever identified? Can they ever be moved?

The runway implodes, reverses, and then completely deconstructs. The dancers move into their own kinesthetic states. We see where each person is holding “the runway” in their body—in the temples, the chest, the nervous system. They let the runway slowly reverberate, expelling it while at the same time remembering it. They shift quickly side to side, almost as if they are shaking it out, or attempting a frequency that will enable them to touch into and transform these absorbed violences.

At the end I wonder, where now does this resonance travel? We’ve moved through it, yet it haunts us still.

See more of Esmeralda Kundanis-Grow’s choreography and dance-for-camera work on Vimeo.


A Review of Nol Simonse’s SISSY THAT WALK

In silence, a bald Nol Simonse enters wearing a simple brown tank top, loose black trousers tapered at the knee, and a fierce pair of black platform stilettos. The stilettos are in no way out of place on Simonse’s feet. In fact, they seem to fit very well indeed. But perhaps that’s the problem—that he should feel comfortable in them.

Simonse approaches the shoes with the playful curiosity of someone gently and confidently testing them out. After falling, he removes the stilettos and retrieves a pink fan from his hand bag. “The shoes weren’t quite right, but how about this?” his movements seem to be asking.

Returning the fan, he proceeds to dance to M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls,” turned up real loud. “Maybe this will feel right?” he asks with jetes as M.I.A. sings “my chain hits my chest when I’m banging on the dashboard,” alternating between a kind of ecstatic, cathartic gay dance club release and punctuated feats of balletic prowess.

“Maybe not…” and then suddenly Simonse is on the floor, quickly removing his trousers to reveal that his brown tank top is actually a long dress with a flowing bit of teal and gold on one side. He retrieves a pair of pointe shoes from his bag and slips them on.

At this point I start to wonder if other people in the audience witnessing Simonse are “seeing gender.” What I mean is, are people seeing, bluntly, a man in a dress? A man in pointe shoes? A man in stilettos? Rather than blunt lines, I see a mutable sea. I see Nol.

And from the stilettos to the bare feet to the pointe shoes, I see the same gorgeous elasticity that I have admired when I’ve seen him perform with Sean Dorsey Dance, and which was wonderful to witness in a solo work. That is to say, to me he doesn’t “become something different” when he puts on the pointe shoes, when he stands up in his dress, when he takes off his stilettos. His physicality weaves a continuous thread throughout the piece. He moves with a delicacy and ease, and a heart-breaking tenderness, that makes my chest and throat start to well up with tears.

One moment that catches me is when Simonse positions his feet and arms at tendu front on the diagonal in the upstage left corner, when his chest suddenly collapses in on itself. It is a small but quick movement that illustrates the pain of holding the body in that position, but also the desire to hold it, and the possibility for other ways of moving—beyond ballet, beyond cabaret, beyond M.I.A.

His face bears the turbulence and joy of someone trying to find something, a way to be in his body that feels, for once, right. Once we find it, will we be able to relax into it? And what if we can’t?


A Review of Embodiment Project’s CHALK OUTLINES

Embodiment Project’s Chalk Outlines was my first opportunity, since the deaths of Eric Garner and Mike Brown, to see dance and performance in direct response to the culture of police brutality against black people.

With a predominantly black cast (featuring Mika Lemoine, Jon Lee, Rama Mahesh Hall, Nick Brentley, Dennis McCaffrey, Sheila Russell, and Tricia Choi), the piece opens with a powerful solo by a female dancer to an audio clip of words spoken by Eric Garner’s wife Esaw Garner, in response to whether she accepted officer Daniel Pantaleo’s apology.

“The time for remorse would have been when my husband was screaming to breathe,” said Esaw Garner. “That would have been the time for him to show some type of remorse or some type of care for another human being’s life, when he was screaming 11 times that he can’t breathe. No, I don’t accept his apology. No, I could care less about his condolences. No, I could care less. He’s still working, he’s still getting a paycheck, he’s still feeding his kids, and my husband is six feet under, and I’m looking for a way to feed my kids now. Who’s going to play Santa Claus for my grandkids this year? Cause he played Santa Claus for my grandkids–who’s going to do that now?”

As Esaw’s voice fades away, two female vocalists appear in the upstage corners to anchor, witness, and hold space with their singing. Then a male dancer runs from the audience and tackles another male dancer. In their brief opening duet they jump and attack. I feel the anger and rage against a system that turns black men against each other. Written on their pants are the names of Mike Brown and Oscar Grant. One man falls face down on the floor, and while he is only there for about five seconds, while we are only maybe 30 seconds to one minute into the piece, I’m already so moved I’m crying.

In a later section of the piece, a male performer enters and spits some poetry for us. He talks about how today there are more black men in chalk outlines than ever swung from poplar trees. The final section features three black male dancers and one Asian male dancer. Theirs is an exuberance of masculinity in men of color—a masculinity that simultaneously has never known struggle, and yet always has. Shirts come off and sweat flies. Throughout the piece the choreography (by Nicole Klaymoon in collaboration with the company) speaks powerfully of the lineage of black struggle, as well as black dance.

Their movements are punctuated by moments in which a dancer falls to the floor, followed shortly after by another, and another. All four are on the ground, but then together they rise up, startlingly and swiftly resurrected. This texture repeats with one dancer holding his hands up, and others joining, or with the dancers holding their hands behind their backs.

I participated in the Reclaim MLK March in Oakland on MLK Day. Even though I am not a drummer, I dug out an old hand drum and joined a friend of mine to drum with the Third World for Black Power contingent, and we marched with the chant leaders who served some incredible energy on the mic. As a dancer, and as an Asian American, being near the music is one of the only ways I can feel a concrete connection to the national movement in solidarity with black power.

When I see more singers (MoonCandy Vocalists Valerie Troutt, Jovan Watkins, Rashida Chase, and Shamont Hussey) flank the back of the stage and interact with the dancers, what I begin to experience resonates with the feeling I had of drumming in the march, following and riding the rhythm, feeling the vibrations, my body connected to a larger whole, to other bodies in solidarity with black power.

The group Black Brunch has been organizing actions in brunch restaurants in areas like Piedmont, and one of their taglines is “Brunch is now being served.” As the four men raise their fists, and as the singers join them in song, discarding their mics, converging in the center of the stage as the lights dim, I think—YES, black power is now being served.

Learn more at embodimentproject.org.