In setting out to reinvent the wheel, the question that begs most insistently to be answered is surely “why try?” If the action of reinvention is intended to make something better, wherein better stands for more efficient using current market-centric values, then it seems an undertaking bound for failure. In What We Are Saying (WWAS), Ame Henderson and her collaborators attempt to share their “desire to invent new ways of being together,” according to the program notes. Where does that desire come from? And to what extent does Henderson purport/expect/desire to be successful or efficient at creating new forms of dialogue? If we are not pursuing those questions, then our understanding of what we see in WWAS will be wanting.
The publicity for WWAS makes reference to the Occupy movement of 2011. The microphones, cables and portable amps used by the eight (plus) performers might be symbols of the human microphone system used in Zuccotti Park (although the performers never actually use that particular microphoneless technique). Question-and-response make up in large part the improvised text of WWAS, but a single conclusive answer never clearly comes through. The performers’ voices are always overlapping, interrupting, filling in. They are dislocated from their bodies by the amps that are repeatedly being moved around the space. Sometimes they seem to assist each other by awkwardly speaking the same words at the same time, à la the Kristen Wiig/Fred Armisten duo “Garth and Kat” from Saturday Night Live. The silliness of that game is accessible and gratifying. Improvised melodies smooth the synchronizing process beautifully on a few occasions, Katie Ewald’s voice easily lilting and guiding a duet with Brendan Jensen.
At others moments, four or five speak at once until they can come to a consensus. They co-create metaphysical questions that are only answered with silence (“How do you remember how the source explains itself?”), and a joke whose humour lies more in the delivery than the punch line (Q: “What do you get when you cross a shaman and a jack-o-lantern?” A: “You get a medicine man who can see everything in orange!”). The whole proposal seems accepting of discomfort, akin to that felt by the media during Occupy — when news corporations struggled to identify a clear comprehensive message to print in the headlines.
Themes in WWAS include family, alone-and-togetherness, memory, friendship, balance, familiar places… The tone is nostalgic and patient, never fraught with argument. The general position seems to be that there is pleasure in being together — audience and performers alike. We are all seated on chairs scattered liberally in the room. The assumption is that being together is enough. I suspect, however, that one’s measure of feeling included in, or excluded from, the Public Recordings’ discourse may be directly proportional to the proximity felt to the performers and their world: are we familiar friends? Are we members of the dance community? Do we feel a connection to performance art? The program notes quote sociologist Bruno Latour’s “notion of network,” which supposedly rids us of “ ‘the tyranny of distance’ or proximity.” But Latour also asks the same question I pose myself: what connection has been established between us?
Benjamin Kamino and Marie-Clarie Forté, who are not identified as performers in the program, play indeterminate (hinting at intermediary) roles in the action. Seventy percent of the time they behave as members of the public. Occasionally, however, they join the performers, copying their movements in silence. Kamino explains to me following the performance that their interventions are suggestions of possible audience participation, but not overt invitations. He and Forté are entirely familiar with the plotline of the score, but not necessarily its contents. They are free agents who can choose to intervene at moments they deem appropriate or pertinent.
The performers’ crossed-wire methods of conversing get transposed into movement. They attempt to answer their colleagues’ questions as naïve dances, while others play shadow across the room, at which point Kamino and Forté join in. This play jumps out at me as a choreographic quote from Relay, Henderson’s previous creation that examines in depth the intrinsic nature of dancing in unison. Here, however, the movement comes off as withheld or incomplete on some bodies. I long for these bodies to show me they trust the expression of their gestures, but what I see is hesitant and questioning. If they are playing by some rule (or set of tenets, as I later heard Henderson call them) that prevents them from being assured in their choices, they are not rules shared with the public. The ingenuousness is not easily credible: these are seasoned movers, for the greater part. At Ici/Maintenant, a discussion panel lead by Martin Faucher following the run of WWAS, Henderson speaks of “not collapsing ourselves to stand together,” but the dances in WWAS retract upon themselves. Later in the discussion, she vouches for the idea that “inefficient” or “horizontal” behaviours are “risk-taking actions […] rich with potential for change,” -– her words explain the motive behind those choices.
When Faucher asked whether WWAS is a piece about the Occupy movement, Henderson clarified that it was only a source of inspiration. “Occupy documented other ways of making positions known in relation to other positions,” she says. The strength of the international movement, she suggests, lay in its resistance to a single and therefore potentially “dangerous” point of view. We clearly see the importance of disordered multiplicity in her work. “Collaboration is full of crisis,” she says, but the project of WWAS works “so long as everyone [in the cast] comes back the next day.”
My understanding, after hearing her speak, is that Henderson’s project is built on her desire to inspire inquisitiveness and humility in all those who enter the space together. In doing so, performers and public can evaluate our familiar modes of functioning for what they are, in the present tense. Henderson seems just as uncertain of what to expect from the performance as her public. Her project is an experiment in what might happen if listening (in all its forms) comes before all else, even perhaps to the detriment of directed action. The next question is certainly whether or not uncertainty — as a guiding principle — can steer a clear path in the long run. Can it create lasting value in art once everything’s been said?