Those Women Who Destroy the Infinite

Moriah Evans, Configure. Performance view, The Kitchen, 2018. From left: João dos Santos Martins, Nicole Mannarino, and Lizzie Feidelson. Photo: Paula Court.

TWO PUDDLES, HYPNOTIC AND IRIDESCENT; ALL SURFACE, NO DEPTH. I watch a scrum of dancers make them, hunched and sobbing, emptying themselves. A knee drags through the wet. Afterward, as coats are slung across shoulders, the tears slowly return to air.

Elements of the theater’s infrastructure, seemingly evaporated too, had been strategically removed: light rigs withdrawn, pipes displaced, the risers diarticulated and strewn about in clumps. The effect is the renovation of mood. Starkly cavernous, the changed architecture left both audience and performer to rattle around inside of it.

Moriah Evans’s Configure is in fact an exercise in vibration. It begins, Ovidian, with five dancers posed, still. Then, each Galatea arouses, as if animated by an unseen force: João dos Santos Martins with a soft expanse of breath billowing his diaphram; Lizzie Feidelson and Nicole Mannarino with concentrated shudders; Evans herself with a vigorous heaving. Lydia Okrent flutters, throwing herself back with arms wide, a cormorant in the sun.

As the dancers shake and undulate, a deep bass rumbles in, subwoofers straining. The sonic overwhelm, by Ka Baird, disorients by giving the impression, false but persistent, that the dancers’ tremors produce the music, and vice versa. A confusion of cause and effect, and the porosity of exterior and interior, extends to the rostra on which the dancers are mounted and then abandon: Platforms that are pedestals, but also part of the seating. Spectators receive, alternately, intimate views and interrupted sightlines. Though invited to move about the space, only a few take advantage. Most choose instead to twist their bodies and crane their necks.

Moriah Evans, Configure. Performance view, The Kitchen, 2018. From left: Lydia Okrent, João dos Santos Martins. Photo: Paula Court.

A wash of sulfuric yellow light casts an otherworldly pallor onto the supreme vision of effort before us. Although concentrating on their varied tremblings, the dancers commune with one another, tacitly. The performance proceeds according to any number of scored permutations that each dancer is free to initiate—and shift—based on information received from the other dancers and the environment. The complex relay of the group’s decision-making is not readily apparent to the viewer, who are privy only to its outcomes.

Slouching on dos Santos Martins’s hips is a leotard, half-peeled. Costumes by Strauss Bourque-LaFrance pair shades of ochre and honey, vermillion and sepia. Evans’s golden one-piece suggests less an item of clothing than a sprouted epidermis, an effect shared by the transparency of Mannarino and Feidelson’s tops, one an umber mesh, and the other a turtleneck of the thinnest silk. No doubt stylish, the sprezzatura of partial undress emphasizes what might be called the erotics of physical toil. It’s intense to be so close to the exertion of pure sensation, to that razor thin line between cumming and crying; to watch Mannarino’s adamantine focus and squinched face; to observe the wallops of Okrent’s tiny explosive jumps, or to see Feidelson frowning heavenward, a beautifully-drawn illustration of tentative exploration. For seventy-five minutes, we witness their hoots and wobbles and double-chinned quivers of rapture. 

Configure is, well, hardcore, less in the vodka-soaked tradition of ostranenie, that difficult encounter with unfamiliar art, than in the performance’s resonance with the affective contagion of a punk show. One would imagine that the wilder shores of emotion—laughter or crying—would be the intemperate poles of this work, but that’s not true: It’s all edge, zero center.

Informed by the writings on feminist corporeality by Julia Kristeva and Elizabeth Grosz and Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, the piece nonetheless resists a jog down the hermeneutic track. A spreadsheet from Evans’s laptop is reproduced in the program; ostensibly revealing the group’s working process, it’s impenetrable, like looking at source code without the knowledge required to use it.

As in Figuring, performed earlier this year at SculptureCenter, Evans here rejects the choreographic process in which dancers commit each step and their sequence to muscle memory, comparing their proprioception with the image returned to them in the mirror, in pursuit of a mimetic recreation of the desired shape or line.

Instead, what the audience sees is generated from inside each dancer’s body, from her chosen combinations of instructions such as “electrocution,” “palindrome,” “organ moves container,” “topology of catastrophe,” and “energetic halo.” This approach asks: Can dance be a speculative practice?

Moriah Evans, Configure. Performance view, The Kitchen, 2018. From left: Lydia Okrent, Nicole Mannarino, and Lizzie Feidelson. Photo: Paula Court.

The dancers attempt to control their organs—pancreas, uterus, liver—in such a way that the internal traffic is rendered visible. Seemingly stranger than fiction, this imaginative work is in fact not so far from several heterogeneous practices loosely referred to as “somatics”: Release technique, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen’s body mind center, Alexander technique, and the Feldenkrais method all seek to retrain the body’s capacity for movement. These activities improve facility, but are also therapeutic regimes, ways of avoiding or healing from injury. They also attempt to address musculoskeletal structure via thought: Exercises might ask the practitioner to move as if there are strings manipulating her knees, or as if her muscles have spilled onto the floor, like water.

Seen through this lens, one might look anew at the ways the dancers bend in demi plié, with feet turned in, torso gyrating. Tension seems located in the trunk (after all, that’s where the organs are kept), leaving hands and feet looking loose and noncommittal. One senses the half-life of energy as it travels from proximal to distal points in the body.

From mannered beginnings, each dancer’s giggle or sob seems to accelerate as it lengthens and is transmitted to others. Creepiness inheres in this spectacle of susceptibility, in the way it parades permeability and incoherence nakedly before you. The guffaws and blubbers are sensational, even operatic, but the emotions they tender are stubbornly non-representational. When the dancers cry, they are not crying about anything; they are crying, just.

At some point, Baird enters, subjecting a flute-like instrument to harsh smacks of air and furious rubbing, then picks up two microphones and engages them in a kind of frottage against pants, platforms, walls, and floor. When traced in figure eights or circles, they make extended, anguished croaks.

Through all this, the dancers continue their work, indefatigable. Sweat rains off curls and dampness accretes in the folds between thigh and pelvis. In a torrent of strain and wailing, they become a bouquet of limbs that is not quite an embrace. Does togetherness soothe? Not always. It would be easy, not to mention facile, to read this work as “political” because it displays the sorrow or rage or hysteria that feels new but is in fact old. Its heft lies not in the depiction of feeling, but rather in its commitment to imagining otherwise, and its insistence on the necessity of the collective labor, immense and sacrificial, required to get there. 

Moriah Evans’s Configure ran from December 5th to the 8th, 2018 at The Kitchen in New York City.