PRINT October 2018


Quantum Leap

Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener, Desire Lines, 2016–. Performance view, Madison Square Park, New York, July 1, 2018. Eleanor Hullihan and David Rafael Botana. Photo: Paula Lobo.

THE MEMORIES are vivid, imagistic: Rashaun Mitchell awkwardly shedding his gold sneakers as he run-hops on a diagonal and retreats to his phone to play a fragment of a luscious Sylvester song. Eleanor Hullihan lying spread-eagled on a pile of chairs, her body’s delicate adjustments incongruent with the clacking, unruly scrum beneath her. Cori Kresge singing Joanna Newsom’s “On a Good Day” in her clear, soft voice, and now balancing on one arched foot, smiling at me, as her limbs angle out into space. Mina Nishimura being wheeled around by the other dancers on a makeshift pedestal, her statue-like body extravagantly draped in clothing and detritus. Silas Riener throwing a thick coil of rope to the rafters again and again, using it to hoist a large utility ladder aloft as the culmination of a furiously built, beautifully tenuous sculpture.

I’ve spent almost one hundred hours observing Desire Lines, the improvisational performance practice created in 2016 by Mitchell and Riener and developed in collaboration with a shifting cohort of artists. This practice, which takes its name from paths that develop in landscapes over time as people eschew authorized trails, defies codification. It claims influences as disparate as Anna Halprin’s use of task-based improvisation, Mitchell and Riener’s hiking excursions and their experiences moving apartments, and the epic video game inside of Liu Cixin’s science-fiction novel The Three-Body Problem (2008). There is no set movement material, but rather an elaborate system of collaboratively built proposals, rules, and structures for the performers to accept, refuse, or expand on during a performance, both individually and collectively. These negotiations nest within a conceptual framework that, as Mitchell put it, is about “creating a temporary utopia, and having some relationship to the past and the future, even though you’re in an improvisation that is dealing with the present moment.”

Because the work’s it-ness resides not in aesthetics but in a highly attuned quality of attention, all movement (all action, really) is fair game.

I first encountered Desire Lines in 2017 as part of artist Josiah McElheny’s Prismatic Park installation in Madison Square Park. I remember flashes of brightly clad bodies bursting through dappled sunlight—the crowds amorphous and often oblivious, the dancers drenched and exhausted from hours in the humid heat. The following January, DESIRE LINES: RETROFIT, 2018—created in collaboration with Hullihan, Kresge, and Nishimura—took over the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s White Box theater for three days. The performers worked in eighty-minute cycles, their improvisations loosely structured around such things as periodic forays through the building and the assembly and dismantling, via objects sourced on-site, of installations of gorgeously ramshackle complexity. The variety and sophistication of movement invention was staggering. The more I watched, the more I discerned the verbal, physical, and spatial cues the performers used to organize themselves as individuals and an ensemble. For example, the word here signaled a dancer’s call for interaction, while the placement of items in a particular pattern on the floor invited a corresponding improvisation. Virtuosic phrases, slapstick physical theater, intimate interactions with audience members, stillness, costume changes, and myriad other activities easily coexisted with less definable psychological states.

The states, I imagine, arose partly from a navigation of rules at once nebulous and precise, at times testing what’s possible: Remain curious, even when you’re not; find a way to leave while staying involved. To behold in Desire Lines the tensions between freedom and restraint, equality and hierarchy is exhilarating, and it occurs to me that Mitchell and Riener’s years working together as both creative and romantic partners prepared them for just this sort of delicate, slippery communal negotiation. I’ve known the pair for about a decade, first in my role as a dance critic, then as a friend and collaborator. They met in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, where they worked—Mitchell for eight years, Riener for four—until the troupe disbanded in 2011. I’ve watched them move from the security and constraints of Cunningham’s world to the possibilities and precarities of the under-resourced, artist-subsidized gig economy that characterizes, with few exceptions, the state of contemporary dance in the United States.

Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener, Desire Lines: Retrofit, 2018. Rehearsal view, Florida State University, Tallahassee, March 22, 2018. Silas Riener. Photo: Chris Cameron.

Like most independent choreographers, they therefore produce work in several modes, engaging in for-hire commissions; temporary marriages with artists in various disciplines, including poet Anne Carson and composer/musician Stephin Merritt; and longer-term group practices with dancers such as Kresge, who has worked with them since 2012 and has been involved in Desire Lines from the beginning. Underpinning all of this is the deeply intimate, improvisational work they do with, and for, each other. Cunningham technique of course runs in their marrow, but so do Mitchell’s years as a club kid and Riener’s decade and a half as a soccer player.

In Desire Lines, which has no set decor or sound, they’ve forged a porous container for site-specific experimentation and high-level physical exploration on the dancers’ own terms. Because the work’s it-ness resides not in aesthetics but in a highly attuned quality of attention, all movement (all action, really) is fair game. Idiosyncratic and utilitarian gestures slide up against highly technical and vernacular dancing born of a given performer’s training and interests, whether the study of butoh or a childhood love of Michael Jackson videos. In this way, the practice recognizes the disconnect between negligible commissioning fees (which force artists into production schedules not of their own choosing) and presenters’ expectations for a level of technique maintained only through costly, time-consuming rehearsals and training regimes.

Silas Riener and Rashaun Mitchell, DESIRE LINES: RETROFIT, 2018. Performance view, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, January 11, 2018. Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener. Photo: Charles Villyard.

Desire Lines grew out of exercises in noticing and embodying external stimuli during a residency at the Watermill Center in Water Mill, New York, where Mitchell and Riener were then developing Tesseract, 2017, a 3-D dance diptych for film and stage created with artist, filmmaker, and Cunningham collaborator Charles Atlas. Tesseract represents “a certain kind of apex, in terms of visibility, lineage, our relationship to our performative past in the Cunningham company, making work with technology and cameras,” Riener said. “It also presents this opportunity that Rashaun and I, because of the nature of our value system, have refused: Have a company, and do this exactly again, distill your movement style and ascend into the canon of touring brands.” That idea of expansion remains stubbornly intact in the arts: If you’re not growing, you’re dying. Disregarding it, Riener added, was an impulse that felt both difficult and right. The impulse is one that many ascendant and established choreographers, exhausted by business as usual, have followed—a desire line, if you will, in which process stands in for a permanent company, which most choreographers I know have neither the interest nor the resources to maintain.

Central to Desire Lines is a resistance to the idea that experimentation occurs to perfect something and then enshrine it. The practice adapts to and converses with (or sometimes critiques) whatever conditions Mitchell and Riener find themselves in. The Joyce Theater in New York, where an iteration of Desire Lines will premiere this month, presents a new challenge: that of how to build and maintain anarchic liveness within a traditional proscenium theater governed by union regulations. One answer is to have more bodies onstage and fewer objects. And so, at a residency at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography on the Florida State University, Tallahassee, campus in March, Mitchell and Riener worked with Hullihan and Kresge to transmit the complicated skeins of Desire Lines to three new performers: Stanley Gambucci, Jennifer Gonzalez, and Paul Morland, all recent graduates of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where Mitchell is a faculty member. The week was a crash course in translation, the veteran members of the practice naming, defining, and categorizing actions as they relate to choice-making and attention, while simultaneously attempting to empower the newcomers to create their own taxonomies. In art as in life, generational change is fraught; in between tense and frustrating stretches, you could see shimmers of a new community taking shape.

Charles Atlas, Rashaun Mitchell, and Silas Riener, Tesseract, 2017. Performance view, Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY. Photo: Ray Felix.

This community was in full, weird bloom the next time I peered, via a fuzzy Skype window, into rehearsals at NYU in April, shortly before the group adjourned for the summer. As I watched the dancers experiment in an empty studio, I missed the objects and the maturity of RETROFIT, and had to remind myself (aided by gentle chiding from Mitchell and Riener) that I was confusing one iteration of Desire Lines with the thing itself; after all, it’s an audience’s responsibility to stay attuned to the possibilities of the present, too. And despite its promises of rooting us in the here and now, live art so often throws us into the past, whether through nostalgia or the architecture of our theaters or our funding systems, whose demands for a certain type of work are so insidious that we don’t necessarily recognize when we have acquiesced to the prescribed forms. Desire Lines doesn’t set out to solve this. But as it continually tests its own borders, teasing out what it can sustain and what constitutes rupture, it pushes back enough against the status quo to let in a little light. In doing so, the work gives permission to its makers and its watchers to be as they are, in the moment in which they are. How we participate is on us. Utopias, after all, as Mitchell and Riener are well aware, are ephemeral, difficult creatures. They are, one might say, dances unto themselves.

SWITCH, 2018, the latest iteration of Desire Lines, will be presented at the Joyce Theater, New York, October 2–6.

Claudia La Rocco is a writer and the Editor in Chief of Open Space, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Interdisciplinary Commissioning Platform.