New York

Barbara Roan And The Blue Mountain Paper Parade

Concord Hotel, Kiamesha Lake

Barbara Roan and 20 dancers performed Landmark at dusk on the snowy slope of a deserted ski run. A kind of land painting was systematically evolved within the eight squares of a grid 60 feet wide and 120 feet long, marked out by flags and colored discs. Performers unrolled sheets of bright plastic, wrote the name of the piece in the snow with colored water, moved in groups carrying black cardboard arrows, laid out diagonal lines of snowsuits (they each wore several) in the shape of bodies, and finally lit sparklers as night fell.

Roan has organized several parade pieces in the past, and Landmark looked like an attempt to schematize the succession of disparate images that had characterized them. Landmark held within it a peculiar tension between schema—the mnemonic grid that matrixed the action—and a loose performing style. Between structure and looseness (between that which is given and that which is discovered or improvised) Roan is inclined toward the last.

The geographic scale of the piece obliterated the need (and with it the conventional face-as-mask semblance of that need) for full focus on the part of any single performer. Since the informational structure was given in the form of the grid, the energy of performance was freed to engender the feeling of festival as the dancers shouted to each other and to friends in the audience.

The grid came to figure as a boundary to be transgressed, and Landmark began to be about the schema and its dissolution. Near the end of the piece, one performer lifting and dropping day-glo frisbees began to move them beyond his square into another. Individual performers, then, effected the disintegration of the grid through a kind of play which was, in fact, concentrated exposition of the gesture peculiar to their assigned square. Finally, raw gravity defined the grid as the performers moved their props to the bottom of the slope.

The performance, like a chess game, began and ended within the grid; the lighting program which completed the piece returned the grid to the landscape from which it had been abstracted. It was logical that the schema should only fully dissolve with the nightfall. No matter how the spotlights were pointed, a grid that contained a performance could not contain light.

Roan’s use of a long large rectangle as an outdoor performing area, and the idea of staking out and mastering a space, derive from Rudy Perez (particularly his 1971 Lotpiece) with whom she danced for several years. The tension in Roan’s work, too, between schema and loose performing style, finds roots in Perez’ formalizations of everyday movements. In this context, a duet between two silver-suited performers in a corner of the Landmark grid served as a kind of methodological control—it indexed Perez. Unlike his outdoor work, the duet was not grandly scaled, but intimate: an ad hoc reminder of the theatrical tradition of a play within a play.

The snow silhouetted the performers and flattened the space to make a canvaslike ground for images. The cartographic allusion in the title, and the work’s nature as an activated grid of color and movement—a land painting—implied that it would read best from the air. Still, the piece as presented was rooted in frontality. The audience clustered at the bottom of the hill as if in an amphitheater. Unlike, say, Joan Jonas’ distance pieces, Roan made little attempt to disrupt or refound the spectator’s point of view. The most detailed images (the duet) were in front,and the boldest (the sheets of plastic) were farthest from the audience.

The mere presence of geometry does not signify conceptual rigor. Roan was determined to compromise her personal conception of Landmark to the exigencies of production and the diversity of performing style that her dancers brought to the pieces. To an extent, her opting to pluralism in making a piece is a result of an ethic of performance aimed at humanizing the drill team feeling in her work in order to make democratic spectacle.

Alan Moore