New York

Douglas Dunn

The New School

Dunn’s Octopus was choreographed for The New School’s Choreoconcerts and Critiques series. What is especially striking about Dunn’s work is the way in which he used both the physical environment and the social setting of the Choreoconcerts as the basic materials for his dance.

The first part of Octopus, “Whale,” begins with Dunn, standing toward the back of the stage, dressed in white shirt and pants with red handkerchiefs on his neck, wrists and ankles, and blue handkerchiefs on his knees and elbows. He unties the blue ones; then he slowly removes his shirt and pants, suggesting a strip-tease, only to frustrate such expectations when disrobing reveals that he is wearing a red tank suit.

This moment is arresting because it unexpectedly regroups one’s visual field: the red, white and blue pattern is replaced by a completely red Gestalt since the red handkerchiefs rhyme visually with the red trunks. This evolution of one pattern from another conveys a sense of unfolding rather than merely undressing, thus determining the physical process of disrobing as an esthetic one as well.

Dunn begins walking forward. There is a basket suspended in the front of the stage. As he approaches it, his legs rise higher and higher. He passes beneath the basket to the end of the stage. Loud automobile horns start honking. Dunn walks off the edge of the stage, stepping onto the arms of a seat in the center of the first row, and begins to walk to the rear of the auditorium on the backs of spectators’ seats. This development is formally over-determined because it makes Dunn’s earlier high-stepping retrospectively intelligible—he was climbing over imaginary seats.

As Dunn steps into the first row, a duo rushes out on each side of the stage. On one side, a naked man carries a dressed woman; on the other, the woman is naked and the man dressed. On each side, the naked dancer sets the clothed one down, strips him, and then quickly dresses in the garments just removed. This proceeds while horns honk and while Dunn plods over the audience. In an exciting way, Dunn has managed to engage the whole auditorium space by setting the centers of action far enough apart that the audience must scan a very large part of the room to keep up. Expropriating the entire auditorium as a performance area, Dunn makes the act of watching a dance a felt physical experience by prompting the audience to literally turn in its seats. The physical setting serves as the premise for his choreography.

In addition to the perceptual tension built up by the way in which the climbing is opposed to the stripping/dressing, a certain intellectual tension arises from the fact that these two operations are concrete tasks of infinite duration. Dunn has synchronized their executions in such a way that one quickly guesses that the A phrase, climbing, and the B phrase, stripping/dressing, are planned to culminate simultaneously. As this synchronization becomes more and more apparent, a sensation of suspense results.

The choreographic structure of “Whale” is striking because it asserts a variety of formal correspondences by means of a limited number of movement elements. Dunn’s climbing is related to the stripping/dressing not only by temporal duration but also by contrasting the slow process of climbing over seats and the rapid movement on stage. The two phrases are also thematically related. Dunn’s initial disrobing binds the two parts of the piece in terms of undressing, counterpoising the expectancy and frustration of the slow strip-tease with nudity in high speed movements that make both erotic display and erotic focus impossible.

The second part of Octopus is “ Hubba-hubba,” supposedly the critique section of Choreoconcerts. Dunn has been immediately preceded by other choreographers who have spoken about their work and now Dunn will speak about “Whale.” Dunn: “Hi, this is my birthday.” The audience giggles. “No, it really is.” This prompts the audience to sing “Happy Birthday.” As they sing, dancers pass out red rubber balls. The singing finished, Dunn says “You’ve seen ’Whale,’ but not ’Hubbahubba.’ There wasn’t time to do it. This piece begins when I come out and say ’Hi, today is my birthday. No, it really is.’ ”

At this point, the audience takes upsinging again. As the audience completes the last chorus, Dunn starts repeating his monologue. Dancers dressed in variations of Dunn’s costume in “Whale” strut briskly onto the stage, walking in a rectangular shaped pattern, breaking their stride only to turn, arms extended, in the center of the backstage area. Their movement, and abrupt turn (center/backstage) suggest targets in a shooting gallery. Dunn completes his last repetition of his lecture, and joins the other dancers until the audience finally unleashes its accumulation of red rubber balls, at first gradually in sporadic droplets, and then in a virtually simultaneous downpour.

Like “Whale,” “Hubbahubba” has a pleasing formal coherence. Both mirror monologue and the invariant walking around the stage are predicated on the theme of prompting—or provoking—the audience, first to sing then to throw. “Hubbahubba” also refers back to “Whale,” not only by repeating the basic costume but, as well, by resolving the entire piece through reversing “Whale’s” movement into the audience by a complementary movement from the audience toward the stage.

Octopus is interesting for the way it elaborates on its environment by using the physical and social setting as a starting point for choreography. This choreography is marked by internal clarity—a coherent play of thematic correspondences between its various phrases, which, in turn, evokes a pleasing sensation of unity in diversity. Further, the free, playful associative structures, which supply formal intelligibility between the various phrases of Octopus, situate it in the neighborhood of wit, and mesh well with the more explicit humor found in the repeated use of surprise and with the choreographic choice of “funny” actions. Combined, Dunn’s choreographic intelligence and wit make Octopus a truly joyful work.

Noel Carroll