Jim Self and Friends

Studio Performance

A dancer whose choreography has elements of both Graham’s expressionism and Rainer’s objectivity, Jim Self most resembles those Chicago-area visual artists who use the human body to exhibit metaphors of larger physical or social issues. I am thinking, for example, of Phil Berkman’s work in which props—perhaps broken peanut shells or bits of garbage—are strewn about a performance area and then gradually cleared away. Simultaneously, a personal territory is created and a symbolic form built up which maintains the threat of overcrowding. In White on White, Self and “friends” (Duncan Erley, Donna Mandel, and Wendy Swett) structure space and use materials, but they also define themselves as separate performers and set up several patterns of interrelationship.

Self’s work poses an art-life continuum. The whole performance takes a certain logic from the fact that only certain movements are allowed; but the variety of possible movements and an unpredictable build-up and decline of pace keep any Minimalist schematization from overtaking the dramatic and personal aspects. For one thing, the performance space itself—the floor of Self’s studio—is continuous with the viewer space—rows of pillows and folding chairs along one wall. This nontactile, bare expanse focuses attention on the people. Each performer wears ordinary clothing (tee-shirts, sweaters, pants, and/or leotards); an ever-present “el” train outside the window provides a real-life urban accompaniment; and many of the movements resemble everyday language gestures (touching the mouth, holding the nose, crossing the arms, pointing a finger). Performers often face the audience, bridging public distance, just as they often face each other, bridging personal space.

Although the performance is almost totally preplanned, with room for a few random events inside the structure, the performers come across as distinct individuals. Even those devices which might be expected to neutralize personality actually emphasize it. When one performer mirrors another’s movements (they may be on the same or opposite sides of the space and may move front to back, back to back, or side to side) the focus isn’t on duplication, but rather on the personal eccentricities which make a gesture an individual’s own: no four people shake their shoulders just alike. These mirror movements also act to maintain personal territory—the area within a performer’s vertical and horizontal reach—while contrasting movements create overlapping territories as the individuals revolve around, follow, or cue each other.

Self also emphasizes male and female. He and Erley appear totally dissimilar, whereas Mandel and Swett are both brunettes and have the same hairstyle. In duet, the men rarely touch, retaining separate territories, but the females consistently move as if they were wings of one single, opening and closing form. In a sexual gesture, the men remove material—erasers, paper clips, feathers—from paper bags hooked to each other’s pants and drop the objects to the floor over each other’s shoulders or place them in each other’s bags. On the other hand, the women move head-to-head while walking a circle around the floor; they ’also toss a tee-shirt back and forth and eventually come together, sharing it around their bodies. Occasionally, there are movements which “disconnect” performers: Self pokes with his finger while Erley jumps around to avoid it; Swett stretches in the center of the performance space as Mandel runs in giant steps around its border.

Material objects augment the human-centered focus of this piece by focusing, inspiring, and releasing movement. A stool, chair, ladder, and bench are approached, moved, abandoned. Clothes are peeled off like cocoons to free the wearers. But at the end, objects take over the entire space. Symbolic remnants of human activity—laundry, luggage, bottles, papers, and cans—are spread by the performers, who finally stand inert, isolated amidst the garbage.

A major problem here is the sacrifice of symbolism to storytelling. That physical space may be filled with interrelating movement, or with material garbage which presses out all possibility for future animation—pointing to a moral disjointed from the work’s format. The finale, as it stands, looks like afterthought, an intrusion of raw life, destroying the prior neat balance between metaphor and form.

C. L. Morrison