March 8–10, 2018
Last summer, I recall reading an article that detailed how couples who live together share communities of microbes. As Aneri Pattani recounted in the New York Times, “each square centimetre of skin hosts between one million and one billion microorganisms,” and bodies living in proximity significantly influence one another’s epidermal ecosystems. Pattani cited co-author of the study, biologist Josh Neufeld: “The most surprising aspect... was that we could identify a microbial fingerprint common to cohabiting couples.” At the time I read this, I had recently moved into a new apartment with my partner, as well as with a close friend, and her cat. Were my partner’s and my own microscopic worlds in the process of collectively reorganizing? And what about my friend and her cat? What kind of interspecies collaboration were our innumerable microorganisms engaged in?
Notions of corporeal plenitude and contingency similarly circulate in the recent dance program Biotic: Three Dances from Life, which assembled Ark and Arche, choreographed by Jonathan Osborn with performer Danielle Baskerville, and Transitional Object, created and performed by Bee Pallomina. As an excerpt from Alphonso Lingis’s Animal Body, Inhuman Face printed in the evening’s program observes, “Our bodies are coral reefs teeming with polyps, sponges, gorgonians and free-swimming macrophages continually stirred by monsoon climates of moist air, blood, and biles.”
In Osborn’s choreography, the moving body is imagined as an inchoate assemblage. The program notes detail that the first work, Ark, embodies 360 distinct animal species, while the last work, Arche, embodies 488. Held together in roughly half-hour solo works, these amassed life forms are inevitably realized as fragments: a momentary unfolding of arms, a shiver that traverses the skin.
The body that Osborn and Baskerville create, buzzing with bits from so many others, calls to mind the monstrous body that philosopher José Gil observes in Merce Cunningham’s choreography. Here, a dancer must move through multiple isolations, contradictory postures, and impossible transitions. “One could even say that to each of the simultaneously held positions made up of heterogeneous gestures there corresponds a different body,” Gil suggests. The result is a virtual body in performance. This is not to say an “inorganic” body, as Gil is careful to note, but rather one that contains all the virtually imagined movements and pathways of so many organic bodies within a single, monstrous, entity. Yet, where Cunningham’s monstrousness emerges from formal intervention into dance’s codes, the multitudinous embodiment of Osborn and Baskerville erupts from their plunge into the gestural and sensual terrain of interspecies entanglement.
Something striking here is how formal, even unnatural, the work appears, while still engaging with what we often consider to be elements of our natural world. Baskerville’s striking bodysuits, made by Alicia Zwicewicz, are almost sci-fi in their shimmering allure, while her wig-switch between the first and second works might conjure the many-tressed Tilda Swinton playing a trio of blonde, brunette, and redheaded clones in Lynn Hershman Leeson’s film Teknolust (2004).
Of course, Osborn’s de-naturing of the natural is fitting, given that the animals his choreography addresses inhabit zoos: the Toronto Zoo for Ark, the Berlin one for Arche. What’s more, this aesthetic treatment might trouble divisions between the natural and unnatural, the human and non-human—binaries that are, as so much scholarship shows, our own imagined constructions.
We can see all this in the dancer’s body, too. Baskerville moves deftly, with a precision equal parts measured and mellifluous. Even as she cycles through hundreds of amalgamated animacies, Baskerville displays virtuosic command, her very human artfulness and dexterity always remaining impressively visible. In Osborn and Baskerville’s choreographic project, then, the work of embodying many sundry species manages to coincide with the performance of a body that is not only single, but also singular in its virtuosity.
In a sense, it’s in Pallomina’s work that the integrity of the human body feels most intensely questioned. Discussing the experience of being a mother while conversing post-show, the choreographer wondered: do I even exist anymore? And while this question is both rhetorical and gently comic, it does seem to speak sincerely to some of what her piece interrogates.
Pallomina’s choreographic inquiries around motherhood and mundanity call to mind a long history of feminist art that mines the poetic terrain of the everyday. We might consider the groundbreaking work of Mierle Laderman Ukeles who initiated the genre of Maintenance Art, engaging, as curators Sherry Buckberrough and Andrea Miller-Keller write, “the physical realities of daily life, from the ubiquitous repetition of labour to the monumental task of waste management.” In a text accompanying the 1998 exhibition of Ukeles’s work as part of the Wadsworth Atheneum’s MATRIX series, Buckberrough and Miller-Keller describe how the artist’s now canonical Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969! worked to “overturn” the avant-garde fixation on “originality” that stood “in conflict with the ethics and the realities of motherhood, which require constant repetition of mundane tasks to support a dependent human life.” Indeed, such necessary recurrences provide important choreographic sources for Transitional Object: one of the recordings we hear during the piece takes place at bath time, and the work ends with a nightly ritual, a lullaby.
The dancer’s body, here, spends a great deal of time concealed by the thing most frequently associated with the work’s title: a blanket. Near the beginning of the piece, Pallomina performs entirely enveloped in fabric. Close to the floor, she moves slowly, gradually—her gestures legible only in the gentle shifting and folding of soft material. Yet it’s not only when the dancer is covered up that she seems to circumvent the audience’s directional gaze. Indeed, Pallomina’s choreography continuously decentres the performing body, which alights to the periphery of both the stage and our vision. In one section, Pallomina sits in a chair placed along the wall of the theatre. She performs a series of repeated tasks: measuring out a length of thread, threading a needle, stitching two edges of her blanket together. Later, Pallomina invites audience members to descend onto the stage and lie down. She will dance us a lullaby, she says. Pallomina proceeds to ambulate with gentle articulations, winding between the outstretched limbs of the audience. And yet, from my new position—back against the floor, gazing up at the Winchester Street Theatre’s lofty ceiling—the dancer’s movements are mostly out of view. Eventually, she shuffles into my peripheral vision, navigating the edges of my sight, before slipping once more into a space I can’t see. At the end of the piece, Pallomina slides just as softly out a corner door.
In both of these “dances from life,” the body in motion becomes multiple, mutable, and maybe most importantly, relative. Quotidian objects, animals, the tasks a mother performs for a child—all this choreographic matter speaks to the embodied experience of “kinship,” a word that has gained traction in academic fields including queer, animal, and anthropocene studies for providing a more capacious way to think about loved ones and families beyond the biological, and beyond the human. What these dance works demonstrate, is that the human body can be both central and peripheral in processes of making and being kin. Amid the virtuosic dancer moving across the stage, and the task-oriented performer at its edge, there are a monstrous number of possibilities for how we might move with the biodiversity of our own bodies, and those around us.