Review: Alessandro Sciarroni at TBA Festival/PICA

Alessandro Sciarroni
Will you still love me tomorrow?

Time Based Art Festival
Portland Institute of Contemporary Art
September 11, 2015

FOLK-s began with the house lights on and the stage dark. Although I could barely see the outline of the circle of dancers on the stage, I could clearly hear them. They were stomping and slapping out a short looping rhythm.  That rhythmic phrase, with small variations and occasional pauses, would repeat relentlessly for over two hours in a test of both audience and dancer stamina.

In the program notes, director Alessandro Sciarroni says that FOLK-s “came to life while thinking about ancient folk dances as popular phenomena that have survived contemporaneity,” in particular the Schuhplattler, a “typical Bavarian and Tyrolean dance,” featuring little hops, kicks and body slaps. The dance featured a vertical torso and only changed level in one move: a deep lunge followed by a slap of the ground. Five of the six dancers wore contemporary clothes (shorts, Tshirts and sneakers), but one (Sciarroni himself?) wore a costume reminiscent of old-time Bavaria: Lederhosen, suspenders and a jaunty little hat like the one Max (the amoral presenter) wears in Sound of Music.  The ghost of the original context of the dance was present in the dance itself: the gesture of hooking thumbs into imaginary suspenders.

For the first hour, the dancers repeated the Schuhplattler in countless spatial configurations: grids, circles, diagonals, small subgroupings.  They always danced in unison, although lone performers dropped out occasionally for single units of the phrase (if they had messed up or were choreographed to do so was unclear). Faced with the unceasing minimal content, I filled in references: River Dance, Lucinda Child’s Radial Courses, hopscotch, fascism, aerobics.

Much of the action happened in silence, but periodically, a dancer would walk to the side of the stage and cue a few minutes of driving electronica. Sciaronni’s program notes talked about how “the folk and the popular, abstracted from their original sonic matric…fuse with the contemporary condition, perpetually fighting for their survival.” Indeed, the electronica drowned out the onstage body percussion. But when the electronica ended, the dancers kept going.

At the beginning of the dance, one performer broke away from the action to make an announcement: They would do the dance until they could not do it anymore, and we would watch until we couldn’t anymore, and if they or we decided to leave, there would be no coming back. The first performer to leave was the man in traditional dress. About an hour in, he picked up an accordion and walked to the middle of the stage. The others stopped to watch. He opened and closed the accordion without playing any notes, making it breathe without melody.  It was a lonely gasping sound. Like the decontextualized dance, it was form without content.

The accordion player then faced upstage to begin a long backward walk away from the dancers and toward the audience.  I thought of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History:

His face is turned towards the past…He would like to pause for a moment…, but a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned….That which we call progress, is this storm.

Walter Benjamin, Theses on History,  section IX (1974).

When the accordion player finished walking downstage, he removed his accordion, set it in the middle of the stage, placed his jaunty little hat on top of it, and left the stage for good.  The dancers resumed their repetitions, dancing around his ghost.

Another hour went by. More nonstop Schuhplattler. I turned to my companion and said, “Does it ever end?” He answered, “I think they go as long as they can.” The dancers’ form began to decay. Arms flailed. They stopped hopping and did only the arm gestures.  They dropped out of the rhythm, only inserting a gesture here and there. Swaths of the audience left. Finally, one at a time, the dancers too began to leave. It was unclear if they were choosing to leave because they were tired or if their exits were choreographed. Finally only two dancers were left, shirts dark with sweat. Very slowly, holding up their imaginary suspenders, they walked toward the audience and stopped.

What is the point of plucking a dance from a historical mountainside, processing it through the panoply of spatial iterations, and plopping onto a bare stage at a contemporary arts festival?  Actually, I felt the point quite forcefully. This was no longer a participatory ritual, but steps executed under command for a paying crowd. And yet. My empathy for the dancers made me a part of the dance. Stripped of its original cultural context and repeated to the point of madness, the dance became an exercise in watching others suffer.  But were they suffering? The rhythm was precise, but the execution was personal.  The dancers’ affect was human, not mechanical.  They smiled at each other often. They seemed to be enjoying themselves.

One choreographic response to the weight of dance history is to stop moving altogether--to retreat into stillness and concept (raising the question of what makes nonkinetic dance nonetheless choreographic).  FOLK-s, however, is an explicit conversation with history that does not retreat from physicality. Through dogged repetition, it frames dance as both exhausted and exhausting.  It was a more human, poetic version of Relative Collider, by Liz Santuro and Pierre Godard, which I saw at the 2015 American Realness Festival, and which featured the cold-blooded execution of a handful of short pedestrian phrases in endless permutations determined by computer.  Notably, FOLK-s and Relative Collider--work that strips cultural identity from dance--appear in festivals like Realness and TBA alongside work steeped in identity politics. What do these two streams of work reveal about each other?