on a field"
A lot was going on before the performance of "figures on a field" officially began. Several performers were out in the lobby, mingling with the audience, and continued doing so inside the theater, until a few moments before they assembled on stage. One of them, Kacie Chang, was looking for intrepid volunteers to sign up for the "guided tour" that would be part of the event.
Also part of the preliminaries (or had the performance actually begun the moment we started assembling in the lobby?) was the striking image that was the first thing one noticed on entering the space: Dean Moss appeared to be climbing the back wall, taking steps up a series of small ledges built into a rectangle of white brick. Calm and focused, he maneuvered up and down as though this was a normal everyday activity. Also drawing the eye was a small video screen hanging above the space in the downstage left corner, which presented a mesmerizing sequence of miniature dancers' bodies, tumbling downward in freefall. Tiny and numerous, they resembled insects as they seemed to scuttle and tumble through their descent.
Advance information on "figures in a field" referred to the connection that Moss felt between visual artist Laylah Ali's work and his own performance work. They embarked on this venture with the intention to "translate Ali's imagined scenarios from painting into real-time performance." Clearly, not being familiar with Ali's work, which was featured at the 2004 Whitney Biennial, put me at a disadvantage. Descriptions of her work, notably the "Greenhead" series that particularly inspired Moss to create this performance piece, refer to cartoon-like figures, implicit violence and disturbing impulses, as well as exploration of social and racial identity.
Moss certainly incorporated these aspects into "figures on a field," which included sequences of startling cruelty and aggression. Most striking, and visceral, was the one early in the piece when six of the performers started throwing red rubber balls—the kind we all used in gym class backing school days —at the rear wall and also at each other. This choreographed game of dodgeball. They did not hold back, throwing the balls with full force at one another. One slight women was hit in the face and seemed to have really been hurt. She registered the pain but continued to participate, but then shortly afterward went and stood facing the rear wall for a brief time. It was hard to tell whether this "time out" was improvised or planned. The intense brutality of this "game" was hard to watch, Gradually the ensemble stopped throwing the balls, held them and stood, catching their breath and creating a momentary lull.
Soon after this episode, Chang— a model of neat, efficient propriety, looking a little too neatly put-together and tightly-wound—invited those "who had signed up for the guided tour" to come forward. For much of the rest of the piece, she led the five audience members who joined her on a "tour" mostly around the perimeter of the white stage floor, occasionally and briefly entering into the performers' territory. Moss' idea seemed to be to blur the line between an audience at a staged performance and an audience at an exhibition or installation, and the casual presence of the performers in the theater prior to the show was presumably part of this concept. But the presence of the five observers, moving from place to place on the periphery, did not really impact the way we saw the performers from the audience, other than to make us aware that they now had others observing them up close. Chang, in her role as tour guide, spoke to them in quiet tones and she led them around, and snapped a few group photos as well.
Meanwhile the drably dressed performers—with Moss sometimes among them— continued their uninflected series of confrontational and competitive encounters. Two of them placed their balls inside the backs of their shirts, creating a hunchback look, and then linked up to form slightly grotesque, Pilobolus-like shapes. A woman angrily slapped the floor with a belt, creating loud, ominous sounds. In a dim area at the rare of the space, Moss placed nooses around the necks of three of the performers. Later in the work, some performers dragged the limp, corpse-like bodies of others, until gradually a pile of "corpses," with limbs splayed out, was assembled.
One respite—a moment of what seemed like uncomplicated physical beauty— came when five performers launched into a slow-motion race, leaping as well as running, their legs slicing through the space and their bodies passing through moments of suspension. They then froze in their on-the-run position, hopping on one leg. Suddenly, the grace and expansiveness were contracted into a more abrupt, awkward type of momentum.
It was right after this section that Chang, ever the officious guide, announced the end of the tour, asking her charges "if you have any questions" before sending them back to their seats. And it was her task to also, rather abruptly, announce to the full audience somewhat later," that's all we have for you this evening." It was an indication of the unsettling and unpredictable nature of Moss' work that many were not entirely convinced that it has reached a conclusion, and only after a while did people start leaving their seats. What we had seen was vivid, but there was also an inconclusiveness and discontinuous quality that made this "ending" feel imposed. Despite strong performers and Moss' evidently serious and intelligent intentions, "figures on a field" felt incomplete and fragmentary.
The program will be repeated May 12-14.
Photo on front page: Pedro Jiménez & Okwui Okpokwasili by Dean Moss