Cynthia Oliver's BOOM! and Dean Moss’s johnbrown

Performance Review by Barbara Browning and Tara Willis


Dean Moss’s johnbrown and Cynthia Oliver’s BOOM! were staged in New York City in October 2014, the former at the Kitchen and the latter at New York Live Arts. We were both present at both of these performances, and, knowing that W&P would be publishing this special issue, we were struck by the significance of female youth and intergenerationality in both productions. We decided to have a conversation.

BB: Tara, I remember somewhat awkwardly blathering to you shortly after I saw you at Cynthia Oliver’s performance about some of the points of connection I saw between that piece and Dean Moss’s, which we’d both seen shortly before. The awkwardness I felt was that superficially, they were really such radically different kinds of projects. Retrospectively, we picked up on questions of intergenerationality, but Dean’s was based on a signal US historical narrative, and incorporated actors representing John Brown and Frederick Douglass, while Cynthia’s was very intimate, immediate, and derived from the bodily experiences and personal interactions of her and dancer Leslie Cuyjet. Still, Dean’s piece also accessed personal history, and Cynthia’s could be read as commenting at times on racialized and gendered political identity – and both moved, at times, through movement passages of such abstraction that no clear narrative – either personal or historical – was presented. We both attended the talk-back at Cynthia’s show, where she explicitly took up the question of abstraction – in fact I think you asked her about it, didn’t you?

TW: Cynthia brought up the question of “abstraction” herself, but I think I asked her about how her apparently abstract choices – stillness and silence in the flow of otherwise constant motion and sound – seemed to create complex rhythms that developed, sustained, and shifted in a kind of punctuated flow. To me Cynthia and Leslie [Cuyjet] were deep in an investigation of unison as a means to hold their own difference and sameness at once – as an intergenerational pair, as brown women with Caribbean–American backgrounds and a mentor/mentee relationship that’s also a friendship, as stand-ins for each other, like the same woman at different times in life but also individuated by being on the same stage at once. Like watching a train move along its course. They literally moved close together through space and went through similar experiences even when apart. The moments of drastic shift felt not only like they changed the situation for the rest of piece, but like they broke in, indented the basic flow and inserted structure. Or broke out. Looking back at my notes, Cynthia talked about abstraction in terms of a relation to the audience, as a mediation between the performer’s performance and the viewer’s experience of it. Abstraction as a mystery in the movement, but also (as I understand it) a mystery the audience might also bring to the table in their distance from the material. Maybe as a relationship to narrative or content that is obscured. I think they played and worked in a space that held a lot of specificity but also dug into the structure and movement from an oblique angle. The vocabulary induced our response – audience laughter, whistles, egging on – and brought us familiar gestures and attitudes, but slipped around constantly. It kind of washed over or through their bodies but also traced a trajectory through the piece that held them as themselves. In the talkback Cynthia divulged some of the story that got them to the final piece, but part of the mechanism at work was about not divulging, about that play between audience (and self) recognition and an indirect course that keeps going along without necessarily clarifying itself.

BB: That’s a beautiful description of the effect of the piece. It’s true that Cynthia didn’t shy away from indicating some of the recent personal challenges she’s been through that might have informed the dance (including coming through catastrophic illness, and grappling with aging as a dancer), but also said she hoped audience members might bring their own stories to the dance in order to access what seemed to be the bottom line – that sense that life sometimes is going to throw you something very hard to deal with, no matter who you are or how safe you feel. Youth, interestingly, is one thing that sometimes gets configured as vulnerability, and sometimes as a period of a sense of invulnerability. That’s part of why that intergenerational dialogue seems to me so potentially generative in this piece – precisely because it’s one form of difference where there’s no clear top dog. I recently had a drink with a young writer, and I said afterwards to someone else, “She learned something because I’m older than her, and I learned something because she’s younger than me.” It sounds pretty simple-minded, but it’s part of what I loved about that partnering in that piece, and also the way they spoke about it.

TW: And here we are.

BB: :)

TW: To take on what you’re saying from an oblique angle, I was interested in what they said about time in the discussion. The passage of time, the “weight of time” as I think someone put it, stretched on palpably, which is maybe what I was just trying to get at … There was so much repetition and returning to material but with a difference that I was very aware of my own shifting sense of things over the course of the piece. The movement’s effort performing the passage of time itself; the same thing becoming something else or being seen differently even if it’s the “same.” But their quality was one of taking the time they needed to take for what was at hand, in which silence and stillness meant that while “nothing” was happening, everything that came before was still very much happening – all the perpetual rhythm, motion, etc. This is all to say that the structure of the piece performed, without ever saying aloud, what you’re talking about: life going along, throwing things at you, being repetitive and always different. In that structure their sameness and difference, too, could really be in the room at once. An accumulation of experiences. You could say that one of them has “more” of that than the other because of age difference. You could also talk about how they’re going through things – the shape of their relationship as shaped in and shaping the dance – together. They talked about how the moment when they hug, when the light shifts over them for a long period in stillness, is something that can’t be rehearsed. They can only really do it in the context of what comes before and after. It’s so literal, but for me it also went somewhere else — we know exactly what it is, as in what it looks like, but what is it really? It’s a whole host of things, but it became not just a recognizable action or image, but also an experience of watching two people lump their bodies together, throw themselves toward each other, hold on, and care for each other. Rather than me naming it as it happened, I was just there sitting with it. So I guess I got off track. But there’s something about doing together – they create experience together even if their experiences are different. There’s no clear top dog, and in choosing to dialogue or move together at that moment they are making their vulnerabilities and invulnerabilities accumulate at the same point. On another note, there’s always a handing over by the choreographer of something to a performer: even though they perform together and much of the material was probably arrived at collaboratively, there’s Cynthia handing the piece over to Leslie’s care in a way. The position that seems to be about having authority is also relinquishing.

"BOOM!"; Leslie Cuyjet & Cynthia Oliver / Cynthia Oliver
"BOOM!"; Leslie Cuyjet & Cynthia Oliver / Cynthia Oliver

BB: Yes, I agree entirely. That hugging passage was astonishing, because it was simultaneously loving and irritable – there was this swatting away of each other’s embrace, even as they were clinging to each other. It seemed like a way of acknowledging all the complexity of both intimacy and artistic collaboration. Care (your word, and the right word) is what seems most powerful – but they didn’t back away from the difficult parts as well. In regard to the question of youth, and intergenerational intimacy, Dean’s piece took a more extreme approach. In some of the interviews that took place around johnbrown, he was asked about the five teenage “production assistants” that intermittently moved through the action on stage. There was one young “performer”, Julia Cumming, who was billed as such (she enacted, with a nearly naked and flower-bedecked Moss seated at her feet, a passage from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and later sang one of her own indie-folk compositions), but the other girls were, Moss says, instructed not to perform, but to move props, observe, and generally be present throughout. It seems he wanted the audience to be aware of them watching the action – which would “frame” our own experience of what was happening – an often confusing amalgamation of historical moments, media, and, at one point, languages (perhaps the most opaque moment was a seemingly impassioned monologue in a Scandinavian language, with no explicit relation to the various narratives of the evening). What was your sense of the girls’ place in – or outside of – the action?

TW: Yes, a frame … And they created a whole substructure of action that was easy to forget about as the performance unfolded, but became the only remaining thing at the end. Their first big moment of action was setting up the little fake grass area for the tableau that Dean and Julia sit in for the Uncle Tom’s Cabin scene, the one where Little Eva is about to die and she’s telling Uncle Tom she sees heaven. In retrospect I can’t help thinking, here we go again, we can’t stop performing Uncle Tom’s Cabin on repeat in this country. The show is full of iconic narrative references tangled together in different ways. Some very lucid, nearly symbolic moments, but they constantly fall away from legibility, sometimes through intense layering, sometimes through diversion. I thought it was interesting that this heavy tangle came into being most clearly when the young girls came onstage near the end – right before all the performers, who have kind of inhabited separate, overlapping worlds, come together to sweep back through the show on compact, chaotic repeat. Before that happens, the girls who have just been moving stuff around onstage – “not performing,” as you said – come on with chalk and set the scene for that chaos by writing hurriedly all over the floor, covering it with text. But their scene-setting this time was for me an intense performative moment: these young bodies hard at work with backs hunched over in silhouette, with the footage of actors playing Frederick Douglass and his white second wife making out in the background. The net of text they produce then gets marched all over by the other performers. But earlier, they sat on the ground playing the audience for Julia Cumming’s song … about teen desirability … which cuts through the debate Frederick Douglass and John Brown somewhat comically, somewhat creepily have (onscreen) about marrying teenagers. I don’t know, are they actually, or secretly, the piece? In some ways the last moment made me feel that they were. Like the whole artifice of layered sections and scenes was actually a vehicle for them to be left out, serving the show, and then suddenly put front and center.

BB: I have to say that I wasn’t at all sure what to think of their presence – particularly in relation to that wacky video (the text was by Thomas Bradshaw, but it was shot by Moss). In it, Frederick Douglass berates John Brown for his salacious appetite for young girls. But the final tableau, I must confess, was deeply moving to me, and felt like a tremendous relief. The show ended with the girls seated mid-stage, apparently talking about banal things, oblivious to the narratives both personal and historical that had been slopping all over that floor. Some reviewer said their oblivion gave you hope for the political future, which may sound problematic, but I understood what the reviewer was getting at …

TW: They are in the dark though. In this blue light. I looked at a video to remind myself that footage of the Supremes is projected behind them, singing “Somewhere,” with Diana Ross vamping about “love” and “coming together as one,” or something. They cut out the sound before the song really gets going though, and basically you just have this close up of Ross, and that smile-singing she does. So there’s this saccharine thing happening in the back, cut through with stripes of black like all the projections in the show – maybe the stripes of the US flag? Maybe just blocking our ease of viewing/reading/meaning-making. And the dancer who’s almost a John Brown figure, with beard and all, is on stage. The girls clean up the mess around him – setting the stage again, or breaking it down – and gather at his feet, and then he leaves. I had forgotten that. There’s one article about the piece that describes John Brown as “looming” over it. He certainly does that here, though the performer is kind of crumbling or writhing from the inside. His figure dissipates. When he left, I agree, it was a relief. And Diana Ross disappears. And maybe being in the dark, and then the silence, with the girls’ quiet whispers sounding out, is actually what’s needed. It’s different from when Julia temporarily interrupts the video of these two “men” debating who’s worse or better, right or wrong about teenage girls, about ending slavery, etc., to assert her song by/for/ about teenage girls. This final moment doesn’t demand attention; instead it is slowly set up and then takes over, rearranging our understanding of what’s come before. I felt they had a great deal of privacy for a group of girls sitting center stage, and I felt eager not to interrupt it. They’ve been asked to sit quietly and just get their tasks done for so long.

BB: Dean says that he wanted the production assistants to be “girls of color.” It’s unclear how they themselves would identify, racially. In a piece that foregrounded this country’s racially complicated history, they were both central to and, as he put it, the frame outside that story. It’s an interesting question he seemed to want us to have in mind: what might they make of all this? Maybe it’s more important than what we make of it. But I can’t help wondering, also, what they might make of BOOM! … Or this conversation. Maybe we should send it to them.

from Women & Performance 25.2—Texting Girls: Images, Sounds, and Words in Neoliberal Cultures of Femininity