Three responses to Maureen Whiting’s ‘Burden of Joy’: Cunningham, Goidell, Mattingly
On May 21 2015, Maureen Whiting showed a work in process called “Burden of Joy” at SAFEhouse. Alma Esperanza Cunningham, Hillary Goidell, and Kate Mattingly share their reflections on the work.
Alma Esperanza Cunningham
As I walked to my seat, most of the performers were visible, sitting and watching. Maureen was hovering over white fabric that looked like bedding. Her eyes set to the audience.
There was some walking, some holding of objects and some eye contact between performers. Then the group gathered quietly as a member broke into a highly aerobic jazz dance routine to the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”. I didn’t expect that but I loved that it happened.
Maureen goes on to tell us where her grandmother and mother were born and where they died. She tells us the story of a bear that was “shooed” away from her grandmother’s cabin only to be shot by campers and finished off by a ranger. There is talk of a horse. We watched the performers take on these animal creatures that seemed to be shadows of past and present. Of the unresolved feelings and images that haunt us after something traumatic has happened.
Compelling moments included realizing that a performer lay beneath that white fabric and then watching the performer emerge like a shaman rubbing her chest and making sounds or the dancer as horse who bit into Maureen’s arm as she walked in circles. And then there’s the moaning. The sensation of watching a grown woman hunched over moaning so deeply was profound and disturbing. Was she giving birth? Was she dying? Was she the bear?
Maureen’s authority and commitment to her process connects everything. So much investigation and it shows. No trends, tricks or pretenses. It was powerful to watch.
Throughout the piece the performers seemed to regularly change planes, moving fluidly from real to imaginary. From the four dancers as a group circling with grounded presence, they break off into what seem like tableaux of memory: here a horse’s leap, there a bear claw. The dancers often shadow each other in duets. Not quite alter egos, more like mental projections of Maureen’s story.
Having photographed the performers during rehearsal, I had seen only parts of the piece. My view was partially eclipsed (or magnified?) by the camera. As an audience member during the performance, I felt the bigger context and found characters developing and relationships forming. Moving from plane to plane in my own mind and with the dancers, I saw Maureen as a protagonist with Belle a companion in her story–girlish? growing and morphing like a totem? Meredith danced an almost ghostlike, prowling counterpoint and Motoko beat the primal time. Did Ezra’s presence alternate between antagonistic force and comforting partner?
There’s a tiny lobby space at SAFEhouse (formerly Kunst-Stoff) where audiences sometimes gather before being invited up the stairs to the studio/theater space. I remember standing there until about 8pm last Thursday when we told to come up to the 2nd floor. The contrast between the tight, noisy foyer and serene, spacious upper level was striking.
The studio floor was strewn with material: I remember leaves and red boots, the tiny piano, a miniature easel and brush, and what looked like a large white rock but turned out to be one of the performers (Motoko Honda) buried under a mattress cover.
Maureen Whiting was lounging in this space, watching us enter, and seeing each person as we took our seats. The atmosphere was serene and expectant. I became acutely aware of textures: not only material but acoustic. This theme of textures expanded as the work evolved with each performer generating a particular movement quality. Meredith Webster was creature-like, moving on tip-toe with extended limbs that suggested the locomotion of a praying mantis. Ezra Dickinson was more internal and pensive, placing the red boots on his hands and then his shoulders as if exploring where these “appendages” belonged. Belle Wolf was riveting as a free-spirited and expansive performer. Maureen seemed like a narrator or facilitator, sometimes speaking while others moved or cueing a phrase of lunging steps that repeated until the cast was visibly and palpably exhausted.
Textures of sounds, of breath, of steps, of props, of relationship.
Maureen told us autobiographical stories that involved bears and horses, and these creatures seemed to linger in the space after the stories ended,
visible in flashes of a step by one of the performers, or percolating as traces.
The melancholy of the stories foregrounded ways in which feelings, especially loss, can tear worlds apart. These sensations seemed to extend into, propel, and become tangible through the careening and off-kilter movement. When elements of the performance come back to me they are like images of landscapes inhabited by creatures and sounds: Motoko creating a pulsing, scraping rhythm as she circled the space or Ezra gently writing on the small easel. His words disintegrated and disappeared, erased as the performance continued, but lingering in memory.
This layering of presence and absence made the performance both evocative and poignant, tapping into what it feels like to endure, to encounter hardship, to persevere against and with borders and barriers.
Maureen Whiting’s work will be a part of Hope Mohr’s evening, ‘Bay Area choreographers at the intersection of language and choreographic thinking’ on Nov. 8th, 2015 at 7pm.