SHORE: An Invitation
At one point in the performance of SHORE at New York Live Arts, Emily Johnson stands on her tiptoes, raises her arms up and throws her head back, spine arched, and looks behind her, head upside down, as she tries to walk forward. The move is both difficult and mesmerizing to watch, and occurs, I believe, about halfway through the performance. I say “I believe” because SHORE has a dense, dreamlike structure that is difficult to recall in linear time. And this move, a body pulled backwards and forwards, a gaze intentionally flipped embodies the questions that rise up for me as I watch the piece: Can we trick ourselves out of “easy” habits that may be destroying our culture, our earth? What role does community play in the lives of U.S. citizens who have been trained to forge ahead and self actualize? What does it mean to be completely contemporary, inhabiting / inhabited by the DNA of our ancestors? What gymnastic feats are necessary in order to find fresh perspectives / original thought?
In Lenapehoking, SHORE began outside on a school basketball court. As the audience hung out on mats, Emily played basketball with a couple of friends, a band of red makeup across her eyes, evoking a heightened state of ritual: this was not your average pick up game. I watched them play and the rest of the audience gathering, and before I really knew it was happening, sensed dozens of other performers circling me, jogging at an energized pace, one by one leaving the court to begin a slow walk down the sidewalk on the other side of the chain link fence. Emily stood on a pedastal in front of us and told us story about dreaming herself into a tree. As I listened, I turned my head towards the fence and watched Manhattan pedestrians quickly passing the slow-walking line performers – a woman with a baby carriage, a man talking on his blue tooth cell phone. A casual glance, their stride not broken. The tunnel vision of getting where you’re going, of pushing through. The intentional gaze of live performance: see and re-see. Conjure the space. Create the energy.
A bell rings and we are all asked to silently walk to the theater, about 5 Manhattan blocks. The performers line the sidewalk as we make our way – some of them intoning chords, holding the space for us. In the theater, I see Aretha Aoki, one of the three trio of dancers who anchor the piece, dressed in red on stage, with red warrior paint that matches Emily’s and a fake mustache pasted to her lips. Associations begin to fly: The lady in Red. Gender (bending it, playing it, inhabiting it). Aretha’s Japanese heritage (but was she born there? Or in the US? Is she part Japanese?) Aretha as trickster: a mythic creature that causes mayhem in order to bring wisdom.
This dance moved fluidly between small group movement (performed by Aretha, Emily and Krista Langberg) and large group events (performed by the 20 + person ensemble). The image of the trickster stayed with me throughout, for this dance seemed designed to jolt me into new, fresh moments, to keep me in the present. A solo ends, timpani drums begin to play, echoed by the stamping feet of the chorus. A trio of the three warrior women, holding hands, walking slowly, eyes closed. A brightly colored curtain suddenly drops from the sky, a backdrop of a moment of choral singing. A pilgrimage of potted plants, carried across the stage. Emily, dancing as fast as she can, cutting the air with her arms until she is out of breath and close to tears. Acknowledging the paradox: we must stay present, we must engage in the work of repairing, healing, maintaining, nurturing. We must acknowledge our anger during the times when it all feels futile. And yet, in all times, transcendent and excruciating, we live in a community. We are part of an ecosystem. We can say fuck you, or we can say yes, I’m here, I’m with you, a part of you.
Perhaps what I am most struck by with SHORE is the feeling of being invited into an active group contemplation. The experience felt private, but ONLY within the context of being in an audience in a room with these performers. The honesty of the performance pulled me out of myself and into the room. There was no hiding of the mechanics of the performance – costume changes happen in full view, the ensemble never leaves the stage. No mysteries or questions resolved. It was as though Emily said: Here. Here are my free associations on this matter. Oh and by the way? I free associate with my body. I can’t make this easy for you, but I can invite you in, and challenge you, within this community of thinkers, to go deeper when you leave this room. We are all in this together, and we all have the potential to be tricksters. To embrace who we are and where we’ve come from. To actively and joyfully shake up the norm. Shall we?