Camille A. Brown & Dancers – MR. TOL E. RAncE

Photo: C. Duggan

I had always thought that I would be fantastic at voguing—I love to dance in clubs. That should be good training, right?— A couple years ago, I took a voguing workshop from master instructors Archie Burnett and Brahms “Bravo” LaFortune and thought: Finally, my moment has arrived. Each class culminated in the whole group striking a dozen poses facing enormous mirrors. Archie would shout categories like: BANJI, BODY BUILDER, COUTURE.

In the first days of the class, when Archie would yell, POSE, VOGUE, I would bring my lanky body to a punctuation at the precipice of poise. Inside myself, the affective reality of hitting those poses felt exactly like what I thought vogue was all about. I felt I was pronouncing my body’s raw glamorous being. My body asserted: STOP, LOOK, YES, THIS. I just can’t emphasize enough how right the intuitive approach felt.

I know a lot of people have the opposite instinct, but when I’m in a dance studio, I’m never compelled to look into the mirror. So it took me a while to bring my gaze into the echoing wall of reflections and realize I wasn’t really voguing the way the people who looked like they were voguing vogued. What I was doing looked more like pausing…

The poses that actually looked good—you know, those poses that were categorically appropriate to the dance form that we were learning—those poses felt burningly awkward, like a shoe on the wrong foot. I always jutted out my hips the wrong way relative to my shoulders— Damn you gendered embodiment, foiled again, I can’t believe it!— After a week, I had figured out how to make a couple acceptable approximations of voguing poses. They all were utterly unintuitive and alien, but they worked. Or they werqed. And they worked. They passed, barely.

Why did I assume that feeling of empowerment inside would correspond with the same external reading? Why would a relatively normative white man presume himself to be a natural at embodying a form defined by queer, transgender Black and Latino dancers?

Early on, Camille A. Brown’s ensemble piece MR. TOL E. RAncE employs a snapshot choreographic technique somewhat comparable to vogue posing. I caught maybe half of these references: video vixens, gangsters, minstrel characterizations—moments somehow stemming from a popular media collective consciousness, or things we’ve seen on TV screens.

Act I is gloriously unendurable, flying through a boisterous arrangement of movement vocabulary culled from centuries of African American social dances (See: Buck, Wing and Jig, Thomas DeFrantz). In the course of a condensed, calorific quarter hour, the seven-strong ensemble dances breathtakingly hard. This was the strongest section of the performance for me, when incredibly talented and articulate performers saturate us with a mass of implications.

Ten minutes in, it’s humid in my shirt. Because I don’t know if I should be bobbing along to all the grand piano, stomping, clapping, hollering. My date isn’t bobbing. But she’s more political than I am. But is it better not to bob along? Is it more right of me as an audience member? These performers are clearly having fun, to a certain extent. This is fun, right? We’re all having fun together? But who is this for? Am I royalty here in this minstrel indulgence? Fuck. Or, conversely, have the performers taken ownership of me in our dynamic of captivation? Like it or not, I’m infected by a softly tapping toe, though its rhythm is set off by a conflicted resistance. This worrying ticklishness is good. I don’t know if we can assess the damage from our implication in racism without destabilizing the functional callus everyday self interest insists upon. This is something live performance can achieve, good.

I’m not convinced that the rest of the performance developed anything I didn’t get most forcefully in these first moments. I guess I found it sufficiently alarming to see those dancers hitting those poses to such great effect. I’m scared by the complicity my recognition entails, but also riven with the wonder of the live performer exceeding representation there in front of me. I’m watching for the cracks in the generalized subject of the instantly recognizable typecasts. I preferred how Maria Hassabi‘s SoloShow took up a similar formal inquiry around body image representations. That performance has endured for me in large part because of its challenging use of extended duration. I am deeply suspicious of the entertaining clip and endlessly excellent musicality of MR. TOL E. RAncE, but the examined prejudice of my critical bent does nothing to discredit what is overall a powerfully resonate and vital work.

Andre Lepecki wrote a brilliant series of blog posts briefly critiquing semiotics in dance performance:

Let’s remember that communication theory presupposes the existence of several stable entities that must all be in place and functioning in order to guarantee the smooth transmission of something called “a message.” These stable entities are: an emitter, a signal, a channel, a code, and a receiver. For any successful communication to take place both emitter and receiver must share a code – this sharing is the only guarantee that a signal (pure abstract physical impulse) can be converted (or translated, or concretized) into a sign (a signal imbued with signification) expressing a meaning.

The question that’s most pressing to me is how the performs and Brown herself relate to the stability of their productive bodies (emitters in the framework above)? The legibility of these dancers oscillates wildly between the monstrously communicative assumption of an overly identified body—the inhuman efficacy of the symbol—and the excessive potentiality that bleeds ever beyond the superbody-cum-symbol. How that tremendous back and forth was steered in the overall composition of MR. TOL E. RAncE left me upset.

What feels half addressed is how this dance performance relates to the apparatus of entertainment it calls into question. The fact that the performance itself is relatively easy to attend to would seem to defang the critique it instigates. In the end, doesn’t it reenact the transgressions it laments? Are we to believe that the interior experience so defiled by these stereotypes is held in reverence through a marketable modern dance counterpoint? Personally, I really don’t know if we can articulate an effective critique of oppressive structures in a performative language complicit with proscenium entertainment. This is why the obstreperousness of the dim and screeching Miriam,by Nora Chipaumire, struck such a chord with me. What in MR. TOL E. RAncE’s movement vocabulary or tenor of composition ultimately doesn’t defer to the sovereignty of a sickly exploitive market of spectacle?

[Honestly, maybe it’s there, and I just didn’t see it. Feel free to comment.]

Yes, mainstream media presents archetypes we repeat, emulate, call into question, subvert. What’s left too undone for me is what this mainstream dance production’s strategic response is to the terribly reductive essentialism of entertainment.

-Robert Tyree

Broadly related:

  1. Camille A. Brown and Dancers at the Joyce Theater – Gia Kourlas, NYTimes.com (2012)
  2. Camille A. Brown & Andrea Miller at the Joyce Theatre, Jeremy M. Barker, Culturebot (2010)
  3. Camille A. Brown’s gripping dance of racial stereotypes, Nim Wunnan, Oregon Arts Watch (2012)
  4. Conversations Without Walls: Reflections on Some sweet day, Danielle Goldman, Judson Now (2012)
  5. The Perfect Dance Critic, Miguel Gutierrez, Movement Research Performance Journal (2002)

MR. TOL E. RAncE was presented in Portland, Oregon December 6-8, 2012 by White Bird Dance

3 thoughts on “Camille A. Brown & Dancers – MR. TOL E. RAncE

  1. “Why would a relatively normative white man presume himself to be a natural at embodying a form defined by queer, transgender Black and Latino dancers?”

    Hello Robert! I hope your life is well. The rhetorical question above implied to me a distanced objectivity, which is not a voice I think white cismen can use when discussing race and power in modern America. Too often privileged speakers use the same genteel intellectual reserve to avoid facing the truth of oppression and appropriation in our society. I love that you’re asking political/social questions and I think you’re asking good ones; I still encourage you to root your analysis within your personal lived experience.

  2. Hi Alex! I really appreciate your comment. These writings are always a bit hacked together just due to the time constraints of the weekend run turn over, and I hate how much I have to leave ideas inadequately developed. I halfway see your supportive point, but I want to understand it more.

    For me, that little story at the beginning is exactly a gesture toward rooting analysis in personal experience. I was thinking of explicitly including this quote from Miguel Gutierrez, but ended up just linking to his short essay as an endnote: “The perfect dance critic discusses the implications of the different cultural representations of gender, race, sexual orientation or class in the work. The perfect dance critic acknowledges his own cultural position when addressing these issues, and how that cultural position may shape his feelings or responses.”

    Is it the device of the rhetorical question problematic? I get from your comment that I’m sidestepping answering that question I pose, and that could be construed as a technique of avoidance. It’s the distanced objectivity that’s problematic, yes?

    Thanks, friend!

    1. Precisely the rhetorical comment device, I think it’s too open-ended. I see a parallel with the piece (that I have not seen, that I see through your eyes) where the door is opened but the author declines to take me outside–but I know my own path and am curious how a guide would travel. I have felt queer/dysphoric/free within dance, I have participated in appropriative dance classes, I am white and present as male; I’ve never had much chance to discuss these experiences or hear others’ narratives.

      From a distance your personal experience seemed to anticipate the problematic nature of Ms. Brown’s loaded semiotics–two artists moving through different fits, grappling with the existence of an obvious right answer, always running the risk of simply enacting without challenging. I’m reminded of Amy O’Neal’s Ciara references from the Sunshine benefit, although I personally didn’t find racial commentary to be a central part of Ms. O’Neal’s piece.

      In your review, I think your critique of the piece is that its “code” was ambiguous, enabling you to receive the transmission one way, your date another, another viewer another. My confusion that I don’t know enough about you as a receiver to distinguish you from the code you received. Does that make sense?

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