Training the anti-spectacular for Ralph Lemon's dance that disappears

In fall 2010 choreographer and visual artist Ralph Lemon presented his first large-scale performance project in six years. Cajolingly titled How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere?, the work was constructed in four parts: three to be viewed consecutively on a proscenium stage, and one to be viewed differently, as a day-long projected light installation, sometimes later on the same stage, and sometimes concurrently at another location. This paper primarily concerns the second of the evening-length performance’s three sections, which Lemon assigned the semi-private title “Wall/Hole.” “Wall/Hole” was the product (or anti-product) of two years’ intermittent but fierce workshop experimentation by Lemon and his cast of six. The instigating proposition, as Lemon articulated it to the cast, was to create a dance of “no form” and “no style”—a “dance that disappears” (Profeta 2008–10). Thus, if it rose adequately to this impossible challenge, the work would resist being choreographed, structured, remembered, or even seen beyond its instantaneous expression in the moving present. I intend here to explore the implications of Lemon’s challenge, both to his cast—Djé djé Djé djé Gervais, Darrell Jones, Okwui Okpokwasili, Omagbitse Omagbemi, Gesel Mason and David Thomson—who spent two years training an unrepeatable and allegedly unviewable event, and to the viewers, to whom Lemon extended the ambivalent invitation to spectate the anti-spectacular.

Lemon and the cast’s research for “Wall/Hole” departed from where Lemon’s previous full-length work for the proscenium stage, Come home Charley Patton (2004) left off. Patton included a harrowing solo for Lemon: a re-imagined buck dance executed, to the best of his ability, within the blast of a real fire hose. This stage event was a nod to a landmark moment in American Civil Rights history, the merciless 1963 hosings of African-American student protesters in Birmingham, Alabama. Within that larger reference Lemon paid specific tribute to one anonymous young man who, in full view of the television cameras, had braved the onslaught by playing within the water stream that nevertheless knocked him flat again and again (Eyes on the Prize 1987).

Lemon’s staging of the violent breakdown of an already fraught historical step soon segued into a three-minute structured improvisation entitled “Ecstasy,” which concluded the evening. Here Lemon’s cast of five (four African-American, one African) attempted to stage their own breakdowns as liberations from the body—perhaps violent, perhaps transcendent,

Ralph Lemon in “Sunshine Room" section of How Can You Stay . . . ?, narrating footage of 2004’s “Ecstasy.” Photo Cameron Wittig, courtesy of the Walker Art Center] , McGuire Theater, Minneapolis, September 22, 2010.

or quite possibly both. It was in part an expression of solidarity with the violent history of Civil Rights referenced by the fire hose, and in part an attempt to break through, furiously, to the present and beyond, towards a highly uncertain but potentially ecstatic future. As Lemon later put it:

After all the digressions into its particular matters of American culture and race, the end of my 2004 performance work Come home Charley Patton was an attempt at, a beginning glimpse into, some kind of liberation. A breaking down of an empirical dancing body and theater. (Lemon 2010).

For Lemon this final section of Patton, which pushed the dancers to their physical and emotional limits and courted some kind of transcendence, was alluring in large part because he didn’t yet understand it. So four years later, in 2008, he contacted the cast of Patton1 and asked them if they wouldn’t mind reconvening. As Lemon’s long-time dramaturg, I also got a call. Lemon told us he was interested in revisiting precisely the aspect of “Ecstasy” that was a corporeal breakdown, a loss of familiar form and style within a turbulent burst of energy, and, most importantly and quizzically, a dance that could and would “disappear.” He proposed extending the Patton improvisa-tion from 3 to 20 minutes, as long as the cast could do so without injury. They expressed incredulity, called him crazy in some combination of jest and earnest, but returned to the rehearsal room in the days to come.

Work in those early days, when it wasn’t devoted to the simpler task of re-learning the structured “Ecstasy” improvisation of 2004, focused on the proposition of a dance with “no style.” One technique was to have performers improvise alone in sequence, with the other collaborators observing, and then follow each episode by discussion of what in that improvisation had seemed to assert “style”—understood as movement that was easily repeatable, or recognisable as part of a larger category. Ultimately, Lemon told them, “I don’t want to be able to describe it” (Lemon, personal communication, 11 June 2010). Each discussion of that which was describable was followed by an invitation to the same performer to go at it again, simply (yet not-so-simply) avoiding all that had just been spoken aloud. Thus these first forays operated subtractively, with the assumption that in training out all impulses not belonging to the work, a desired remainder would be created or revealed. This model was useful for a spell.

It was soon apparent that these new explorations had to preserve the continuous movement and relentless tempo of the earlier “Ecstasy” improvisation. The realm that Lemon was imagining was not possible unless the body moved faster than the mind could think, and the performer was able to get lost within a momentum that hurtled beyond conscious control.2 The How Can You Stay . . . ? performers adopted and discarded much language over the course of two years, to try and shape this aspect of the work without overly defining the range of responses. The word that ended up sticking more than all others was “fury”—understood not as anger, but as the speed and turbulence of a natural force, such as a hurricane. Gradually the cast adopted fury as the work’s “engine”—in other words, while fury would not itself be the goal, it would be the condition for the work to be realised. In their notebooks they glossed the word fury with such phrases as “chemical body,” “pursuing the questions,” “wild joy,” and “the imperative to move continuously and at a chosen high speed” (Profeta 2008–10).

Near the close of the initial August 2008 workshop, Lemon asked the cast, who by that time had recaptured the structure of 2004’s “Ecstasy” from the video, to try and repeat it under the influence, as a drunk and/or stoned dance. And so one evening in the studio, after some sober discussions about preserving physical safety, the cast ritualised the process of becoming un-sober. Each brought a regulated and/or controlled substance to share, and after partaking they threw themselves into the task, inviting the loss of conscious regulation and control, in front of the similarly altered choreographer and dramaturg and the unaltered lens of a video camera. They departed from the re-learned version of “Ecstasy,” moved into a developing new improvisation dubbed “Activation,” and then continued into uncharted territory, with bodies looser, intentions shifted, and—most noticeably on the documentary video that survives as an imperfect testament to the experience—a very different sense of time. Under the influence, the performers’ investment in any given physical investigation seemed to expand, demanding substantial duration to properly unfold. Yet when they were finished with an investigation, the end was blunt and simple, not attenuated.

This experiment was a dead-end in the research—at least in a literal sense. Lemon wasn’t interested in following the Wooster Group’s lead and setting an altered-state improvisation as subsequent choreography.3 Nor was he interested in getting the dancers drunk at each and every eventual performance. But he was interested in how the experience would frustrate the performers’ sense of physical control—giving them a direct experience of that zone where “they diligently want to follow the rules but can’t” (Lemon 2010)—and frustrate his own sense of compositional, directorial control. Experiencing the falling apart of any residual structure was part of learning how to let the dance “disappear.”

After the subtractive approach to finding “no-style” had diminished in usefulness, the cast began searching for imaginative hooks, ways to substitute a “yes” for a “no” in the fury of the moment. Two cast members (Darrell Jones and Okwui Okpokwasili) and I had all at one point spent time on Min Tanaka’s Body Weather Farm in Hakushu, Japan, training in Butoh-based techniques. I brought in old notebooks and began to share some keywords and methodology from Body Weather image work, specifically those which ask the performer to experience their physical body as inhabited or impacted on by the irresistible forces found in wind, electricity, water, animals. The cast divided into pairs, with one performer feeding images to the other. They layered those images as meditations on top of the already familiar “fury engine,” using them to break patterns additively instead of subtractively, and surprise themselves in mid-motion. The approach to the chosen images soon veered away from anything Tanaka would want to claim as his own, but what remained indebted to his training practice was the basic tool of the paired improviser and collaborator-witness, with that witness offering imagery and side-coaching in the moment.

The ‘Wall/Hole’ development process: Darrell Jones. Photo Antoine Tempe ́.
The ‘Wall/Hole’ development process: Gesel Mason and David Thomson. Photo Antoine Tempe ́.

Rehearsals continued intermittently through 2009, in bursts of gruelling labour divided by long spells apart. The work admitted no “marking” or “breaking down,” and thus the only way to rehearse it was to do it full body, full time, full throttle. The cast debated the question: how does one rehearse productively for a dance that disappears? How to avoid making the same mistakes over and over; how to evaluate and encourage “progress” when visual standards and a repeatable finished product were not the point? Perhaps either no training was possible, or the training was in fact all there was.

A key element in the all this research was its substantial duration, courting exhaustion in both performer and (eventual) onlooker. Thus the mental and physical stamina required for duration presented themselves as the few elements that could be reliably isolated and trained. In the summer of 2009 Lemon developed one exercise that required the cast to repeat a single distinct movement for 2 hours straight. In spring of 2010 he similarly asked cast members to define for themselves an individual project and execute it, whatever it was, for 12 continuous hours. In these instances the internal experience of that practice, the meditative and/or consciousness-shifting aspect, was the point and thus the focus of all subsequent discussion. Meanwhile, knowing the planned “Wall/Hole” section would last 20 minutes, Lemon made sure the cast was working towards the physical capabilities needed for 20 minutes of sustained fury.

In the summer of 2009, performer Darrell Jones made a key shift in his thinking about the rehearsal process. His concept of how to rehearse for a “dance that disappears” left the aesthetic realm, where it was perhaps doomed to failure anyhow, and entered the athletic. He began wearing a heart rate monitor to rehearsals and charting progress based on a numerical visualisation of his effort—he wanted to know “with this disappearance we’re working on, how much energy am I putting out?” (Jones, personal communication, 30 Oct 2010). He trained in the gym outside of rehearsals, elevating his heart rate to 160, then 170, letting it drop and then building it back up again. And, as he recounted later on, there was an element of subversion in his new approach:

There’s something in this about control...I had a sense that although these improvisations were unrepeatable and uncontrollable, there were still bodily things like heart rate and breathing that were within my control. And these particular things within my control were not visible to Ralph. So here were things I could control that he could not erase, as he would with anything that was recognizable and visible to him. (Jones, personal communication, 30 Oct 2010)

The rest of the cast adopted elements of Jones’ new approach, though no one else went so far as to wear the monitor in rehearsal. Gesel Mason began spending time on the treadmill outside of rehearsal, pushing her heart rate above 165, then dropping it down to 140, then seeing how fast she could get it back up again. “That kind of pushing felt familiar to the piece,” she later remembered. Knowing her body would be expending all this effort while moving through destabilising positions, she would use the treadmill in “funny-looking ways,” such as “running sternum up to the ceiling” (Mason, personal communication, 30 Oct 2010). Okpokwasili and Thomson used aerobic gym equipment as well. As Okpokwasili put it:

There’s a little bit of fear for us, every time we start “Wall/Hole.” Maybe this time you will hit the wall and not be able to find the hole through. It helps for me to be going to the gym so I don’t have to fear the exhaustion, which will happen anyway of course, but it won’t be as scary. (Okpokwasili, personal communication, 30 Oct 2010)

Yet this approach, as with so many other rehearsal room discoveries, was extremely useful at one point and later downshifted in value. Jones remembers when he realised that the heart rate monitor was starting to get in his way—around the same time the group started using Albert Camus’ depiction of Sisyphus as an inspirational image, with an emphasis on Sisyphus’ happiness in the midst of eternal toil, that joy springing from his aliveness to each and every moment (Camus 1955). Jones then began to experience the numbers on the monitor as a barrier to that direct experience of the present. He wanted to learn how to feel the difference between 160 and 170 in his body without needing to read anything. Training with the heart rate monitor allowed him to notice subtle differences in the sensation of effort, but once that sensitivity was achieved, the actual monitor and numbers were impediments and needed to fall away (Jones, personal communication, 30 Oct 2010).

The process of working on “Wall/Hole,” continually discovering and then discarding clues to its execution, was all-absorbing whenever the group reconvened. The thought of what all this effort would become on eventual stages, on the other hand, was discussed but often deferred. In early 2009 Michael Blackwood shot a documentary entitled New York Dance: States of Performance, using footage from Lemon’s rehearsal room and an interview conducted by Gia Kourlas. As Lemon smilingly explained to Kourlas:

I wish I had the courage to work for another year or a year and half on this and to at some point say “I’m not going to put it on stage, I’ve decided not to do that.” To cancel all its engagements, to give back all the money that people have. . .or, no, just to keep the money people have given me for this part and say, we’re done! (New York Dance 2010)

At this moment in mid-process Lemon, whether or not in complete earnest, was publicly attacking the spectacle of his work from two directions. On the one hand, as he assured Kourlas, he really wished the work had no outside audience. On the other hand, he was repeatedly assuring the cast that he wanted to make a “dance that disappears”—so even if the outside audience did show up, there might not be anything visible left to spectate. Lemon resisted the concept of spectacle such that both terms of the transaction—audience and dance, spectator and spectated—were under attack.

Of course insofar as to spectate is simply to view, Lemon’s anti-spectacular stance was impossible. Every day in workshop rehearsals he was viewing the performers’ irreducible physicality, and making decisions about how to encourage or dissuade them based on that view. Yet there must be a particular kind of viewing, and a corresponding kind of performing-to-be-seen (not to mention consumed), that we associate more with the term “spectacle” than other kinds, and that kind was what Lemon was attempting to resist.

Lemon’s resistance had a long history, it didn’t just spring out of nowhere. And one component of that history involves resistance not just to making a spectacle, but to making spectacle “of one’s self”—in other words, the spectacle of identity. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, in Lemon’s career prior to the Geography Trilogy he was more or less allergic to performing the version

Walter Carter. Photo Ralph Lemon.

of himself he imagined his audiences wanted to see. This was not unrelated to his position as an African-American performer dancing in front of majority-white audiences, and his understanding, real or projected, of the assumptions those audiences might have of him. He wasn’t interested in performing his identity in ways his audiences might anticipate. At a 1991 talk-back at Jacob’s Pillow, he explained:

I think there are maybe certain expectations that certain people have for me as a black performer that I am not really interested in fulfilling [. . .]. I’m very afraid of exoticism. I’m really trying to keep what I do on another level that you can’t quite pin down. (Lemon 1991)

Subsequently, Lemon’s Geography Trilogy was in part a reversal to embrace and grapple publicly with questions of his own identity—racial, cultural and religious—but on his own terms, still maintaining that desire to operate on a “level you can’t quite pin down.” Thus his goal was to somehow make a spectacle about identity without making a spectacle of himself. To compound matters, he ended the Trilogy declaring “there’s a good chance that this love/hate I have for the stage is the primary fodder for my identity as a performer (Profeta 2005, p. 28)—so an ambivalence about performing-to-be-seen had become a key part of the identity he nevertheless performed.

Lemon’s concern with the spectacular nature of his life’s work incorporates the particularities of racialised viewing and simultaneously extends into questions of the nature, possibilities and limitations of performance. This ontological interrogation has only become more relentless with time. Its intensification can be traced back to the counter-memorials and other para-theatrical performances that served as Lemon’s research for Patton, enacted with limited or no audience in charged historical sites across the American South. More recently the interrogation extended to Lemon’s collaborations with a 100-year-old African-American man, Walter Carter, at the latter’s home in Bentonia, Mississippi. Carter, who makes an appearance on film within How Can You Stay...?, foregrounds by dint of his age the way all of us are in the process of disappearing. He performed simple yet arcane tasks after Lemon’s instructions, but after his own manner as well. With Carter, the act of performance constituted the relationship between the two men: how it was expressed and how it evolved. And yet although no one else watched them in the moment, there was no perfect resistance to spectacle to be found here either—Lemon videotaped most of these actions, and thus the potential, or threat, of future viewers was always present.

Lemon’s research, both with Carter in Mississippi and with How Can You Stay...? performers in workshop studios across the United States, certainly fits within an evolving tradition of experimental performance that values process over visible product. Relevant comparisons include work from Deborah Hay, or from Jerzy Grotowski with Thomas Richards, or from within the Ankoku Butoh movement. It was no accident that Lemon’s collaborators thought to bring information about Butoh techniques into the rehearsal room: Tatsumi Hijikata, coiner of the phrase Ankoku Butoh4 and a primary instigator of that movement, repeatedly used the term Butoh to designate an existential stance rather than performing art form, and declared that “dance for display must be totally abolished” (Hijikata 2000, pp. 39–40). What is more, as Nanako Kurihara (2000, p. 25) has summarised, Hijikata “ambitiously attempted to erase the body and go beyond it, beyond anything with a material form.”

In the work of Hay and Grotowski/Richards the performers’ duty to their internal experience is similarly elevated, and their responsibility to an external image correspondingly either de-emphasised or negated. Hay bases a large part of her process on meditations which eventually inform, after a long exploratory period, the performance output. As she puts it, “part of the practice is that there is no one way that the meditation looks” (Daly 1999, p. 16). Many of these meditations ask the performer to consider his or her body as constituted by its approximately 75 trillion semi-independent cells, and that cellular focus is just one example of how Hay focuses the performer’s training on an order of reality unavailable for spectatorship (at least by the naked eye). Often Hay records her dances in scores and libretti, which set down the motivations, images and impulses of the performer(s) in choreographed sequence, and purposely do not set down the way the dance appears.

Jerzy Grotowski, who always held the rigour of his performers’ process in highest regard, offers perhaps the most extreme examples of rejection of audience. Hijikata and Hay, however much they have avoided “dance for display,” have still depended on the moment when the performer “invites being seen” (Hay’s term) to activate the liveness and ritual of the event. Hay, with her characteristic playfulness, might even cycle through various modes of “dance for display,” acknowledging and spoofing them in brief. On the other hand Grotowski, notably in the “Paratheatre” and “Art as vehicle” stages of his career,5 experimented with work where the only observers were participants, and the work could only be witnessed from within. In discussing the difference between his “Art as vehicle” and his previous work for an outside audience, Grotowski explained, “In a performance, the seat of the montage is in the perception of the spectator; in Art as vehicle, the seat of the montage is in the doers, in the artists who do” (Grotowski 1993, p. 122). The “seat of montage,” a filmic metaphor, indicates the location where, through juxtaposition and connection of impressions over time, the meaning of the work is assembled. Thus for Grotowski, and Thomas Richards who took up his work after his death, this work can only make meaning through how it is done, never through how it is seen.

When artists such as these discard or disregard the spectacular aspects of performance, what are the consequences of that decision for performers, both in rehearsal/training studios and in front of eventual audiences? Based upon my experiences of working with Lemon and his cast, I can think of four key ones. One, the most basic and crucial, is that the group of people creating the performance shift from thinking of the visible aspect of the work as its primary product to thinking of it as a mere side effect. Next is that the visible side effect does not declare itself as reliable or perfectible—since the visual is not the goal, it does not admit standardisation or evaluation. New language, new techniques, must be discovered to discuss events in the rehearsal room, which do not base themselves on assessment of the visible side effect—and if this task of non-visual assessment is ultimately impossible, one still hopes it will be fruitfully impossible. Next, since the line of sight of an audience member, real or potential, no longer holds any special importance, the space of action changes, to become spherical and multi-directional.

Lastly, the role of choreographer as author is diluted and de-emphasised. This is true of course with any structured improvisation or collaborative process, but here the effect is augmented by the fact that as the perspective of an outside viewer lessens in priority, so must the perspective of any author who views from outside. Lemon still had an authorial role insofar as he was the one convening these experiments and determining their parameters, but his cast sometimes laughed at him for giving notes based on his external view even as he assured them that their inner experience was primary. In Blackwood’s documentary the camera captured a representative moment where Gesel Mason, after finishing an exhausting improvisation with Lemon’s side-coaching, lovingly yet emphatically gave him the finger (New York Dance 2010).

Lemon’s foundational assertion that he was trying to make a “dance that disappears” and “has no form” was, again, an impossible task: the dance does reflect light and is expressed through irreducibly human forms. After a short time watching improvisations with an eye to naming and stripping away all “style,” one realises the stylistic inevitability of having one head, one torso, two legs and two arms. And yet the work did manage to approach its own disappearance in the sense of seeing and form as conducive to understanding, seeing as in “aha, I see.” If seeing and formation describe the process of placing visual stimuli into a framework of understanding, and if seeing and formation describe what is necessary for memory and retention, then this movement had its moments of disappearance, if only intermittently. When I observed this work at its best, particularly over long duration, I experienced an intoxicating difficulty holding on to any of it. It operated like quicksilver.

Of course all performance participates somehow in this ephemerality. Peggy Phelan describes live performance as “plunging into visibility—in a maniacally charged present—and disappearing into memory, into the realm of invisibility and the unconscious” (Phelan 1993, p. 148). Lemon’s movement research for How Can You Stay...? reads well against this quote, particularly the image of the “maniacally charged present,” which seems to get at the inspiration for the fury of the improvisations, as if they were an attempt to fling the body headlong into an instant of pure presence.

But Phelan then describes a disappearance “into memory,” while Lemon and the cast were attempting to court a more complete disappearance. The viewing of dance conventionally requires the viewer to retain mental images of some brief coherence, with each impression held long enough to compare shapes across the visual field, and compare recent past to new present. The viewer then makes use of that evolving narrative of spatial and temporal comparisons to file the past within longer-term memory.6 But by coaching the performers to avoid shapes and patterns they recognised, and avoiding the kind of compositional markers that an audience uses to aid in seeing the choreographic present, Lemon attempted to negate even these brief impressions. When it worked, it meant the movement lived only in the present, and landed very minimally, if at all, in the public’s memory banks.

How Can You Stay . . . ? forced its audience to shift to another way of watching, else suffer the fate of boredom or anger, which is absolutely the risk this work pushed up against. From the earliest attempts to show it to outsiders in workshop showings, we discovered that this work could not shy away from that effect in order to have any shot at reaching its full potential. Feedback from audiences indicated that many people hit a point of frustration, taking quite personally Lemon’s resistance to making a spectacle. Some walked out when they realised the work was not going to relent. Others made a choice to stay and engage the work on less familiar terms. One blogger, calling “Wall/Hole” the “formless dance” section, commented “it’s hard to pay attention to this movement,” finding it strangely both “exhilarating and tedious” (Vitiello 2010).

The majority of audience members made the choice to stay, and in so doing had the potential to break through their initial frustration to a new way of watching, to what André Lepecki (2006, p. 63) has called “a new regime of attention.” Lepecki uses that phrase in discussing the effect of stillness in the work of Jerome Bel, while in How Can You Stay . . . ? Lemon’s cast was propelled into constant motion. However, these seeming opposites are actually quite analogous in how they demand patience to let an experience extend without imposing or requiring dynamic shifts. And in both instances if an evolution occurs, it is located not so much inside the work as in the space between the viewer and the work. Reviewers, instead of devoting extensive passages to formal, visual description, wrote about their own journey through the experience. They characterised the work as an invitation to engage an “exquisite and challenging puzzle” (Kiley 2010), or an opportunity to find oneself “in an essentialized position to have to deal with the moment” (Vitiello 2010).

As Lemon put it, speculating before the premiere: “there may be a point where a witness stops watching, can’t see the material thing anymore” (Lemon, personal communication, 1 June 2010). And in articulating what might happen after materiality disappears, he suggested that perhaps the conventional one-way transaction of visual information could instead become a two-way exchange, something “more sensorial” (Lemon, personal communication, 11 June 2010), based on perceptual tools less verifiable, and more subtle, than optics.

Thus far this description and analysis has covered the development, training and performance of the movement of “Wall/Hole,” the middle section of How Can You Stay...? However the first section, though in many ways independent, was instrumental in shaping how the second part could be seen. Entitled “Sunshine Room,” this initial 20 minutes took the form of a film screening, with Lemon sitting comfortably in a white plastic chair alongside the projected image, offering live (though scripted) commentary. He spoke directly to his audience while showing footage from his research over the previous six years. Thus one of the potential solutions Lemon offered to the conundrum of the anti-spectacular dance was first to expose the rehearsal room to the eyes of the public.

In “Sunshine Room” Lemon also introduced his audiences to a crucial piece of context not yet mentioned here: the state of grief. Alongside the carefully and selectively exposed rehearsal room footage, he carefully and selectively exposed his personal life, to a degree he had never done previously in a work of art. He narrated the prolonged ailing and eventual death of his romantic partner, Asako Takami, who passed away in November 2007 (a little less than year before rehearsals for How Can You Stay . . . ? began).7 Within the context of that acute mourning, Lemon’s subsequent research into the furiously moving body trying to will itself to disappear revealed a new resonance. The performers’ bodies in “Wall/Hole” were Lemon’s body; their painful flailings surrogates for his own. In the mind of the mourner the past is gone, the future is gone too, all that exists is the painful now. One cannot imagine an external audience standing outside that pain. The subjective experience of grief, then, is absolutely anti-spectacular.

If the mourning context was exposed by the opening section of How Can You Stay...?, the transition out of the “Wall/Hole” section stripped it completely bare. Lemon followed the furious 20-minute tangle of spinning, hurtling bodies with a clearing and an empty proscenium—but instead of calm, the air was soon filled with insistent wails, audible from just offstage right. Slowly, after uncomfortably long minutes had gone by, the sobbing Okpokwasili stumbled into view, yet kept her back to the audience for the duration. After inviting the audience to spectate his anti-spectacular dance, Lemon invited them to listen to what is often unlistenable. Once again a performer served as a surrogate for Lemon himself, and yet Okpokwasili’s choking grief, with its disturbingly familiar ebbs and flows, also belonged to the universe—to everyone and anyone who was willing to recognise it as their own.

The crying section, which lasted approximately eight minutes in public performances, was similar to the “Wall/Hole” movement section in that it resisted any form of rehearsal that was not a full repetition of the event. It could not be “marked” or approximated, for fear that something alive in it would deaden. It could not even be performed full-out too frequently, for the same reason. Instead, Okpokwasili focused her training energies on the compilation of an elaborate and perpetually-unfinished “crying book,” which she would pore over backstage in ritualised preparation for the crying. Her book was pasted full of photos and stories, gathered both from worldwide traumas that had caught international attention and exquisitely private griefs confessed in interviews with Lemon and other members of the How Can You Stay...? team. The crying book served as Okpokwasili’s protection against the fear that one day “I would cry all the tears that I have,” and a guarantee that at each performance she would be able to access something that felt like “the weeping of the ages” (Profeta 2008–10). Meanwhile, whenever the crying section was required for a runthrough or technical rehearsal, the sound operator would play back a recording of the wails of a previous performance and Okpokwasili would stumble obligingly to the correct spot onstage, headphones jammed into both ears, her iPod blasting full volume so as not to hear herself.

Long before the spine was cracked on Okpokwasili’s crying book, the dramaturgical research for How Can You Stay . . . ? had included a number of anthropological reports of mourning. A 1993 paper by Lila Abu-Lughod about wailing women in a Bedouin community held particular resonance. Abu-Lughod’s contacts discouraged her from attending funerals, telling her: "it’s an ugly sight".

In public performance: Omagbitse Omagbemi surrounded by David Thomson, Gesel Mason, Darrell Jones. Photo Dan Merlo.
In public performance: Darrell Jones, Omagbitse Omagbemi, Gesel Mason, Djé djé Djé djé Gervais, David Thomson. Photo Dan Merlo.

In other words, it would be a spectacle in the most negative sense, one they warned could make her physically ill. Yet within this Bedouin community, women do routinely gather and support each other in longstanding rituals of wailing, which may also include tearing of the clothes and throwing dirt on one’s head. These women are condemned if viewed by those who prefer the guidelines of Islamic orthodoxy discouraging “extravagant shows of grief”—those viewers are usually, though not always, men. Abu-Lughod’s paper crystallised the extent to which “spectacle” lies in the eye of the beholder. If the woman wails within a community of women who share her grief, the act is seen as proper. But if she wails in front those who share another “discourse on death,” she breaks a code and makes a spectacle of herself (Abu-Lughod 1993). Whether or not the wailing is felt from inside, by the wailer, will not prevent the wrong audience from disparaging it as spectacle.

Likewise, Lemon’s performers were able to do much to avoid the practice of “performing-to-be-seen,” but less to make the viewed experience, when eventually it was viewed within the predetermined proscenium frame, anti-spectacular. Ultimately that was not their choice, for spectacle as “mere spectacle” is not found in what a performer does but in how an audience watches. And, to borrow a distinction articulated well by Tim Etchells, the crucial question is whether viewers view as spectators or as witnesses. In Etchells’ (1999, p. 17) words, “to witness an event is . . . to feel the weight of things and one"s own place in them, even if that place is simply, for the moment, as an onlooker.”

And thus Ralph Lemon, in his guise not as performer but as the perhaps-reluctant framer of a visual experience, admitted that with this last work he was, for the first time in his career, doing his utmost to influence the experience of the audience. The irony here is that in having first rejected the visible forms of the work as a standard for evaluation, having rejected all the familiar ways in which a performer performs-to-be-seen, but at the same time not having been able completely to reject all outside viewers, Lemon ended up thinking even more about an audience. Perhaps he would rather not have invited those anonymous viewers into the room, or was playing with the idea that he might not. But once he decided not to revoke their invitation, he could not ignore them. He was, by his own admission, “trying to manipulate” his audience for the first time (Lemon, personal communication, 2 July 2010). But it was not an attempt to manipulate them within form as much as an attempt to manipulate them out of form, to usher both performers and viewers into a meditative and highly individual zone that would remain beyond his choreographic control. Ultimately Lemon and the cast were not trying to frustrate audience members by presenting them with a dance that had already disappeared; rather they were trying to share with them the experience of witnessing something disappear—a dance, a person, a moment.

And so what were the implications for training uncovered by this dance, that never did successfully disappear, yet was always disappearing? The distinction between rehearsal and performance had certainly collapsed, such that the addition of an outside audience to “Wall/Hole” did not significantly change its nature. There were certainly more witnesses present at its public performances, but as the cast already served as powerful witnesses for each other within the entire process, the difference was of degree and not kind. Once the category of “rehearsal” had disappeared, resorbed into a long chain of private and unrepeatable performances, the only remaining aspects of training were those actions which supported, without at all resembling, the labour of performance. Jones’ experiments with a heart-rate monitor, Lemon’s assignment to execute any one single action for 12 hours straight, Mason’s funny-looking postures while running on a treadmill, and even Okpokwasili’s careful compilation of her crying book all represented parallel training, undertaken for the most part outside the rehearsal room and “off the clock,” to support the daily performances within the rehearsal room that had become so compelling as to become an end in themselves.

References

Abu-Lughod, L., 1993. Islam and the Gendered Discourses of Death. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 25 (2), 187–205.

Aronson, A., 1985. The Wooster Group’s “L.S.D. (. . . Just the High Points. . .)”. The Drama Review, 29 (2), 65–77.

Camus, A., 1955. The Myth of Sisyphus. In The Myth of Sisyphus and other Essays. trans. J. O’Brien, New York: Knopf.

Daly, A., 1999. Horse Rider Woman Playing Dancing: Ann Daly Interviews Deborah Hay. PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, 63 (21:3), 13–23.

Etchells, T., 1999. Certain Fragments: Contemporary Performance and Forced Entertainment, London and New York: Routledge.

Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1954–1965 [DVD], 1987. Produced/Directed by Judith Vecchione. Alexandria, VA: PBS Video.

Forsythe, W., 2009. [Online spoken commentary]. Synchronous Objects. Available from: http://synchronousobjects.osu.edu. (Accessed 18 February 2011).

Grotowski, J., 1993. From the Theatre Company to Art as Vehicle, trans. T. Richards,

M. Moos and J. Grotowski. In T. Richards, At Work with Grotowski on Physical Actions (1995). London and New York: Routledge.

Hijikata, T., 2000. Inner Material/Material, trans. N. Kurihara. The Drama Review, 44 (1), 36–42 [Original published 1960].

Kiley, B., 2010. The Beautiful and Baffling Ralph Lemon. The Stranger, 23 Nov. Available from: https://www.thestranger.com/seattle/the-beautiful-and-baffling-ralph-lemon/Content?oid=5623778 (accessed 29 November 2010).

Kurihara, N., 2000. Hijikata Tatsumi: The Words of Butoh. The Drama Review, 44 (1), 10–28.

Lepecki, A., 2006. Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movement.

London and New York: Routledge.

Lemon, R., 1991. [Talkback]. 9 August concert at Jacob"s Pillow, Becket, MA.

Transcribed from video at New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dance Division.

Lemon, R., 2010. Sunshine Room. New York: Cross Performance.New York Dance:

States of Performance [DVD], 2010. Directed by M. Blackwood.New York: Michael Blackwood Productions.

Phelan, P., 1993. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. London and New York: Routledge.

Profeta, K., 2005. The Geography of Inspiration. PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, 81 (27:3), 23–28.

Profeta, K., 2008–10. [Rehearsal Notes, How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere?].

Vitiello, C., 2010. Ralph Lemon: The First Night. The Thread: Duke Performances’ Blog, 7 Nov. Available from: http://thethread.dukeperformances.duke.edu/2010/11/ralph-lemon-the-first-night/ (accessed 10 November 2010).

Wolford, L. and Schechner, R., eds., 1997. The Grotowski Sourcebook. London and New York: Routledge.

Website of the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards, c. 2011. Available from: http://www.theworkcenter.org (accessed 15 February 2011).


  1. The cast of Come home Charley Patton was five plus Lemon. The cast that Lemon originally reconvened in August 2008 was composed of those same five. A sixth performer, Omagbitse Omagbemi, was added in January 2009, when Lemon realised that the physical demands of the work made it wise to have more than the minimum required number of performers in the cast. Of course, Omagbemi soon became indispensable, and then we wondered whether the show could ever go on without six. Luckily, at the close of How Can You Stay...?’s touring life in late November 2010, the cast had experienced minor injuries but never one that required a performer to miss a show.
  2. This was certainly work that pushed up against the realm of trance or possession, without sharing the specificity of established cultural and spiritual context that trance and possession normally participate in. Lemon had a long history of inquiring about trance traditions in the intercultural collaborations that made up his previous Geography Trilogy (1997–2004). One of the dancers in How Can You Stay...? was Djé djé Djé djé Gervais, a West African dancer from Cote d’Ivoire, who had also been part of the first Geography cast. In 1997, Gervais had initially refused to bring any trance-related material onto the proscenium stage for fear that it would be too dangerous. But by 2004, with the “Ecstasy”  improvisation for Come home Charley Patton, Gervais had decided he could make a reliable separation between the trance behaviour he knew as an initiate at home, and the kind of exploration that Lemon was asking him to undertake in rehearsal rooms and on stage (Gervais, personal communication, 14 July 2007).
  3. The reference is to the third part of the Wooster Group’s L.S.D. (. . .Just the High Points. . .) (1984), in which director Elizabeth LeCompte, in attempting to “disintegrate” a known scene, had the performers carefully re-learn, from videotape, a performance of that scene they had given while on acid (Aronson 1985, p. 73).
  4. Usually translated from the Japanese as “dance of darkness.”
  5. “Paratheatre” describes the period from 1969 to 1978 when Grotowski announced he was done with duality of performer and audience, and began experimenting with performance as generative of states of communion within a single group of participants. “Art as vehicle” describes the period from 1986 to the end of Grotowski"s life in 1999, and continuing via his collaborator Thomas Richards, where performers are invited to work long term on ritual actions intended to transport them to another level of perception. Outside observers are only occasionally invited to witness, usually as part of some sort of performance exchange (Wolford and Schechner 1997). Since 2007 the Workcenter founded by Grotowski has created the “Open program” to run parallel to the “Art as vehicle” research and focus on how elements of that work might be shared with outside audiences (Workcenter website 2011).
  6. For instance William Forsythe’s exhilaratingly complex choreographies build on these classical principles of how we read dance, even as they challenge them. In his spoken online commentary on One Flat Thing, Reproduced (2000), included as part of the Synchronous Objects web project, Forsythe describes reading his choreography as the process of reading “alignments” across space and time, creating a type of visual organisation the spectator ultimately finds satisfying. As he puts it, this counterpuntal organisation gives even a non-narrative work “a narrative quality...you watch the emergence of patterns and relationships” (Forsythe 2009). Lemon’s “Wall/Hole,” while it may share a certain turbulence with Forsythe’s One Flat Thing, Reproduced, represents a fundamentally different approach to the creation of a dance—where Forsythe challenges but engages these principles of choreographic legibility, Lemon declares them irrelevant.
  7. Takami was a performer in Tree (2000), the second part of Lemon’s Geography Trilogy. She was a Japanese woman who had gone to great lengths to learn the Indian dance form of Odissi, eventually becoming a master performer. Although Lemon’s quest for a disintegration of choreographic form had begun long before Takami’s passing, the contrast between the highly formal beauty of her chosen dance style and the violently anti-formal movement investigations he pursued How Can You Stay . . . ? is both instructive and poignant.