The way that a performance piece is archived in the memory offers a piece to evolve long after it has been released by the artist. What about pieces that one has never experienced first hand? What happens when one allows a piece to culminate through their imagination? Artist, Allison Wyper does just that in her fictional first-person accounts in response to 3 one-to-one performances by women. Over the next 3 weeks, The Present Tense will be featuring these writing on our archive in 3 parts. Enjoy!
The following first-person, performative text is an excerpt from a paper called “Always wanting you, but never having you: intimacy and desire in one-to-one performances by women,” in which I adopt an anxious, self-conscious dream body that can travel through time to experience, through a leap of imagination, the intimacy that I imagine in participatory performances that I have never, and will never, see. These accounts are fictional, but based in rigorous research, including (in this case) personal interviews with artist Julie Tolentino, and with choreographer David Roussève, who attended the performance I describe.
In addition to the performers’ accounts I rely on the accounts of viewer-participants, including critics who reviewed the works, and visitor accounts that the performers included in their own writings. In order to perform a close reading that teases out the precise natures of the diverse kinds of intimacies created by each piece, I rely on my imagination, and my own subjectivity as a theatre, dance, and performance artist, experienced in the one-to-one genre, who is grappling with her own desire for a moment of connection. My ephemerally bodied witness, reporting back through time and space, is a passionate, eager young performance artist, tired of sitting and watching. So when she heard about Julie Tolentino’s performance For You, she was the first to call for an appointment…
I. Julie Tolentino, For You (Participant, Inc., New York, NY, 2003)
The street is icy, with that acrid Lower East Side bite as I rush to make my 4:40 appointment. I called three weeks ago, leaving my name and number with a young gallery assistant. I never received a confirmation—hope she didn’t lose my reservation. I spot Participant, Inc., the site of Julie Tolentino’s For You, and rush inside out of the New York cold. A gallery attendant greets me and asks for my name. I give it to him, a little anxious. He nods–like a restaurant host but without the strained fake cheerfulness—and asks me to wait in the lobby area. I’m a few minutes early. The telephone rings and he leaves the room to retrieve it. Alone, I wait.
Glancing upward I see a plastic slitted curtain, the kind you see in butchers’ refrigerators, loosely lining the entry to an open gallery space. I can barely make out the people inside. Softly, I hear a song I think I know. A woman’s voice trills like a bird. Joni Mitchell, I think. It’s comforting, familiar. I hum along.
I turn toward the sunken “lobby,” a small gallery space to my right. At my feet is a projection of the performance in progress. Every now and again I see a dancer’s body in a loose, white jumpsuit or pajamas drift slightly into and out of the frame, shot, it seems, from above her head. I never see the audience. These glimpses of the performance taking place at this moment are tiny bits of information, meager as the appetizer I had at that trendy Soho restaurant last night. They whet my appetite, not that I wasn’t already excited to see this performance (just for me!) for the past three weeks, but I have no idea exactly how I’m going to be incorporated into the performance.
As I start to imagine myself in that white room, the attendant returns. He hands me a menu of song titles. My first act as a participant in this performance, he explains, is to choose a song for my piece. “Something special to you.” I scan the menu. I know about half of the offerings, and the others I’ve at least heard of. They’re mostly pop songs. Feeling very “New York” today, I select a personal sentimental favorite, Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” A cliché, maybe, but I’m curious how Tolentino will use it. Right after selecting it, I momentarily panic—was that a good choice? Will she be disappointed in me? What will it tell her about me that I didn’t choose something more obscure…?
I hear the murmur of voices and glance up again to the gallery. Tolentino and a middle-aged woman are saying good-bye. The woman pushes her way through the curtain, a private smile on her lips, eyes downcast. As she descends the short staircase, she notices me watching her, and quickly transforms, business-like, into her brusque public self. She nods to me (cat that ate the canary, I think, its as if she’s done something forbidden…), thanks the attendant, and looks at him expectantly. Is there something else to do? Is the performance over? Does she have another role to play? He invites her to leave a comment in the guestbook. The woman, a little disappointed, declines, puts on her wrap and leaves.
I look at the attendant. My turn? He asks me to wait a few minutes more, while they re-set the space. I take a seat and watch the video projection on the floor, where not much happens. I feel as though I’m waiting for a massage or something. It’s as if I’ve made an appointment for some luxurious treatment at a spa—a treat just for me. At the same time, though, I am still a little anxious, not knowing exactly what the artist expects of me.
At last I get the go-ahead. The attendant instructs me to enter and sit in the chair by the bed. There will be further instructions projected on the wall. “Those are for you.” I take the stairs quick and light, and pause just outside the plastic curtain. I draw a breath and push through the clear plastic strips that rattle gently back into place behind me, loosely sealing me in. The room is semi-private, permeable; all white, but not terribly bright; beautiful and spare. A projection on one wall (vague moving lights… headlights?) casts a thin, cool illumination. “THIS IS FOR YOU,” I read on the wall.
As I enter the room, Tolentino lies on a bed, swathed in white sheeting. A small lamp casts a pool of pinkish light her feet. Next to the bed, a plastic chair. I flash momentarily to a hospital scene, a sick ward, a maternity ward. I smell the plastic of the curtain, the chair. Quietly, respectfully, I take the seat next to the bed. The seat of care, I think.
She lies with her back to me. She does not speak. She lies still, breathes, occasionally shifts or moves a bit, never leaving the bed, subtle adjustments, as if she’s listening to me, for several minutes. Eventually…
She performs. And it is for me.
The sheets rustle softly. I sit back in my chair, hands in my lap. I imagine, absurdly, that if I sit back I am giving her more space, though she makes no move to approach me, or even look at me. I sit. I witness. I am quiet by her side. She rolls, shifts, reaches and retracts. Her movement is gentle.
She gets up out of bed, crosses the room, brushing her hair from her face. I let out a kept breath as she moves away, in a mixture of relief and disappointment. She gives her body a loose shake—to wake herself? To warm her muscles? To reacquaint herself with verticality? Her movement is gentle, loose, organic.
A new projection: “VIEWER: SOON, TIME TO MAKE A MOVE.” I sit up. Maybe I get to choose where to sit—how to view the dance. But not now; “SOON.” I relax, wait, watch.
She finds a spot in the corner, left of the projection, and slows down, releases her head so she gazes at the floor, arms loose at her sides, hidden in the very long sleeves of a white lab-coat-style pantsuit. She turns slowly, looking like a naughty child dressed in her mother’s shirt. But she is not a child. She is quiet. Waiting.
“VIEWER: NOW MOVE TO THE CHAIR AT YOUR LEFT.”
I do. Now I am seated on the side of the open floor, nothing between me and her but a few feet of space. She walks toward me, pauses, and begins a new dance. She dances hard. Head relaxed on her spine, her arms swoop and swoosh in big, long arcs, dipping into the floor, then whirling up and around. The kinetic force builds as she sinks and energizes into her movement, opening the room in front of me, charging the large white walls with her long, white-shrouded limbs. I’ve rarely been this close to these large movements when I wasn’t dancing as well. She smells of sweat and Ben Gay. I wonder how sore she is. I wonder how tired she is.
From a soft focus gaze, indirect mostly, but with flashes of directness, she reads me. She takes my temperature with her nearness. She listens for my breath, the squeaks of the chair as I shift, she sees me look for her eyes, she sees me smile, seeking her smile. She dances for me. She dances off me. She gifts me a dance. (Me, a total stranger.) She takes my hand.
“VIEWER: TOGETHER WE WILL MOVE TO YOUR NEXT SEAT.”
She chooses a new place for me, on a different chair. Or perhaps we choose it together, but I admit I am following her lead. The dance is for me, but I still feel like a guest in her home. I sit along the opposite wall, next to a pinkish red theater light. She dances to music—my song, “Walk on the Wild Side.” She lowers her eyes. She dances a memory, I think, a private memory to a shared experience. We share the song, but she has her memories associated with it, and I have mine. We are two different people with different histories, but our histories are linked by this common referent.
She dances in the red light. I hesitate to describe the dance to you now, because, well, it’s private, between her and me. I am overwhelmed with emotion, watching her. My heart catches in my throat. I notice I’ve stopped breathing and gulp in air with a mixture of gasp and sob.
The song ends. We are quiet. I hear her breath, heavy, but steadying. The dance relaxes into an end as she releases it and meets my eyes. She takes me by the hand. We thank one another, and she escorts me to the plastic curtain. I seek her eyes, and we exchange brief, shy smiles. I slip, slowly, regretfully, through the plastic slits, back into that other world, where I will again be no one special. No one out there will dance just For Me.
(For more on this work, see Julie Tolentino’s website at www.julietolentino.com
About the Author
Allison Wyper is a Los Angeles-based interdisciplinary performance artist who creates intimate and one-on-one performances that challenge viewer-performer dynamics and the ethics of participation. Allison has been an Associate Artist of La Pocha Nostra since 2004, and a collaborator with Western Australia’s Hydra Poesis since 2011. Her work has been seen in museums, galleries, theaters, universities, and streets in the U.S., Australia, Canada, and Germany. Her writing has been published by Itch Dance Journal, Platform (U.K), Emergency Index, Whore Magazine and the Center for the Study of Women at the University of California, Los Angeles. More info at www.allisonwyper.com.