“It is not our abilities that define us. It is our choices” -Albus Dumbledore
A week and a half ago, I went to review a show entitled, ‘Anatomy Is Destiny’ at the Contemporary Art Museum. The idea was conceived by Chicago- based artist Liliya Lifanova, who also designed the costumes for the performers. Choreography was done by another Chicago- based creator, Davy Bisaro, and sound design from Sebastion Alvarez.
Here is the sum up of the work from the program: (prepare to feel inferior)
The title, Anatomy is Destiny, is a direct reference to the psycho-theory of Sigmund Freud, invokes the highly controversial theories that form the foundation of the psychosexual development of young boys and girls knows as the Oedipus complex. This work consists of two components; the installation of garments called The Wardrobe; Game in Waiting and full-scale performance in which performers don the garments and execute the moves of an imaginary chess match between Marcel Duchamp and his infamous female alter ego Rrose Selavy that was envisioned by the artist Arman in 1972.
Do you feel stupid/ impressed by all the name-dropping yet? I wish I could remember specifically what I wore. I remember thinking as I left my house ‘I look really pretentious, trying-to-hard’, wannabe art-gallery-critic, and then thinking upon arrival, ‘Hey, I fit in ok here’. I’m not lying in judgement- I love a fashionable too-cool kind of crowd. But that’s not a circle in which I really think I have a place.
Speaking of fashion, I actually think the idea of each garment restricting the performers in a certain way is perfect for a piece about a chess match, and a very interesting concept. Too bad the restriction that I saw was less about the garment and more about the dancer’s abilities or the choreography that was given to them.
Flat out, I hated every second of the 40 or so minutes I sat trying not to audibly scoff at this ‘work’. It consisted of a tiny stage with a normal checkerboard design (ooo, that’s not literal at all) and a cast of chess pieces in weird white-face makeup wearing whitish pieces of cloth that looked about as designed as the tarp dress that the Seagull designs for Princess Ariel when she first gets her legs. I also didn’t see any way that the costumes, which ranged from unitards to togas, would restrict movement.
Next problem: sound design. There was no music. There was however, an ongoing cat-fight of hissing and barking from the performers. I also noticed the creator sitting in the audience playing some kind of atonal instrument near the end that sounded like a water goblet, like Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality but without the variety of notes or the charming Heidi costume. Also, an unseen person called out ‘Move 1….. Move 2…‘ before each isolated progression of the game. This went on through move 5o, I think. Honestly, I lost track.
I’m torn between the biggest flop being the dance execution or the choreography.
I actually spoke to Ms. Bisaro for about three minutes after the show to say hello, and I’m from so-and-so magazine, and I’m also a dancer, and how did you select this group of performers (and I tried to make it sound like, ‘is this the original cast from chicago that came on tour with you or did you have the challenge of finding a new cast’ rather than why-oh-why did you pick these people?) The cast (as described by her) ‘is a collection of non-dancers to professionals chosen through an open audition.” Professionals? not that I saw. In the few moves that called for dance training, like even a small lifting of the leg or a turn, I saw 99% of the performers with absolutely hideous biscuit unpointed feet, hunched shoulders, and wobbling whenver required to stand on one leg. No no no. You want to talk about restricitons? How about the fact that these people seem to have almost zero dance vocabulary or command of body control.
Honestly though, I blame the choreography and not just because Bisaro was frankly rude and snippy to me after the performance. (I do think it’s strange when choreographers don’t want to discuss their work with audience members, at least for the sake of appearing like you care what the public thinks. Until you’re mark morris, pull out some manners)
It can be very hard to work with non-dancers. But there is plenty of movement that exists within every pedestrian’s vocabulary that can be altered in time, space, and presentation to illustrate all of those concepts in the actually make it something worth watching, and that was not done here. I think that the beauty of a chess match is the tension of who will do what next- who will maneuver around the board to take out a player, who will be sacrificed, who will tea up to make a group attack. There are a lot of possibilities for dynamic of timing, of partnering, of staging and it was just so literally done, complete with hissing and disgusting feet. Boo across the board. the Wizard chess match in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is far more entertaining.
There was a talk with the creator and Bradey Bailey, the curator of ‘Out of the Box; artists play chess’ and assistant professor of art history at SLU- and I recall him saying something about the fear of ‘the concept or progress of the work being better than the result’. Hate to say it buddy, but worst fear realized.
I do not need a beautiful score to appreciate sound design, and I can get into an experimental work. And I do indeed like the idea behind this. It’s hard to say really, what the ‘bare bones’ of a performance is. Is it the concept? The choreography? The performers? What is the most basic element that wasn’t in place here?
Or even in the case of a performer. Myself, I was never a born technician as a dancer. I had terrible turnout, no flexibility, and awful feet when I started ballet. But I could hear music, pick up choreography, and I had natural stage presence. Sometimes it’s the opposite, you get a kid that has the ‘perfect little body’ and no soul or personality on stage. And sometimes you find the lucky and gifted ones that have both the anatomy and the artistry.
Dance is one of those businesses as it is with all athletes where your anatomy really can dictate your destiny. I just the other day had to console a student turned down for the School of American Ballet summer program. I could have told her going in not to get her hopes up. Bad feet. Almost all dancers face physical limitations of some sort; some don’t have flexibility of the muscles, some don’t have hips that open or knees that straighten or have a tough time finding a center and can’t turn. If the selection process for students of dance was here what it is in many places like Russia or china, or in elite schools like SAB, I probably would never have been a ballet dancer. A lot of my natural anatomy goes against it.
I have a friend who is a practising mystic and she was looking at my palm the other day. She says I have an unbelievalby strong fate line. I guess most of my moves are already laid out for me, were I a chess player, or put more stock in the lines in my hand than the lines of my body.
In thinking about the Dumbledore quote from the 2nd Potter film (oh my goodness, TWO potter references…no wonder I don’t fit in with the fashionable cool club) as a dancer, I think it’s a mix of both ability and choices. When you’re a kid and a student, I think your anatomy plays more into potential and opportunities but if you don’t make use of it, then it’s no good, and only choices can dictate that. Or maybe, as in Princess Ariel’s and I’m hoping my case, choices are worth more than what you’re born with. Do you think Ursula trades in bow-legged, slightly hyperextended legs for straight, super-turned out ones?