It’s intriguing and slightly uncomfortable to watch a non-performer take the stage among highly-skilled practitioners. Claudia La Rocco is a critic and poet who has lately forsworn reviewing dance (mainly for the New York Times) in order to collaborate with artists she admires. In Way In, at Danspace Projects through Nov. 16, she joins forces with Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener—members of the final generation of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company—and the production designer Davison Scandrett. The piece is a four-way meditation on its own creation, in which the collaborators’ reflections have been woven into the final product. Among other things, Way In presents a theatricalized version of the act of watching and thinking, which, as a critic, is what La Rocco does. But then, it’s what we all do when we go to a performance. So we are all implicated. We are all Claudia La Rocco.
And yes, for this reason the piece is self-referential and at times self-indulgent. Mitchell, Riener, and La Rocco seem to be in the self-discovery phase of their artistic formation. How could it be otherwise? I can only imagine how paralyzing it must feel to move forward after working with Cunningham, one of the most compelling and conceptually challenging dancemakers of the twentieth century. To develop one’s own artistic identity with the near-certainty that nothing one produces will approach his level of mastery. To break free of his ideas and his approach to the body. The easier choice, by far, would be for Mitchell and Riener to devote themselves to passing on Cunningham’s works and technique to others. They’ve chosen the thornier path.
Cunningham dancers will always look like Cunningham dancers: inhumanly strong, physically articulate, lucid, taut. The moment Mitchell and Riener set their bodies in motion, a powerful physical intelligence blazes forth, blinding us to everything else. To see Riener rise to an impossibly high relevé, on the very tips of his toes—so that he almost seems hover a few inches above the floor—is to wonder at the mechanics of the human body. All the same, as choreographers they’re still feeling their way in the dark, discovering how to put this hard-won prowess to use. What is it that they want to say?
The transition from critic to performer is equally prickly. How does a writer’s intelligence—and La Rocco is a fiercely intelligent writer—translate into the ability to create compelling content, to give free rein to her imagination, to push beyond inhibition? The critic’s function is to watch, analyze, evaluate. In Way In, La Rocco formalizes this internal process, articulating it into a stream-of-consciousness commentary closely resembling a critics’ scribblings: “airplane arabesque,” “too fast for language,” “uses the foot to promenade.” At first, the phrases are divorced from the action, left to stand alone as the dancers do little more than embrace or reach dramatically toward each other from across the room. Only later do we see the actions she describes. When we see them, we remember her words. The descriptions are apt. As with Mitchell and Riener’s technical prowess, La Rocco’s intelligence reveals a kind of virtuosity, a virtuosity of observation.
But La Rocco does more than provide commentary; she has skin in the game. As a performer, she has to create a stage identity. (Davison Scandrett, the fourth member of the quartet, provides a sort of absurdist counterpoint, eating potato chips, rolling on and off the stage on a small platform.) Wearing flattering jeans and a tight black top that accentuates her décolleté—she is a good-looking woman— she plays the role of ironic, sexy guide. She holds up placards emblazoned with random comments. People snicker, in that way people do when they want to show that they get the joke. She struts around sultrily, staring intently into audience members’ eyes. Though I’ll admit I found this to be the clunkiest part of the show I also admire her courage. It’s not easy to step out of the shadows and be judged alongside the likes of Mitchell and Riener.
Later, as the dancers change costumes behind a bright pink curtain, we “overhear” a complicated negotiation between La Rocco and Scandrett. The performance space is bisected and overhung with pink lace, further enhanced by pink lighting. What does the pink have to do with anything? Not much that I can discern, but it’s striking and a little trashy. Their argument has marital undertones: “I need to understand what you’re saying,” one of them says. “It’s a little concept-y, I don’t like it,” the other pushes back. Then they play a faintly aggressive game of marbles. In another section, they comment on the dancers’ movements and give them cues: “do something else” “no, sorry” “go”. Each time one of them speaks, the dancers interrupt whatever they’re doing and start over again. During a passage of tricky partnering, La Rocco claps, sardonically. She’s not too impressed.
Even so, when the dancing gets going, it tends to obviate the commentary. Buried beneath layers of structural deliberation lies a portrait of great intimacy. Clasping Mitchell in an upside down lift, Riener rises into an arabesque, then pirouettes, slowly. The complication of the maneuver is reminiscent of Cunningham. Riener places his hand in Mitchell’s mouth and pulls him into a forward tilt, then leads him around in a slow promenade. Their bodies, extravagantly twisted and splayed, fit together like two halves of a whole. Foot against foot, head in the crook of an elbow, calf over shoulder, cheek to cheek. Through experimentation and improvisation—if I try this, then you can do that—the two dancers have laid out overlapping paths across each other’s bodies. At first they wear black unitards (a variation on the Cunningham uniform), then pink lace coveralls that match the campy décor, and finally almost nothing, just tiny silver briefs. The act of exposing, of showing the line of the torso, of the foot, of the thigh and the rear end, is the unspoken subtext of Way In. The dancers expose, we watch; the dancers know we are watching but ignore our gaze. It’s all part of the game. But at times the layers of knowingness melt away. Virtuosity and beauty have a way of trumping ideas.
Herein lies the unresolved tension of the piece. How much of what they do is sincere? To what extent are the performers in it? How much is presented to us in quotes, with a shrug, from a distance? The music, a barely audible soundtrack of Baroque opera intermixed with cheesy movie music, doubly underlines the atmosphere of artifice. A certain archness hovers over the scene. It’s hard to shed the critic’s skin. La Rocco is fully aware of this conflict, plays with it, but it’s never resolved. Maybe it has no resolution. The ending becomes a kind of exorcism. Standing at a microphone that echoes and deforms her words, La Rocco utters a series of ponderous phrases, which gradually melt together into an indistinguishable mess of sounds. But before things descend into aural chaos, we hear a key phrase: “Critics are not artists.” La Rocco begs to differ. Way In is an artistic manifesto, a beginning. The question is: where do they go from here.