Chris Yon, by Emily Gastineau

On Swaggerprance, to keep from crying:

I always come to a Chris Yon piece expecting the pleasure of tightness, intricacy, and specificity.  His work gives the illusion that that’s how the inside of his brain works: choreography innately patterned to the point of obsession, a brain that can’t help but notice all the details of the environment and knows exactly how to set them straight.  Yon’s work looks best at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, in a constrained space that lets the precision of the arrangements sing.  Whenever his choreography is on a larger stage, I crave more compression.

Whatever Swaggerprance lacked in extreme precision, it made up in panache.  The performers entered in pairs–blue and green, red and yellow, to assume an unassuming posture against the wall–until Sam Johnson made a solo entrance in a silver track jacket, an underplayed fanfare.  Then the structure opened up into large patterned movement, duos and trios crossing between other duos and trios.  After the sparseness of the opening, I welcomed the overloaded visual, the many options for where to focus my attention, like the rings of a circus.  At times my eye was directed with a punctuated gesture, a shrug or a flick, or with a whimsical prop that Tara King materialized out of nowhere.  A red-yellow duet created a slapping sound and Arwen Wilder jumped in reaction on the other side of the stage.  Nick LeMere in pink slid across the floor like a mermaid and performed a hilarious, doe-eyed and frolicking duet with Matt Regan in green.  Jim Lieberthal in gray was an anchor, bourreeing in and out of the back curtain.

Some choreographers follow impulse to looseness or extravagance, and some follow it to control.  I think Yon is the latter kind of choreographer who in this piece desired the former–and the work hinged on this particular tension.  The bright primary colors and carnival lighting gave it a celebratory, almost funhouse quality.  The container of Swaggerprace was pattern and showbiz, but the performances were casual, human, funny.  I came into the performance with a cluttered brain, and by the end of the piece my brain felt cleansed, somewhat.

On reviewing (this) dance:

Weeks ago when I wrote on Mad King Thomas, I quickly settled on a writing format that I fit felt the piece and my relation to it.  For Chris Yon, I felt like I just needed to write a “normal” review, for a work that sits squarely within contemporary dance, and to which I don’t have a personal connection.  Through the practice of viewing dance, I’ve gotten very comfortable with viewing things that don’t mean much, that just are.  During and just after this performance, I wondered if a dance that doesn’t mean much is radically useless, in a culture that increasingly requires art to have community impact–or is it pacifying, anodyne?  At the end of Yon’s work, I felt pleased and sated, not galvanized or confused or appalled or restless or anything else.  Sianne Ngai writes that most of our contemporary aesthetic experiences deal with minor and conflicted feelings: flickers of vague interest interspersed with boredom, or low-grade attraction tempered with slight revulsion.  But yet we (choreographers, other artists) keep aiming to create totalizing, deeply affective experiences for the audience.  When was the last time you saw a contemporary dance piece that was truly, sublimely transporting?

We live in a culture that is obsessed with engagement.  From social media to Google Analytics to large art museums to startups, engagement is the expectation and the hot commodity–perhaps because it is so fleeting and difficult to capture.  Much of the logic of how we create and structure choreography is premised on creating engagement: drawing the eye from one thing to the next, adding a whimsical prop or bit of interest when things are dragging, building in dynamic timing and lighting shifts.  This (Yon’s, among others) is a soundly crafted dance: no a small feat, but still a familiar formula.  We are begging the oversaturated, distracted viewer to pay attention.  That’s one reason why my brain feels cleansed when I go to see performance, because I sit and look at one thing for a period of time, without checking my phone.  But our minds do not use the same patterns as they did when these choreographic conventions were developed.  To make work premised on capturing engagement: is this reactionary, or preserving a meaningful function of the human brain?  If engagement is the current organizing principle, so fundamental that we take it for granted, what other organizing principles might we develop for choreography?

Swaggerprance, to keep from crying
Red Eye Theater
June 12-15, 2014

Choreography: Chris Yon
Performers: Gabriel Anderson, Sarah Baumert, Taryn Griggs, Sam Johnson, Tara King, Nick LeMere, Jim Lieberthal, Matt Regan, and Arwen Wilder
Sound Design: Kristin Van Loon, Elliot Durko Lynch, Justin Jones, Morgan Thorson, and Chris Yon

Photo: Liz Josheff

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