On Jennifer Arave’s “Moonwalking the Dog” by Theresa Madaus

On Thursday, September 18, I made my way up to the Skewed Visions studio to see Jennifer Arave’s most recent experiment, “Moonwalking the Dog,” a dance/performance duet with her American Pit Bull, Audrey. The studio had been made smaller with a brown paper set, hemming in a third of the already-small space. I crowded in with a pack of humans sitting behind a line on the floor.

I have the desire to write about the as a dog would write it. But each time I try it sounds like a cartoon version of a dog, and not the real dog itself. Something like:
“Oh my god, oh my god, people, people, all these people! I want to sniff them, I want to love them! Pant pant. Why can’t I lick them all? Ooh, treat. Delicious treat. I will wait for the delicious treat. Ooh, people!”

But Audrey, for all she understands certain words and commands, does not think in words or sentences. What is the language of dogs? I imagine it is more in feelings and energies, sensory input and focus. The inner-life of a dog may be very much like the inner life of a dancer. And perhaps this is why Arave has chosen to make a dance with her dog. Dance is versant in the language of sensation, of sorting input and response, of impulse. Movement, energy, focus, are dance’s forte, though its translation into/relationship to words is full of challenge.

Arave was exploring the transferences of language, of learning, and I felt a strange human-dog hybrid experience of that in the first part of the performance. With a small ball in one hand, Arave executed small repetitive gestures. The repetition occasionally shifted into a different cycle of gestures and eventually developed into a larger kinesphere, but the sensibility was always a slow, steady rhythm. As a human I can learn by repetition quite quickly. But here I followed the patterns without coming to a meaning, understanding in the way I imagine a dog understands when first learning a trick. The patterns are evident but the why is a mystery.

The soundscore of Audrey, waiting impatiently behind a paper curtain, underscored my sense of human-dog hybridity and heightened my anticipation. The panting and occasional tail-thump. I felt her keenness, her energy, took it on as my own. When she at last appeared, her focus became my focus. After parading around the space a few times, making several near-forays into the audience, Audrey sat and watched, for the most part with rapt attention, as Arave danced another set of repeated gestures.

I found the intense focus of Audrey captivating. I watched her watching- I would have watched Arave do the most boring things, so long as Audrey found them fascinating. I think this is sometimes how people feel about virtuosic athletic dancey-dance. They are willing to watch boring choreography- not just willing, but delighted- so long as the physical commitment of the dancer is intense. There is a visceral empathy- some of the same neurons fire in the brain of the watcher as the dancer. I felt a visceral empathy watching Audrey’s much more subtle dance, and found myself relating to Arave’s gestures with increased engagement. My brain was perhaps mirroring the neurological synapses of the dog.

There was another layer to this part of the dance- a recorded soundscore that included a pop song and random words. The human part of me, the part that always wants to make meaning, connected them into a narrative. Does a dog hear narrative? Or will each word carry only its discrete meaning? I wonder that now, but in the moment the soundscore was an unwelcome disruption of my dog state.

The last section of the dance broke the 4th wall and my sense of doggishness. In this part, Arave demystified dog tricks and invited the audience to come try one of two tricks with Audrey. In this way we our human role was reinstated, but flipped, as we were learning the tricks that Audrey already knew.

In true Arave fashion, the dance was followed (or continued into) an informal wine-and-cheese party, during which we could give our feedback to Arave either verbally or written in a little notebook. I appreciated the multiple modes, but now I find myself wanting to respond with a dance, or a trick (which is of course choreography as well- the treat and hand signals a score for the dog’s movement). I suppose the wine and cheese were our treats, and the trick was communicating with Arave.

Jennfier Arave – Moonwalking the Dog (Part II of the “Pardon Me, Do You Speak Dog?” series)
Skewed Visions Studio
September 18, 2014

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