Jennifer Arave’s Pack Mentality

Here’s one benefit to being a sort of embedded reporter or partial observer to this piece: Jennifer told me, “Everyone said I should definitely not apply for any grants to make a piece with my dog.”I love the idea of the unfundable project, the bad-taste premise, the embarrassing or slightly revolting method. Not the same as, but related to, how Patrick Scully used to (I also heard) routinely submit unfundable grant proposals in order to widen the boundary of acceptability, so that somebody else’s project, which would have otherwise been an outlier, might be approved. Fuck yeah, do the project that’ll be bad for your career. You’ll either accomplish the taboo or fail spectacularly. I want to recognize more failures, pieces that fell flat because the artist stepped outside the bounds of sound composition—and yes, experimental dance has its own bounds. I wouldn’t say this piece failed spectacularly, but I immediately liked that it had the potential to do so.

Pack Mentality is the third in a four-part series titled Pardon Me, Do You Speak Dog?, performed by the artist with her pit bull, Audrey. The first, Dog Minutes, was a drop-in, drop-out style performance installation in the Skewed Visions studio (RIP). In the center of the space is Jennifer in a chair and Audrey in a dog bed; couches are arranged around the outside for the viewers. There is a video projected on the wall behind them of Audrey swimming in a tank—it looks like rehab and one of the dog’s legs looks hurt. Audrey is asked to do some tricks, and Jennifer has treats, but there’s not much going on. Instead, the slow pacing creates an empty space, turning our attention to the framing of the piece.

It seems that the task of this performance is to reframe everyday behaviors, non-performance behaviors, and even non-human behaviors as art. The dog categorically can’t understand her behavior as performance, yet her actions combine the improvisation and rehearsal of contemporary choreography. The piece raises some classic questions, but does not provide any novel answers: What are the limits of performance? Can we include everyday behavior as performance? How does this shift our awareness? What if performance is just that, a shift in awareness?

In the second incarnation, Moonwalking the Dog, also in the Skewed Visions studio, the installation vibe is gone, and a full-on proscenium space has been constructed. It’s pretty formal for what she’s working with: wings made from brown butcher paper and hanging white paper lanterns. Jennifer executes some solo gestural choreography with a ball, and after a few minutes, the dog is released into the space. Audrey rushes straight for the audience, who are all crammed behind the fourth wall. Audrey is all enthusiasm, panting, and impulse, while the spectators hew to theatrical convention. I was surprised by the elaborate setup after the informality of the previous piece, and for me it ultimately highlighted the impossibility of framing canine behavior in a proscenium. The frame is erected in order to be torn down.

The third in the series takes place in a storefront space in Northeast Minneapolis, which is temporarily being inhabited by artists. The paper wings and lanterns are back, and we smile for a photo to send to the landlord, to show him the space is being put to good use. Audrey has to smell each of us as we come in, so that she’ll be less tempted to abandon the performance later.

The first image to emerge out of the paper wings is Audrey’s feet in the air, about four feet off the ground and horizontal. Kristin Van Loon emerges, carrying Audrey with the dog’s back against her stomach and her arms wrapped around, so that the dog’s face covers her face. She carries the dog deliberately across the space and vanishes into the opposite wing. Now Jennifer joins their configuration, and the three bound figures cross the space together. The women wear jeans, sneakers, thick sweaters, and fanny packs. There is a soundscore with a barking dog.

In the next section, the three figures come down to Audrey’s level and traverse the space on a diagonal from upstage right to downstage left, following a brown paper pathway laid out on the concrete floor. KVL is, I want to say, doing contact improv with the dog—rolling with her, belly to belly, manipulating the dog but also waiting for her to react and following her lead. Jennifer follows behind the pair, mimicking Audrey’s actions.

Capisce: first we have the translation of human movement to the dog, and then the translation of dog movement to the human. In the first section, the simple and functional choreographic choice to carry the dog elides the differences in body structure and movement. In the second section, the dancer’s body is well-equipped to mimic the animal. The everyday roughness of the first two pieces is gone: this is composed, this is now a dance. I wouldn’t say I value one over the other—but I know because the piece is coming to me, rather than asking me to come to it. Rather than widening the bounds of sound composition, Jennifer has folded the anachronistic or bad-taste premise into an acceptable format.

In the next section, Jennifer and Kristin reach into their fanny packs, throw treats around the space, and execute variations of pointing. Audrey runs for the treats one after another, predictably and enjoyably. Here we have the choreography of the dog trick—if choreography is understood as given instruction, learned pathway, repeated pattern. Why do we teach dogs choreography? To make them more human and easier to live with? To fulfill something in their nature? The pointing/treats episode expands into the edges of the space, and the paper wings are torn down one by one. Contrary to Moonwalking the Dog, it feels like a development of the choreography, not a break in the frame.

I’m struck by the difference in how Kristin and Jennifer treat these activities. KVL laughs lightly and genuinely when the dog does something funny, or maybe just when she remembers that the premise is dog choreography. For her it’s a novelty, or perhaps an unusual assignment. I’m conscious that for Jennifer, interacting with this dog is her daily life, but she’s chosen to bring it into the realm of art. Her face, on the other hand, belies this responsibility and seriousness.

To begin the last section, Jennifer and Kristin put a harness on Audrey, attach two leashes to it, clip a leash to each of their fanny packs, and add a leash between the two of them. They place an eye mask over the dog’s eyes before donning eye masks themselves. The three of them form an equilateral triangle, with maybe five feet of give on each side: an equilibrium of constraint and sensory deprivation. Grand music begins to play, and the attached trio begins to move through the space, step by step. Jennifer pulls one of the edges of the triangle downstage, and Audrey wanders through the middle. Kristin leans upstage, counterbalancing the other two. Audrey takes off her eye mask after about a minute. They move in a relaxed, uneven rhythm for the duration of the song, tugging and wandering and following. As the music reaches a climax, Audrey lets out two barks, then sits down full front, center stage and looks straight out at the audience. Jennifer and Kristin are symmetrical on either side as the music ends. The dog’s choice is so perfect that it could never have been choreographed—her sensitivity to timing and composition lives in the realm of improvisation.

Now that Pack Mentality has assimilated the dog into the dance, the work asks us to flip the metaphor: what does the human-animal interaction have to say about dance itself? The concept lays bare the brute mechanics of a human learning choreography. Are dancers just executing behavior as a response to stimuli? Can we understand our own repetition and rehearsal as animal behavior, or is it highly socialized? We do it because we get fulfillment out of the execution, but doesn’t the dog enjoy it too? And what of the choreographer as master, as a temporary embodiment of power? Aren’t all dances now made in collaboration with the performers, just as the dog makes the dance her own? To what extent are dancers just responding to commands, and to what extent are they transforming them? In this piece we see a literal master, but the choreographer grants the dog power, and the dog uses it. Who’s driving the action, and who ultimately has the upper hand?

by Emily Gastineau

Jennifer Arave
Pack Mentality
Part 3 of 4 of Pardon Me, Do You Speak Dog?
2522 Central Ave.
December 10, 2014


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