Emily Gastineau on Eric Larson’s Work in “Proper Baby”


I enter the Southern Theater at intermission because I’m squeezing two performances into one evening. Rushing across town from Ralph Lemon’s performance lecture at the Walker, I was equally determined to see the work of Eric Larson, who presented four separate but interwoven “works in and out of progress”. Beginning the first piece, a large projection screen drops into place under the arch. Six individuals, one carrying a guitar,  form a semicircle stage left. They begin to sing in harmony as a large cube appears on the screen. It has sharp corners and slowly drifting animated clouds—the screen saver image that has become our platonic ideal, pillowy and perfect in blue and white. The group sings in exalted tones and a slightly erratic rhythm: “Skybox! Sense of scale! Skybox!” The flat sides of the cube begin to shift in various patterns, providing lazy stimulation at a screen-saver pace: rotating on the diagonal, separating into bars, shifting through the center of the cube.

The singing continues, with reverence and nonsense: “Sky-agents of the Skybox/Have some fun in the Skybox/Don’t compare in the Skybox/Can’t go into the Skybox/Sensory sensory Skybox.” The performers take it so seriously their tone verges on camp—but it’s a strange form for camp, venerating this abstraction. The moment hits me with just the right measure of absurdity, and there’s enough conviction in the performance that I don’t care what the Skybox is or who the people are or what it’s supposed to mean. The form contains just enough meaning for me not to care about meaning. “And the tendencies of man are inevitably grand/And the Skybox doesn’t have a plan/For the Skybox doesn’t like to plan.”

The performers conclude and exit, and we viewers sit with the animated Skybox a bit longer while it proliferates patterns at its constant pace. The Skybox disappears and the projector screen raises, ostensibly to prepare for the next work. We wait. The screen lowers again, the mechanical noise cutting through the theater. We wait. The screen raises again, and Larson runs on the diagonal from the house to backstage as if going to fix the problem. In the same timescale, the screen lowers again. We wait. Then it’s raised once more, and Larson repeats his diagonal run backstage. It becomes clear to me that Larson has chosen to extend this interlude, testing our expectations of technical transitions and sense of timing in the zone between pieces. It’s almost like a bit, but when it’s repeated it becomes more formal and blank than comedic.

Next up, a dance performed by Jacob Mobley. Immediately I am excited to see a dance performed by a body with significantly more flesh than we usually see in concert dance. I wonder what possibilities this might suggest for a field that conducts shamefully little investigation with non-normative bodies. The dance seems to be about those possibilities, searching for a range of tools in human movement. The vocabulary is generally pedestrian and rhythmic, with Mobley spending a good portion of it on his back on the floor. There are some aborted full-body gestures, and a feigned sneeze is integrated into the phrase work. This piece also contains significant repetition, punctuated by a rhythmic sound cue that recurs several times. I think Larson and Mobley have just scratched the surface in terms of the tools they could have at their disposal: varying movement qualities, distinctive vocabulary suited to this particular body, clarifying the role of repetition, or even pursuing the relational qualities that surface in the other pieces.

Next the house lights come on, and we hear creaking above our heads. The crowd looks up and back to see feet shuffling along a couple of precarious-looking boards in the catwalk. Two people are traversing the boards to drop long, white slips of paper into the audience. I’m curious what they say, but the house lights dim again before they drop any slips in my vicinity. The projector screen drops back into place, and we experience another screen saver-paced digital animation. This one involves a central image, which looks to me like a lush, dense tropical island brimming over with plant forms, or maybe an ornate table centerpiece. This object stays static, but our perspective does not: it’s as if the camera is careering across the blank field, smashing into the object, focusing on a close-up, pixellated portion of it, then zooming back out. Over and over we crash into the island/centerpiece/abstraction, hitting different spots on it but always moving back to the macro view. At some point the object becomes lit up in neon colors. The aesthetic is distinctly 90s, recalling an era of digital graphics that seems antiquated now. I wonder if that aesthetic serves as a kind of digital medium specificity—since it’s not slick, it makes you remember the building blocks of the medium, the various hands and algorithms that built the image. Mobley reenters during the video, repeating some movement from his solo in the foreground. The screen shifts into a slideshow of images, titles, and years of Larson’s work—up to this performance and then projecting into the future, constructed images of pieces in 2016, 2017, 2019.

The fourth and final piece picks up where the paper slip bit left off—in the program it’s billed as “a distribution”. Four performers enter and stand in a line facing the brick wall upstage, and one of them is wearing a sweatshirt in the pattern of a brick wall. It’s funny to me at first, but like some other elements in these works, as the piece continues it appears more like a formal choice than a comedic one. Each performer comes forward and does something with the paper slips that, again, I want to call a bit: placing them in the mouth like fangs, or pulling wads of them out of shoes. These bits are more consciously performative, relating to an audience and a technique of relating to an audience and a history of relating to an audience. Performers began to venture into the audience and distribute the paper slips by hand. One performer mimes emphatically at a viewer to read one of the slips but not aloud, then develops it into a kind of card trick-like exchange. I’m finally able to grab ahold of one of the slips: “296. It must suck I can’t believe if my cat licks its own ass. One of the most creepy things if an angel were to speak to me the first thing I think my GPA would be spent. Teachers, am I right?” Other performers begin to call audience members on the stage and seats a group of them in a semicircle, beginning some quiet interaction with the paper slips. Then the lights go out suddenly, as if on a timer.

These works didn’t present a major arc or tension for me—instead I saw many small threads woven together, beginnings of thoughts that could either be pursued or discarded. I don’t think work always needs to be “developed” in the proper sense—sometimes the right combination of rawness and simplicity can result in a truly full work. “Skybox” and its postlude in particular were like that for me, and I’d hate to see Larson “develop” them. Some of the material wants to refuse meaning (which I think is futile), or seems idiosyncratic for its own sake. But I see so many threads of inquiry and many quotations of form—formal abstraction, classic comedy, human movement, purposeful anachronism, interaction and participation, a heavy dose of absurdity—and I think each of those tools could be sharpened, towards whatever ends Larson chooses. I think Larson is developing a language: a language in which agility is paramount, repetition is crucial, time is made tangible, and engagement is not forced.

by Emily Gastineau

Proper Baby: Work In and Out of Progress
Featuring work by Joe Kellen and Eric Larson
“Skybox”, “Jealottt”, “Frustrum Culling”, and “Piddle Bits” created by Eric Larson
Performed by Neva Dalager, Ed Euclide, Joni Griffith, Mauricio Jordan, Joe Kellen, Haley Mosley, Jacob Mobley, Kenzi Allen, Ryan Bockenhauer, Alec Lambert, and Nico Swenson
Southern Theater
August 28, 2015


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