Theory of the Splice: Emily Gastineau on Angharad Davies’s “Open System”


Image credit: Hanlyn Davies


Lights up on the aisle at Bryant-Lake Bowl, awaiting an entrance. Davies is ejected from the back of the room; she comes out jittery. Her torso shimmers and contorts, precipitating her movement across the floor. She skitters against the blue wall by the servers’ station and pauses, still but reverberating. Her wrists twist, her elbows jut around her head, her hips turn in contrast as she resumes the prior pattern and crosses up to the stairs. She alights again against the wall and there is another moment of calm. The jitter episode brings her again through the house, up the center aisle and onto the stage into the full light. Her insect quality skews human in this view: she’s not covered in scales but large black sequins.

Davies inhabits the stage now as a soloist, and she embarks on an open series of rapid-fire quality shifts and movement quotations. She’s a portrait of anger, she’s a caricature of dejection, she’s overtaken by a moment of levity. Each episode is brief, just long enough to register in the mind before she is propelled to another expression. Faster than I can describe in writing, she curtsies to the side wall, then for a moment she’s a boxer. Her body tenses into a form, then disassembles the image just fast enough to coalesce around another. As she shares in the discussion following the piece, her own word for this is “splicing”—no more transition than the body makes necessary. She engages elements or trappings of character, but they never attach to a stable core or relate to each other in a narrative through line.

After setting the pace, Davies’ face comes into play, and her eyes begin to comment on the content and rapidity of her movements. The eyes signal consciousness, that she knows she’s performing—and that also makes it possible for the audience to laugh. In one sense, the eyes split her mind from body: her body, which is compelled to constant, absurdist movement, and her mind, which observes along with us, telling us how to watch. The body is in control but the mind gets the final say. As the series accumulates more gestures, expressions, and references—she mimes smoking, she shovels a pile of shit—they become slightly more discrete. Her voice now aligns with her gestures, to fake an orgasm or speak to a child. Or have I just been trained in the process to recognize each item more quickly?

The next splice brings an iconic sound into the space, “Queen of the Night” from The Magic Flute. Davies’ physical task changes immediately to mimic the energy and timing of the vocalist in her body—a kind of physical lip sync. She knows the music exactly, and it’s humorous but she takes it very seriously. She doesn’t mock the theatricality of opera, but she does copy the intense diaphragm control as the basis of her movement. With this abdominal support, she elaborates on the cadences and vibrato of the music.

I’m reminded of other choreographic commitments to music visualization: and Xavier Le Roy’s Rite of Spring, Hijack’s Death Drop Workshop in Jaime Carrera’s Outlet series and Tchotchke at the Temp. When it shows up in contemporary dance, it calls attention to how seldom our field dances in time with the music. Jonathan Burrows describes the tendency this way in A Choreographer’s Handbook: “The desire of contemporary dance to assert itself as an art form in its own right, separate from music, has led it to let go of pulse as an organizing principle of time. This is a strange perversion and a joyous one. Most of the world dances to a beat.” As much as I enjoy the reminder, when I see a 1:1 relationship to music in this context, it seems to refer backwards in dance history. Should we resuscitate the relationship to music? Should we accept the tie has been cut and move on? Should we work on other possible relationships—beyond following/serving/illustrating the musical score, and also beyond Cage/Cunningham-style decoupled coexistence?

Though the opening and closing sections leave good (though very different) performance tastes in my mouth, I’m most intrigued by the work in the middle section. This is the real meat of the piece, and where it has the most important things to say to the field. That movement exploration, with its lightning agility to switch between states and images, exemplifies the kind of physical skills we need to develop in the contemporary world. Outside a performance context, the volume of information we process and the speed at which we process it has risen drastically. Audiences are not slowing down; we are used to channel surfing and multitasking. Performance can also slow down time, and I hope that performance can suggest other modes of paying attention as well—but contemporary performance should respond to the pace of the culture. This work was one of the closest manifestations of that tendency that I’ve seen, relying not on a performative conceit so much as actual dance skills.

In this choreographic technique, I also see a parallel with one of Sianne Ngai’s aesthetic categories, a mode that links performance and labor. The category of the zany, as Ngai elaborates, requires an “absolutely elastic subject” who is “able to take on virtually any job at any moment, in an incessant flow”. The zany exhibits key requirements of labor in contemporary capitalism, not only that the worker be hyper flexible and endlessly adaptable, but that their labor is fundamentally affective and performative. I Love Lucy and The Cable Guy are twentieth century zanies par excellence, comedic figures with “a style of acting that reflects a conception of life as a rapid succession of projects as these become immediately dissolved into an undifferentiated stream of activity.”

Ngai writes that the zany aesthetic has become so pervasive in contemporary life that it’s become difficult for us to recognize and describe it as a distinct category. This means that Davies’ performative commenting on her own action—with her eyes and face, with the assembly and disassembly of physical forms—is a crucial component of the technique. The meta layer renders the flow of action legible, where it may have otherwise been lost on an audience that likely has a dozen tabs open on their browser at any given moment.          

Working from that premise, we can understand how viewers make meaning out of many disparate pieces of information (to speak to Davies’ question during the discussion). Our brains are quite skilled at drawing parallels between different things, and that’s been a key skill in viewing dance since long before the internet. It’s how metaphor and allusion work, how images become multivalent. The harder struggle is to update our understanding from a choreographic perspective, of the forms we construct to convey meaning and our assumptions about what viewers are looking for. I think that Tere O’Connor is working on this from a different angle, constructing dances not for the experience in real time, but for them to live in the viewer’s memory in a particular way.

And yet a week after this performance, I realize that I found meaning in the pace and method of action, rather than the content that Davies engaged. Did I miss how they were constructed, or did she just pull a range of top-of-mind examples that were meant to be discarded? Does the kite matter, and was I meant to remember the boxing? How might this choreographic technique hold content otherwise? 

Emily Gastineau

“Open System”

Choreographed and performed by Angharad Davies

9×22 Dance/Lab

Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater

November 25, 2015



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