Mar 8, 2018
How do we live? How do we go through any given day, whether we are a brain surgeon scheduled to confront a confounding cerebellum, or a marine entering strange new territory, or an old woman waking, taking the first breath that she notices, breathing in, breathing out.
Is breathing a repetition or a continuation of something once begun? Is each step the same step again, or is walking always new, each step like no other before it? These are George Stamos’ questions, presented at the opening of a piece he calls Recurrent Measures, performed in November 2017 at Baryshnikov Arts Center. If his performance was an answer, then the answer offered by the dancers was less prescriptive than descriptive: the answer is in the question that you, the onlooker, feel arise in your own physical and emotional response.
An archeologist of the event might note Stamos’ mentorship under Sara Shelton Mann, the dancer and healer George met in Novia Scotia, his home as a boy. One might notice, too, that his mom taught him the dances of the 1950s and 60s as well, skills he took to the clubs in the 80s and 90s, skills that he never really lost, that, to cite his title, are recurrent in this piece, recurrent from Latin, meaning “running back;” there is a lot to do with currents and tides in the piece, or so it feels to me. When I spoke with him about his mentors, George acknowledged as well a great debt to Zab Maboungou, the Franco-Congolese pioneer of African dance in Canada, with whom he has studied and collaborated, and who, it feels important to note, is not only a dancer (and founder and director of Montreal-based Compagnie Danse Nyata Nyata) but a philosophy professor. Physical philosophizing, thinking with the mind-of-your-body, or whatever it is that allows the body to know and see and feel the world: this is where Stamos took us at BAC, to what the Black Mountain College professor Charles Olsen might have called an experiment in group proprioception, energy transferences within (in this case) a room.
It was a very personal performance, personal for Stamos, I would imagine, and perhaps similarly for his two primary collaborators, Stacy Désilier and Chi Long, both Montreal-based dancers. But what I mean is that I found it personal as well for the audience, and when I describe it (or attempt to) it is as if I am describing a dream, of bodies in motion, bodies creating a kind of gravity. The piece began with Stamos spinning. I should say that I had previously read about his experiments with spinning, but nothing prepared me for experiencing the spinning itself. He stands on a small round wooden platform, something like a lazy Susan that would serve food by spinning at the center of a dinner table, though sturdy, compact, flattened. Then, in a beautifully simple boiled-down motion, he spins, inertia coming from small slight moves in his posture, a kind of bodily inhale and exhale.
One spectacular aspect of this particular spinning is that there seems to be so much to say about it, but that, at the same time, the spinning itself sums all that up, makes description moot. Immediately you sense a force, a weight, a seriousness in what manages to stay light and open. Immediately you feel the rhythm. You fall into its tidal flow, a back and forth, rather than the one-way spin of, say, a pirouette. You are drawn to the spinning as if you were tides influenced by the moon.
Stamos spun for an introductory few minutes and then stopped abruptly and walked across the room to stand next to another of the four walls. He began spinning again, this time adjacent to another dancer, Archie Burnett, best known for his appearance in Paris is Burning. They spun, next to the wall, in unison — or a kind of unison, the right hands spinning them one way, the left another. Watching the two spin, you could consider the different ways energy is transmitted between people. How does one movement affect another?
Meanwhile, across the room, on another wall, Chi Long and Stacy Désilier stepped onto their revolving floor disks, and they too began to spin. Similarly, they used the wall to push off, to stop for a breath in between spinning one way and then the other. As they touched the wall — slapped at it, pushed off of it, or sometimes seemed to pull from it — questions arose about the boundaries of the performance, and boundaries in general. The wall in this case wasn’t a point of constriction but an object that powered the dancers, maybe less like a wall and more like a membrane that allowed interaction with a larger space outside. If you let yourself, you could begin to think about quantum physics and alternate nodes of gravities, but the dancing never allowed you to drift too far from the spinning at hand. George moved to the wall with Désilier and Long, where he continued to spin, where they seemed to synch in three parts — not by matching each other but physically harmonizing, small differences that brought them together, bodily counterpoints.
Suddenly, Burnett walked through the center of the room, Voguing: something he not only made famous but invented. Watching him was like watching an asteroid or a shooting star spin through the solar system powered by the other dancers; wondrous joy. He moved to the wall, stepped on a disk, and began to spin again.
By this time, we in the audience were relaxed enough to move toward the dancers, to experience them like living sculptures, and, in so doing, we experienced two more modes. Again, the rhythm shifted. We watched as Stamos, spinning alongside Long and Désilier, left his platform. He slowly moved past the two dancers who continued to spin off the wall, back and forth. As each dancer spun, he came between them and the wall. As he moved slowly past, carefully observing the surface of the wall, shading it, he managed to make it feel more permeable. In these moments, he became the wall, so that at times they pushed off of him. He was in the gears of their spinning, and in a way he was the gear, their hands pressing off of him, as well as the wall, their power source. As I thought about this for days afterward, I began to remember a trip I took years ago to the Grand Coulee Dam, in the Columbia River, on of the largest hydro electric dams in the world. An engineer took me down into the bottom of the dam, down to where the turbines were spinning, pushed by the tremendous force of the mountain-born river. The river’s power was deafening; we wore earplugs. The force of the river shook the room like a constant earthquake. I put my hand to the wall of the turbine chambers and felt the power of the river in my chest.
The playful denouement came when the dancers met in the center of the room, a spatial surprise for us observers who had spent so much time considering the walls. Long and Désilier spun adjacent, collaborated in spinning, entwined. Stamos joined in, and Burnett seemed to playfully scold, stomping his boot, the great interplanetary force. This little set scene was charged by the spinning that had happened before and that would continue as the performance came to an end, as Long and Désilier held still; as Stamos at last did too. You left with the spinning in your ears, with the pulse of the performance in your chest and heart. Maybe an answer to the questions that Stamos offered has to do with what rhythm is. The word comes from rhuthmos, a Greek term for flow. It would seem to have to do with the repetition of beats, but at its origin it is about movement and fluids. You can think of breathing as taking breaths, one at a time, or you can think of breathing as participating in the air, in the currents that make up the atmosphere, the skies and the oceans through which our bodies sail every day.
Robert Sullivan is the author of numerous books, including The Meadowlands, My American Revolution, A Whale Hunt and Rats. A contributing editor at A Public Space and Vogue, he also teaches science at Hunter College in New York City, and writing at the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College in Vermont. His writing has appeared in many magazines, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, and New York. He lives in New York City.