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Dance cycles

An NYC choreographer uses an evolving dance residency to challenge our notions of stasis. Sophie McKinnon reports.


Line Death Dance

2017-2019

New York City


On arriving ten minutes late, it was unclear if the performance had begun. People were clustered attentively around the centre of a soaring industrial space, while some individuals moved forward at intervals to shift pieces of colored Perspex into place with boxes to form a loose, set-like structure. Eventually one of the performers drew a border around the room and announced, ‘It’s time for everyone to find a place behind the line’.


'Being in Concrete Light' collage, Photo by Laura Bartczak

Line Death Dance is an ongoing movement and sound residency project, which takes place in various locations in New York City. It is led by Melanie Maar, an Austrian dance artist and long-term New York resident. The performances I was present for both took place in 2018 respectively, and each one responded to the transition of the Chocolate Factory Theater from one historic venue to another, following a major council grant. In conceptual terms, it is a collaborative exploration of a non-linear creative process, where performances are described as ‘cycles’ in an evolution, rather than shows. They are devised to be sensitive, layered, informal, and non-hierarchical. The title also takes a dark, effective jab at the rigours of line dancing.


The first iteration took place in a raw space, where the rough surfaces and leftover hardware of a defunct factory lent themselves to the intuitive labour of a collective dance piece. Taking a moment of architectural transition as a cue for a longitudinal performance sounds contradictory, but Melanie’s philosophy is undergirded by ideas that won’t stand still. In conversation one evening, she explained with great delight her ongoing commitment to disrupting conservative, rigid assumptions about what dance is and should be, as she referenced her summers teaching at a classical dance school in Vienna. This is not to dismiss what is clearly a body expertly trained; and indeed all the performances reveal glimpses of the disciplined dance world in the least flick of an ankle. But Line Death Dance from every angle insists that dance can be encountered on various terms.


At one point, the audience was plunged from comfortable, warm light into near total darkness, while performers (Melanie with dancers Anaïs Maviel and Lindsay Packer) moved around the room, taking up positions that created a kind of bodily echo. One moved toward the middle of the room, dragging a weighted object that sounded like bowling balls. A rushing, repetitive, wind-like sound rose in the darkness. As the eyes adjusted, it became clear that Melanie was in the centre of a very large loop (possibly six metres long) of wooden beads, keeping it elevated around her body through controlled hip movements like a pendulous hula hoop.


Line Death Dance manages to draw people in, then leave them to their own interpretive devices. From where I sat, a pair of legs dangled down from a platform directly above, which I had been unaware of until the sudden leggy appearance, and my view of an entire portion of the performance was limited to calves and feet. Multiple times during the performance – there is a feeling of abandonment. Straining to see in blackout moments just to make sense of what is in front of you, the diminishing tightness of audience members who arrived in twos and threes, and the sense that performers are on their own trajectories while moving in parallel. These all contribute to the sensation of being alone. You are brought to a threshold where you have to do the sensing yourself, but also where the individual experiences commune together. Particularly as you are watching in the round, facing your fellow viewers across the room.


In the second phase of Line Death Dance, in a different location, you walk down a long corridor, through the bones of a former chocolate factory in Queens, into a room clad in the soft charcoal pyramid shapes of soundproofing foam. There were no chairs, no clear front or back, and only the semblance of a centre to the room. Those who arrived early set the rhythm. Melanie announces a moment of silence for all the industrial endeavours that took place between the walls, and the people attached to them. This, we learn, is the last performance – a visceral sound and movement piece with long-term collaborator Kenta Nagai – on a site recently sold to real estate developers.


Without any warning, the performance in this second phase became difficult to watch – painful and devastating, like seeing in passing an animal that has been hit by a car. While Melanie and Kenta’s bodies moved rapidly between comfort and conflict, sometimes connected only by extended eye contact, Melanie’s body shifted empathetically between human and animal. For an extended period, she circled the room with graceful leaps at increasing pace, part antelope in chase, part prima ballerina. We entered into the uncomfortable space of voyeurism, as through a series of hypnotic thrashes and arches she shed her clothing. Her body was pulled taut at all edges, pushed to the limits of its absolute capacity. Toes impossibly curled, shoulders bearing the weight of a torso which bore the weight of hips, while the ankles dug into the floor. I felt I was seeing a collective female body experience sensuality, trauma, and release, with Melanie as the single conduit. A reptilian shudder. A hand that moved like a hoof. The body pitted against itself, twisting toward resolution in either collapse or complete metamorphosis.


In my childhood memories of dance, or of ballet, everyone is weightless. There is no gravity, only soaring, floating, perfect bodies which defy physics. Line Death Dance balances both the light and the grave in exhausting unison, holding the room with a centrifugal force. By the time the new and bigger Chocolate Factory Theater opens in Queens later this year, Line Death Dance will probably be ready to enact its final revolution.


First published ArtZone #80