(Photo by Dieter Hartwig)
My first impression of Jeremy Wade’s choreography was wrong. About two years ago, I saw a preview of some of his solo work during a benefit at Chez Bushwick. His arrested gesticulations, which reminded me of a child on a playground making fun of retarded people, disturbed me; physically; emotionally. Still, despite my repulsion, my overarching criticism was that his movement seemed purely idiosyncratic; that is, to his specific body. But with his new–and first–ensemble work, “…and pulled out their hair,” which had its New York debut last night at The Joyce Soho, Wade proves (and proves me wrong) that his work is about everyone’s body.
Wade seems to have ingrained in his dancers the right balances of twitch, flinch, outburst and stumble that is the hallmark of his work. What you notice right away (after an introduction where one of the male dancers stood on-stage, awkwardly fidgeted while staring at the audience as they entered the theater) as the other four ensemble members (two women and two other men, including Wade) entered in file, is how strikingly different the space is inhabited because of the agitated, discombobulated rhythms the body makes in this state of seemingly alternative neurological order. We are not used to observing space be occupied by this kind of frenetic animation.
The five performers then began stomping around the stage (which was miked) in black and white costumes. They all wore heavy soled shoes (the men in patten leather) that clunked around to their haphazard flailing. White tops and black bottoms (pants, shorts–with black suspenders and black knee-high socks, or skirts) suggestive of school uniforms gave the performers an air of institutional servility.
The ensemble functioned together, almost as a single unit, all involved in the same kind of neuro-kinetic jittering. Movements (gestures) often originated with one performer and then seemed mindlessly adopted by the others, always swelling into exaggerations which then lead to a new series of gestures that go on to live out their own brief life spans. And while this methodology gave “…and pulled out their hair” a steadily shifting panorama of action, there were moments that wore out where a little corporal independence would have added contrast. None of the performers left the stage during the entire hour. Though to create an aesthetic universe on-stage this impermeable is certainly an achievement to be commended.
But this fixed endurance was most remarkable, however, in that for nearly the entire work, the performers held their mouths gaping open. It’s hard to imagine doing this for even a single minute without getting a cramp or at least a temporary case of TMJ. But this single feature cast an alluring spell over the work, defining so much of it by a facial gesture that is associated with mental incapacity, awe, agog, and shock. Not only is this expression suggestive of these things, it also implies an unbound, in-the-moment reaction to something extreme. But in Wade’s work, it is isolated–like all of his gestures–and developed abstractly.
And the unboundness elucidates yet another remarkable aspect of the work. When I usually apply the term “full bodied” to dance, I mean that the movement seems to emanate from the center of the body outward, through the extremities; that the entire body is engaged in the motion. Without dilution, I can justifiably use this same term to describe Wade’s movement style. His vocabulary is drawn from ecstatic behavior; instantaneous reactions that make up so much of life. And when we are witness to a situation that is shocking or awe inspiring or dumbfounding, our reactions are largely involuntary and are drawn from within us; within our body; from the physical/emotional recesses of the body’s internal tissues. In this way, Wade’s work is quite literally vulgar, but not ethically so. When these expressive traits are excised from their rational order (as a reaction to a squence of events) and strung together, it gives the appearance of neurological disorder, or mental retardation. This is precisely a critique of our appraisal of the rational above the irrational; of how we fear retardation and find safety in logic. Wade’s are the aesthetics of impairment, and they challenge our values of order and functionality; of appreciation and appropriateness.  And Wade’s facial gesture(s) are as much culpable for this effect as are his physical hiccups.
By coincidence, the other day I came across this passage in Susan Sontag’s essay, AIDS and Its Metaphors (1988):
“All the debunking of the Cartesian separation of mind and body by modern philosophy and modern science has not reduced by one iota [American] culture’s conviction of the separation of face and body, which influences every aspect of manners, fashion, sexual appreciation, aesthetic sensibility–virtually all our notions of appropriateness.”
It’s very possible that Wade’s work draws from a post-AIDS anxiety that connects health (mental and physical) and beauty. It is commonly believed that the gym-focused aesthetic that dominated gay culture in the 1990’s (and still vies for superiority today) arose out of popular misconceptions that staying in top physical condition (read: shape) would ward off contracting AIDS. This directly associated a perceived preventative method with a specific kind of beauty, that is, the beauty of physique. Physical–and particularly facial–deformation has the distinct mark of HIV/AIDS victims ; whether by contracted illness or caused by certain “cocktail” drugs that are meant to save the being but often deform the physique and the face. But more alarming than mere ugliness, facial contortion is the sign of a mind gone (which can rear its head in AIDS patients in later stages of the illness), which is what ultimately scares us, and thus, confirms our distrust of organic forms (which can be dysfunctional to the body–like cancer, like infection) and our elevation of proper neurological functions in behavior. The coupling of the two kind of deformities HIV/AIDS bestows on its sufferers, seems to have created a notion of “Negative” health–that is, one who tests negative for the HIV virus–expressed as a kind of neuro-kinetic harmony of mind and body. With its utter lack of cognitive harmony, Wade’s aesthetic is precisely the antithesis of contemporary health.
The only word–a verbal, semiotic unit made possible by a “healthy” neurological makeup–that appears in “…and pulled out their hair”, is “Wow,” which, at the end of the piece, strains from Wade’s mouth as his face challenges the expectations of the meaning; first deadpan, then forced amiability, then frustrated, then exaggerated thrill. But no sooner did we get this single moment of linguistic clarity–of false neurological sense–than his and the other performers faces resumed the terminal, defunct expression of the gaping jaw.