PAGEANT: Move What Cannot Be Said
At performance venue PAGEANT, two new dances offer a glimpse into the development of an alternative language.
The artist-run dance space PAGEANT, located in a loft stacked atop a nail salon and a beauty supply store in East Williamsburg, harbors a frenetic energy matching its identity as a novel DIY venue. As soon as the lights come up after a show, the “stage” becomes a “house for the audience,” and the “greenroom” a “bar.” It’s impossible not to linger and bask in the afterglow.
On September 2nd and 3rd, Jade Manns and Owen Prum presented work in the venue for the first time since they founded it in April of 2022 with Sharleen Chidiac and Alexa West. Since the spring, PAGEANT has grown into a community who volunteers time, labor, and art to maintain the space for workshops, bi-weekly dance performances, and the occasional experimental music show, film screening, or artist talk.
Jade Manns’s piece, The Open, which premiered at Abrons Art Center as part of the New Dance Alliance Performance Mix Festival in June 2022, begins in darkness with the sound of a crank. The lights come up upon the group (played by dancers Cayleen Del Rosario, Iliana Penichet-Ramirez, Isa Spector, Lilah Van Rens, and Owen Prum), all in street clothes. Four members stand shoulder-to-shoulder stage right, while the fifth leans against the wall, stage left. As this lone dancer joins the rest, the sound of a drone shrouds the room. Throughout the piece, the dancers exhaust every possible iteration of pair, trio, quartet, and of course, solo.
The choreographer asserts her vision while still allowing for a great amount of audience autonomy. We can hone in on one small detail for a while, and then let our attention run out, or run off, because there is always something else going on, some new formation shifting our focus. One dancer might briefly stand out because of the openness of her face, or the disruption of her movements against the group’s repetition, but she, and the movements, are eventually subsumed into the group-ness. The players repeat and pass on movements—an arm around a shoulder, hands pointed in a vee toward the ceiling—that are malleable in their simplicity, and easily adopted. You might wonder from whose body they originated.
The dancers wear neutral faces; they communicate by the assumption of their carriage, by the care or recklessness with which they plunge into motion. If a gesture conveys a message, it only does so insofar as it relies on a common language. Although a finger placed without force over closed lips lacks emotional charge, it is still a signal to be quiet.
These dynamics unfold to the funerary sound of Eli Floyd Clemmens on the Scottish short pipe, composed as if to imitate a synth, and the constant undertow of a drone. Youth is oppressed by the doom it faces. These sounds are interrupted by, and later interrupt, the folk song “I Love the Mountains,” which fades in and out like a current, carrying the scene into a dreamlike idyll. The short pipe, rippling over the drone, seeks to liberate itself from its fate as the call of doom; it reaches a sublime tension with the hopeful folk song. Despite the song’s yearning for an expansive, pastoral setting, the group remains cramped in small interior spaces, adopting one another’s particularities, defining themselves through the movements of others, and making art out of the reiterations.
The pause between the two dances lasts “not even long enough for a cigarette.” The stage is wiped clean; we sit in the same seats; but Owen Prum’s duet Weekender, performed by Prum and Manns, transforms the composure of the room from that of a buzzing audience to a stunned crowd of onlookers. The dance is simultaneously an event in real time and a reenactment; it is fuzzy and fragmented, as if recounted by a series of witnesses to the scene of a crime. Enough information is supplied to make us into bystanders and detectives.
The opening of the piece is a prelude in dim light: the futility of Manns’s ballet barre exercises contrast with Prum’s achieved task: dragging his burden of a cross, no, chair, and unloading it once he reaches the back of the stage. The sudden illumination of the stage cuts through the drama of the action and musical score, Franz Schubert’s Nacht und träume, revealing the dancers as passenger and driver in a car, momentarily reminiscent of Pina Bausch’s Café Müller. (In a conversation after the show, Prum told us that he wanted to set the entire piece in darkness, but didn’t for fear that no one would see, so he put some of the piece in total light.)
Once the Schubert concludes, the duet continues in silence, growing increasingly violent. “Wanderer Lane Fire 12.13.18,” composed by Squirrellsgnwild, interrupts the silence; mechanical voices speak of emergency and communicate accidents (“this is now a working fire”) that have occurred at a sequence of displaced locations. The dancers ricochet off the walls to these sounds, which are perhaps excerpted from a fire department dispatch. Something terrible is happening offstage, and these characters careen into one another as they cope. The opening actions of the ballet barre now seem even more futile.
The fragmentation of scene and movement recalls the postmodern tradition—practiced by choreographers such as Yvonne Rainer, who in turn drew from Merce Cunningham and John Cage—of approaching the sequencing of dance by chance procedures. This relieves the dance from any burden of linear storytelling so it can stay in the realm of abstraction, honoring movement as a form itself. We are trying to decipher the indecipherable into words: the strangeness of the road in the darkness of night, light supplied by the car’s flashing headlights, the driver’s and passenger’s profiles illuminated—one is not sure how they ended up where they did. Weekender has so much potential for story; however, devices such as repetition and the use of visual references (like a man and a woman driving a car) are not employed as a novelist might use them. Instead, the dance is an ode to what cannot be spoken and therefore must be communicated through movement.
To watch dance at PAGEANT is to witness the development of a language we cannot entirely understand unless we become fluent. In our private and social lives, we, the audience, share the dancers’ alphabet of gestures. It is this familiarity that commands our attention, and allows us to recognize the gorgeous effort to formalize it in choreography. The choreographers do seem to signal to us, Study, it’s obvious what we’re trying to say. The work turns on the parts of our brains that know how to calculate the slope; witnessing requires cranking a rusty lever.
And that is what’s happening at PAGEANT every other weekend.