Responses: Empty Gestures – Christine Elmo’s Aimless Unicorns (one response)
by Mary L Hodges
Your Unison Uses Unicorns opened with choreographer Christine Elmo walking back and forth along the diagonal of Dance Theater Workshop’s 2nd floor studio. She wore shiny black underwear, a modified gray t-shirt fitted to her frame, a gaudy curled mustache, and a blank face—too vacant even to be called deadpan. She took her time. Fruitlessly, she crossed the space, adding a shoulder shimmy, a simple arm movement, or a half-hearted ballet gesture. Dynamic dance performed monotone. When four drones replaced Elmo in the space, the movement degenerated further, long-haired heads hanging forward and floppy wrists dangling from bent elbows. They could have been wearing “Don’t Feed the Models” t-shirts.
In a way, Unison treaded a lot of familiar territory. Yvonne Rainer explicitly rejected stylization almost fifty years ago, and it has been twice as long since Marcel Duchamp drew his mustache on the Mona Lisa, pulling Art off its pedestal. Meanwhile, self-parodying dance moves (and curly mustaches) are gleefully irreverent hipster staples. Elmo’s quiet focus, however, felt worlds away from today’s irony devotees. And unlike Rainer, who dissociated movement and performer to call attention to the dance’s properties, Elmo focused our awareness on the dissociation itself.
In addition to American Apparel models, the dancers reminded me of strippers, perhaps finishing a long night under the harsh dressing room lights. Not only were their “sexy” panties really too small—cutting into their buttcheeks before they naturally end, and inspiring frequent adjustment—their heels hit the floor loud and hard as if they had long exhausted their patience for prancing, and their flat expressions recalled Fosse’s farcical working girls in Big Spender. Artifice was exposed as such, yet still plugging along undaunted, as if we were viewing a smoke-and-mirrors act from behind.
Conjuring models or strippers may not be Unison’s intention, but questioning affectation obviously is. That much is clear, though many choices remained opaque. At one point, a dancer worked her way behind the white curtain covering the mirror. She left handprints and streaks on the mirror (revealed later), residue of an obscured presence. There was a passage when action just stopped, for three solid minutes. For some reason, I stayed with it for that trying, motionless duration. A lot of drama had been established, somehow, in the compelling blandness preceding it.
The next time we saw Elmo, she was packing a bulge in her crotch. I wondered: mustachioed, phallused (and utterly ridiculous) ballet master? The thought was provoked by a frieze of arabesque, upside-down plie, and a mermaid-ish floor pose, like a twisted Pas de Quatre lithograph, still fresh in recent memory. It was prompted also by the knowledge that Elmo does have a solid ballet background, and that at some point during her college education, she has probably, at least once, paused to consider the gendered power dynamics of ballet. A different thought came to me, however, when her ensemble returned. These performers were packing, too, but their groins came in silly shapes—bumpy, wide, lop-sided—without regard to anatomical realism. Artifice, again, made clear but insistent on continuing the charade.
Then came the unison dance, and with it, a lasting change in tone.Built on movement from the first part of the piece, the unison dance (not strictly unison, and probably not conceived as the single unit I saw it to be) had just enough rhythm to make simultaneity a mindless endeavor.It was exhibitionist (lots of hip thrusts), but didn’t reveal. Though the dancers stopped well short of “selling it,” they did seem to start playing along, buying into the illusion that they were a group. They became less authentic. In a short floor phrase, the dancers propped up on their sides, kicked up their legs, cheerleader-style, and sounded off: You. Toe. Pea. Ahhh. Utopia achieved, that is, when standards of original expression have been abandoned, and mass produced individuality renders conflict obsolete.But judging from their bored (sarcastic?) tone, they knew this wasn’t real utopia—that mythic beast doesn’t exist. The fleeting utopia of the party dancefloor, at best, or perhaps the illusion of utopia that some seek in androgynous ambiguity.
Gender expression is my obsession, not Elmo’s. DTW’s website states that Unison is concerned with Western mannerisms imposing on the authentic self. So presumably, whatever self-obscuring elements of this culture a viewer experiences most vividly will be the ones that pop first from Elmo’s work. That I read, in the bodies’ generic grooving, a resistance to the commoditization of urban queerness (and to trivializing subcultures in general) just reinforces how successful Unison is in indicting social forces.
Culturally-enforced conformity does ease production, and the unison dance concluded with a conventional performance-object: some flashy lighting, music by wonderland disco band, and a routine initiated by 5, 6, 7, 8! There was even a costume-change break—turns out those bumps and bulges were more garments—so the performers could arm themselves with new pretenses before creating the climax-finale. And scene.
Note: Your Unison Uses Unicorns was intended to include a video projection, which was not part of the performance I saw due to technical difficulties.
Mary Hodges is a proud Bushwick resident, and contributes to The Brooklyn Rail and the Dance On Camera Journal.