A head of time [solo], which she performed at Performance Works Northwest this weekend, transformed Linda Austin’s last ensemble piece into a solo act. First performed in 2012 with a nine-person cast featuring a who’s-who of Portland dance, Austin has performed the piece as a solo performance first in Mexico and once before in Portland. She presented it here not only to build support for her next ensemble piece, (Un)Made You, but also to coincide with the birthday of one of the dedicatees of the piece, her sister.
For those of us who missed the first run, an important but downplayed component of the show is that it was occasioned by the untimely deaths of Austin’s sister and nephew, both in 2011. When you consider all these threads of time winding around just the very dates of this performance, if it wasn’t about time, mortality, and the strangeness of being in the middle of it all, something would seem amiss.Austin started the performance by instructing us what not to think of, which naturally planted these images firmly in our minds. She flubbed one of the lines, but responded to it with an unhurried tumble of beautiful nonsense sounds until the sentence got back on track. As she began to arrange the multicolored extension cords that would tie together many of the props, Austin declared further instructions and meditations on states of self, past moments, and habits of personality that either directly referenced childhood or at least carried the sense of comfortable weirdness that you can’t help but miss after growing up even a little.
Seth Nehil’s ambient soundtrack added good color to this sense with samples from sporting events, conversations and other audio artifacts that seemed to overflow from a room of remembered activities and times. Though the past figured heavily in the tone, I didn’t feel much nostalgia in it. It felt more like an invocation, with Austin carefully working through the rituals to conjure something that’s far lost.
While considering this show in the context of Austin’s expansive career, I struggled to find a name for the sense of movement that seems to be unique to her pieces. This certainly doesn’t cover everything that makes a Linda Austin piece, but the phrase “studiously plebeian” held some weight for me. Through props and exploded narratives, or sometimes by just rolling around on the floor by herself, Austin often puts herself through a series of sometimes-repetitive movements as if they were tasks that needed doing.As a counterpoint to the potential tedium or absurdity of these tasks and trials, Austin seems to continuously cultivate and adjust a combination of humor, timing, and intimate knowledge of the movements that comprise the task at hand. I searched the thesaurus a bit before settling on “plebeian” because the depth that Austin can draw out of her simple or strange props doesn’t come from making them into a new sort of card trick, with some intensely practiced sleight-of-hand with a spool of extension cord, a stack of blankets, or even custom-made kinetic sculptures. Instead, watching her interact with her props or move her own body, you see a reduction of movement to what is absolutely necessary, like a skilled line cook, and a gentle awareness of the nature of the object she’s handling. When a thing needs to fall, she lets it fall in the way it wants to, and she places herself where she needs to be when it falls.
Much of her movement between these moments seems unconcerned and highly functional, and we are left with some ambiguous space between what parts of it are dance and what parts are just things that need to be done with a living body. Austin seems comfortable with dance, like a live-in partner, and that feeling I am trying to put to words is a deeply-felt everydayness, a plainness underscored by personal knowledge and dedication.
At one point a balloon fell from the pan in which Austin had placed it, and I wasn’t sure if it had been choreographed to do so or if she was just ready and willing to accept its balloon-ness in that moment. I was reminded of her flow through the flubbed line at the start of the show. Later, during one of the quieter, more tender passages, Austin asks us, or really tells us, to believe that it is 3 am, and the whole world is asleep, and she is there by herself, performing these movements and these tasks. The tedious hard rock band playing in the next-door venue didn’t seem to care, however, and at one of the right moments, while facing the wall where the bass was thumping from, Austin muttered “Someone’s not asleep.” An annoyance had become a beautiful moment, whether or not it had been planned for. The plainness and strangeness of the piece was ready to accept the dull, unavoidable weirdness of life.The sometimes absurd or opaque aspect to the duties that Austin performs in this show have been http://www.orartswatch.org/stop-making-sense-linda-austins-a-head-of-time/, but the spareness of the solo piece, in my opinion, removes the burden to understand, or to ask “why.” Considering the amount of time she has put into the dance floor of PWNW, both for her own work and in support of others, and considering the events that inspired this show, it is not hard at all to imagine her up, alone, on the floor at 3 am—tracing out movements, dressing up in whatever materials are lying around, watching projections of the faces of friends and strangers, trying to make a little sense of the completely absurd world outside and its events.
So much of what we call strange is simply something personal glimpsed from the outside. Austin, on her own, wrapped up in a Mickey Mouse blanket, wearing a Cheese Stands Alone tank-top and growling like a wolf, is no stranger than we are when we think the rest of the world is sleeping. She just knows how to put it on stage.