Tahni Holt’s ‘Sunshine’ means as many ways as it can

In Tahni Holt's dance multiple interpretations are desired

Robert Tyree and Lucy Yim dance Tahni Holt’s “SUN$HINE”/Jeff Forbes

Even when we think we are communicating in the most direct and transparent way possible, from our brain to our mouths or the page or the picture or the play, we know deep down that we can’t. Our brains aren’t that adept, let alone fully conscious of themselves. Our expressions are partial, distorted, even incomprehensible sometimes, which we’ve understood since the abandonment of the classical project in the 19th century, though we keep forgetting. Or at least I do.

And then there’s the wriggly, impossible to pin down nature of reality its own bad self. The best of brains have a hard time with that, because even a great description starts to disintegrate the moment the final period brings it to a full stop, and the reality it describes slips on by.

So, of course, I’m going to write about a dance performance! Dear brain, what do you think about that dance and how can you possibly express that “thinking,” which is so inconstant and so subterranean, in a piece of writing?

These thoughts aren’t really preparatory in a general sort of way. They arise specifically from Tahni Holt’s “SUN$HINE,” which I caught on Sunday night, the last of its four performances at BodyVox dance studio. “SUN$HINE,” Holt says in her program notes (and also in person—I saw a preview of a big chunk of the dance before it opened, and she talked about her aims then) is an experiment. She wants it to “read” in multiple ways, with enough particularity to satisfy either a narrative line of some sort OR a more concrete, second by second, interpretative approach in which the each moment “tells” us something that flees cognitive appraisal, even a satisfying story. Or (once again that non-definitive connector!) maybe even both. At the same time.

So, as if our own apparatus wasn’t shifty enough to confound us, Holt has intentionally made “SUN$HINE” as shifty itself as she can, to support a variety of readings. In her explanation, she said that dance can be pointed, meaning I think that it attempts to enforce a particular response on the audience. And Holt wanted to go the other way. Why? To answer this question: “Is it possible to create a performance where the audience’s imagination is tapped into and used as another resource for the work, possibly accepting a shift in the conventional power sturcture of the artist/audience relationship?” she writes in the program notes.  And then: “Is it possible to create a performance that insists on being experienced through multiple and conflicting lenses at once?”

Of course, that’s “pointed,” too, in its way, but I think I get where she’s going with this, but then I saw “SUN$HINE”!

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“SUN$HINE” opens with a high wall of stacked cardboard boxes that crosses the stage at an angle, separating the front of the stage from the back. The title is emblazoned on the boxes in red, and in itself it’s pretty shifty. What does that dollar sign mean, exactly?

Lucy Yim emerges and begins a long solo, which to me was highly satisfying “abstract” dance, its meaning contained in pre- (or post-?) cognitive communication, body to body. I liked the cracking lines, spinning and collapsing, bouncing and running, awkward balances and stretches, variable dynamics, and general sense of uncertainty in the dance. But that’s MY interpretation, isn’t it! (Holt is actually counting on yours being different.) Yim dances clearly and definitively—we can distinguish movement phrases and distinct sections in the solo. She’s strong and balanced and also quick and gestural, a nice combination.

A bell sounds and Robert Tyree enters wearing a shiny black costume with a hood drawn over his head and because he moves with his back to us, we don’t see his face. A third dancer in white ( Thomas Thorson, who also provided the sound score) comes on and starts “playing” a couple of boxes that have been miked, fingernails on cardboard. Tyree unstacks a column of boxes and we see the originator of the rather melancholy violin music we’ve been hearing, Kyleen King.

More “stuff” happens. Tyree and Thorson dance a mirror duet, black and white. A final dancer, Suzanne Chi, pushes out a chunk of the wall, and starts moving about in a sort of bird costume (made of cardboard; did I mention that Yim had an epaulet of tiny boxes on her shoulder?), destroying big segments of the wall, strewing boxes about the stage. A lovely duet between Tyree and Yim weaves in and out of the boxes, Tyree tall and long-striding and Yim shorter and more contained, and then things change. In the second half the dancers both scatter and work with the boxes, operating on them instead of having the boxes  organize the space on the dancers. Tyree and Yim lay down bright pink tape in long lines connecting lots of boxes. I was especially drawn to a section during which Tyree and Yim take apart two boxes and use the six faces as a sort of costume, first, and then as way to frame themselves. That was pretty amazing. And all the while, the sound score is providing some aural information, including choral chunks.

There was more, but already, I’m afraid, I’m giving the impression of “rushing.” These episodes take enough time to register clearly, to allow the audience the imaginative space Holt talks about to consider them, to generate multiple possible hypotheses about “meaning.” Holt creates a lot of interesting visual symbols, tableaux, as well, and the dancers seem intent and formal as they move about the stage, even when they are scattering, destroying or taping boxes. There’s nothing “meta” or “casual” about what we see on stage.

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So, how would I interpret “SUN$HINE”? To me it was a surreal meditation on instability, of course! This interpretation is fed by Holt’s affinity for phrases that crack and shift and fall, by the way the duets eventually are flung apart, centrifugally, by the seemingly imposing wall of boxes that is disassembled and abused, by the refusal of the piece to cohere in any particular way. And also just the creative malleability of those boxes, their implicit invitation to creative play.

Suzanne Chi in “SUN$HINE”/Jeff Forbes

Could I have made a narrative out of what I saw? Probably not. Can I imagine someone else with a more elastic story-making mind taking off on that firebird and the coupling of Tyree and Yim and coming up with something that satisfied them? Sure.

And if I’m right, then that describes a successful experiment by Holt, a dance with enough image particularity to provide some narrative hooks and enough movement granularity to speak in another more abstract way. I didn’t have a chance to survey the audience on Sunday night about it all, and what would I have asked exactly, even if I had? What did that mean to you? Which is where we started, right? Sure, it may mean something to me, but my ability to express it is limited, which is a weird thing to reiterate a thousand words later! In some ways, Holt’s experiment is a verification of our own shifting ideas about what we see and how we make sense of it. Dear brain, at your best, your befuddlement is amusing and informative. Thanks for playing along.

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I thought a bit about Tere Mathern’s “Gather,” performed a few weeks ago at Conduit, after “SUN$HINE” was over last night. I thought “Gather” was quite beautiful, and it came with some specific ideas about the formation and pragmatics of communities. But for me, those ideas were submerged by the music from the jazz group Battle Hymns and Gardens, Mathern’s deft phrasemaking choreography and the poetry of good dancers deeply engaged in those phrases and that music.

That’s how I process dance most of the time, for better or worse, what I’m looking for, what I “need” when I go to dance concerts. So, my particular take on “SUN$HINE” is maybe predictable.

At the same time, though, I acknowledge that other people are having distinctly different and maybe even MORE rewarding experiences viewing things a different way. Just naturally. So I found Holt’s strategy, which I see as “overloading” or “overdetermining” the dance with ambiguous symbols and devices and dance phrases, as… well, fun, the fun of having too much, the fun of a kid who gets to the carnival and sees all the rides and booths and plunges in without considering the “best” path, because any path will do just fine.

SUNSHINE, A DANCE BY TAHNI HOLT from Seth Nehil on Vimeo.

NOTES

Kate Fenker’s costumes were also a critical part of the multiple meaning agenda of “SUN$HINE,” sparkly and neutral by turns, and the incorporation of cardboard elements was perfect.

Jeff Forbes, who also supplied the photographs, did his usual deft lighting design job.

2 Responses.

  1. A. L. Adams says:

    It seems as though Holt is continuing an ongoing love/hate relationship with narrative elements in choreography (and perhaps finding a new compromise?).

    For TBA:2010’s Ten Tiny Dances Holt’s submission was “Culture Machine,” a chatty, pithy, witty number in which glammed-up dancers verbally impersonated stars doing press interviews while physically simulating sex. (The clear, seditious message: Fame transforms even the most admirable people into narcissistic, self-serving tools.)

    In spring 2011, Holt went the opposite direction during the “In Site” dance series staged on Karl Burkheimer’s installation at Disjecta, with a loose, dressed-down, improvised hour-long piece that tested audience’s patience. (And by virtually ignoring the bright red blocky shape that stuck out starkly from the otherwise expansive raw wood sculpture, dancers eschewed their most obvious opportunity to create narrative or evoke symbolism.)

    In response to critique, Holt asserted that those who yearned for narrative elements weren’t an appropriate audience for her work.

    Sounds like Holt’s latest work splits the diff between spelling out a story and showcasing pure movement, forging a tenuous peace with implied symbolism and the audiences who prefer it.

  2. tahni holt says:

    Hi Anne,
    I appreciate your response. I just want to note, for context’s sake, that Culture Machine for Ten tiny was a small bit of the performance-acting as a commercial of sorts for the full evening length piece performed at Disjecta in Oct. 2010 (took about 1 1/2 years to make). In regards to In-Site I was invited to perform with Karl’s installation. I curated three different choreographers over three weekends to play with improvisational structures. It was an improvisational festival of sorts. Audience could experience how each of us: myself, Linda Austin and Kathleen Keogh, strategized within the elements. I stand by my beliefs that if an audience has an agenda that clearly does not align with the context of the work then they will be disappointed and that has very little to do with the success or failings of a work.

    Love the conversation.
    Hope to see you at FRONT’s DISTRIBUTION PARTY tonight (Nov. 14th) from 5:00pm-7:00pm
    -Tahni

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