TBA:13: Linda Austin, misinterpretation and meaning

Does a little girl ride the 'Three Trick Pony'? How about the ghost of the little girl?

At one point early in “Three Trick Pony,” soloist/choreographer Linda Austin paused mid-stream to braid her longish hair quickly, not that it stayed braided long. And I thought, “Just like a little girl.” She had just sung a snippet from “My Fair Lady” and another from “Mary Poppins” came along soon. She bounced and cavorted, tried and repeated various little hops and steps, sank into deep squats, paused and lolled around. And once that first thought had lodged in my brainpan, I couldn’t shake it.

In fact, I elaborated on it! Austin was playing the movements a little girl might make, one on her own, maybe during a purported nap time. It’s the early ‘60s, maybe the girl is six or seven. She goes to various stations/play areas in her room, which in “Three Trick Pony” have been supplied by the strange devices/sculptures created by David Eckard, and she “plays” with them. Once she’s completed a circuit of those stations, she repeats it, although her exploration of the devices becomes deeper, more creative and more “destructive.”

It seemed to make sense, this idea of the little girl at play in a pocket of time.

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“Three Trick Pony” has several “logics” at work within it. It has the devices (a weird mattress rolled up and suspended above the floor, a strange contraption with a screen on which Austin leaves little kisses and traces words, three heavy rectangular boxes knitted together with straps, a large whisk-like object and a cylinder in which it fits, and a long tray-like affair that is filled with corks), some of which have movable parts and all of which can BE moved in certain ways. Like all the other “logics” here, it takes some exploration to figure out the details.

It has the logic of its musical score by Doug Theriault, which at first seems random until you start to connect the sounds with Austin’s choreography. It has the essential choreographic structure: the three circuits of the devices on the macro level and a number of phrases which are repeated from circuit to circuit. It has the choreography itself, which seems sprawling and immediate at first and then reveals itself to be carefully considered, second by second. And finally it has the logic of Austin’s specific body as it negotiates the dance, a difficult proposition physically, especially because of the big boots she wears.

I think it’s just fine to call it a day right there, at this abstract level, where the human body meets the structure, the choreography, the various logics at work.

But once I started understanding “Three Trick Pony” as a memory dance, what it felt like to be a little girl alone and staring a lengthy stretch of time in the face, left to her own devices (as it were), I found that the psychological logic made the other ones more interesting to me. The dance became funnier, yes, and full of insights about the behavior of little kids, how they amuse themselves, their spasms of activity, their obsessions, their fondness for repetition, their play-acting (pretending to be both older and younger), their creativity.

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The childhood memory idea was pure speculation, of course, and I’m not suggesting that Austin was herself playing a seven-year-old. I thought she may have been recovering that time, though, mulling it over as an artist, concentrating it and bending it to her purposes, creating around it and through it. For a seven-year-old (of a certain time and social class), the only purpose is to make it through seemingly endless stretches of time. Austin’s purpose is to make a dance for the Time-Based Art Festival, and somehow to capture that delicious feeling of purposelessness in the child.

Picasso is famous for his pronouncements about the importance of that sort of recovery: “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” For me, Austin wasn’t choreographing as a child; her choreography successfully describes a child.

Although I’m no expert on Austin’s work, I’ve seen a good bit of it over the years. What I’d say is that it contains elements of (or at least reminds me of) the unfettered, the improvisational, the purposeless. Art on some level might be purposeless sometimes, but we can apply even that art to our own purposes. Austin suggests that we aren’t part of hard-and-fast equations, that we can upset the apparent determinism of our lives in the our culture. Among other things.

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But what would Austin think of this hypothesis? I decided to check, asking her simply by email, whether she had a child or a childhood memory in mind when she created “Three Trick Pony.” She graciously replied to a question some artists would find impertinent. Her answer?

“Nope.”

“As the oldest of nine kids (one born every year) there was no being “alone in your room” in my family when I was young. And my earliest childhood memories of play–granted, more from age of 4-5 onward–were of the pleasures of unsupervised wandering and exploring outdoors, going to the creek, smearing berries on lips and cheeks, catching tadpoles etc. Stuff that kids today don’t seem to be allowed to do. We had few actual toys that emerged from Christmas time unbroken, much less play stations. And the toy culture wasn’t as crazy as it is now. We had a wagon, a bucket, basic things like that. And then later, much of free time was nose in a book to escape the commotion and the surfeit of irrepressible personalities and energies around me.”

So much for that idea? Maybe. But she added something later in the email that made me think.

“…your question seems to be an example of the cultural conditioning that makes us frame play and playfulness in terms of being a kid. Part of my relationship with objects certainly is akin to a child’s “pure” exploration of the physical world. Yet, if that’s the direction we’re going to go, a closer analogy would be a toddler pulling out pots and pans from the cupboard or taking a toy or tool or household item and exploring it both tactilely and then deploying it in a way other than its intended use, or activating it in games of let’s pretend.

So the analogy to kid’s play is there, but wasn’t an explicit intention. I’m more likely to engage in that kind of play right now as an experienced artist, and it is a result of dance and arts training and research that teaches how to engage with the world through the senses and being able to suspend notions of what is the right way and wrong way to use something or do something.”

We’re squarely in the middle of that Picasso quote now. One more thing, about her play as a kid and her process now.

“We did put on shows in our backyard. We did have an empty space for a while, an outbuilding that later was converted into bedrooms. When it was still empty, it was the prototype for my current studio, a place for the imagination and playacting.”

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So, I don’t feel so bad about my speculation. Basically, I give everyone, including myself, free rein to engage a work of art and find meaning in various ways. I think that’s a form of play in itself, creative play, that can take us in profitable directions, even though it doesn’t necessarily “explain” the artist’s intent very well. When we speculate, we have to accept the possibility that the act of speculation may be fun and rewarding and also wrong in the particular case.

In this case, the playfulness I thought I detected wasn’t as literal as I thought. Though it runs through Austin’s process, it wasn’t the result of particular conscious memories.

See how I cheated there? I slipped in that word “conscious.” I completely believe what Austin wrote me, and I’m pretty skeptical by nature and training. Nonetheless, I’m not letting go of that little girl ghosting the performance. Just now, I see her embedded in Austin’s own process and in her performance. In some ways, it’s more impressive than the specific way I was imagining it.

At this point you may well want to read Nim Wunnan’s review for ArtsWatch, just to wipe the little girl out of your mind. Of course, she’s still hanging out in mine.

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3 Responses.

  1. Linda Austin says:

    Hi Barry, This was fun to read. And of course in a piece like this without overt narrative, people are free to and invited to come to grips with what is happening in their own individual ways.

    Here is a postscript.

    The child is there in the adult performer although this piece wasn’t conceived to “represent” anything as pinned down as a particular childhood memory. Its proposition was to create a real life here and now testing ground/arena for the powers and vulnerabilities of this particular 59 year old’s body and energies. Also as an investigation into and a blurring of where the body ends and the outside world begins: Objects as both extensions of self and a tactile reminder of our own physical presence. So all you said about “spasms of activity” “play-acting” etc is observable in the piece, you just added your own layer. Hearing people’s (mis)interpretations helps me understand the piece more.

    And…Memories do filter in as the making process unfolds. The “All I want is a room somewhere…” ditty that I hoarsely whisper/sing near the beginning is from listening to mom sing along with broadway musical LPs when I was a kid.

  2. Martha Ullman West says:

    Dare I suggest that the child is mother to the woman? Or that part of the reason in this culture we don’t think the arts are important is because a certain amount of playfulness (aka improvisation, or speculation, or trial and error) is what produces the art? Linda and Barry, I’m fascinated by this discussion and very sorry I missed the show.

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