One is the Contested Number

Sam Kim's Fear in Porcelain

by Janet Oh on December 1st, 2016

Sam Kim, 'Fear in Porcelain'. Photo by Brian Rogers.

Sam Kim, "Fear in Porcelain". Photo by Brian Rogers.

Simply put, the term “soloist” stands for a person carrying out an act alone. In addition, any dance soloist is expected to demonstrate a base level of achievement or recognition, earned through talent and follow-through or, at the very least, novelty. Kim’s Fear in Porcelain, performed at The Chocolate Factory Theater, addresses the solo within the dance genre through a mélange of solos, duets, and in-betweens. The piece asks ultimately how to free oneself from the expectations of the solo form and negotiate the awkward transition away from egotism while remaining in the spotlight.

A theater staff member herded in the audience waiting patiently in front of a massive sliding factory door just moments before the performance’s start. Two women, shrouded in near-anonymity by cloth face masks in yellow and black-and-white checkers, stood forebodingly on adjacent white platforms in the far corner of the small room. The dancer in yellow donned a colorful, geometric robe left open; the other, a black peplum top leaving her nude from the waist down.

Tess Dworman, Sam Kim.

Tess Dworman. Photo by Brian Rogers.

Starting off on a somewhat expected note for a piece confronting the solo form, Tess Dworman entered the performance floor alone, the faceless bodies “looking” on. The feeling of judgment and evaluation that soloists can sense primarily in their peripheral vision was mirrored by the masks that enveloped the sideliners’ faces, rather than through addressing the audience directly. Her renderings articulated a slow process of negotiation at the work’s beginning.

A buzzing electronic soundtrack, punctuated by an unsettling seesawing sound, matched the solemnity on the first soloist’s face and her belabored movements. In a standard setting, the soloist would have been expected to perform a feat to elicit an enthusiastic response from the spectators. Here the soloist’s movements appeared more like a series of heroic poses failing to reach the level of esteem desired by an arena audience who came to be entertained. All the while, the two masked figures made barely perceptible movements. These performer-spectators, unfazed by their visual deficiency and still cognizant of their place on the sidelines, continued moving as if in slow motion.

Slowly, one of the masked figures came to life as Kim remained onstage and propped herself up in a series of stammering movements and head nodding. The scene evoked a traumatic event; however, her shaking transitioned into more lyrical gestures. Upon this transition, Dworman returned but this time with a very different intention. Breaking the sacred bubble around the soloist, which existed at the piece’s beginning, the two made direct contact here: Kim resisted as her arms were manipulated around in an unwanted puppet-master dynamic. Here they performed a duet, albeit an adversarial one.

Tess Dworman, Sam Kim.

Tess Dworman, Sam Kim. Photo by Brian Rogers.

The soloist practice—as opposed to duo or ensemble choreography—exposes a hierarchy that appears similarly within erotic pursuit. A single performer in a coveted role enjoys the attention of peers and audiences alike without having to win their approval. On the other hand, a supporting dancer would have to earn this level of control, either through innate ability or strategy. The piece adds another layer to the charged relationship between performers by asking audience members to consider their association with the dancers.

An organ note and repeating lower note reverberated during the last segment with the masked figures, who began infiltrating the audience’s attention span with their incremental movements even before the main floor emptied. Slowly, the dancer in the peplum top got on all fours and began to crawl toward her robed counterpart. If this scene were isolated, it would appear that she assumed the role of chaser while the robed dancer stood in place as the object of desire. However, within the context of the piece, the two masked figures could have been—together, rather than as individuals—subverting their former submissive roles in the background by emerging in the foreground.

Before the crawling figure could reach the other platform, the two turned away from each other and toward the center to assume seated positions at the edge of their respective platforms. The lights switched off before frenetic strobe lighting picked up tempo. In what could have been a scene from American Horror Story, the masked dancers stood up and crossed the floor quickly to disappear behind stage doors.

Throughout the piece, the solo form experienced an underlying identity crisis. The four dancers made the central tension and its stakes clear—the rigidity of the soloist’s role was called into question. The piece offers an introduction to one possible idea: that the solo form in dance, as it has been most commonly perceived and enacted, need not be fixed and weighted with expectations of individual achievement. Yet after watching the performers negotiate their relationship to the soloist’s spotlight and to each other, the audience was left with an abruptly emptied stage. Kim’s piece presents a struggle and an exploration but fails to present viewers—whose expectations may have indeed been rerouted—with an alternative to the solo’s broken ego.

This review of Sam Kim's Fear in Porcelain is of the November 11, 2016 performance at the Chocolate Factory. Cover photos by Brian Rogers.

Janet Oh is a writer and programming curator living in Brooklyn. She is the Institutional Giving Manager at New York Live Arts.