Adjusting to Near Stillness

Maria Hassabi's STAGED

by Lydia Mokdessi on October 19th, 2016

Photo from Maria Hassabi's 'Premiere', which presented similar lighting design to 'STAGED'. Photo by Paula Court.

Opening night of Maria Hassabi’s STAGED at The Kitchen: as usual, we loiter in the overcrowded lobby and on the sidewalk until exactly 8pm. When we are finally granted access to the performance space, there is a mad dash to find seats, and an impressively rapid settling into attentive silence. Simon Courchel, Hristoula Harakas, Maria, and Oisin Monaghan are already in place, tangled in a tense heap on the scarlet hotel lobby carpeting. What were we hurrying for? There is no real risk of missing anything in this world of glacial slowness. We quickly realize that we can trust that. We turn our attention inward, figuring out how to watch, how to listen, how to borrow their sense of time in order to absorb what’s in front of us.

We roughly knew what we were in for tonight: Maria makes extremely slow-paced dance that happens on the floor or on the ground, most recently set on the Highline, in the MoMA, and on Wall Street. The dancers do not stand up and walk around. They do not make any sudden moves. They occupy a highly specific mode of performance that feels adjacent to nihilistic discipline, adjacent to anti-performance, almost a rejection of presentational convention, almost a rejection of audience, but not quite; it is not fun for us to watch, but it is for us. STAGED represents, simply by virtue of its captive audience and theater setting, a deliberate departure for Maria; it is not a work that feels like it would be happening whether or not we kept watching, even though it begins before we enter and ends after we have left. Our presence, though unacknowledged, is essential.

While we adjust to the stillness, I begin to notice sound; mostly the breathing and nervous shifting of my fellow witnesses, but also a low drone that sounds like sped-up waves. Time is working in several disorienting ways here, combining into a general sense of anxiety. The wildly patterned clothing does nothing to temper this dread; what once seemed playful now seems garish, over-stimulating, compensating for something. I also notice light; there are 56 instruments (I had plenty of time to count) hung in a tight grid directly above the pile of performers. Periodically during the 100-minute run time the entire grid is pushed to full, and the power of brightness pressing down on the four bodies feels physical, a kind of oppressive euphoria.

The physical vocabulary is both straightforward and mysterious. We can more or less predict the next position someone will assume when we know it will take them four full minutes to arrive there, but then someone leans back to reveal someone else’s head in their lap and... how long has that been there? We feel enough agency to look away as we become comfortable with the duration of each action, but somehow we still end up bewildered. These moments of compositional surprise convince me that this is not a work of improvisation.

Despite STAGED’s strict adherence to its formal project, though we are fairly certain there is not much deliberate emotional content present, it is difficult to avoid assigning affect. I decide that Simon’s dripping sweat is actually tears. I decide that Oisin’s regard of Maria reveals skepticism. Simon’s foot wandering into Hristoula’s groin means sex. Hristoula’s twisted reaching torso means yearning. I am constantly reminding myself that the meaning I am making is projection, but I feel forced into a practice of meaning-making for which I never consented. I didn’t realize that the four performers had been gazing in four different directions until Maria and Hristoula maneuvered their heads together around minute 85 and stared into the same middle distance. I could not tolerate watching any more physical work without believing that the performers were really seeing out of their eyes, actually present in sensation. In Maria’s world the gaze is as choreographed as the shoulders, fingers, feet; I located profound relief in this temporary alignment of gaze. I feel sure of its deliberateness. I had begun to experience the invisible membrane separating their bodies, and their bodies from from my body, as an agitation, and this minute alteration to the established score allowed just enough permeability to keep me invested.

When set in shared spaces with semi-found / semi-intentional audience, Maria’s works offer endless permission. We can decide for how long to lock in. We can decide when to start ignoring. No pressure. STAGED, though, is frank about what it is demanding from us. It is quiet, slow, long, lacking the forgiveness of a public setting or even darkened house lights. Unlike the temporary togetherness offered by the public iterations, the loaded space of the theater lends a counterintuitive alienation. Though we are all there on purpose, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, in full view of each other, we never actually find out what anyone else is seeing.

This review of Maria Hassabi's STAGED is from the work's NYC premiere at The Kitchen, running October 4-8, 2016, as part of the Crossing the Line Festival. Cover photos by Paula Court.

Lydia Mokdessi is a Brooklyn-based dance artist, writer, and editor of Culturebot.