Letter to the World (III) © Evelyne Leblanc-Roberge
Letter to the World (I-IV). 2012-2015. A series of live and mediated site-adaptive performance works for between five and nine performers. Created by choreographer and director D. Chase Angier, scenographer Markéta Fantová, and multimedia artist Evelyne Leblanc-Roberge.
On December 4 & 5, 2015, seventeen artists from the Rochester, NY region exhibited their work at The Sunday School located in the back of the Rochester Lyric Opera Theatre. The distinctive architecture of The Sunday School informed the shape and structure of the pop-up show. Indeed, the historic two-story former First Church of Christ, Scientist space, characterized by a central panopticon surrounded by twenty offshoot reading rooms, lent itself to a fragmented exhibition, one in which the walls between the discrete artists’ interventions structured the exhibition’s conceptual vision. As the title of the exhibition suggests, the organizers, Leblanc-Roberge and choreographer Missy Pfohl Smith, capitalized upon the building’s hive design by arranging the work into reading-room compartments, each a part of a multimedia, experiential “curiosity cabinet.”1
Letter to the World IV occupied three of the Compartmented reading rooms, and an almost hidden narrow hallway that connected the two opposite sides of The Sunday School’s round rooms. Located at variable positions atop the green mustard colored wall-to-wall carpet, the work, comprised of five shin-high white wood cubes (11 inch x 12 inch x 11 inch), altered how viewers moved through the space. The piece ultimately proposed that looking is a fully embodied act. Indeed the floor position and small size of the cubes dictated that viewers crouch down or, better yet, lay prostrate. From such a vantage point, the audience could view the cubes’ interiors, every one inhabited by a different color video, inset and miniature.
Each of the videos inside of the cubes featured a different solo dancer or duet of dancers performing in a variety of styles and forms (from contemporary modern to free-form, to salsa, ballroom, dance theater, and stillness). In one cube, barefoot dancer Krystal Redding, in white party dress, shimmies and writhes to the Verve Remix of Dinah Washington’s 1956 soul classic “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby.” Redding’s movements appear at once entirely uninhibited and absolutely contained by the frame of the video and the cube. While the room in the video is rendered mostly invisible due to the camera’s frame, the wall that serves as a background for her performance is clearly rough, its exposed wooden framework a stark contrast to the white cube, where Redding’s looped performance lived for the length of the exhibition.
The cubes of Letter to the World IV are pristine, lonely, and perhaps a bit too clean to be located on the floor of The Sunday School. Yet the disjuncture between the raw-walled room in the dance video, the clean geometry and flat surfaces of the cube, and the cube and the dated institutional exhibition surroundings encouraged viewers to contemplate the complicated relationship between performance, video, and site(s). One part small-scale theater and one part minimalist sculptural object, the multimedia cubes underlined the possibilities and limits of the circulation and display of differently ephemeral art forms, like dance and video. Indeed, the cubes of Letter to the World IV reference exhibition history itself; after all, each is an echo made miniature and manifest of the hermetic white cube gallery space that emerged during the postwar period.
The white cube was initially considered a self-contained, neutral space. But over time artists and theorists tested the structuring capacities of the cube as a cultural site. In his famous 1976 Artforum essay series “Inside the White Cube,” Brian O’Doherty contends that the gallery is not a neutral container, but a historical construct. The cube gallery is, moreover, an aesthetic object in and of itself. As O’Doherty elucidates, “Context provides a large part of late modern and postmodern art’s content.”2
The title of the performance series Letter to the World can be traced back to Emily Dickinson’s nineteenth-century poem, “This is My Letter to the World.”
This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me –
The simple News that Nature told –
With tender Majesty
Her message is committed
To Hands I cannot see –
For love of Her – Sweet – countrymen –
Judge tenderly – of Me
Dickinson’s poem is clearly not a traditional letter. It does not appeal to someone specific. Nor does it serve to directly communicate information. Literary scholar Domhnall Mitchell suggests that the poem demonstrates Dickinson’s struggle between restraint and disclosure. As he contends, Dickinson’s ambiguous expression concurrently “retains privacy” and expresses “a need for contact of some sort.” Like much of her poetry, “This is My Letter to the World,” offers a “firmly regulated” dialogue with the reader, one for which the poet governs the terms.3 Dickinson is thus a poet that builds her own bounds, a dialogic architect who marks the square of her interaction, a writer who performs her own isolation.
On April 12, 2012, the “video performance event” Letter to the World (II) took place at Elks Lodge No. 364 in Hornell, New York, a three-story red brick building constructed in 1912. Usually host to the Elks fraternal order’s meetings and regular shrimp dinners, the building became a temporary site for Angier, Fantová, and Leblanc-Roberge’s reimagining of Letter to the World (I), a dance theater work with lights and costumes designed by Fantová and choreographed by Angier with the performers. This work premiered at the Miller Performing Arts Center in New York, February 2012. Adapted for the Hornell location, the formerly relatively fixed, more traditionally staged performance became an event for ambulatory spectators who activated a series of dance vignettes with their presence.
The dances that comprise the experiential Letter to the World (II) are sometimes about loneliness, and always about being alone. Each of the nine performers—Ned Allen, Nkechi-Kiara Megan Chambers, Angelinne Diaz, Ibrahim Osumanu, Eden Palmer, Kimberly Rau, Krystal Redding, Emily Smith, and Julie Verdone—avoid eye contact with the audience and one another. They never actually avert their gazes, but they also never make an attempt to connect with anyone. Their focus is internal. Each dancer performs a particular set of steps or positions like he or she is under hypnosis: drawn inward by either the music in the room, or the memory it provokes. In fact, the dancers look to be more inside the ineffable space of the music and their minds than they are in the physical space of the Elks Lodge. But the worn out building, faint with the grandeur of what it once was, somehow enhances the dancers’ interior concentration. It seems as though the dancers, like the building where they dance, are yearning for an elusive past.
If the dancers’ faraway expressions do not immediately evoke distance, then the white squares that frame their dances do. Alone and in pairs the dancers inhabit discrete spaces in the Elks Lodge. The linoleum-covered staircase landing, an abandoned kitchen turned storage space, a massive, empty banquet hall to name a few. Each space contains one or two dancers performing in a square that restricts and defines the breadth of his or her movements. The squares of white tape on the floor—and in one case white lights in the air—are not simply a partition between dancer and audience. The squares visually designate the limits of the dancers’ otherwise invisible worlds, worlds that allow them to escape the physical confines of their designated rooms, and entire building. Thus, on one level, the squares around the dancers are not constrictive. They are just the opposite: representations of imaginative boundlessness, or what theorist Gaston Bachelard designates “inner states.”4
The dancers’ ability to move is limited by their squares; however, the audience is relatively unbound given that they are not designated to a single viewing location, as they would be in a typical proscenium theater. Guided from room to room and floor to floor, the spectator can choose to watch most of the dances from multiple perspectives. Although there is an unspoken understanding that audience members are prohibited from entering the dancers’ squares, they sometimes slightly transgress their edges in transit, testing the sacredness of the spaces and the silent rules of the performance.
After the audience enters through the heavy oak front door and clusters in the foyer, one of the collaborators meets them, gesturing for them to follow her first through the dark entryway, then up the stairs, and afterward into a series of rooms—each host to one or more performances. The perambulating dance audience of approximately fifteen people (at a time) inevitably makes connections between and among the discrete episodes. As the audience moves the performance unfolds along with the architectural layout of the Lodge. Site and performance simultaneously emerge as the embodied spectator takes her tour. The audience’s non-dancing moments of stair climbing and hallway shuffling are as integral to the performance as the dances themselves. For in these moments the audience is preparing to see dance and processing the dance they just saw. These are active lulls that add to the continuity of the experience while visually, corporeally, and aurally demonstrating its fragmentation.
In 1940 choreographer and dancer Martha Graham created a modernist dance based on the life and work of poet Emily Dickinson. Appropriately, Graham titled her piece Letter to the World. First performed at Bennington College, Graham’s Letter was loosely based on Dickinson’s biography, and featured readings of her poetry, but mostly drew from historical heresy and Graham’s fantastical imagination. The dance-drama was set to a score by Hunter Johnson and had stage design by Arch Lauterer. It explored the relationship between Dickinson and a married minister, Charles Wadsworth, who Graham romantically characterized as “the mysterious Dark Beloved.” Erik Hawkins played “Dark Beloved” (he was, notably, Graham’s beloved); Merce Cunningham played March “the frolicsome, wayward spirit of spring”; Jane Dudley played “The Ancestress, representing Dickinson’s ever-watchful New England conscious”; and Graham and Jean Erdman played the two sides of Emily Dickinson. Graham performed the desirous Dickinson, “One Who Dances,” and Erdman portrayed, with calculated step and spoken verse, the dignified poet, “One Who Speaks.” Without words, “One Who Dances” communicates her inner yearnings and disappointments to the audience. With words, “One Who Speaks” distances herself; language inhibits her and prevents her from connecting with others. Graham’s choreography, and in particular her doubling of Dickinson, demonstrated language’s paradoxical ability to isolate. However, the choreography offset this isolation through the communicative power of dance.
This power is especially discernible in Barbara Morgan’s famous black and white photograph of Graham’s 1940 performance of “One Who Dances.” In the image, Graham’s torso is thrust forward parallel to the floor and her left leg kicks high and backward, fanning the length of her wide skirt in the air. Graham’s eyes are closed, but her heavy eyelids, dark lashes, and thin manicured brows indicate emotion beyond language. Her right arm is bent, elbow jutting down, and right wrist to her forehead. Her posture and expression are full of determination and drama, enhanced by the visual juxtaposition of Graham’s slight, white figure center foreground set against a dark expansive background. The composition of the photograph flawlessly captures Graham’s interpretation of Dickinson, and Morgan’s interpretation of Graham. Morgan’s photo session with her friend and fellow modernist, Joan Acocella recounts, was nearly as drama-filled as the performance itself. In order to convey Graham’s “spiritual energy” and “peculiar arrest of movement,” Morgan had Graham perform her dance multiple times for the camera. Of the photographer’s perfectionism on the shoot Graham proclaimed, “She was a terror.” But Morgan’s taxing approach ultimately revealed not only how Graham moved, but also how she emoted. Graham’s dance and Morgan’s photograph sought to posthumously free Dickinson from her isolation.
La Cecla, Franco
The contemporary Letter to the World was inspired in part by a concern architectural anthropologist Franco La Cecla voiced in his book Against Architecture: that contemporary society across the globe, but especially in the United States, is physically and emotionally fragmented due to fear. “Fear of terrorism, fear of the economic crisis, fear of the loss of supremacy,” he wrote, “but most of all a generic fear, vague and indistinct, the fear of launching oneself in the creation of something new.” La Cecla believes this fear manifests in urban design and architecture design that isolates people and divides communities. In particular, he bemoans the worldwide, continuous infiltration of “skyscrapers, superblocks, and shopping malls” that he claims have contributed to the current crisis of alienation in modernity. Angier, Fantová, Leblanc-Roberge, and their dancers perform this crisis, but they also arrange their performance so that their multi-site audience is mobile and thereby has agency; viewers are active movers and inevitably interact with one another as they experience the event(s).5
A photographer and filmmaker who had early aspirations to become an architect, Leblanc-Roberge cites postwar New York City artist Gordon Matta-Clark as one of her primary influences. Matta-Clark made a career out of visually and physically dissecting buildings and, in the process, “rethinking what is already there.” He temporarily co-opted vacant, sometimes condemned houses and apartment buildings to reinvent their purpose and perception.6 For his well-known work Splitting (1974) Matta-Clark cut a two-story house in Englewood, New Jersey in half. Using a seat attached to a block and tackle, Matta-Clark suspended himself and made a slow descent down the exterior of the house. As he backstepped, he cut the house vertically from roof to foundation. Matta-Clark’s private performance split the suburban façade, filling it with natural light and air, and inevitably exposing it to the elements. His action was fueled by curiosity. He sought to explore how houses are made and unmade, transformed from functional residence to art object.
With Splitting, Matta-Clark claimed he gained “insight into what a house is, how solidly built, how easily moved.” He compared the house to “a perfect dance partner” that was alternately sturdy and dependable, fragile and malleable.7 If the house was Matta-Clark’s dance partner, then, Lydia Yee writes, his representations of buildings’ interiors—photographs, collages, photomontages—“suggest a disorienting pas de deux.”8 In his black-and-white photographs, windows are turned on their sides, ceilings look like floors, and the interior space of the house is one-dimensionally refigured. In the disorienting picture motifs, disparate house spaces are fused because of their adjacent placement. They are held together by visual illusions; in one case, connected by nothing more than fragments of a banister. Matta-Clark’s montages are a warped interpretation of how to build a house, if building were more about deconstructing than constructing, about making spaces that are uninhabitable rather than those that are ready for move-in. Really, Matta-Clark was asking his audience to move out all of the time. Move out as in dis-inhabit. Move out as in see the big picture—the whole for the parts and the parts as a whole.
The multiple versions of Letter to the World emphasize that, to quote art historian Miwon Kwon, “The ‘work’ no longer seeks to be a noun/object but a verb/process, provoking the viewers’ critical (not just physical) acuity regarding the ideological conditions of that viewing.” “In this context,” Kwon continues, “the guarantee of a specific relationship between an art work and its ‘site’ is not based on a physical permanence of that relationship (as demanded by Serra, for example), but rather on the recognition of its unfixed impermanence, to be experienced as an unrepeatable and fleeting situation.” Letter has, after all, existed in more than one location, as an immersive performance-event, dance video(s), and even object-ified (and multiplied) white cube(s). While the Roman numeral at the end of its title changes to indicate discrete works within a series, the series itself is premised on process. Each incarnation of Letter is a modification of and reflection upon a previous version. Letter is a single continuous process, and multiple works at once.9
Following Kwon, the site of the location-fragmented Letter is as discursive as it is physical. That is, if the conversation around the piece/piece-as-process is a continuous discourse, one in which Letter is articulated as Letters, then it is sited through reception (this review).
- Rebecca Rafferty, “Artists transform Lyric Theatre space,” Rochester City Newspaper, December 4, 2015, accessed December, 9, 2016, http://m.rochestercitynewspaper.com/rochester/transform-and perform/Content?oid=2687744.
- Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (Santa Monica: Lapis Press, 1976), 76. Originally published as “Inside the White Cube,” Artforum, 1976.
- Domhnall Mitchell, “Dickinson’s This is my Letter to the World,” The Explicator 51.3 (Spring 1993): 166.
- Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space: The Classic Look at How We Experience Intimate Places (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1969).
- Letter to the World (I) is an exception. The audience for that performance was seated in a theater.
- “Interview with Gordon Matta-Clark,” in the catalogue Gordon Matta-Clark, Internationaal CultureelCentrum, Antwerp 1977, now reprinted in Corinne Diserens (ed.) Gordon Matta-Clark (London: Phaidon, 2003),188.
- Gordon Matta-Clark interview with Liza Bear in “Gordon Matta-Clark: Splitting (The Humphrey Street Building),” Avalanche (December 1974), 37.
- Lydia Yee, “When the Sky Was the Limit” in Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark: Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, New York, 1970s (London: Barbican Gallery, 2011), 21.
- Miwon Kwon, “One Place After Another: Notes on Site-Specificity,” October V. 80 (Spring, 1997), 91.