Experimental Criticism / Choreography in Moving Pictures: Six Ways of Looking at Blondell Cummings / Elinor Hitt

Illustration by Fran_kie

This cluster on “experimental criticism” grew out of a graduate seminar on this topic that took place at Harvard in the fall of 2021. All the essay contributions to the cluster bear some relation to the course, whether as revisions to participants’ final projects or as pursuits of experimental practices explored and initiated there. To register the collaborative pedagogic origins of this project, in lieu of a typical introduction, we have provided an annotated syllabus, with snapshots of participants’ reflections on the semester’s readings and discussions footnoted at the bottom of the page. You are invited to click on any of the numbered footnotes scattered throughout the syllabus to jump to a specific annotation. In addition to offering a window into our individual responses to the course readings, we hope that the annotations provide you with a collective context for the essays to follow.

Within the cluster, you will find experimentation that takes many forms: Yoojung Chun’s choose-your-own-adventure rumination on the constancy of parental grief, as depicted by the intersections between the art video game “That Dragon, Cancer” and the 14-century Middle English poem Pearl; Marie Ungar’s investigation of the category of “cringe,” what it might look like if Susan Sontag and Erving Goffman joined forces; Elinor Hitt’s encounter with the “kinesthetic empathy” inspired by the choreography of Blondell Cummings; William Martin’s essay/fiction hybrid, describing a senior named Dexter’s spectral encounter with the wisdom of Charles Waddell Chesnutt in his university’s archive; Harry Hall’s poignant parody of academese, presented in the form of a futuristic academic lecture on the film Call Me By Your Name, in a 2052 edited volume; Sam Bozoukov’s paratactic account of learning to listen to literature—and to life’s unpredictable lessons—through Milton. Accompanying our cluster as a special feature is a questionnaire that was sent to several of the leading author-critics on our syllabus, requesting their thoughts on the status of disciplinary experiment today. The responses we received, from Charles Bernstein, Samuel R Delany, Wai Chee Dimock, Eric Hayot, Emily Ogden, and Paul Saint-Amour, are a trove of useful references, reflections, examples, and qualifications.

—Beth Blum

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I.

The black-and-white video1 opens with a close-up on a paper grocery bag. A woman’s hand floats into the frame, picking up the bag by wrapping one delicate, deliberate finger around the handles one at a time. Facing away from us, she swings the bag and her arms in time with the start of a minimalistic, percussive score that sounds something like a train leaving the station. She walks in place with authority; it is an invitation to follow. The scene cuts, and she sits at a table in a kitchen evoking a modest 1950s household. The antiquated set and black-and-white film seem almost at odds with the electronic-sounding music that builds, a clear relic of the ’80s. The woman’s movements at the table are subtle and uncanny. Her head and neck move in a serpentine fashion to the left and right as she makes exaggerated expressions, pantomiming gossip with an unseen companion. Her movements are sharp and distinct, creating the illusion that she is under a strobe light or, rather, caught on slowly projected 35 mm film. There is nothing discomfiting about this technique; she rocks back and forth like a metronome keeping time with the repeated gestures, as though easing into a rocking chair. She mimes chatting and threads a needle in stop motion as a soft voice reads over the score: “The kitchen was the same. The table was the enamel table common to our class. Easy to clean, with wood corners for indigent and old cockroaches that couldn’t make the kitchen sink.” The kitchen is at once an inviting and alienating space. This table is both hers and everyone’s.

Archiving dance is a difficult task, as its intent is to capture some ephemeral trace of a body in motion in a permanent form—that form usually video, as any other means of written or photographic notation was outpaced by the technological advances of the 1970s and ’80s. Video, however, is imperfect, often stripping live performance of its cathartic potential. But videos of the solo work of choreographic great Blondell Cummings (1944-2015) are a rare exception. She made her seminal autobiographical solo Chicken Soup (1981), which I have described above, during a first wave of recording dance on film. Her work facilitated a new and sympathetic relationship between the two forms. Yes, dance was entirely dependent on film for its survival as an artform. But due to the trans-mediation necessitated by the archival process, film techniques permeated into dance. Cummings took advantage of this aesthetic exchange, accentuating and capturing how the body moves on film, regardless of the camera’s actual presence. She went so far as to call her choreographic work “moving pictures,”2 anticipating or keeping pace with the development of the emergent poetics of television, by literary behemoths of the 1980s such as Claudia Rankine, Trey Ellis, and David Foster Wallace. Cummings scholar Ann Cooper Albright describes it as “her uncanny ability to segment movement into a series of fact stop-action bits,” writing that “the movement technique is a result of grafting photographic images onto the kinetic energy of dance” (Choreographing Difference 131).

Forty years after its conception, Chicken Soup haunts the Internet’s public domain in strange ways. One of the only places that the piece is available in its entirety is on YouTube, a video taken from a 1988 TV program called “Alive From Off Center.” In many respects, it is a successful if incidental effort at preservation—the video quality perfect, and the score, composed by Cummings, Brian Eno, and Meredith Monk, coming through loud and clear. But the video setting has been curated too intensely, unlike her works on stage. The universality of Cummings’s gestures and words are placed in the very particular historical context of a mid-century, middle-class American kitchen, in which Cummings simultaneously evokes bourgeoise housewife life and female domestic labor: She wears a crisp, collared white dress and apron and moves in the stage set complete with countertop, stove, and kitchen sink. This production too heavily guides us toward a fixed interpretation of the abstract words and movement themselves.

Chicken Soup also lives in the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival online archive,3 though it is only an excerpt from Cummings’s performance at the Massachusetts venue in July 1989. The video is blurry, revealing that it was still not yet the norm to film and archive performances professionally. Cummings first began working on Chicken Soup as a founding member of Monk’s avant-garde company, the House, for a 1973 evening-length program of autobiographical works titled Education of a Girlchild. It is in the Jacob’s Pillow footage that one can imagine Chicken Soup in its most authentic form. The music is the greatest difference, barely recognizable compared to the machine-like audio in the “Alive From Off Center” version. Though you can pick out some of the same rhythms and melodies, the music seems to be played live by a single pianist using the score as a template on which to improvise. The set, too, could not be more understated. Cummings sits at a dark table that almost blends unnoticed against the black backdrop. She is clad, instead of a housewife’s costume, in a simple white dress with a large gathered skirt. What emerges is a much more impressionistic, introspective Chicken Soup. This blank canvas of stage could be anyone’s kitchen in any period of time—an invitation for the audience to graft their own experiences onto Cummings choreography. This kitchen might even exist apart from any concrete time or place, belonging to communal memory. What is nearly lost in the blur of video is the precision of Cummings’s expressions, what Glenn Philips of the Getty Museum calls her “facial choreography” (1). But that lost element comes across in the palpable silence of the audience, the emotional tenor of the theater space itself—a quality that is rarely transmissible by video and that speaks to Cummings’s power as a performer.

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II.

She traces her index finger in a slow line across the table as if looking for something to point to. The camera pans to her face, and she jolts to attention, waking from a daydream. She raises her index finger, now waving it in the air and mouthing indecipherable words that seem aimed at a disobedient child. Her back straightens, and she begins to rock again, chatting with the unseen confidante and sharply performing the motions of spreading fabric and cards or place settings upon the table. “Coming through the open-window kitchen,” the voice narrates, “all summer they drank iced coffee. With milk in it.” Each movement corresponding to a note in the score: The woman makes the motion of taking a thirst-quenching drink and then smaller, dainty sips of coffee, pinky up, with sideways glances at a friend. Her hands move in looped choreography, repeatedly bringing the delicate, invisible cup to her lips. She recalls a conductor carefully brandishing a baton, and the rocking of her body keeps time all the while.

In a class called “From Page to Stage” taught by Seth Williams at the Barnard Dance Department, I saw Cummings’s Chicken Soup for the first time. It shook me—like the dancer out of her daydream—out of some trance I had unknowingly entered, jaded and still recovering from an early retirement from a career in ballet. I had forgotten that dance could affect a person so. Each stop-motion gesture, each staccato note, joined into a choreographed series of Barthian puncta—those elements of photographs that jump out and prick the viewer, the features that at once allure and menace. The dance department attracted many recent former professionals, like me, or young women who trained in dance through high school—most all of us raised in the whitewashed world of classical ballet. Most of us had little knowledge of American dance in the 1980s avant-garde scene, where people took off their shoes, spoke as they moved, and danced across racial lines in theaters below 14th Street. For us, there was no Monk and Cummings, no Yvonne Rainer, no Bill T. Jones. Cummings, the arguable mother of the pre-millennium avant-garde in dance, rocked me to my core, transporting me from the seminar room in Barnard Hall into her imagined kitchen. I was watching, almost actually sensing, in a state of what Susan Foster terms the “kinesthetic empathy,” the memories Cummings projected like a series of photographs or film on a reel.

As Brent Edwards says of experiencing the punctum, “There have been attempts to describe this effect, undeniably rare as it may be, as something integral to the taste of the archive, to the sensation of encountering a past through it” (emphasis added, 945). Choosing a name like Chicken Soup, Cummings encourages her audience to think of her dance as “food for thought,” a phrase she would later use as the title for her evening-length expansion of this initial solo. Cummings conjures a sensorial experience, a “taste” of the memories and snapshots she re-lives, which miraculously remain uncorrupted, faulty though the video archive may be.

Perhaps, in writing, there is a way to bring Cummings back to life and set her in motion once more—in turn re-centering her, and the creative influence of Black female choreographers more broadly, at the heart of the post-modern movement in dance and the criticism thereof. I will not attempt to speak for the Black female experience and its representation in art. I hope, instead, to seek some deeper understanding of the aesthetics that I have embodied in performance, those of Cummings’s innovation, which I now explore as a scholar. By re-examining the archive of Chicken Soup, I aim to conjure her up, inviting her to dance with us on the page.

This leads me to the question of methodology, of what must be done to re-enliven a dancer from the traces in the archive. I thus imitate Cummings’s choreographic methods as they might translate or trans-mediate into critical writing—by interspersing interpretations and histories of Chicken Soup with snapshots of the piece as rendered in prose. This is an attempt to replicate the structure and affective experience of Chicken Soup itself, engendering, as it were, a form of stop-motion criticism. Regardless of the success or failure of such a method, I will endeavor to meet Cummings at the place where dance, word, and memory meet. What she might reveal to us there is yet to be discovered.

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III.

She angles her jaw and cheekbones to the left and right, as if kissing visitors repeatedly on each cheek, then makes motions to smooth out her sleeves and an imagined cloth atop the table. “They sat in their flower print house dresses at the white enameled kitchen table. Near the window sometimes. But rarely laughing.” The woman angles herself all the way back as if craning to hear a whispered secret or missed joke, holding herself in this awkward position for a prolonged instant. Here the movement deviates from the words spoken, almost rebelliously so. When the voice speaks, “but rarely laughing,” the woman unwinds herself and begins to quake with silent laughter. The laugh almost looks indecipherable from keening sobs, if it weren’t for the exaggerated grin on her face. She sits up straight as suddenly as she began, and covers her mouth with her hand, beginning, again, to rock gently in time.

Cummings operates at the juncture of dance and moving image. But what of the overarching presence of words in Chicken Soup? Dance is usually a silent form, and Cummings seems to be playing with the long tradition of balletic pantomime as a form of storytelling. But the spoken text chafes against the movement, disrupting any neat understanding of her choreographic project and the story at hand.

Scholarship done on Cummings, and on Chicken Soup in particular, classifies the work as autobiography. Albright likens Cummings’s solo dances to those of Isadora Duncan, which delved into the themes of motherhood, grief, and artistic creation drawn from the artist’s life. But when Duncan, off stage, chose to write a memoir, words proved a more challenging medium. “Incidents which seemed to me to last a lifetime have taken only a few pages,” she reflects at the end of her book. “I often ask myself desperately, what reader is going to be able to clothe with flesh the skeleton that I have presented?” (Albright 92). Perhaps dance is more apt to “clothe with flesh” the daily motions and emotions that might fall between the lines of written word. In Duncan’s work as in Cummings’s, there was a movement away from the homogeny of the nineteenth-century corps de ballet and toward individual expression. Pointe shoes were traded for bare feet, and plot, if any, was rooted in personal experience rather than the fairy tale and folklore of classical ballet.4

Cummings, if we are reading Chicken Soup as a literary work, also operates in the long American tradition of Black female writers employing and shaping the genre of autobiography—going back to the slave narratives of Harriet Jacobs and Mary Prince. Perhaps, in dance, Cummings offers a new autobiography of the female community from which she emerged, embodying again the American story of expression under oppression in post-modern terms. As Trey Ellis quotes James Baldwin in the epigraph to “The New Black Aesthetic”:

While the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in darkness…  And this tale, according to that face, that body, those strong hands on those strings, has another aspect in every country, and a new depth in every generation. (qtd. in Ellis 185)

Ellis takes up Baldwin’s words as a challenge, nominating himself and his peers in the Black avant-garde as storytellers for a new generation. Cummings was indeed working at the same time as Ellis, in 1980s New York. There is no record of whether they crossed paths, or perhaps it is lost deep in the archive. But one cannot read this epigraph alongside Chicken Soup and not consider how Cummings answered Baldwin’s call to tell this tale in the most literal of ways—with “that face, that body, those strong hands”—his words serving as choreographic instruction to re-embody a personal and communal history in dance.

The intersection of autobiography and choreography brings to mind the close relationship in early slave narratives between literacy and physical freedom, words and the power to move one’s own body at will. Frederick Douglass makes the connection explicit when he writes of how his master would not allow him to learn to read, because it would lead to his empowerment and ultimate movement toward freedom: “It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired” (36). Prince was likewise able to gain power within her community and ultimately gain global mobility, and Jacobs stresses the importance of reading not only for acquiring freedom, but also for re-telling one’s story for the benefit of others.

Dance, especially the post-modern, which pulls freely from literary sources and methods, is an apt medium for exploring the marriage of literacy, storytelling, and physical liberation—elements all at play in Cummings’s work. But the post-modern interest in the interwoven freedoms to read, write, and move was most at issue in the 1980s’ voguing and ball culture. New York vogue artists such as Willi Ninja and Paris Dupree developed a lexicon of steps and gestures, often playing with stop motion and freeze-frame techniques, to communicate or even “write” the story of oneself on the ballroom floor. In either dance, words, or a combination of the two, fellow ball-goers would “read,” or masterfully insult and interpret, that which their competitors have put forth. In the words of RuPaul Charles, paraphrasing ballroom legend Dorian Corey and even evoking Douglass, “Reading is fundamental.” There is a trace of ballroom camp in Cummings’s own work—the exaggerated facial expressions and commedia del arte-esque pantomime. She tells the story of a particular time and place, while also casting her subtle current judgments upon it in performance—writing a story of experience while also “reading” it, in Corey’s sense of the word. The New York ballroom scene, with both its interest in photographic and filmic aesthetics and its cooptation of literary terms and methods, could be viewed as the uptown counterpart to Cummings’s endeavors on the downtown stage.

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IV.

The woman moves her hands gently, while she rocks, into the shape of two puppet mouths talking to each other. The soft voice correspondingly narrates, “…endlessly talking about childhood friends.” She brings her pointer finger to the table again, searching for something on an intricate, imagined map. “Operations. And abortions.” At the mention of abortions, she begins vigorously rocking an imagined baby side to side with fierce intention. The conviction with which she rocks this child suggests that what is being spoken aloud exists under the surface of bourgeoise life, while the gestures tell a different story. What we hear now in a matter-of-fact voice was once only spoken in hushed tones. “Death. And money,” that voice continues. At the sounds of the word “death,” the dancer leans back in her chair until it almost falls over. She throws up her arms as if to spite some higher power, and her mouth is open like she is caught in a wail, or perhaps about to laugh again. At the mention of money, she returns to a seated posture, tapping the palm of her left hand with her right pointer finger in time with the fast, sharp percussion.

Cummings draws attention to how dance, by its nature an unspoken form, paradoxically communicates the ineffable. She worked at the cutting edge of where dance meets word, an intellectual space later inhabited by the white male vanguard of post-modernism—led by dance-interested such artists as William Forsythe and Samuel Beckett. Think, for example, of Beckett’s interest in the moments when movement supersedes the verbal—the aphorism that has been wrought from dialogue in Waiting for Godot: “Dance first, think afterward … It’s the natural order” (Godot 129). Cummings went a step further than Beckett, exploring how dance can itself be an intellectual act or form of thinking. Chicken Soup, almost more so than autobiography, could be classified as a cerebral exercise in muscle memory—in actually accessing and studying the human psyche with the “unthinking” instrument of the physical body.

Forsythe, who is often considered the father of contemporary and post-modern dance, followed in Cummings’s wake and coopted this interest in dance and text, movement and literacy, for the ballet stage. He explored dance and reading most explicitly in his masterwork and homage to hip hop and voguing, The Second Detail, choreographed on the National Ballet of Canada in 1992. At the front of a white-washed, grey-toned stage full of dancers moving to an electronic score sits a small sign with the word “THE” taped to it in black letters. Just as Cummings’s spoken word plays in counterpoint to her movement, the presence of this syntactical element disrupts any easy understanding of the abstract ballet and its relationship to narrative. Forsythe builds a vogue-derivative vocabulary and grammar from which he constructs his phrases, grafting the Black avant-garde movement language onto the white bodies of the original cast and onto the white-washed backdrop.

Cummings offers a counter-lineage to the postmodern canon that enshrines her white male counterparts like Beckett and Forsythe as founding fathers. Her exploration of the space between words and dance also brings light to a line of solo dancers who emerged from the Harlem Renaissance—namely Pearl Primus, who was known for her choreographic interpretation of Lewis Allan and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” and Talley Beatty, whose solo “Mourner’s Bench” brought new life to the spiritual “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” Each takes words, spoken or sung, and pairs them with movement that coalesces and deviates. This moment marked another departure from balletic homogeneity—which Forsythe often embraced with his large, mechanical ensembles—and the radical inclusion of selfhood and the individual in concert dance.

It was all the more radical when Cummings then hued her solo work from materials within her own life and consciousness. She was in many ways working parallel to Bill T. Jones, who choreographed works about the politics of his own body and those of the ailing body of his partner sick with AIDS. As Albright writes of Jones’s work, “Almost overnight, dance audiences and critics had to contend not only with verbal text in dance, but also with personal narratives that insist, sometimes in very confrontational ways, on the political relevancy of the body’s experience” (121).

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V.

The woman uses the momentum of her rocking body to swing herself out of her chair. She stands for a moment, and then lowers herself to the ground, gathering her skirt in silence and beginning to scrub the floor with a broad, bristled brush. The sound of the brush along the floor becomes the only score. With the first few strokes of the brush, the movement seems natural, un-danced. But then she lets her body take control, finding freedom and flexibility in the posture: Her back bends in time to the scrubbing and her knees slide together along the floor. Her movements become suddenly measured and shy, as if she has realized she is being watched. She looks at the audience directly, continuing to scrub. She scrubs her way over to the other side of the stage and stands.

In the Jacob’s Pillow version, the dance with the brush is performed with a more unmediated energy than in the televised version. Her body gives into the motions with more ease and intensity, and the quotidian motion of scrubbing the floor becomes almost unrecognizable. Cummings’s fixation on and play within this one everyday movement recalls how M. NourbeSe Philip describes the African-derived dance style of crumping—in which, she writes in her afterward to Zong!, “a body is contorted and twisted into intense positions and meanings that often appear beyond human comprehension” (205). By crafting a poetry that is itself “crumped,” Philip writes that it “forces [one] to read differently, bringing chaos into the language or, perhaps more accurately, revealing the chaos that is already there” (205). Cummings seems to be after similar ends. Through the rote repetitive motion and crouched position of washing the floor, Cummings reveals “the chaos that is already there” in the dancer’s body and mind. By “crumping” this everyday movement, Cummings makes it strange in the Shklovskian sense, reclaiming the potentially subservient motion as a means of unbridled personal expression. Yet a moment of self-consciousness follows: She turns deliberately toward the audience, breaking the fourth wall, as if only now aware that we are watching. We have become privy to the private chaos for half a moment, just to be reminded that we are at a distance, like outsiders,peeping toms.

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VI.

The woman takes a cast-iron pan from the countertop and hits it three times as if to cue a band. Two jazzy percussive beats start up in counterpoint. The dancer shakes the pan, allowing the movement to overtake her body and carry her across the kitchen. She falls into stillness, leaning one ear to the pan, listening as if to confirm it is the source of the rhythm—some crackling oil is causing the drumbeat. Sure of it, she stands up straight. “One. Two. Three,” she counts like a band leader. She looks at the audience once more, now with a coy smile that falls into a brief frown of disgust. As she shakes the pan, she once more mimes animated conversation—laughing, bellowing, and gesticulating like the pan were above a live flame and the kitchen full of company. She sits on the ground and opens her mouth into the pan, as if to consume its contents. She holds the pan gently and lifts it to the sky, to signal reverence – or at least an ending.

Now I find myself with more questions than answers, having attempted to bring forth a dancing specter of Cummings to little avail. What has this attempted critique in stop motion gotten me except for a stagnant version of Chicken Soup, pinned like a butterfly under glass? I am not sure why I wrote about Cummings this way, at the end of the essay. Perhaps it was the urge to classify, to understand of which media Cummings was truly master—dance, film, words. What she did, in truth, was stir them skillfully together while chatting in her kitchen. Or maybe it was to understand why Cummings’s funky realism is so often understood as autobiography, when she insists so intensely, especially in the barer productions, on the universality of its story and setting. Is there even a narrative at play here? There is a sense of teleology to Chicken Soup, yes, the frames pass, the dancer moves from sitting, to scrubbing, to standing—some movement toward triumph. I’m reminded again of Baldwin’s words that inspired Ellis. “That face, those arms, those strong hands.” In this skeleton of memory and story, in this heap of moving images that make up the Cummings archive now, perhaps all she was trying to leave us was a little food for thought.

I find myself lost in that brambly territory where dance and language meet. There seems to be something counterintuitive in the attempt to understand dance in criticism, a form wherein the ephemeral is stilled forever in words, fixed ideas, and conclusions. Is criticism the antithesis of dance? Or is dance, as a form of “reading” itself, criticism enough on its own?

Yet as I type this, I notice that the rhythm of the frying pan, the syncopated taps that signify a crackle run through my mind persistently. I find myself typing a frantic, rhythmic improvisation on my keyboard over the crackling bassline. The words before me move, if only in the very moment of writing, like dance—stilled as suddenly as they are enlivened. My words and fingers move in tandem to the beat, and I know, indeed, that Cummings has joined me here for a dance.

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Works Cited

Albright, Ann Cooper. Choreographing Difference: The Body and Identity in Contemporary Dance. Wesleyan University Press, 1997.

Albright, Ann Cooper. “Engaging Bodies: The Politics and Poetics of Corporeality,” Auto-Body Stories. Wesleyan University Press, 2013.

Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. 1952-4. Grove Press, 1982.

Cummings, Blondell. Chicken Soup. 1981, performed 1988. YouTube, “Blondell Cummings Commitment: Two Portraits,” uploaded 2 August 2012,   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6MXAdEAFr4A. Accessed 15 December 2021.

Cummings, Blondell. Chicken Soup. 1981, performed 1989. Jacob’s Pillow Dance interactive, https://danceinteractive.jacobspillow.org/blondell-cummings/chicken-soup/. Accessed 15 December 2021.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass. H.G. Collins, sixth edition, London, 1851.

Edwards, Brent Hayes. “The Taste of the Archive,” Callaloo, Volume 35, Number 4, Johns Hopkins University Press, Fall 2012.

Foster, Susan. “Movement’s contagion: the kinesthetic impact of performance.” The Cambridge Companion to Performance Studies, edited by Tracy C. Davis, Cambridge   University Press, 2008.

Philip, M. NourbSe. Zong!. Wesleyan University Press, 2011.

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This is part of the cluster Experimental Criticism. Read the other posts here.

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Endnotes

  1. To view this solo work, follow this link and watch up to minute 6:40.
  2. There is currently an exhibition at the Getty Museum by this title on Cummings’s video archive.
  3. Follow this link for the Jacob’s Pillow version.
  4. That being said, it would be interesting to consider Chicken Soup in relation to American folklore.