Uncanny Juxtapositions / Scores Will Void, Sentences Will Leave a Ladder: On Works by Renee Gladman and Tristan Koepke & Benny Olk

In this Uncanny Juxtaposition:

Tristan Koepke and Benny Olk, There’s More Than One Bed. Produced by Arena Dances and premiered at the CANDY BOX Dance Festival, Southern Theater, Minneapolis, MN, running April 25–27, 2024.


Renee Gladman, Plans for Sentences (Seattle and New York: Wave Books, 2022).

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I am drawn to forms that can flip themselves over, expose the other side of the coin. Writings that are drawings, poems that are scores, notebooks that are love letters, dances that are someone else’s memory—nothing is ever just one thing. As a choreographer, this is one of the reasons I work with scores. The word comes from “cut,” as in a notch or a tally. A form of mark-making that gives rise to more making, a score, according to Carlos Basualdo, “fuses action with abstraction, making them indistinguishable.” The past action, the present material, and the future activation are all happening simultaneously within the score itself.

The score’s temporality forms a link between two recent works: a dance performance by Tristan Koepke and Benny Olk, titled There’s More Than One Bed, and a book of poems and drawings by Renee Gladman. Expanding on scores created by Merce Cunningham, Koepke and Olk’s ensemble dance explores devotion and longing, extending from the romantic dyad to the creative process to the group dynamic. Gladman, composing with line and language, sketches instructions for something yet to come: plans for future sentences. The pen and watercolor drawings are made of words, buildings, and words that will become buildings. Although they were not created in relation to each other, these works share an attunement to structure, a commitment to an angular yet drifting architecture. Open forms leave space for the world to enter, for meaning to shift or be put towards unintended ends.

When Koepke and Olk invited me to visit a rehearsal several months prior, Olk showed me the key source material: one of Merce Cunningham’s choreography notebooks, originally printed in a limited edition and found on eBay.1 Legend has it, Olk tells me, that John Cage sent Merce Cunningham a stack of love letters and Merce responded with this. Contained inside are a series of drawings, or plans for a dance, or graphic scores. What it looks like are stick figures and arrows in various configurations, moving through a series of spatial patterns in an aerial view of the stage. In their performance, Koepke, Olk, and three other artists (James Barrett, Emilia Bruno, and Marc Macaranas) follow Cunningham’s shapes but fill in movements where none were specified, departing from and fleshing out the choreography.

At the premiere in April, the ensemble begins by entering in the dark and standing in a closed circle, arms interlinked. As the lights fade up, the form becomes pliable. The dancers cross over and under their linked hands: forming arches, scooping low, threading through limbs. They huddle, but each body retains its own shape. Touch is light and design-minded; there is no need to push or strain. There is a deliberate, factual quality to their phrase work, and the movement vocabulary lives in the shadow of Cunningham technique: balletic lines reshuffled into angular forms, classicism disassembled and reformatted. As the piece is underway, the dancers call out numbers in order. These calls point to a shared reference, an organizing principle. An observer need not know the code, only that the dancers know it together, and that the numbers set things in motion.

Performance still from Tristan Koepke and Benny Olk, There’s More Than One Bed (CANDY BOX Dance Festival, Southern Theater, Minneapolis, MN, April 25–27, 2024). Photo: Bill Cameron.


Performance still from Tristan Koepke and Benny Olk, There’s More Than One Bed (CANDY BOX Dance Festival, Southern Theater, Minneapolis, MN, April 25–27, 2024). Photo: Bill Cameron.


Gladman’s Plans for Sentences resonates with Cunningham’s notebook. The book comprises a series of 60 figures, with a drawing (at left) adjacent to text (at right) with the refrain “These sentences will—” acting an accelerant, launching a multitude of actions, results, and revisions. The forms seem to interlock: the line drawings contain loops that look like letters, and they highlight the visual form of the printed font. One line folds over onto the next, in a way that could sound like a contradiction but is actually revealing another facet of the shape. In the drawings, sometimes the structure takes the form of a structure, with walls or floors that come and go, and elements of the natural world (horizon, moss) touch down and depart again. Bodies are not mentioned, but these sentences begin to feel like bodies because they are endowed with as much agency, adaptability. These structures are full of breath; the air in the architecture seems to hum.

Language and its units are the subjects here: sentences and chapters and other grammatical elements appear, but primarily they are activated. The sentences flood, divide, erupt, foment, hang, blacken, emerge, shoal, distill, constellate, signal, erase, and evacuate. The void is activated over and over, not only as the echo of the empty expanse, but as an act of clearing, of starting over. The verbs do so much that action seems to be the building material itself. They project into the future, or promise an action to come—while holding an undeniable, present concreteness. Gladman writes that the drawings “begin already having been sentences somewhere else, and this will mark their afterlife, and this will be their debut” (1). Their futurity is recursive; all tenses overlap on the page. You can slide your fingers over every time at once.

Scores hold a tension between saying and doing, concept and materiality. Yet they also, as Gladman says, “balance the question of movement against that of enclosure” (15). Even the most open scores begin with an ending, voiding countless possible outcomes. If we choose this set of instructions, it will direct not just where we go but how we get there, even if we disobey some instructions along the way. So, too, Koepke and Olk have been directed by Cunningham’s diagrams, fleshing out empty spaces. But by extending them off the page and into the dimension of time, they also show how scores are inevitably altered, adapted, accelerated.

I wonder about the political implications of activating Cage and Cunningham’s material in 2024, and how their work might be applied towards divergent political ends. The week of Koepke and Olk’s premiere, John McWhorter wrote in the New York Times that he could not teach Cage’s 4’33” in his class at Columbia University because the sound of “silence,” “birds,” or “people walking by” would be disturbed by the voices from the student encampments protesting the ongoing genocide in Gaza. His essay was met with the outcry that he was not only misunderstanding the work, not only sanitizing or depoliticizing it, but actually repurposing it to discredit a contemporary political reality. Here, we see how the score can become a mirror for the desires, beliefs, alliances, and patterns of the user. I take a break from reading Gladman, idly scrolling, and her drawings of deconstructed architectures become juxtaposed with images of bombed-out concrete structures in Rafah, the side of a building completely shaved into rubble. This is the potentiality and the pitfall of leaving the form open—things rush into fill the void. Context may crumble as additions are built onto the structure.

Time might also alter what it means to bring Cage and Cunningham’s queer relationship—which was not public during their lifetimes—into the light. In their piece, Koepke and Olk seek out the shades of romance and/or eroticism that might be submerged in their source material. After the light tension of the opening circle turns outwards, it finds each of the dancers in a deep lunge. Simultaneously together but alone, they each reach down to grip their front ankle, sliding the palms up over muscular calves, knees, thighs, to hold and lift the crotch. They drop it.

Later on, out of a swirling group pattern, a line emerges. A trio takes hands behind their backs like cygnets in reverse. Quickly, the hands drop to adjacent ass cheeks. Quickly, they squeeze. Quickly, they drop. The work points in the direction of desire but it’s light, cheeky, sweet. The soundscore by Ethan Philbrick, which correspondingly uses some of Cage’s scores, also employs text from Cage’s letters to Merce: the line I scribbled down in the dark was, “I jump and leap for you.”2 In the lobby after the show, Olk quips, “John would hate that,” and I agree—nothing that saccharine would have broken the surface into public display. Is that a sign of how the times have changed, a shifted context for queer expression, or a sentimentality around its past forms?

Performance still from Tristan Koepke and Benny Olk, There’s More Than One Bed (CANDY BOX Dance Festival, Southern Theater, Minneapolis, MN, April 25–27, 2024). Photo: Bill Cameron.


With past, present, future all overlapping in these pieces, is there in fact a kind of stasis? When the present is unbearable, the future becomes the question. In schools of Black and queer thought, the future is both rich and contested, revealing the shape of current experience. Futurism might feel like reparation, persistence, ineffable possibility, or utopian becoming—or we might refuse the compulsory futurity of social reproduction, refuse to be complicit in following the given score.3 Both Plans for Sentences and There Is More Than One Bed sit next to these lineages of ambivalent futurity, holding the timeline open. Gladman’s work persists in its future tense, its insistence on what will be, even as it holds the form of a solid object. It looks forward in time not only because of the verb tense, but because it is a score and the activation of a score simultaneously. Koepke and Olk’s piece looks over its shoulder even as the dancers keep moving forward. A dancer brings the back of their wrist to their forehead; the cello laments. There is striving and there is melancholy all at once. The work feels unsettled in its temporality somehow, like a memory that is not yours, like it is reaching for a time that is not this one. And how can anyone bear to be in the present? Perhaps this is why both works hold a temporal tension in relation to their medium, time inherently tugging at the form.

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  1. Merce Cunningham, A Pictures Book for J.C. Xmas 1984 (Red Hook, NY: The John Cage Trust, 2012).
  2. John Cage, Love, Icebox: Letters from John Cage to Merce Cunningham (Red Hook, NY: The John Cage Trust, 2019).
  3. I am thinking of writing towards and against futurity by scholars such as José Esteban Muñoz, Lee Edelman, and many others.