I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Gillian Walsh discusses her dance series Grinding and Equations, the art of ass tyranny, and the mystery of the “Monica Lewinsky moment.
In Gillian Walsh’s series of dance works, Grinding and Equations, the fetishized body meets choreography in its most calculated, relentless form. Here are two asses—two asses that are part of two bodies—sometimes performed by Gillian Walsh and Robert Maynard, sometimes by Gillian and a pre-recorded video of herself, and sometimes by Gillian and a completely new and un-rehearsed performer. Each cheek of each ass twitches in accordance with a regulated time structure.
One. One two. Two three. Four two three one.
This kind of detail requires a particular kind of attention, a gaze that mainstream culture does not prepare you for. By locating this rigorous exactitude in the ass, Gillian makes the processes by which our bodies become fetishized hyper-visible. We experience Gillian’s intellectual deconstruction of fetishism through her embodiment of the process. In Gillian’s world, the idea, the body, the action, and the dance are distilled to a singular experience in which they can all coexist. It is at once subtle and virtuosic. It is detached but it cares about you. It is post-modern and pop-culture. It is a score that Gillian mostly fails but also sometimes executes perfectly, usually with the help of a cyborgian double-self who accompanies her via computer screen. And when she does execute, after we have all been watching the tireless work of trying to “get something right,” that magical thing happens—the moment when a body exceeds its persistent failure and achieves fleeting perfection—a thing that is sometimes, although very rarely, possible in dance. I imagine the kind of excitement and nervous anticipation that filled spectators when Nijinsky would leap across the stage in Le Spectre de la Rose. It manifests through a suspension of belief that seems to hold time in the air. In Gillian’s work, we just don’t see it coming, and that is precisely what makes it so subversive and so very satisfying.
Gillian and I sat down to discuss her choreographic process in August, and over the past six months we have remained in dialogue, shaping the conversation that is published here today. As Gillian says of her work, “I’m still researching … trying to resist the pressure to jump to arrive somewhere or create a product. Never believe in arrival.” And so this conversation follows suit—we didn’t want it to arrive, but nevertheless, here it is.
LAUREN BAKST So Ass Tyranny, is this the section where you and Robert are on the floor?
GILLIAN WALSH Yeah. Ass Tyranny is choreography for butt cheeks—or really any four flesh parts. It’s been performed mostly by Robert Maynard and myself but recently I’ve also been performing with other people, performing teaching Ass Tyranny to other people, and performing Ass Tyranny duets with myself. Was the performance at Dixon Place the only thing you saw?
LB Dixon and some of what you guys did at Bodega.
GW A lot happened in between the enclosed space of a storefront window at Bodega and Grinding and Equations: issue no. 4 at Dixon. We had a theater and 20 minutes. Bizarre. The time frame felt totally inappropriate for the work, which made me (and the performance) a bit frantic. I had a lot of trouble with Dixon actually, because … I felt like I had to do a show in 20 minutes in a theater. Which I guess is exactly what happened. The theater setting felt completely at odds with the material and the work. I want people to watch us, but I don’t want to craft anyone’s 15 minutes … yet.
Image was a key part of what I had been working with in the spring—reflections and images of ourselves. I’m interested in people seeing those differences in how we’re looking at ourselves, so in the basic black rectangle of Dixon we needed to bring in mirrors, cameras, videos, and computers for us to be able to deal with performing and watching ourselves in different ways. We film ourselves, we copy old videos of ourselves, we look in mirrors, sometimes all at once. It’s important that we have the right amount of reflection and action. Then it becomes clear how differently we look at ourselves when we’re trying to copy ourselves, or when we’re trying to watch ourselves being filmed, or when we’re looking in a mirror.
LB It was great to sense the audience kind of freaking out at Dixon.
GW They didn’t know what to do.
LB We were told that you wanted us to come down onto the stage and that you would tell us where we should go, but no one ever told us where to go. It totally disturbed our sense of comfort and safety as audience members. It forced us to make decisions about where to sit or stand and how to watch. Even though the performance was only fifteen minutes or so, it felt like it could and did go on for a long time, I think in a necessary way for what you were doing.
GW Yes—it needs time. I think most pieces do. It could’ve probably, should’ve gone on for longer. In that context it became so obvious that people were like, I don’t know where to stand. Am I performing? Who’s watching me? It’s that ambiguity, which I love, but it can create a very nervous environment. The work functions somewhere between theatrical and public space, and I think a lot of people are unsure how they should be watching or interacting with us. I set up a voyeuristic structure that the audience can look into, but that also alienates people. Some people refuse to even look in.
LB How are you scoring this?
GW I’m working with these scores because I want more detail. I also want to emphasize the work and the virtuosity in what we’re doing with our bodies. The movements people are seeing as informal, erotic, or whatever are all choreographed. Ass shaking = virtuosic. And that is all choreographed, rehearsed, skilled, learned. The score helps to emphasize that. The work is titled Grinding and Equations, and I feel like lately the math of it has been lost on the audience, mostly because the disruptive/destructive structure of the work does not immediately invite people to read mathematical choreographic clarity, plus the movement material is not capital D dance. I love specificity and details within what looks like chaos or a fleshy mess. So I made these scores, and each number corresponds to an ass cheek.
LB So two are yours, and two are Robert’s?
GW One, two is Robert and three, four is me. Just recently I had this showing, part of Sophia Cleary’s informal works-in-progress series REHEARSAL, which was a perfect environment to try out the ass-tyranny-notation-systems and how to use the scores to teach the choreography to other people. I treated it like a twerk-notation-system-workshop which was great, and used the time to teach Sophia the one, two part of the score. It took about 20 minutes. We were actually just on the floor, and we didn’t do anything else. But there was a task for people to follow and the audience had copies of the score to follow along with if they wanted. We were trying to get something right. That was somewhat clearer because we had this score. Now I’ve been trying to create them alone, just through writing, which is really maybe perverted and anti-dance. But they’re getting more complicated when I just make them alone and then see if I can actually do them.
LB So just for you?
GW Yeah, I mean I don’t think anybody can even read this, but hopefully somebody who has a really virtuosic ass would be able to figure this out with me. This one is not so hard, so anyone who has enough ability of butt-cheek isolation can make this work.
LB It’s a skill.
GW Yeah, and that’s kind of what it’s all about too. People keep talking about the work in terms of humor and satire. It’s only satirical if this movement is not seen as virtuosic, or skilled, or learned. It is dance. It’s just the micro-version of dance focused on one part. That’s why I like teaching it as a performance. It gets even more into the process and the tyranny of teaching someone to move a certain way, and into the fetishization of our bodies and the excess of that. Score vs. body is really scary, especially when the body is reduced to one, two, three, four ass cheeks.
LB Because the score and the movement are located in the already-totally-fetishized-ass, it really over-emphasizes how anything that is “one, two, three, four” has the potential to tyrannize or control a body. I love how detailed the score is, because what I saw at Dixon Place, I feel like it presents itself in a certain way. You guys have a certain language and material that you know you’re working with, but we’re not privy to that. And so it almost feels like you’re just working off of the moment, but there is this whole detailed exploration, and process, and rigor that goes into that.
GW Yes, but with all the detail and the scores, it’s still completely improvised. Robert and I improvise really well together and have been dancing together for a few years and have developed a sister dance language. Every relationship has its particular language. This score and Ass Tyranny is the most choreographed set of material in what you’ve seen. A lot of the material at Dixon came from copying videos of ourselves ranging from past performances to part 2, one of the videos we copy, which is something we originally filmed fucking around to Nicki Minaj. And Nicki Minaj does play a very strange part in this.
LB Oh yeah, I wanted to talk to you about that. I have written down: Nicki Minaj. There is no question, it’s just … Nicki Minaj.
GW I know, she’s become part of something I’m working on, which is kind of embarrassing in a way. I’m like, Am I that person?
LB I work with Rihanna, so—
GW —I want to know why you like Rihanna. I mean, I just don’t even find her interesting as a cultural character.
LB Oh, I find her interesting as a cultural character because of the way that sex and violence are playing out in her image. I do think of Rihanna as a person, but more so I’m working with what’s being projected in the songs that I hear and the images I see, as something that’s separate from whoever she is.
GW That’s why I’m so interested in pop music, because it’s completely disembodied. It’s like this thing that gets stuck in your head. These words and rhythms are floating around in there, just because you went into the bodega, and then that’s a person’s life. Female rap is my personal/political belief. Those bitches infiltrate and are so fucking virtuosic and nobody is ever brave enough to respond. I’m also obsessed with the way a bunch of female rappers identify with Monica Lewinsky. Right now, I’ve been listening to Lil’ Kim, Nicki, and Trina. They all have these Lewinsky moments, and I’m like, What is that? And they’re all obsessed with the president giving them things. I’m interested in that placement—all these female rappers coming up and deciding that they’re the first lady. That identity, and the way that talk about it, and the way they then talk about sex or pussy power or real power, is something I’ve been fixated on. They become part of the system and fuck up the system simultaneously. They rearrange and disturb. I’m not sure who is noticing how much some of these women are shaking up pop culture. Nicki’s always playing between normative plastic barbie and complete destructive monster—slipping between multiple personas. The way that these women are talked about in pop culture doesn’t reflect what they are actually doing or talking about and how they’re completely destroying everyone around them. It’s still in reference to their bodies, or just parts of their bodies. And Nicki’s physical transformation, too … is super interesting. Now that Nicki Minaj has become more famous, she talks more about Lil Wayne, but she’s a million times more talented than him and she’s definitely not his girl. She was a total dyke before she became famous! And now she’s like, “I love men and I love Lil Wayne.” Fuck that! If you listen to her old mix tapes and interviews, come on. Nicki Minaj’s new album is a complete obsessive parody. She obviously saw how frantic all of pop culture was and then made an album to match. It’s the most frantic album I’ve ever heard in my life. It’s completely insane—plus she’s telling people to suck her dick all the time. I think it’s amazing actually. I think it actually knows what it’s doing. I might also be delusional and fixated but I like to fixate on her.
LB I totally have those obsessive pop-culture phases too where I fixate on a particular person or icon, and then years later I’ll look back and be like, “Oh no!” but at that time I’m so sure that it totally knows what it’s doing.
GW And it probably totally doesn’t.
LB Maybe it does; maybe it doesn’t. But there’s something about you connecting to the idea that it knows what it’s doing. You’re making it know what it’s doing because that’s how you’re interpreting it and then using it in your work. Because looking at pop culture you’re constantly reconciling with what you see and everything you don’t see. The image and everything that’s behind the image. And that’s something we’re always dealing with in our lives as women, too. So that experience is then a double reflection in pop culture. It’s an interesting dynamic.
GW Totally. I think a lot of people are also scared of pop culture because they’re scared of connecting to the mainstream, and they don’t want their work to reflect that, or get swallowed by it, which I totally understand. I don’t want my work to reflect Pilobolus, but I also don’t think I need to be scared of it. You know, it’s all material, and it’s really potent. Everybody is listening to this, and everybody’s affected by it. And whether you like it or not, you are. It’s a giant controlling force in our world, especially in a city.
LB I was just on a road trip over the weekend, listening to pop music in the car, and I was thinking to myself, I don’t even know how I know the lyrics to this song but I know them.
GW They’re there. They’re there.
LB And I’m not constantly listening to the radio, but I’ll hear something in a cab, or a bodega, or a store, and it sticks.
GW Exactly, it always sticks. I don’t listen to the radio—Nicki found me.
LB The phrase that I came up with to describe what I saw at Dixon was “unsatisfying eroticism.” The movement vocabulary you’re using—and the fact that it’s located in an erotic site—is linked to the way sex is commodified and represented in popular culture. At the same time nothing actually lasts long enough for me to feel satisfied by the unison of it, or the rhythm of it, or the sex of it. It would almost reach that point, and then you guys would be like, “Oh no, we’re doing something else.” And then also because of unsettling the audience and because of your and Robert’s relationship and how it’s playing out in the piece, there’s no way in which I can actually be fulfilled by what’s happening and I find that super interesting because it’s not catering to the assumption that a choreographer needs to fill the audience’s fifteen minutes with a narrative arc.
GW Right, I’m not crafting the time in that way.
LB But also, it’s totally disturbing those eroticized images of the body or the fetishization of the body that we’re so used to.
GW I think the eroticism is coming from a place of being totally uninterested in the sterile-equals-intellectual model that has a stronghold in dance and performance … and everywhere. The movement material is coming from a place where we want to play with body as image vs. body as flesh heap, dance as tyrannical and excessive bodily form. Satisfaction has so much to do with expectation and what you’re used to—what kinds of bodies do you expect to see doing what, where? Who is it for? Satisfying for who? What do you expect our bodies to do for you, to you, in front of you in whatever given environment? I’m interested in when people are getting bored or dissatisfied. I’m interested in figuring out how people are watching us. People are bored because they think it’s too repetitive, or that I don’t care about them as an audience—
LB I mean I totally felt like that. I felt like you didn’t care about me, but—
GW —But I also do. I want you guys to watch. I want to let you look at what I’m doing which is a different way of asking for your attention. Extreme narcissism is an intentional material in the work. I want you to watch what I’m doing. Look at me, don’t look at me …
LB Or why would you be doing it?
GW Right. Not that this is the only alternative, but I just don’t want to make and perform a piece facing front in a black rectangle for people, and then call it research on fetishism. That seems totally disturbing and like the completely wrong frame for the things I’m working on. I’m also really interested in dance that uses traditional theatrical settings and formal choreographic frames to realize something or complicate something about the body and dance. I’m interested in ways that choreographers like RoseAnne Spradlin and luciana achugar can be totally tyrannical in the structure and choreography of their work, but the material and texture of the work is so bodily. Luciana’s work is framing this indulgent, excessive movement in these really formal frames—it gives you the ability to look at the body differently within dance.
LB I was thinking about the relationship between material and structure. And the way the way that those things can disrupt each other.
GW Totally. It’s all about detail and framing.
Lauren Bakst is a choreographer, dancer, writer, and feminist thinker living in Brooklyn, NY.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee