PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 22.1 (2000) 10-25
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Sally Gross, Suddenly
The room is warm and silent in the afterglow of Robert Een's sexy "Il Pomodoro," a love song he plays on his cello and croons, in Italian, with Katie Geissinger. After the last mellow note, four women in pale pants and leotards enter and sit quietly on the floor in a row, stage right, facing the line of black-clothed musicians. (The dancers are Jamie Di Mare, Jesika Gastonguay, Mei Yin Ng, and Corinne Sarian; the musicians include Jeff Berman on vibraphone, along with Een and Geissinger.) Two sheer white screens flank the upstage corners, and four white wooden chairs are lined up stage left, parallel to the seated women across the floor. On each chair is a small construction, a little building, perhaps a house, made of bright wooden blocks.
Sally Gross, in drapey dark brown shirt and pants, walks into the performing space and softly flings herself into a solo. Her movements are familiar to those of us who have seen her work many times over the years: they are the basic actions of walking and running, changing directions, tracing patterns on the floor with feet and in the air with arms that extend and retract. This time Gross seems almost to be performing with two partners: the upstage wall and the audience. She falls into the wall, catching it with her outstretched hand, then rebounds, running toward the spectators and looking us in the eye, not quite dropping into our arms. Her almost-gray hair is a chic triangle above her chin, and her face is fierce and fragile.
Suddenly Then She . . . , a full-evening dance presented at New York City's Joyce SoHo in May 1998, continues choreographer Sally Gross's longtime tradition of annual concerts, each of them marked by her commitment to the plainest and most minimalist resolutions to the movement problems she sets up and to the assumption that those simple lines in time and space are charged with the lives of the movers who make them. This last part, admittedly, was not always part of the way she thinks about choreography. She conceives and speaks of her work in terms of movement. But even in the earliest of the many conversations we've held in the years since I began searching into the relationship between dance--especially dance with a formalist base--and self-representation, Gross framed her dances in terms of autobiography. "All of my dance is autobiographical," she once said, "I don't think I've left any of my history out." 1 [End Page 10]
This statement is deceptively simple. While the surge of interest in autobiography continues unabated across the arts, much of the performance associated with autobiography is literary or verbal. But dance, the form integrally situated in the body, also offers possibilities of performing autobiography. In some instances, these possibilities lie in movement itself; in others, movement is mingled--in the act of performance, in its preparation, in its inspiration--with words.
Sally Gross began dancing in the 1950s and was active in the workshops and concerts of the Judson Dance Theater, the arena in which, from 1962 to 1964, postmodern dance came into being. The work that emerged from the Judson, at least its most conceptually adventurous and influential wing, was concerned with redefining dance through a range of strategies that focused on its fundamental formal properties: movement, time, and space. Other qualities associated with dance, such as "spectacle," "virtuosity," "glamor," and "seduction"--the catalogue of antagonisms named by Yvonne Rainer in her 1965 manifesto--were largely dispensed with. The Judson works placed the emerging ideas about dance and the choreographic acts that embodied them up front and center.
But these dances, and those made since by Gross and others who have continued their choreographic careers, have, or have accrued, another life. Dances not intentionally conceived of as autobiography in any documentary sense--what I call "explicit autobiography"--often nonetheless perform autobiography more obliquely or indirectly: "implicit autobiography...