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Reviewed by:
  • The Ladder is Always There by Amanda Coogan
  • Meiling Cheng
THE LADDER IS ALWAYS THERE. By Amanda Coogan. Curated by Matthew Nevin and Ciara Scanian. Contemporary Irish Arts Center, Los Angeles. Santa Monica, California. June 15, 2019.

Before Richard Schechner coined the term “environmental theatre” in 1968, the concept had been in practice ever since Oskar Schlemmer, in the 1920s, experimented with “the building as a stage” by [End Page 99] placing six whimsically masked and costumed actors in a vertical/diagonal formation on different floors of the Bauhaus school. Schlemmer’s spectacle not only eliminated the distance between actors and spectators, but blurred the distinction between actors and architectural elements. Blending stagecraft with choreography, Schlemmer’s theatrical work established a precedent for our contemporary cross-breed between environmental theatre (where actors mingle with audience) and performative installation (where objects act). In Amanda Coogan’s The Ladder Is Always There, I saw an elegant specimen of this crossbreed, where no preestablished boundary existed between various types of moving components, whether they be human performers, their spectators, or those kinetic and painted artifacts that formed the encompassing environment.

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Amanda Coogan, The Ladder Is Always There, at CIACLA. Coogan converging with other dancers in front of her blue-on-white mural. (Photo: Bernard O’Rourke, courtesy of CIACLA.)

Coogan’s piece addresses the creative potentials of theatre arts in an expanded posthuman performance field, in which animate and inanimate beings, the immediate and the virtual, have increasingly bled into one another. Her ensemble piece offered many concurrent solitary moments for each performer, who mostly interacted with the fabric sculpture. No prescribed audience etiquette inhibited the spectators’ autonomy for any verbal, gestural, or interventional actions. The enveloping sonic and kinetic installation constructed an immersive environ for a communal live action, where all present played a role in affecting the event.

Voluminous fabric draperies, suspended from the ceiling at different heights, occupied much of the main gallery of Contemporary Irish Arts Center, Los Angeles (CIACLA). My fellow spectators and I followed a slow procession of eight women, led by Coogan—all dressed in red, with one carrying a violin—to enter this flowing installation. The interwoven textile sweeps, ever undulating, looked like a loose weaving of waves, hills, tents, and sails. Blue ropes, tied to single women’s shoes, dropped like fishing lines, some dangling in mid-air, others reaching the floor. Murals of cobalt-blue on white, culminating in curvilinear edges like hybrids between stalactites and upside-down flames, spanned the four walls. Coogan’s title for this kinetic sculpture comes from Adrienne Rich’s poem Diving into the Wreck (1997), which traces the poet’s descent through a ladder hanging from her schooner into the ocean to explore a shipwreck. In Coogan’s piece, the “ladder” made of blue ropes was suspended above the sculptural waves in an unreachable height. The artist’s dream-like geography placed us at the bottom of the sea: full fathom five, thy performative community lies. [End Page 100]

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Amanda Coogan, The Ladder Is Always There, at CIACLA. An audience member slipped into an iPhone documenting moment. (Photo: Meiling Cheng.)

[End Page 101]

“This is the place. / And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair / streams black, the merman in his armored body. / We circle silently / about the wreck / we dive into the hold. / I am she: I am he.” Rich’s stanza from Diving into the Wreck might have served as Coogan’s choreographic score. In their striking red against the swaying fabric currents in pale flesh color, the performers dispersed into various blue-and-white corners, like pied-piper fish drawing schools of gazing anchovies around them. Now a mermaid pulled down the waves to hide her face; now a merman crawled about haltingly like a sea turtle; now she pensively grabbed onto another dancer’s ankle, her arm an octopus circling silently; now he paused like a Roden statue, a red remnant left to rot in the wreck. Meanwhile, an intricate soundscape, melodious here and pulsating there, emanated from composer Emer Kinsella’s bow, vigorously sawing on...


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pp. 99-102
Launched on MUSE
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