Vanessa Justice Dance at the Joyce SoHo

Vanessa Justice Dance in FLATLAND, photo by Ian Douglas

FLATLAND is a curious name for such a richly textured work that draws on many forms and mediums – movement, film, and animation – for inspiration.  Last Thursday, the evening-length piece by Vanessa Justice premiered at the Joyce SoHo, where Justice is currently a Residency Artist.  Chilling effects, such as audio excerpts from the 1977 film “Eraserhead” and black and white video projections of the piece’s three women (Maggie Bennett, Kendra Portier, and Alli Ruszkowski) wove their way through FLATLAND, and although many moments were hauntingly striking, Justice never connected the dots to deliver a satisfying whole.

Situated in a hazy, eerily lit space, the three dancers created multidimensional images by interacting with their surroundings and each other.  They picked up free-standing stage lights and replaced them center stage in order to create shadows on the white walls, which later served as the dancers’ partners as they built upon its two-dimensionality by engaging with their own shadows.  Harrowing video projections of the women set against the sound of wind – perhaps during a storm – were ominous, and later on, the dancers’ pulsating head-throwing and fast breathing pushed them to the edge of anxiety and exhaustion.  FLATLAND was not a comforting place.  Its atmosphere was cold and disturbing, and its three characters seemed tense and tormented.  At one point, they spoke robotically and insincerely to the audience, stating their wish for the audience to be comfortable and relaxed.  They even invited one lucky audience member to take a seat in a plush, blue-green chair near the front of the stage (a young girl eagerly accepted the offer).

In spite of its myriad layers and the variety of texts and sources of inspiration, the work felt fragmented and its dancers too fragile and psychologically damaged to ever reveal the essence of their mysteriousness.  Transitions from one moment to the next seemed arbitrary, and although Justice noted in the program that she wanted the audience to have “plenty of room for varying responses and interpretations”, there was not enough structure and substantive content to create a meaningful interpretation.  Throughout the piece, repetitions of an excerpt from “Eraserhead” revealed a man saying, “I thought I heard a stranger”.  By the end of the work, it seemed that FLATLAND was in fact the stranger, for it was just as elusive and perplexing as when it began.

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2 Responses to Vanessa Justice Dance at the Joyce SoHo

  1. Jason Rylander says:

    Brian McCormick’s relational response to the same dance, posted on the Movement Research blog 10-20-09
    ( ):

    If ever words expressed their inefficiency for engaging with the language of dance, never was such an experience so profoundly compelling as that of Vanessa Justice’s “FLATLAND” at Joyce SoHo. Stark, strange, and multi-presentational it epitomizes the phenomenological split between the inexhaustible experience of ever-evolving dance and the brooding limitations of modernist-capitalist print media.

    Words have not lost their meaning, and they still function; it’s not that words are useless, but they are the least we have at our disposal in network society to employ in our multi-presentational responses. I can tweet my facepic from the lobby right after seeing the show—and subsequent facepics over time as resonances develop and they always do. I can post video remixes of “The Lady in the Radiator” from “Eraserhead” on YouTube, and perform on my facebook page (and hers) with relevant quotes from Edmund Burke’s “On the Sublime,” links, and media intended to complement the effect of her mediations. Or I can add delicious links from review-related searches with the tag “Vanessa Justice.” If I have only words, I can choreograph them in Flash, and imbue this animation with a feeling her artistic expression made me feel. At the very least, I can publish a tag cloud from Wordle composed of words from any number of related sources, which I tweeted and posted already:

    These, of course, are just some ideas that I hope some artists will consider and that I am encouraging young aspiring dance “writers” to consider, to brainstorm, and to cultivate. Perhaps I won’t be the one to usher in this new now next phase of citizen journalism in the dance world, but it’s coming. Open-text choreography like this makes it easier to see the way.

  2. Vanessa Justice says:

    “In contrast to the aesthetics of the beautiful, with its stress on the ‘unity of experience’ (Lyotard 1984:72), the sublime demands that we acknowledge the absurdity of spanning the gulf between the theoretical and the practical. It does so…by retaining the idea of the sublime as an indeterminate ‘event.'”

    “…If we remain open….then we maintain the specificity of the event and respond with openness to the challenge of its radical indeterminacy.”

    “…In the experience of the sublime, matter is invoked in a way ‘that is not finalized, not destined.'”

    –The Sublime, Philip Shaw

    I wonder how it might be more and more possible to review and evaluate dance according to the poetics of its own mode of operation/inspiration. It seems incongruous to use a modernist mode of seeing to evaluate a postmodernist work, for example. This does not clarify it, but makes the evaluation irrelevant. It was clear from my program notes that I was working with notions of the sublime. I also quoted Merleau-Ponty on “indetermination”. It sounds, from your review, that I succeeded in my own poetics, but didn’t fulfill yours. Regardless, I am truly happy to hear your honest response to FLATLAND! Thank you for coming to my show and reviewing it.

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