American Realness

You Can Live, Or You Can Die Trying This

By Katherine Brewer Ball

Will Rawls’s work often begins with a small gesture: hands clapping, feet shuffling along a basement floor, Rawls pulling the strings of a hoodie until it covers his face. There are entire oceans of variation inside these minor movements, and inside the alphabetic vocabulary that Rawls introduces in his choreography. In The Planet-Eaters: Seconds (2016), the tender, cupping beats on the gelatinous waves of a fabric wall are only slight deviations from the sharp schoolgirl handclaps that begin the piece, created by Rawls and musician Chirs Kuklis. The rhythmic play conjures the texture and noise of holding hands, of the smack of a jump rope on concrete, of fingers waving in patterns, and the thick, liquidy sensation of a heartbeat. Watching Rawls perform is like being transported to a world inside the minor: a single gesture or sound cracks open to expose an entire landscape. This is a visual world, but also a felt one; the sound of bodies coming together and apart smack like a dry mouth, like the strange tones in the between-vocalizations of a singer. Sounds that make me think of the patter of a dog’s paws, or a horse’s stampede over brick and mud.

“1,2,1,2,1,2,3. 1,2,1,2,1,2,3” gets stuck in my head as my feet rap along the sidewalk. I try to make up my own language to fit the rhyme schemes and beats in The Planet-Eaters: Seconds. Sitting on a bus I internet-search things like “folk dance,” “verse,” “Phife,” “epic poetry,” “ethnic cleansing,” and “Aimé Césaire.” I think of both Césaire and James Baldwin, Black strangers in the villages of the Dalmatian coast and Switzerland, respectively. I think of Zora Neale Hurston and her choreographic research in the US south and the Caribbean on Black “folk” dance forms. I remember the “dance ethnographies” I was assigned in school, but can’t recall exactly why they made me feel so righteous and angry. Halfway through the piece, after introducing the audience to the legs and gods of Balkan folk dance, Rawls sits down and tells a story about a campfire in Montenegro, “it was then that those of us at the campsite had forgotten ourselves and given ourselves up. It was then that those of us at the encampment had forgotten ourselves and given ourselves up to hangovers, sunburns, and being brown.” In his story, the campsite turns into an encampment, and the drunken suntan into a collective brownness shared with Igor, Ivana, Vladamir and Bojana. In these small moments, Serbo-Croatian folksongs merge with A Tribe Called Quest. The fantasy desire of getting a story of “ethnic” dance in translation carries Rawls’s voice in media res, in the middle of the story he has been telling as if in no specific order.

At the top of The Planet Eaters: Seconds, Rawls is a dancing fertility goddess with long blond braids that cover his eyes. Weak in the knees, elbows askew, he soft shoes across the stage eventually bringing us to a wounded warrior on a hill. Rawls speaks about letting go of “the narrative safety net,” of the need to make the stories clear, or to even make them stories at all. When we spoke this past fall about teaching performance, he explained that dance has a “weak semiotics,” which in my mind conjures up a limp wristed form of enunciation where instead of a finger pointing towards the west in a statuesque gesture of colonial expansion, a finger flops or points sideways. Weak semiotics, like weak theory, implies only local applicability; a weak theory can be primarily descriptive without offering a universal explanation. In invoking a weak semiotics, Rawls reminds us to dwell on the detail, on description, and to stay in the minor. The Planet Eaters: Seconds is a dance that is about something without giving it away, a dance that is opaque, and in its opacity revelatory.

In Frontispieces (2012), thin Styrofoam German Shepherds cutouts take turns guarding St. Mark’s Church and flying sideways across the room. In Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow era, the German Shepard was used as symbol of power and population control. Rawls lets the German Shepherds sit prominently across the stage, but he doesn’t take on the task of clarifying his meaning for the audience. We never see through the dogs as either violent monsters or playful companions. Instead, German Shepherds float horizontally and move around the stage in various colors and shapes while Rawls duets with an unwieldy stepladder. In I make me [sic] (2016) Rawls gives the audience his personal family history as he reads out words in alphabetical order: “A. Ambromovic, Animal, Amway.” You might call his dance a poem, epic or concrete. Rawls gives us biographical information, about where his parents worked, and the face lotions they bought him. He stops every so often to tell a letter-appropriate story, but he never completes his alphabetical list or completes his family profile. Rawls stops at “I,” only a third of the way through the twenty-six letters of the alphabet. He stops before it’s finished, resisting the triumph of the west enacted through clarity and comprehension.

Back at the top, Rawls and Kuklis dance with small sections of plastic grass; they unravel and struggle with the green mats grounding the audience in a scene of undone trespass. I wonder what it means to eat the planet, to swallow the rhythms of a people that are not your people? Can you mouth someone else’s dance forms, taste them, echo them without enacting theft and consumption? Rawls counts, “This is how the west was won, 2,3,4. 4,3,2,1.” Watching The Planet-Eaters, I realize that I don’t have a clear understanding of folk dance, but I know it’s a game that is being played, a children’s rhyme of both known gesture and improvisation. This folk practice put on by Rawls resonates with Pauline Oliveros’s strategy of “deep listening” — a complete and total surrender of one’s body to the act of listening. Maybe this is a deep choreography, an undoing of choreographic vocabulary in favor of a somatic attentiveness that does not seek to approximate or consume, but is given over to the difficulties of a conversation. Rawls shows us how to imagine a complicated turning toward difference and collectivity, towards what Rawls shorthands as “self and other.”

Katherine Brewer Ball is an art writer based in Brooklyn. She is Visiting Assistant Professor of Performance Studies/African American Studies at Wesleyan University and is currently at work on a book project that traces contemporary Black, Latinx and queer performances that break from the language of freedom to theorize escape. Brewer Ball also curates performance and art events, including the NYC performance salon, Adult Contemporary.

photo by Ian Douglas