Family Valuesby M.J. Thompson
It’s not the parts, but the whole. All wholes are made of parts, and any parts, put together in certain ways, can make certain wholes make certain meanings.
I’m thinking of Gertrude Stein, having just seen Juliette Mapp’s smart, efficient take on the avant-garde writer’s monumental text of the same name, The Making of Americans. And thinking, too, about Stein’s lovely description in Lectures in America of a fundamental discovery made about writing: “that sentences are not emotional and that paragraphs are.” Stein fights against adornment here, arguing instead for the spatial—and rhythmic—relations between words, sentences, parts as key to their total expressive wallop. Mapp’s thrilling new dance does similar work for choreography. Thematically about family, her Making of Americans explores equally the units of dance—step and gesture, movement and phrase, rehearsal and performance—via a sustained exploration of language and rhythm.
The Making of Americans begins as three dancers walk onstage with books and face the audience. The lights dim. They exit and do it again. But the laughter subsides quickly, as they begin reading excerpts from Stein’s text, ruminations on a “family and its progress.” At least four different families slip briefly into view over the course of the evening: Mapp’s grandmother’s family from Albania, who immigrated to the United States and lived in the steel-mill town of Gary, Indiana; the pop singer Michael Jackson’s family, also from Gary; Mapp’s immediate family, her child and the caregivers who empower her to continue working; and, finally, the group of performers dancing together on this project, unified by a visible and exemplary commitment to the task at hand.
“It is hard living down the tempers we are born with,” says Mapp, quoting Stein. Put another way, loosely, you can’t pick family. The theme of agency—in the midst of, in spite of, and because of human bonds—recurs throughout a dance structured, on the one hand, as a series of recitations from Stein’s text and from Mapp’s recollections about family. There’s a sense of fatalism: steel mills close, people die, others move away, babies are born. On the other hand, structure comes from a substantial and engaging attention to parts, phrases, sections, wholes.
As if imaging these structures directly, movement flares and recedes, now held for the count, now gone in a second; now conveyed with clarity, now barely perceptible; now codified, now outside formal techniques of dance. Three dancers hit the floor on hands and knees, spines flat, and wildly shake their backs. Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” plays. They hold the action, repeat it later. Abject, resistant, the gesture is precise, visible, its meaning uncertain. Elsewhere in the dance, a performer jabs the air, for a second a boxer. Then the image is lost.
“Sometimes everyone becomes a whole one to me,” said Stein. Mapp breaks the phrase wide open: holding poses, inserting pauses, dropping gestures, breaking grooves. Her treatment of the solos, duets, and trios that anchor the piece may be analogous: formations overlap, beginnings and endings evade capture. Dancers render individual movements easily, without emphasis, as if bodies could deadpan and steps could speak directly. The staccato effect leaves room to think between actions, and rhythm, apparently, is articulate.
The video backdrop by multimedia theater artist John Jesurun, modest in its use of the technology, is riveting in its attention to affect. One extended sequence—played without audio—focuses on the company’s faces as they learn, memorize, and discuss movement with the choreographer. These talking heads recall Jesurun’s time as associate producer at “The Dick Cavett Show” in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and we see the concentration, the give and take of meaning as conveyed on the body. If the company is family, held close by effort and love, they are equally solitary figures, often alone in the frame, their expressions cut off from others and the mechanics of the piece.
Parts make wholes, says Stein. All meaning is cumulative and all dance, of course, is about time. But Mapp makes the material explicit, marking rhythm as a potent tool of expression. A wonderful cast keeps it real, lucidly animating the dancing/thinking here. Stein’s book is a wonder, but if you’re into rigor, efficiency, and looking for a more abbreviated version of kinetic joy, read the dance first.
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About the Author
MJ Thompson is a writer living in Brooklyn and Montreal.