Ways of Seeing | Guest Post by Megan Brian

Megan Brian

Megan Brian

In anticipation for Rosanna Gamson’s Layla Means Night performance at ODC, I’ve been thinking a lot about dance and visual art. I should come clean and say that I work at SFMOMA in public programs, so these worlds often converge for me. I’m accustomed to walking through the galleries on my breaks, sitting with old favorites and taking in new objects. This has, of course, changed since the museum’s building closed in June for a major expansion project. SFMOMA is now on the go – the objects are loaned to museums in the area so they can still be on view, public programs are popping up around the Bay Area, and museum members are getting perks around town. One of them is a special chance to see Layla Mean Night this Thursday, and I’ll be in conversation with Rosanna Gamson following the 7pm performance.

Those who are familiar with viewing visual art may feel in unfamiliar territory when going to see a dance performance. A person could prepare by learning background information about the performance or hear about the intentions of the choreographer. But, besides this specific sort of information gathering, some of the same strategies for viewing visual art can be used when attending a dance performance. I wanted to share a few approaches today.

In art or dance, the frame is important. A viewer can look at the physical frame: What can you see? What is hidden? Where are the boundaries of what you are looking at? How is the story being framed? For example, in 1001 Arabian Nights Scheherazade’s storytelling is a framing device to tell many other Persian folktales. What other sorts of storytelling frames are present? The viewer is also an important part of the frame. Pay attention to your eye and vision, but also think about the frame that you as a viewer bring to the piece: do you view it from the perspective of a certain gender, age or culture? How does this shape your personal frame? How much are you paying attention to what you can see, and how much are you imagining what others are seeing?

Visual art folks are accustomed to seeing abstract, non-figurative or expressive art. Instead of focusing on recognizable forms, these artworks encourage a viewer to look at gesture, texture, and mood. The same can be employed for dance. How do the dancers use gestures? What textures are being created through the layering of set, lighting, movement and music? What mood is being conveyed?

Lastly, time is an important aspect of seeing. When viewing an artwork, the time spent in front of it is sometimes up to the viewer and it can be momentary. Other times, an artwork is durational, for example, Christian Marclay’s The Clock, which is a 24-hour video piece made up of movie clips with timekeepers in them. Dance takes place in space and time, and although there is a set duration for the performance, it can play with the feeling of time. Which parts seem to last forever? What goes by quickly? In 1001 Arabian Nights Scheherazade is very aware of time, and the storytelling is a filibuster to gain more time alive. How can time or duration focus your attention? Or distract you? When your mind wanders, where does it wander to? When your attention is grabbed, is it urgent or intimate?

ODC Presents Rosanna Gamson/World Wide’s Layla Means Night October 30 -November 3 at the ODC Theater.

Megan Brian is the education and public programs coordinator at SFMOMA.

Layla Means Night Program Notes, A Story About Storytelling | By Julie Potter

Rosanna Gamson/World Wide, Photo by Jose Diaz

Rosanna Gamson/World Wide, Photo by Jose Diaz

The 2013 ODC Theater season began with storytelling and this week with Rosanna Gamson/World Wide, the third presented company, it’s clear how many of those stories  are women’s stories. Female heroines and protagonists of strength, action and criticality have been represented from Sheetal Gandhi’s potent expression of  a convicted woman navigating cultural norms and roles in Bahu-Beti-Biwi (Daughter-in-law, Daughter, Wife), to Barak Marshall’s no-nonsense, rather violent female bride in And at midnight the green bride floated through the village square. Rosanna Gamson’s Layla Means Night offers another shade of femininity and power employing the narrative of Scheherazade – a story about storytelling.

The tale goes that every day the king would marry a new virgin, and every day he would send yesterday’s wife to be beheaded. He was angry and brutal, having found out that his first wife was unfaithful to him. The king had killed 1,000 such women by the time he was introduced to Scheherazade. When she volunteered to spend one night with him, she told a story stopping in the middle as day was breaking. The king spared her life for one day to finish the story the next night. The next night, Scheherazade finished the story, and then began a second, even more exciting tale which she again stopped halfway through, at dawn. In this manner, the king kept Scheherazade alive day by day, as he anticipated the finishing of last night’s story. At the end of 1,001 nights, Scheherazade’s stories had appealed to the king’s humanity and he fell in love with her, thus sparing her life and making her his queen.

In Layla Means Night, Gamson choreographs the audience so that time goes backward and forward with different groups witnessing various nights.  In Gamson’s eyes, the ancient story of Scheherazade is also about today’s complicity of women. Think about the many women trying not to age with wrinkle creams and liposuction, holding up teenage girls as paramounts of beauty. With this work, we experience masculine and feminine elements through the lens of a complex choreographer whose mother performed the earthy solos of Isadora Duncan and whose early influences included the macho theater world of Robert Wilson and the rigorous school of Alwin Nikolai and Louis Murray.

From sports to dance, Gamson loves the body as a spectator sport and the role of witnessing is key for Layla Means Night to build empathy for the characters, particularly the women. When a performer is fully absorbed they let the spectator enjoy a kinesthetic mirror, an embodied empathy.  Sharing the choreography of Layla, Gamson asks, “If you could be inside the women’s body in a heroic way would something change? Rather than admire, judge or dislike, what would you feel?”

ODC Presents Rosanna Gamson/World Wide’s Layla Means Night October 30 -November 3 at the ODC Theater.

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