My first experience of Christine Bonansea’s choreographic installation was at the Kingmond Young Studio – a photo studio turned performance space for an evening of 2013. The French, New York-based choreographer presented three solos, two in which she danced and one in which a male performer led the audience from the entrance of the shop to the backroom of the space where viewers sat on bleachers.
Bonansea’s solos were dense with her ferocious energy, her body contorting in shapes that were part animal, part monster. With her face masked by protruding goggles, the movements explored the transformative possibilities of the body, one that leaned toward the grotesque. In one simple and beautiful section, Bonansea played with scales and the relationship between inside and outside: she danced outdoors in front of a light, while the audience, sitting inside, saw her reflection on a screen. Adjusting her distance from the light, her shape alternatively grew from minuscule to humongous, playing with the imagery of a distorted body.
During his solo, the male performer repeated to the audience “Who wants to be my baby?” until a middle-aged man enthusiastically volunteered to join him on stage. A series of play between the baby/lover and the literal baby succeeded. At one point, the volunteer audience member was held into the performer’s lap like a baby. The performer moved a bottle towards his face, seemingly about to feed him, before splashing water on his face. At this point the viewer, extremely upset, vehemently rebelled. The piece touched upon power relationships between audience and performer. Does a viewer relinquish his/her will power when stepping on stage, in the world created by an artist? What is their motivation to transcend the observer/observed boundary by volunteering to be on stage? Is it simple curiosity, wanting to be loved (becoming the “baby”) or a desire for that one-minute of fame?
In a different way, these questions of audience-performer relationships and the grotesque body were also present in Floaters, a trilogy that features three men and three women, presented at The Lab this weekend. For Bonansea, audiences are not meant to just be there and watch, separated from the performance happening on stage. In Floaters the audience was thoughtfully curated within a large rectangle in the middle of the room. Except for a row of chairs in the back, everyone was invited to sit in the rectangle. During the show, the performers moved around the audience, at times coming to the edge of the rectangle, and even moving through the audience, on the long stretch of reflective Mylar taped on the floor that ran across the rectangle where the audience sat. The piece ended with the three male performers (Sherwood Chen, Sebastian Grubb, Alexander Zendzian) performing what appeared as a contact improvisation section, bodies tangled up either in ecstasy or anguish as they moved through the silver lane.
Dance audiences in San Francisco are largely made of dance artists, whose hips are likely more flexible than non dancers,’ allowing them to sit on the floor at length. I wondered if I was one of the few struggling to retain the sitting position for the 1 hour and 45 minutes that the piece lasted. I soon felt trapped within a sea of bodies. Was it the choreographer’s intent to impose some kind of physical restriction and discomfort to her audience? Again, I wondered about audience’s agency when viewing work. You could minimally change positions since your neighbors were so close, you could not stand since you would be blocking the view of your fellow viewers, but you could of course walk out at any moment.
Visuals are an important aspect of Bonansea’s installations. Reflections of light on the silver band that ran along the floor could be seen undulating on the ceiling, reminiscent of the shimmering light of a pool. I was reminded of sitting in an empty, abandoned pool many years ago in McCarren’s Park in Brooklyn, which was temporarily taken over by site-specific choreographer Noemie Lafrance. The nostalgia of an empty public pool brought back images of weathered paints, places abandoned and left to oblivion, places where memories rust.
Reinforcing this memory, Floaters’ sound scape and choreography invoked images of clouded, dark pockets of the collective unconscious. The sensation of being enclosed in a somehow oppressive environment was conveyed at the beginning of the piece, with faint sounds recalling squeaking doors, girls’ voices and branches scraping against a wall. In quasi darkness, the three female performers –Bonansea, Liane Burns and Michaela Burns, their profile somehow shaped grotesquely by dark glasses and a hat covering their long hair- scurried around the audience, with menacing little pitter-patter, the sound echoing in the room. They recalled the unfamiliar, somehow threatening sounds of steps in the dark common in horror stories. Yet, with their frantic pace, those figures were also comical.
Bonansea then performed a brilliant solo, her body twisting and thrashing against the wall and the floor. At moments, she rounded her back, shoulders lifted, opening her arms wide, as if Louise Bourgeois’ huge spiders sculptures were suddenly given motion and taking over the space. She circled around the audience, shoulders up to her ears, right arm straightforward and index finger pointed. At times her shadow was projected on the wall – a long, black figure with a pointing finger. Imagery of witches in old fairy tales arose in my mind, but also the literal meaning of pointing a finger at someone, of denunciation, accusation, and indictment.
As Kate Mattingly stated in her preview of Floaters, Bonansea’s work “does not illustrate a message or announce a discovery, but communicates through sensation and environment. It’s a world that is masked and opaque, and rich in craft and attention to costume, sound, movement, and their interactions.” If there are any messages or associations, they are in the eye of the beholder.
Maybe because the story of Luis Gongora’s death, which happened four blocks away from The Lab the day before, was very much on my mind, watching Bonansea’s recurring accusatory finger brought back to mind a recent article by Rebecca Solnit that details the death of Alex Nieto. Solnit mentions the day-to-day racist finger-pointing that led to Nieto’s shooting by the police: “Some use the website Nextdoor.com to post comments “labeling Black people as suspects simply for walking down the street, driving a car, or knocking on a door.” The same thing happens in the Mission, where people post things on Nextdoor such as “I called the police a few times when [there] is more than three kids standing.”
Toward the end of her solo, Bonansea took off her shirt and bra, and sat with her naked back exposed to the audience while a projection ran along her figure and the wall – the body merging with its environment, and both equally marked by the power of visuals. The image of an intricate network of sinews and veins was projected. The multiplicity of pathways that were shown on the wall echoed the many emotional and psychological trajectories one could travel through within the performance: As much as Bonansea creates a unique universe, thick with not easily identifiable sounds and movements, entering her world is equally entering one’s own. It is about being allowed the possibility for memories to surface, for the reality of the outside world to enter our inner world, sometimes with discomfort, and always with the possibility of revelation.
Click here to view more photos by Hillary Goidell.