There is no cipher: Esmé Boyce’s “Title Comes Last”

Preface: I have been reviewing Esmé Boyce’s dance and choreography for years, and before that I’ve even collaborated with her. For the past two years, however, we have both taken slight detours out of New York to travel and get Master’s degrees. Hers was an MFA at the University of Wisconsin, and it is almost over now. She made a return to the NYC stage this spring with a showcasing at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, which included her own thesis, two other pieces by Nancy Meehan (a creative predecessor) and Catherine Tharin (a creative contemporary), and finally a Q&A with the audience.

Before the lights dimmed, Esmé ran out onto the stage. She spoke a few words about the program and the creative background for the pieces we were about to see. I can’t remember every detail, but I can remember a few qualitative descriptions such as “deer jumping in front of headlights,” “spying on a person in a window,” “glints of gold,” “dance beyond words,” and “the idea of using the body for spatial massing.” To tell you the truth, I am certain that those are not the exact words, but I use quotation marks anyhow because Esmé had planted those seeds in my head.

Photo credit Julie Lemberger
Photo credit Jessie Levey.

Surely enough, those seeds germinated during the performance of Title Comes Last. It is a continuous, roughly 20-minute quintet, transitioning smoothly between several parts, much like her previous pieces. Each dancer underwent one costume change: from a furry pillowcase covering only the torso to a thin full-length nightgown and colorful wristbands. Three cartoony fragments of a room (a fireplace, a window, and a mirror) made up the set, and the music (composed by Cody Boyce and Eleanor Hovda) buzzed and droned throughout, with a few moments of precise silence. The dancers utilized the whole stage, moving into the space behind the set pieces, or crawling slowly on and off stage (i.e. under the bleacher seats where the audience was).

Photo credit Jessie Levey

Esmé’s choreography has always reminded me of newborn animals learning how to walk. One can easily pick out repeating moves and motifs, the most memorable of which are intentionally abrupt and awkward for a human to perform. They’re not exactly inhuman – but watching the dancers in that moment makes them seem like trained professionals and androids and aliens all at once. One signature move in Title Comes Last goes like this: all of the limbs straighten down to the tips of the digits and spread to just beyond shoulder width, then two arms and one leg flap twice in quick succession like a bird that’s falling asleep and experiencing hypnic jerks (Esmé would explain during the Q&A that her choreographic antennae are always active, receiving inspiration from any possible source. To wit: this move was inspired by the jerky movements of her pet cat).

What was new this time, though, was a unabashed playfulness. Dancers often looked each other in the eyes and smiled. A few small sections were reminiscent of games we all used to play in our childhood, like Red Light Green Light, or when we would dance along to Billboard Top 40 music videos. The combination of the alien, the animal, and the toddler brought to mind The Blue Man group.

Photo credit Julie Lemberger

Meanwhile, the three set pieces pulled my mind to some obscure Upper West Side studio overlooking the Hudson River, the sun going down over it. I thought of many unproductive late afternoons that I had spent lying on my back, staring up at the ceiling, watching the dust dance around. I wondered what my own clothes did in the house while I wasn’t wearing them. I recalled when, as a kindergartner, my friends and I would build stages out of chairs and books and reenact famous movie scenes for each other – and how, in grade school, those shows had been replaced with contentious games of Red Light Green Light on city sidewalks. All of this – the cosmic, the physical, the metaphysical, the natural – is contained in the movements which Esmé has ultimately pulled out of the world.

Photo credit Jessie Levey

The performances were immediately followed by an informal on-stage Q&A with Esmé and Catherine Tharin. There was maturity in that unguardedness. Perhaps it was simply necessitated by the fact that this was a thesis developed in graduate school, but it’s amazing how a change of setting can transform one’s perspective and willingness to change up the format. I had personally always fantasized about breaking the fourth wall with all sorts of choreographed dancer-audience interactions during a performance, but those are always risky. Here, a simple conversation opened the work up even further, by explicitly making interpretation and audience dialogue an active part of the creative process.

Another seed germinated. It was “dance beyond words.” Once, many years ago, I gathered the courage to tell Esmé that she needed a writer. At the time, her dances had always seemed too abstract. Watching them was a constant brain exercise. What cipher would unlock the hidden patterns? I struggled to find out “what was the artist trying to say,” as the adage goes. Instead of effortless stimulation (which is what I thought was the ideal way to experience art), I felt like I was rubbing my eyes, waiting for those electric green shapes to appear on the inside of my eyelids. Why not just give a hint of a story, a place or a person, something more real for the audience to grasp onto?

After the Q&A, we went for food at Gotham Market, and my friend Cat told me about how she had started hiking again, and that staring at nature is scientifically proven to be a healthy kind of stimulation for the brain: not singular like a screen, nor chaotic like a crowd. Healthy stimulation is the difference between constructive and non-constructive observation, and it’s why staring at nature is so good for us. Esmé’s dances, I realized, are like that. They are like fields, or clouds: very homogeneous at first glance, but intricate under closer observation. Most importantly, however, there is no cipher, no deep structures to unlock. They don’t demand one interpretation over another – they assure you that all interpretations are OK.

Six things I learned that night:

  1. Trust your intuition.
  2. Establish a structure and stick to it.
  3. Everything is fair game for inspiration.
  4. Reference without quotes; homage without naming.
  5. Bodies can “mass space,” bodies can make architecture.
  6. Abstraction is not a dead-end street, it is a balancing act.

Oddly enough, at the end of all this, words and figuration played an integral part in Title Comes Last by design. It may have come naturally because the academic environment broadened Esmé’s perspective (education is good, folks). But the results were greater than any dance piece could achieve on its own. If she was ever tentative about using them as creative tools, she can rest assured that words and figuration do not detract from the power of abstraction. On the contrary, they can all blossom in coexistence.

Title Comes Last Q&A. Esme Boyce(L) and Catherine Tharin(R)

Figuration to Abstraction, our evolution out of language

Yarn I:
It seems one of the primary artistic trends of the 20th century (with spillover, maybe the last two centuries) was the increased acceptance of sketches and raw, undeveloped ideas as legitimate “works of art” ripe for an audience. The beginning of the last millennium would not have indicated this, though– the market and prevailing aesthetic became awfully formalized and refined, to clientele richer and to art with corresponding burdens of grandeur. Art was occupied with things entirely other than presenting an idea. Most of it was advertisement and record-keeping for posterity. Here we have some Medicis, history’s greatest accountants.

Cosimo II, patron of Galileo.

Lorenzo (the Magnificent), famous patron of the Arts.

Medici Chapel in Florence. The two best-known tombs, seen on the left and right, are those of Lorenzo’s kid and grandkid. Memory in space.

A large portion of art was also used by the church to convey extant episodes of morality and ethics in the grand story of Christ et al. There seemed to be stricter rules, or at least expectations, in place about the conception and reception of artwork. Slowly that formality has eroded and now an artist can display almost anything, and almost nothing– a single line, an empty frame, a person standing still– to an audience, giving the latter more interpretive work to do.
Or so you’d think. Because instead of compensating for new forms by expanding its visual vocabulary, the audience has duly complied with the artists’ lead and become lazy at its end. Nowadays, the simpler a piece looks to the average gaze, the more likely it is to need explanation– and hence, justification. It’s obvious that if an artwork needs excessive analysis and explanation by experts on behalf of the masses, then you have a problem.
Perhaps this all conceals another truth: that what we call art has in fact changed its scope of services to society entirely in the past millennium. Before, it served even the poorest churchgoer, with strong, understandable language of form as its base, and practicality and relevance as its engine for communication. Since then, the art world has dwindled to serve, and with decisively less practicality, the intellectual accumulation of a select few.* In a way, though, this has given painters and sculptors the freedom and the license to conceive of almost anything, trying always to break that next ceiling in the endless skyscraper of taboo. The first steps of that: adoration of the sketch, and the slow and ultimately successful creep towards accepting things in a raw and newborn state. Here is a rough visual timeline, from the 1850s on:

1850s, Courbet….

1850s, Powers….

1860s, Carpeaux….

1860s, Manet….

1870s, Rodin….

1870s, Monet….

1880s, Sargent….

1890s, Toulouse-Lautrec….

1910s, Modigliani….

1910s, Heckel….

1920s, Hausmann….

1920s, Matisse….

1930s, The Futurists….

1940s, Giacometti….

1950s, Moore….

1960s, Warhol…. 

1970s, Noguchi….

1970s, Twombly….

1980s, Dumas….

You could read many things from this trend, such as the effects of war on mankind. But I am presenting these simply as visuals, as images experienced here and now.

Yarn II:
With rawness now accepted pretty much as a style, it has begun translating into our daily lives. The artist’s sketch does two things for us: 1) it evokes those emotional responses that art is so good at doing, and better that something overly worked-on (and potentially heavy-handed) and 2) inspires us to say “my kid could paint that. Heck, I could paint that!” Steadily, it seems technology has given us just that ability. We are now given the option of entering a constant stream of auto-biography, with every next piece of technology promising things delivered in “real-time.” Compared to earlier when I had to wait months to get a book published, I can now type a little and click a little and have my book online and available to anyone within one night. With Twitter, I’m not even confined to my laptop anymore. There is increasing legitimacy given to the most mundane musings. Check out Conan’s Twitter feed.
Now before I make my next statement, picture language (that is: English etc.) abstractly, as nothing more than a tool or mechanism for communicating ideas. Like smartphones, it is a brilliant thing. But also like smartphones, it is imperfect. There are some ideas that the English vocabulary somehow cannot grasp, and on top of that, think of how laborious it is: before the person across from you understands your thought, you have to figure out what to communicate, communicate it, then they have to receive that sound (pretend you are just talking with no visuals– on the phone, for example) and process it themselves. On average this transaction takes roughly 2-5 seconds. Quite inefficient, isn’t it? Why that second processing phase? And isn’t there a way to actually make communication real-time? That is, I don’t have to find equivalents in the realm of words and gestures to convey my thought– I can literally put that thought in an interlocutor’s head.
Well, herein I make my prediction (which is extrapolated to occur sometime in the 100th millennium (100,000 AD): imagine moment in our evolution when we reach some level when we are able to communicate our thoughts to each other purely and instantaneously. In a way, it won’t be communication at all, because communication implies that primitive slog of processing and gesturing and so on. It will be more like us floating in an ether: an ether that receives a thought from one person in it and which would instantly be understood by everyone else in the soup. To get a feel for it, try thinking of something, then communicating it to yourself. You see, the need for communication is gone, because you had that thought in your mind already. It is maybe very similar to Nirvana. This, I envision, is going to be a huge step in the evolution of man. But that’s obvious, because you must have already concluded that. (Case in point?)

*Evidence: those de Koonings at MoMA (hanging for the benefit of the public). The reason they are up there is not because the public immediately got their underlying message 50 years ago, but because some highly reputable individuals did, and explained it to us, upon hearing which we collectively uttered “Ooooooooh…”
Furthermore, their intimacy is leagues separated from shock art featuring Jesus and heads of state, and encroaching on that feels completely at odds with their white-box homes. These paintings might belong in the studio.

:this, not this:

Though its schism from the church was a good thing in my opinion, there is one thing from that time that is missed in fine art: its ability to communicate powerful messages, cheaply and quickly, to and for the benefit of many. I guess film & television now hold those reigns.