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)

A Natural History by Catherine Tharin: Playful, Contemplative, Organic

What does it mean for a work of art to be ‘inspired by nature’? What does it mean for a work of art to be ‘organic’? I was stirred to contemplation of these core questions during the Soaking Wet series performance of A Natural History at the West End Theater, led by choreography from Catherine Tharin, Esme Boyce, and a film by Lora Robertson. Do the works obviously bio-mimic like Meredith Monk or Erick Hawkins? No, not quite…. Do they harness the power of collectivism to blur the individual like many folk dances? No, not quite…. Do they inundate us with images of green and blue things? No, not that either….
Still from “The Stream Wet Earth”. Courtesy of Lora Robertson.
This collection of dance and video seems to be one degree removed from nature as a physical setting. And therein lies its virtue. Instead of self-immersion, assuming nature’s universality, it skirts the surface by examining its effects on people. What results is a reflection, both physical and psychological, on human beings through the lens of a human-less world, which is actually a wealthier avenue to explore. The dance is a child inventing a new fantasy world, ritually ecstatic, and reverently contemplative all at once.
Still from “The Stream Wet Earth”. Courtesy of Lora Robertson.
Due to a last-minute scheduling change, Lora Robertson’s film came first, which in retrospect underscored the cyclical elements of the series. A montage of scenes of dancers Esme Boyce, Racy Brand, and Susan Rainey shows them in a dried cornfield, on a autumnal hillside, and in an empty cottage. It appears as if the sun has just set– the light is either blue and diffuse or sharp, low, and warm. They are dressed in black or in light, loose shirts, they stretch out with their arms and backs while their feet move little, they sometimes get quite close and intertwine, and they meet the camera’s gaze a few times… they could be nymphs, sisters, or even lovers.
The dances that follow are variations on a clearly-envisioned theme, fusing the characters’ ambiguous interrelationship, a broad repertoire of gestures (at times as simple as walking or pointing, at times complex flowing sequences), music that is both ambient and grating, and the unique setting of a church apse. The side lighting, the inclusion of a live violin for one movement, the nearness of the wings, and the generally close quarters help to draw the audience into the drama. From our vantage point, each tiny glance and smile that the dancers give each other is amplified and fed into our construction of a story– by the end, we have established their individuality, determined a familial hierarchy, recognized repetitions, and felt a passage of narrative time. These are the building blocks of any ‘history’.
Still from “The Stream Wet Earth”. Courtesy of Lora Robertson.
I had difficulty grappling with the disproportionate length allotted the final dance North Star, perhaps three times longer than any other section. Then, having written the previous paragraph, it became clear to me– Catherine Tharin wants us to get a little lost in time, she doesn’t want us to have a crystal memory of every previous chapter. This way, as the end nears, its details snap us out of a lull. The dancers’ whistling (a uniquely playful invention) beckoned me out of a trance. For the piece to feel like a chronicle, the past has to begin to stretch.
The choreography also stakes out a very specific relationship to physicality. It is both playful and strenuous. The dancers sync up and weave in and out of one another effortlessly, yet it becomes evident how exhausting it is to sustain that flow. The playful transgression of physical limits is a rarely-encountered kind of organicism in dance– I suspect that most choreographers avoid it because they think it looks childish or sloppy. But they easily forget how amazing it is to see a child continue to run and climb even though they are visibly out of energy. 
This flow is interrupted with contrasting still poses to mark movements or sections. The end of the first movement of North Star has all three dancers bunched together and up on the balls of their feet– during this pause I studied their oscillations and wondered what the limits of stillness are. How still is still enough for Catherin Tharin? A knee-jerk direction for such a pose would be “as still as you can.” But what if the dancers were given the freedom to move and use each other for balance quite freely? The picture comes alive.
Similarly, I remember the evening’s final moment: the three dancers group together and look up, following Susan Rainey’s pointing finger (which echoed my own glances up to the dark vault during intermission… was this a site-specific move?). As the three inched backwards and the lights faded out, I thought of how people have historically oriented themselves by the stars, but how that sense of orientation has been deeply shaken since Copernicus. All things are in constant motion and evolution. The curvature of the entire stage wall enforces these dynamic vectors.
We often think in static images, and are frequently confronting and recalibrating when movement is introduced. We’ve all glanced at the edge of a forest from afar and thought it to be motionless, and upon second glance found it to be shaking with life: shivering leaves, passing animals, swaying branches. ‘Organic’ means allowing for those tiny oscillations to happen, and then grow into permanent parts of the larger whole.
Still from “The Stream Wet Earth”. Courtesy of Lora Robertson.
I had a discussion with a friend of mine yesterday whether human Progress (with a capital P) is nowadays dependent only on math and economics (simple equations of supply + demand)… OR whether there are cycles and rhythms outside of mankind which act as metronomes. I have grappled with this question abstractly for many years, and I have found that those who believe in the latter are more inclined to contemplate things as they undergo slow transformation. Catherine Tharin and the whole team behind A Natural History certainly belongs in that latter camp: they cast a peculiar light on small events (sometimes literally as in Lora Robertson’s film) while retaining a larger evolutionary framework. It is a sharp but glowing light, like the afternoon sun reflected off of a mirror, which both illuminates the subtle transformations undergone by planet Earth’s players and reminds us that it is only under that very illumination that we can open gateways to engage a world beyond us– a world in which forces exist that both unify us and drag us apart, calm us and exhaust us, bear us and kill us. That is the basis for an organic work of art.
Still from “The Stream Wet Earth”. Courtesy of Lora Robertson.