Drawn In By Youthful Energy – Satellite Collective @ BAM

The purest amateurs require nothing more to operate than the purest excitement and love for a particular subject. The Satellite Collective can strike the balance between professional and amateur dedication. Its goal to envelop multiples contains that love-driven quality which is so often lost when artists find first success. This entire show is reflective of their mission to turn a dozen creative fields into players in a gentle game. In this process the various arts may themselves become audience members to the brilliance of their peers, commencing a cycle of show-and-tell. Each piece, embedded in the modernist tradition that eschews symbolism and linear narratives, comes to the stage intentionally bare, intentionally open to its viewers, as if mindful of its own part in a continuous exchange of translation, interpretation, and inspiration. During the performance I am enriched having never forgotten the faces of the choreographers. The tiniest imperfections only pull me in further to investigate. And I joyfully discover the possibility that I may join such a game one day myself.
We all know that moment when the lights go dim before a show. Satellite Collective takes those butterflies in your stomach and draws them out. They elongate the sensation– from the first layered cello solo to Nathan Langston’s poem Invocation to the first wall projections– the same persistent rawness gives one a sense of gradual immersion, beckoned by this community of friends. The orchestra is seated in the balcony, in full view, meeting us halfway. There is no sudden lights-out or opening cymbal crash. Like every hard workout, or every silent meditation, it requires a warm-up.
Nathan Langston. Image via Satellite Collective facebook page.
Esme Boyce’s choreography is like a single-celled organism observing its own evolution. For the last 5 years her work has been consistently focused on the breaking-down and re-layering of rudimentary movements, and is steadily increasing in complexity. The most rewarding method of viewing her work is to set oneself a confident frame of reference. Whether it’s a single section or movement, a single piece, or her three most recent works, there can always be identified 3 basic stages: a point of departure (the introduction of a singular unit of movement, stripped of associations), a buildup (the increase in complexity via repetition), and a reflection (a now-complex movement encounters its own past). Now, what separates this from your typical begnning-middle-end structure is that it isn’t quite so linear. It’s more aptly described as exponential. But even that isn’t enough. At the third stage, when the evolved action encounters its former self again, there emerges a state which cannot be described with a mathematical metaphor. In fact, it is detrimental to try. The onset of the third stage is the moment at which humanity is discovered– in the broadest, most self-reflexive, most emotionally uncertain sense. Once you identify that self-awareness, a new field of possible interpretations explodes before you. It is the birth of history, and of emotion. It is reminiscent of Merce Cunningham or Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s best work, choreographing for the works of Steve Reich. I believe it is Esme’s desire to arrive at a genuine emotion, a first emotion, an emotion without precedent.
Esme Boyce; Emergence; image via Satellite Collective.
As the human body is ultimately the subject of all dance, each choreographer needs to decide how to confront its physical limits. Since the decline of ballet, a common approach is to unabashedly expose that limit, embracing sweat and heavy breathing as part of the dancer present on stage. Esme’s approach is something else. It doesn’t display the physicality itself so much as diagram it, dissect it, interbreed it, sometimes to points beyond recognition, but always with fascination. It even harkens back to ballet in its display of effortlessness. It doesn’t forcibly trap itself in the present moment, nor does it take the past as a given. Her method cannot be a breaking-down of existing lifeforms– it is far too intelligent for that– Esme doesn’t even take the complex human form as a given. Her given is a building block so simple that it is barely recognizable (a perfectly logical place to start for the designer of any universe). We are only shown its connection with complex life in ‘stage two’– the stage at which individual identities, characters, and communities are formed. Thus, at the climactic and most formally complex moments of her work, there isn’t the sense of relief that something has been regained or rebuilt, but rather one feels a deep scientist’s pride in having witnessed something come from nothing. Nothing less than the musical score provides this insight as well– it is a moving, classically harmonic buildup, not forcefully atonal (as the truly deconstructive late Romantic composers were). And the joy is that these three stages of exposition, evolution, and recognition are not linear– they exist in multiple chunks, scattered throughout the piece, each in its own stage of development. This, again, is why it’s so important to set frames of reference.
Esme Boyce; Emergence; image via Satellite Collective.
I remember when I was 18, I had my first college-level drawing critique. I was harshly challenged by a professor with gray hair about the photographic accuracy of my drawings–he was upset that I didn’t abstract enough. He asked me if I was bored in class. He asked me what interests me. He asked me if I had any interests at all. He told me not to look at my subjects ‘like a scientist’. Having grown up with a biochemist father, I recoiled at his notion that ‘scientist’ is equivalent to ‘unfeeling’. Scientists are as emotionally invested in the subjects of their experiments as artists, and research-based science involves just as much creativity as simply drawing figures from observation. Looking back, it’s fair to say that the shallowest postmodernists– the ones concerned only with deconstruction, for deconstruction’s sake– fit the bill of ‘unfeeling’ more than scientists do. The evidence in current trends in art and culture show that observing the world from a traditionally scientific point of view vastly enriches a work’s subject. That may be the great virtue of this generation– the acceptance of a multiplicity of viewpoints and the belief in the validity of any discipline.
Manuel Vignoulle’s choreography is of a more purely physical breed. Breathing, sweating, lifting, throwing, holding, dragging… from our first upright steps, this is the vocabulary we are all familiar with. The philosophy is that physicality can only be an honest quality if it is undisclosed, laid bare. Indeed, dancer Michael Wright said to me afterwards that Rituals is the most physically demanding piece he has ever done. It is being ourselves, in the moment, as fuel-burning beings, that is the only sincere way to think of our bodies.
Manuel Vignoulle; Rituals; image via Satellite Collective.
But Manuel doesn’t consider that enough– as the piece’s name implies, the goal of this physicality is to find a way to approach another human being. Given that these movements are more naturally associated with childhood and adolescence (few of us move like that on a daily basis), seeing two adults fall so physically in love on stage is even more affecting. However, love doesn’t come easily. One must first tread through the bog of seduction (when I say bog, I use it only to evoke an environment where everything slows down, where I must move one limb at a time to make progress). The internally seductive energy given off by Rituals, along with the moaning strings & piano, and charcoal suits & heels, makes it very tango-esque. And like in any tango, the impetus for seduction is precisely that two people never harmonize at first touch. Each of the three duets illustrates the struggle, at times against all rationality, for two people to sync up.
At the end, whatever uplift one gets from witnessing the dancers find their unity is dampened by the realization that the unity has come with a price– a price that their bodies have paid. Finally together, their limits have been reached, and the next struggle begins: the struggle to hold their tender bond intact. It is the lesson we are taught after every revolution, or for that matter, after every marriage. In this light, the way corporeal mechanics can measure people’s interconnectedness overlaps with the work of, say, Marina Abramovic.
A good dance piece is nothing short of a confrontation. Rituals features one such moment: in the second half, suddenly the music stops, the dancers line up to face the audience, and the only thing you see and hear is their exhausted breathing. Soon their exhales become rhythmic and lead into the next section. But those naked moments are the piece’s most memorable. With little energy left, the piece looks like it is demanding a response from the viewer, a contribution. As an audience member, if you feel you are being tested or pushed, then that is the time to embolden your senses. Do not shy away from the encounter.
Manuel Vignoulle; Rituals; image via Satellite Collective.
Live projection is still a developing medium in any performance, and its inherent challenges are immediately clear here: the conflict for attention, the necessity, if any, to relate formally to the dance happening below. Emergence takes a technically new path– limiting the projected light to a silhouette of the dancers in particular positions. When done well, it is very effective. I would say that even when the dancers do not perfectly align to the light, one still gets the sense of two media finding common ground, rather than being simply juxtaposed. In Rituals, the slow morph and rotation of the shapes on the wall contrasts with the acrobatics happening on the floor. Unless I ignore them entirely, the association between the two is thinly articulated, and I find myself jumping to bizarre conclusions regarding their role.
Manuel Vignoulle; Rituals; image via Satellite Collective.

Satellite Collective’s performances are strongest when the relationship between professionalism and rawness is most clearly defined. Tension exists, no doubt, between how well-produced & presented a piece is and how relatable it is as a work-in-progress. Seeing as the Collective has so far juggled half a dozen media with success, it remains to be seen whether or not they are able to maintain the qualities of a ‘movement’, the sense that each player is participating in something greater, the playful energy that excites and engages all of its supporters.