Action Is Primary

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Curatorial Essay on Action Is Primary by Marissa Perel

Action Is Primary is both the culmination of a long-term project and glimpse into the scope of an on-going practice of embodiment. Meg Foley’s prolific presence as a choreographer, teacher and organizer shapes a world that re-imagines dance as an art form. Her on-going practice of 3:15 Dances examines the place of the body within the context of the every day. What happens when a quotidian task is disrupted in order to make space for dance? How does the dancer conceive of her environment and its possibilities or limitations when it becomes the platform for a performance? The videos and images in this exhibition capture these moments, as Foley and her collaborators, Kristel Baldoz, Marysia Stokłosa and Annie Wilson, record their whereabouts and activities, however and wherever they happen to be at 3:15 p.m. The moments on display are a small selection out of the hundreds recorded, conveying a range of experiences - urgency, boredom, revelation and inadequacy, among them. What is carried throughout these moments is the dancers’ intense resourcefulness and determination to find a sense of heightened awareness of time, and to communicate that awareness.

This work draws from the intersecting post-modern histories of Fluxus and Judson Dance Theater, movements that focused on the every day as material for performance. It was this historic intersection that dismantled dance as a stage-based form, strictly cultivated in the privacy of rehearsal, and instead re-contextualized it as a form that could live and take shape wherever a body moved. Action Is Primary further re-contextualizes dance, as it shows how it cannot be confined to a rehearsal process, and how, in turn, a studio practice is not confined to the studio. It also foregrounds women as subjects, of and for their own work, not seeking to edit their bodies for the gaze of the viewer, but to inhabit them fully, to take up space, and to interrogate the projections placed upon them. Bodies are politicized no matter the context, whether at work or at home, dressed or undressed, still or moving, watching or being watched, and this is all the more real for dancers, whose bodies are their artistic tools. The intent of this exhibition is to open up the space for the recognition of dance as work that is both inextricably linked to other forms of labor, such as office work, teaching and mothering, and stands apart from functionality at the same time.

Notably, in the course of making and collecting the video documentation for this exhibition, came news of the death of filmmaker Chantal Akerman, whose seminal 1975 work, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles was made to show the daily activities of a mother in real time. Though the plot is a work of fiction, the physical presence of the character of Jeanne Dielman and the banality of her life make up the majority of the scenes. The viewer must watch long, undisrupted takes of an ordinary life that Dielman is seeking to survive as best she can. The cinematographer for this film was Babette Mangolte, who also worked with Judson choreographers such as Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer.

The overlap of film and dance and the visibility of feminist art are significant developments from the 1970’s that inform a lexicon of the exhibition. Martha Rosler’s 1974 video, Semiotics of the Kitchen plays with the functionality of cooking utensils to deconstruct the symbolic meaning of her identity in the domestic space of the kitchen. Mary Kelly’s 1973 video, Antepartum and her subsequent installation, Post-Partum Document bring the events of her pregnancy and motherhood into view, giving an in-depth account of time as it relates to birthing and raising a child.

But Foley and her collaborators don’t stay within the frame of the video or the image, as they commit to perform the score for Action Is Primary four days a week for the duration of the exhibition. The score, an improvisational dance practice that Foley has been researching since 2010, works along the lines of the 3:15 Dances, creating focused attention in the moment. This focused attention becomes the departure point for long-form dances that begin with the instruction, “hold what you are doing at the center of what you are doing, even as it slips towards new centers.” This simple poetic instruction, reads like a Yoko Ono instruction piece and is meant for the practitioner to interpret and perform in her own way.

The conceptual grasp of such a directive, however, is no less technically demanding than other choreographic forms. The dancers have extensively workshopped the score over the course of many hours at Foley’s South Philadelphia studio, Shebang, upon which the design of the in-gallery studio floor is built. Lighted chairs surrounding the stage implicate the audience as a necessary counterpart and the production of performance as an exchange. The exhibition examines ways in which we are held and undone by duration. As Foley writes, “ we are in a constant play of regeneration and falling inwards and spilling out. How do we engage with what’s already present, bring our insides to the outside and the background to the foreground? Can we simultaneously engage in self-determined research and build something together with our fullest, perhaps contradictory, and most multiple selves (as many as we want)?” Her statement and questions relate to that uncontrollable facticity of time, as her score is designed to find ways of working with it, as opposed to attempting to control it. Foley’s choreographic aims lay bare aspects of consciousness, creating a space where what it means to be present necessarily includes competing impulses, inviting the viewer into the process of discovery where “multiple selves” can be found within one body.

-Marissa Perel
Exhibition Curator