An Exercise in Empathy: cullen + them’s Spring Messaround

Company member Gabriel Nieto dances with an attendee at cullen + them's Spring Messaround. Photo by Em Watson, Courtesy cullen + them.

Company member Gabriel Nieto (right) dances with an attendee at cullen + them’s Spring Messaround. Photo by Em Watson, Courtesy cullen + them.

New York, N.Y.

MESSAROUND /mehs-ah-round/ n.

  1. a creative social experiment; an open, radical event where we make a mess of what we think we know about others; a place to mingle, move, listen, and experience a collision of ideas.

This is how cullen + them, the choreographic project of native New Yorker Hannah Cullen, defines the event at which I found myself on May 1. In practice, their first ever Spring Messaround involved traipsing up three flights of stairs (“creating change takes a little effort!” we’re advised), live performances by salsa band Grupo Descarrilao, food and alcohol, and a preview of cullen + them’s current work-in-progress. (Also: salsa dancing and mingling by the audience members, both accomplished with varying degrees of awkwardness.)

Upon arrival, everyone is asked to fill out two cards. One of them asks you to complete four phrases: You should; Don’t be; Be more; Be less. The second simply reads, “Explain yourself.” These are deposited in baskets upon entering the space, with the band set up on one side, food on the other, and mingling happening in between. It is, for all intents and purposes, a party; the members of cullen + them hang out and chat, and later kick off the salsa dancing (with each other, as well as with willing attendees) once the band’s set starts.

cullen + them. Photo by Em Watson, Courtesy cullen + them.

cullen + them, Adriana Santos at center. Photo by Em Watson, Courtesy cullen + them.

About thirty minutes in, a scream pierces the revelry, and the everyday is unceremoniously dropped into the performative. The band screeches to a halt as Adriana Santos tears through the crowd, yelling at them, at all of us, to stop. Other company members and volunteers clear a space in the center as she shakes, twitches, writhes. Cullen, meanwhile, begins to speak as she demarcates a space on the floor with black tape, barely suppressed anger coloring her words. Meanwhile, Santos drops to her knees to scrub at the floor, then jumps back up pushing her knees away from her chest, then engages in a high-speed boxing match against an invisible punching bag.

The panic is cut short when Cullen says, “Stop. Listen.” What follows is a series of vignettes, the pieces of a still-evolving work in progress that nevertheless demonstrate an astute compositional instinct; the work flows like thought, following the thread of an idea until our attention is snagged by a new one, not wholly unrelated but leaving you slightly bemused, in retrospect, as to how you made the jump.

The cards filled out at the beginning almost immediately come into play when Cullen shuffles through the first set and reads directives aloud. “Be more like us and less like them. You should be dancing. Be more flexible. Be more like Beyonce.” The dancers shift through poses, smiling and primping, taking the directives into caricature, frequently provoking laughter. They back away and start again a few times, always responding to Cullen’s directives; when Cullen calls out, “Reset,” everyone collapses to the floor except Santos, back to her panicked movement accompanied by an anxious, rapid-fire monologue—“I wish I could have been there,” she gasps—cut off once more by Cullen calmly saying, “Stop.”

Avery-Jai Andrews dances with attendees at cullen + them's Spring Messaround. Photo by Em Watson, Courtesy cullen + them.

Avery-Jai Andrews dances with attendees at cullen + them’s Spring Messaround. Photo by Em Watson, Courtesy cullen + them.

Next, a trio, Avery-Jai Andrews deftly supported by Gabriel Nieto and Salvatore Cataldo as she relates an anecdote about growing up with older siblings, melting through weight-sharing almost improvisationally, at first never losing contact but slowly shifting to stand on her own—even standing astride their backs at one point. Later, she turns it around, commands, “Explain yourself!” After a slight pause, Cataldo quips, “I think that’s a little unreasonable, but I will try.” (The audience laughs at the sentiment, almost everyone having expressed bemusement when trying to do that themselves at the beginning of the event.)

The most overtly “danced” section comes here, the performers taking turns reading the audience responses submitted earlier and placing them on the tape-delineated borders of the space, as the others move to the cadences of the explanations in pairs. The movement isn’t virtuosic in an obvious way. The virtuosity comes from the individual performer’s ability to seamlessly transition between dynamic states in a single phrase, to make dancing look as natural and human as their conversations sound. Not that there aren’t moments of breathtaking athleticism: they run back to thrust themselves in the air, landing with a jolt that becomes a precarious tipping balance, catching themselves and falling, then catching and falling again. There are tight somersaults and crisp single-handed flips and forceful dives into plank position. As the movement picks up in intensity, the audience is left in charge of the stack of cards, each reading one aloud before passing the stack along. (The transition into this was a bit faltering, there being some confusion on one side of the audience as to when they should begin reading.)

Avery-Jai Andrews, Gabriel Nieto, and Hannah Cullen. Photo by Em Watson, Courtesy cullen + them.

Avery-Jai Andrews, Gabriel Nieto, and Hannah Cullen. Photo by Em Watson, Courtesy cullen + them.

There are more scenes: Santos and Cataldo transform into a couple having a fight, the conversation looping back on itself as the other three test each other’s trust with precarious lifts and balances. Santos insists, “I’m not playing the upset girl,” which soon becomes Cullen’s refrain as she insists that she’s fine to two friends who can’t make the cognitive leap to understand what happened to her without her having to spell it out, pulling her back to her feet every time she shakes apart, insisting that she be stronger, less angry, past the whole situation. There’s an unexpected addition to the cast who dances with Cullen, telling a story that is met with kindness, and an attempt at understanding. It ends when they circle back to the topic of siblings, and homesickness, and Santos insists, “Let’s dance, it’ll make you feel better!” The tape lines are removed, the band starts playing again, and just like that we’re back at a party, the performers just five, slightly more sweaty guests in the midst of the crowd.

cullen + them. Left to right: Salvatore Cataldo, Hannah Cullen, Gabriel Nieto, Avery-Jai Andrews, Adriana Santos. Photo by Em Watson, Courtesy cullen + them.

cullen + them. Left to right: Salvatore Cataldo, Hannah Cullen, Gabriel Nieto, Avery-Jai Andrews, Adriana Santos. Photo by Em Watson, Courtesy cullen + them.

In the way that some of the best poetry does not name its topic but instead traces its afterimage through the air, the performers never did name the key theme threading through every word, gesture, and breath: empathy. Other topics that were addressed without being named: social anxiety, abortion, racism. This is heavy stuff, but their language is so familiar and conversational that you can’t help but reflect on how frequently we gloss over the more difficult conversations in our own lives. And throughout, movement that is simple and intricate, the dancers self-possessed and assured in how they handle each other. The naturalness of it all washes over you, leaving a few vivid images in its wake—Cullen’s face hovering inches from the floor as Santos and Andrews balance her hips across their thighs, or Nieto and Andrews reclining as they each hold an arm and a leg before softening Cullen to melt into the floor with them.

We are, all of us, bodies moving in space; these are all conversations we take part in. Cullen’s work simply magnifies and reminds us of this truth, and the effect is to create an instinctive empathy with these dancers, and, if you take care to carry it with you after leaving the space, every human you meet.

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Courtney Escoyne is an assistant editor and contributor at Dance Magazine. A recent graduate of NYU Tisch School of the Arts Department of Dance, her writing can also be read in Pointe and on her blog, Thoughts From a Ballet Nerd.