Review: HOLDTIGHT Presents Nourishment (Why Believe?)

Gwendolyn Gussman in "Nourishment (Why Believe?)" Photo by Jade Warner, Courtesy Gussman

Gwendolyn Gussman in “Nourishment (Why Believe?)” Photo by Jade Warner, Courtesy Gussman

New York, N.Y. In any given production by Gwendolyn Gussman’s experimental dance theater company, recently rechristened HOLDTIGHT, no single person does just one thing. The choreographer, musical director, lighting designer, stage manager, and rehearsal director might all take the stage; the distinctions between dancer, actor, and musician fall away in performance as everyone dances, everyone speaks, and everyone makes music. It’s a fitting approach for the group’s Nourishment series, a collection of immersive, site-specific works integrating choreography, storytelling, and curated food and drink pairings to explore questions that are integral to the human experience. By blurring the lines between the collaborators’ artistic expressions of choice, and even between the performers and the spectator, Gussman guides the audience away from the othering often intrinsic to the performing arts with a gentle reminder that beyond those distinctions lies a shared humanity. In Nourishment (Why Believe?), which made its New York City debut September 27, the erasing of those lines feels less a product of artistic license or practicality than an absolute imperative to the success of the work.

Though the time on the ticket was 8 pm, audience members were asked to arrive at Church Street School for Music and Art 20 minutes early. It soon became clear why. After snagging rosemary and olive sourdough bread (from Brooklyn bakery Sixteen Mill), cheese, and red wine (or a non-alcoholic alternative), and claiming seats on one of two sides of the long, narrow space, various audience members were drawn into casual conversation by the performers. “Do you believe that we really landed on the moon?” Xenia Mansour asked the woman seated next to me. The conversation cycled through ghosts, Santa Claus, and whether “you still believe everything your parents tell you” as more people trickled in and nibbled on their bread.

Audiences at "Nourishment (Why Believe?)" interact with boxes designed by Anna Driftmier. Photo by Jade Warner, Courtesy Gussman.

Audience members at “Nourishment (Why Believe?)” interact with boxes designed by Anna Driftmier. Photo by Jade Warner, Courtesy Gussman.

The piece officially began when Gussman called for Aja M. Jackson to dim the lights. She continued to calmly call commands—first asking individual performers to enter the space, then simple movement prompts (raise arms, walk backwards). Hallie Spoor was invited to issue directives; the two sets of instructions layered. Jackson, told to sing a song, drew chuckles as she crawled in circles singing the chorus of Britney Spears’ “Oops…I Did It Again.” More disconcerting was when Mansour, and by extension the group now imitating her, was told to laugh as she mimed drawing nails from the pocket of her jacket to hammer into place. Their hands dropped to their knees when the command to stop finally came. The group connected into an architectural amoeba, shifting levels and points of contact on command; Jett Kwong, from somewhere inside the mass, sang Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” a cappella, introducing a note of wonder, perhaps even mystery, that seemed to definitively close the warm-up–like opening.

But further directives were issued, breaking the spell: Nico Gonzales “split the space in half,” then Gussman had the audience stand and follow some straightforward movement directives (to some awkwardness surrounding the plates still in some laps, and absent-minded concern about wine that could have easily spilled from cups set hastily on the floor). Cardboard boxes beneath each seat were retrieved. On top, a post-it note that read, “What have you stopped believing in?” and a pencil. Answers were scribbled, passed to a neighbor, and read in a cacophonous chorus before the audience retook its seats.

Jett Kwong (center) with (left to right) Hallie Spoor, Nico Gonzales, Aja M. Jackson, Kevin Quinn Marchman, Xenia Mansour, and Gwendolyn Gussman in "Nourishment (Why Believe?)" Photo by Jade Warner, Courtesy Gussman

Jett Kwong (center) with (left to right) Hallie Spoor, Nico Gonzales, Aja M. Jackson, Kevin Quinn Marchman, Xenia Mansour, and Gwendolyn Gussman in “Nourishment (Why Believe?)” Photo by Jade Warner, Courtesy Gussman

The performers gathered close to the entrance in a symmetrical grouping rife with cross imagery. Spoor, reclining slightly with her arms limply raised to shoulder height, spoke in detail about the 20-minute process of brushing her teeth. She ended with the phrase, “And I feel clean.” The structure dissolved and reformed as a line with Kwong at the center, who every night meticulously lists off everything she is going to eat the next day; the line rotated as she spoke, revealing the speaker with palms upturned at her sides, the surrounding performers angled toward her as though grouped in a Renaissance painting, their manners ranging from attentive to judgmental. The pattern continued with Jackson and her yoga practice, Gussman and her pre-class warm-up. Gonzales reclined on one hip and drily recounted the last-minute checks he does before taking off on his bicycle, while four women on the opposite side of the stage connected hands to each other’s elbows. The chain ended with Jackson pointing a finger—not until Gonzales raised his arm to meet it (albeit across the room), mirroring the shape of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam,” did the scene dissolve, allowing Kevin Quinn Marchman his turn (superstitious about flying, he says the Lord’s Prayer three times before takeoff) and then Mansour hers.

Xenia Mansour in "Nourishment (Why Believe?)" Photo by Jade Warner, Courtesy Gussman

Xenia Mansour in “Nourishment (Why Believe?)” Photo by Jade Warner, Courtesy Gussman

If, even with the clever nods to religious and spiritual iconography, the structure was beginning to stale, Mansour’s delivery—self-deprecating but earnest—took it to a new place. She spoke about Sundays, dragging herself out of bed after a late night out to attend Greek Orthodox service, lighting candles and internally groaning about how long it goes, then sitting at a nearby cafe and ordering before calling her family. Her words dissolved into slippery movement, her torso billowing and gliding like a scarf batted about by the wind. She stuttered to a halt, caught by some unseen obstacle as her reaching arms tipped her almost off balance, then jerked back into motion. Spiraling turns read as slow-motion whirlwinds, the eye catching on details like the delicate crumbling of her hands. When she turned her gaze to the small balcony above the entrance to the space, it took effort to look away and see the action continue elsewhere.

Spotlit and suspended above the now-still floor, Marchman and Kelly took turns singing, then speechifying. The former adopted a style of elocution immediately evocative of a southern Baptist preacher; the latter seemed, despite the clarity and volume of her speaking, almost to murmur, as though to soothe and reel in listeners. Both spoke of beliefs and beginnings but otherwise were opposed, impermanence and cost against the sameness of beginnings and endings, whether or not we should fear for our souls, whether or not our choices matter. Marchman and Kelly took it in turns to imitate each other’s gestures, reinforcing that both sides of the apparent dichotomy rely upon and ask for the common bedrock of belief. Less clear was whether this duality was simply meant to showcase two poles in a spectrum of faith that anyone might exist between, or if it was supposed to illustrate an internal struggle between opposing ideals carried out specifically in Mansour’s mind. She stood as the pair went silent, which possibly only confused the question further. 

Mansour echoed her earlier solo as she unzipped her asymmetrical hoodie and writhed free of the layer; the three performers still on the floor behind her quietly did the same. They met with a shared gesture, each finding an invisible something on the ground that they cradled preciously, precariously in their hands. Gonzales, Gussman, and Mansour met in the center. They drew attention to the place in their chest their hearts hide before launching into smooth, breathless unison as barely-audible whispers echoed through the room. Sudden stillness came as they caught their left heels in their right hands; spines curved and compressed as they gently settled the raised foot on the floor. Arms painted a painstaking arc that disguised their slow, spiraling descent to the ground, a deep plié becoming a comfortable seat becoming a heavy roll onto their backs. Their unhurried, parabolic rise ended with their hands cradled to their chests, the calm interlude dissipating as they fell into a run, picking up Jackson. They accumulated earlier phrasework in canon before opening into unison mirrored across a diagonal, an easy display of smooth compositional craft. 

"Nourishment (Why Believe?)" Photo by Jade Warner, Courtesy Gussman

“Nourishment (Why Believe?)” Photo by Jade Warner, Courtesy Gussman

Mansour broke away, reaching with one hand and flinging it away with the other repeatedly as the others balanced on one leg, tenuously holding and then snatching at their knees when their foot dropped. Gussman flailed for a moment before Marchman re-entered, catching onto the movement briefly before the five met in an inward-facing circle, palms broad on each other’s backs, then necks. The performers dipped and swayed individually, succumbing to gravity until the other’s caught and pulled them back to standing. After a while they broadened the circle so their hands connected with shoulders, the falls coming more rapidly until they separated to stand on their own. Each individual frantically, obsessively repeated a single movement again and again. Jackson’s elbow yanked her spiraling after a sweeping leg; Gonzales pulled up one knee and fell after it, turning in endless half-circles; Gussman flung her arms in abortive reaching gestures. The intensity inexorably amped up until some unknown peak was reached, the performers stilling one by one to stand with hands pressed to knees or heads, their labored breathing filling the room. 

Darkness fell for a moment, leaving the audience floating in an atmospheric soundscape, before an unassuming cardboard box was opened to allow shifting purple, green, and blue light to drift across the ceiling. Performers pulled additional lights out from between audience members’ chairs, then prompted them to find and open the cardboard boxes from earlier. The inside of each was reflective (meant to amplify the undulating light) and held a small bag of popcorn. The performers ducked underneath the chairs once more to hand up cans of cider—as well as to stop some overzealous audience members who, misinterpreting the handwritten directive inside the box, had begun opening the second, smaller box concealed within sooner than intended. (Despite the confusion, scenographer Anna Driftmier deserves nothing but praise for her whimsical, clever constructions.) 

Nico Gonzales, Gwendolyn Gussman, and Xenia Mansour in "Nourishment (Why Believe?)" Photo by Jade Warner, Courtesy Gussman

Nico Gonzales, Gwendolyn Gussman, and Xenia Mansour in “Nourishment (Why Believe?)” Photo by Jade Warner, Courtesy Gussman

This activity disguised the unfurling of a white screen across the entrance to the room, onto which light was projected. Gussman emerged from the darkness stripped down to white undergarments. The solo that followed was filled with urgency, even as it took its time. Gussman seemed both drawn to and uncertain of the plane of light within which she moved, reaching and recoiling with the confidence and vulnerability necessary for transformation. Gonzales and Mansour, similarly dressed down, eventually joined her. The three responsive movers intertwined, the complexity and intimacy of their connections far more pronounced than the deliberate—if no less caring—touches shared elsewhere in the performance. When Gonzales left the two women to squint toward the light’s source, he appeared questioning, almost challenging, yet as receptive to what might come as he had been toward his fellow performers all evening. 

The space went dark before anything was definitively resolved. Overhead, pinpricks of white light sprayed across the ceiling, the appearance of “stars” prompting the audience to slide open the final compartment of their respective boxes. Inside, a marshmallow, cacao, and shortbread confection (once again from Sixteen Mills) that brought to mind s’mores enjoyed around a campfire, and a single firefly-sized fairy light. Performers skirted the space, demonstrating how to shine the soft light off a reflective board also found in the box and then retreating to the center of the space. Audience members were quietly invited to join the performers and follow them with the lights; they improvised movement in response to the light bounced onto their skin. The effect was mixed, resulting in some lovely interactions (Gonzales in particular was successful in terms of both responsiveness and leading the audience members into making bolder choices) and some which fell flat. Given that this was the opening night performance in this space, some awkwardness with audience reactions, for which only so much preparation can be done, was to be expected. Beautiful though the atmosphere was, however, it dragged on a moment or two longer than felt justified by the results. 

But as the audience members regained their seats and the performers began, one by one, to vocalize, something shifted. The performers harmonized wordlessly, the melody simple and eerie. They slowly drew closer to one another, gathering in a circle beneath the stars as the music they made stirred something wordless and wondering. They faced out, and together raised their hands, trailed them over their faces, and let them fall still to their sides. Quiet and darkness came together, leaving behind a held-breath stillness in the wake of the most spiritually arresting moment of the work. As the lights rose again and the performers took a bow, I found myself wishing that this moment had arrived sooner, and that we could have stayed there longer.

Nourishment (Why Believe?) does not offer answers to the question posed by the title. It instead highlights the little things we put our faith in every day, the little rituals that carry us through a complex world that we, perhaps, rarely pause to consider. Though the moments of transcendence found by the incredibly skilled, sensitive performers were more fleeting than one might hope, there is certainly further magic to be unearthed here—and more questions to be raised in lieu of answers.

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

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