The first weekend of July 2018 I went to see a performance called ‘Dancing Letters’ by my friend, performer/dancer/choreographer Gonca Gümüşayak (@ggumusayak) at #solocontemporarydancefestival in Cermodern. Look how she is entering the stage while she’s just yet being announced… before the introduction is over… just like language inviting herself into the sphere of communication. Before the ‘presenter’ even knows it she is speaking to us, bypassing an order settled before and outside her. Those who keep paying attention to the order of the presenter (that order being representative of some sort of bureaucracy) in the foreground miss the first instances of the dance(r) coming in. She’s also almost immediately perceived in the background, capturing space by her arhythmic or strangely-rhythmic moves. How ironic… Language is also like that. It is a plane of representation, molded into norms, prayers, webpages, music sheets, canvases, laws, verdicts, promises and threats in the hands of an author who thinks their mastery has got the genie in the bottle, therefore language always seems vulnerable in its connection to structure and establishment. Yet, it is lighter than both the structure and the author. It escapes (the pseudo master). It hits (you when and where you least expect). It can destroy (a blind pride). That’s why many autocrats still want to dictate the rules of speaking and writing (but they are inherently incapable of ruling over hearing) because authority fears losing the patent of this ultimately anarchic code. Language is violently powerful; it always rises whatever shape it comes up and burns whoever thinks they can rule its joints, flow, logic and air. That is why I need to be humble as I put my two cents in on the dancer’s moves, because she has another version, everyone in the audience has another version, and the moment of performance has an own version that does not speak the code any of us deciphered. It is painfully free.
Dance is inherently open. Even as I’d still hesitate before I dive into dancing in a new setting, I like dance a bit more dearly than music, which may fall into a trap of closed circuits, of staying incommunicable to anyone but the performer. Once, a struggling musician had stubbornly told me that only his partner in performance on stage can understand him uniquely; only they know the code, and anyone who does not speak the same code is not going to be eligible into their heaven (or hell). He had added another layer to secrecy: it is not enough to hear it; it is not enough to know the notes; it is not enough to be able to follow the sheet music in the same intensity and rigor; but it’s the special connection in their eyes that makes or breaks the line of communication. Only they know. We outsiders can merely pretend to come closer. The close(d)ness of the performing moment is something I have heard from other musicians several times before; the particularity of being in a mood that is not entirely legible or audible to audience was highlighted already. How sad. Like there is entire access to any other body’s mood. However, this instance he described was severely exclusive and lonely. Quite the blow, right, thinking of how popular discourses celebrate music as ‘universal’, all-inclusive and friendly? Where is the possibility of the new, of a fresh thread of communication?
Dance is inherently open-hearted. Unlike that false expression that we keep hearing as open-minded, dance invites an intriguing communication from the core. Whether solo or as a collective on stage, it takes a weird level of confidence to go from figure to figure by using a medium that are readily available to us all: body and face. Without a body, you cannot retain the ability to listen or play or speak. Through choreography, dancer can switch between figures and we need no further literacy. Yet, it is not that democratic fable just because no secret sophistication would be necessary. Sometimes it would be comical to the eyes untrained to receive the autonomy of such dancing body. First comes body, then choreography, and the rest follows.
Someone young in the audience asked what she really did at the end and how she did that circle thing by her hand from her core… Here you go, she built intrigue, unclarity and density. She built communication without neatly arranged codes. Dancer built a question. Watching Gonca’s performance on the third day of the festival, I realized that only she took up to the stage while the announcement was still going on. Was that courage or something else? I do not know. Perhaps necessity. Perhaps immediacy. Perhaps ‘I-can’t-help-but-take-this-route-right-now’. Other dancers on the same day -mostly from Europe, Cyprus and Israel- did not really need to interrupt the setup of the introduction. She showed up before the speaker finished announcing her on this marked, white sheet, kind of sterile, all-eyes-on-the-performer square. She’d originally like to deviate from that center and go asymmetrical, she told us, but it was a no; this was the way all performances were arranged to start. Would you question her desire to asymmetry? In the first half of her dance without musical additives, I found myself liking that intrusion (!); this is probably the best intrusion, the smartest contribution, I told myself. The rightful interruption is born of the interrupted context. Strong therefore inviting, yet intolerant of violation.
Then I realized she was on to something else: a hard-earned communication of the creative process to the audience? Clearly, all art takes a dreadfully long process of creation; lots and lots drop out along the way, when a few reaches the prize perseverance becomes fetishized, and by default much of the audience feels excused from the long rehearsal in order to jump to the final product and praise it. In this frame of life, process would always be castrated. But the process is alive, and it is prone to change indeed: It’s like being on a railway, and having the power to switch rails. It’s the trajectory that teaches us what the artist/performer has actually meant to show: Gonca’s voice gave way to music in the second half; her bends gave way to words, amorphous sounds and then again words, and back to sounds; the trajectory of letters into words changed according to outside sounds and reactions; she heard the audience and remained open to its reaction in principle as well as in action. From M to R there was a long way to go and there were spare moments of adaptation, alteration and suspension. Knowing this makes artistic performance inconsumable and unfrozen. Why did she spend a longer pause/sway in transiting from M to R? The life of the performance really meant for me how we are not supposed to be excluded from the transit. It is not a simple transfer. Nor is it a show. We are in the process by way of imagining, thinking, adding, suggesting and perhaps at some point by figuratively repeating a hesitant M to an insistent R. What is your M to R as you read this?…
Later in a conversation she asked us what her performance made us think. People at the table found the tension of structure and post-structure, discussing whether she deconstructed or kept going with the structure. While her dance is inspired by William Forsythe’s choreography, she is apparently searching to express her own manifesto, and that requires reflecting on why she birthed what she birthed. The moment the performance fills some space, it is aptly changing and the beauty of this is that we can witness the tough part easily. What does that mean for an ongoing, existing yet opening structure? Freya Vass-Rhee spends some time figuring out Forsythe’s choreography that merges vocal and visual components of movement. To draw audience closer, to make them understand the dancer-choreographer’s grief, Forsythe appears as a firm believer of expressing intermodality, where vocal reflection will be employed as much as any other sense during movements of the dancer-body. If dance is a sort of ‘visual music’ and ”sound is fundamentally a product of movement” for Forsythe (Vass-Rhee, 2010: 391-392), then the dancer speaks with all her body and using her wide sphere when she decides to speak. We are part of her sphere and at her reach (read: mercy) when we play the part of audience. I suspect that it is not a circular sphere; it is amorphous; like a blast or a shock wave, it is not smooth or round. If we are there at its reached margin, we hear, and it is beyond our will.
Vass-Rhee writes that ”Forsythe and his ensemble, by extending movement into the vocalizing regions of the body, moves dancing across the perceptual boundaries between visual and aural modalities” (2010: 398). What does that do? This is meant to confuse and crack the frozen gaze(r), and the mobilize a partnership with those who are already affectively open to the dancer’s vibrations in space. Be open-hearted and hear me! is such a difficult statement to complete. Anybody can think being open-minded is enough as they want to watch (and leave).
As I watched Gonca move, I kept thinking about Pierrot’s Alphabet. In January 2018, I happened to get a sale print of The Man of Letters or Pierrot’s Alphabet (1794), probably reprinted from The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design on an excursion to Castro neighborhood in San Francisco. It mesmerized me how the figure dropped human status for seconds and took up another status, i.e. the status of a letter. The letter-body looked like a joke(r), but it posed artfully to take up several pauses recalling the shapes of a silent artifact. This silent yet highly emotional artifact is both vocally and visually powerful. It was crafted by (a sort of) human(istic) mind and its technology is so simple that it is now long forgotten how it will always transgress its physical limits. It mesmerized me for the fact that it had a communicative contortion to express the new using the classical. Why mock or perform the letter, otherwise? (Desire, perhaps? Go further, though.) Why this simple act of coming closer to a distant letter that your hands and mouth gives constant birth? Perhaps much complicated stuff happens during the trip of a letter’s emergence/figuration/creation, and a performer wants us to hear it to co-create it, be it grief or joy or loss.
After all, art is about following the ridiculed openness. But why?
Ask the artist and learn more about her work at: https://www.instagram.com/ggumusayak/
The Human Alphabet, several sources compiled, https://publicdomainreview.org/collections/the-human-alphabet/
Vass-Rhee, Freya. 2010. ‘Auditory Turn: William Forsythe’s Vocal Choreography’, Dance Chronicle, 33: 388-413.