Skin Deep

rosy simas danse, skin(s) @ northwestern university, 2 december 2017.

I. Blanketed

We, the audience members, stood in awkward clumps in the hallway of Northwestern’s shiny, recently renovated performance building. A documentary film (made by Elizabeth Day and Heid E. Erdrich) played on a video screen, featuring Native people young and old discussing their heritage. Some audience members watched intently; others talked with each other, unsure if the performance has begun yet or not. Down the hall, figures draped in Pendleton and Hudson Bay blankets began to emerge, walking toward us slowly, rotating in a procession. Each dancer was in deep concentration. The blankets were like skins, at once covering their bodies and revealing them.

Thematically, skin as at once singular and plural, universal yet distinctive, concealing and revealing, carrying information and shedding it, absorbing light and reflecting it, recurs throughout the evening-length work. The term is a loaded one. It is, Rosy Simas explained in a talkback, reappropriated slang for Native identity. But it is also so much more than that: in her multifaceted work, skin becomes a container, vessel, a surface, something we share, something of one’s own, something to transcend, something to embrace. We all have it, we all have our own. Skin is a boundary, yet a porous one. This is where one meets the world, at the edge of outside and inside, a busy place where, in this performance, a graceful poise predominated.

Rosy Simas danced with a group of performers during a rehearsal of her new piece, Skin(s). Photo: Jerry Holt.

The dancers moved past us, but paid us no mind. Stagehands walked with LCD projectors in their hands, placing moving images of Native peoples across the blankets and bodies of the performers. They entered the black box theater and we followed to seats on risers. The dancers continued their procession, often dipping downward in slow, meditative motions. Circular, sometimes crouching, they then reached arms up and out in ritualistic, prayer-like motions as they began to move up the aisles and behind us then down back to the stage, in an oval of individualistic movement brought together by its calm, concentrated tonal qualities and a steady flow around the raked seating. Rarely did the dancers adopt similar gestures. Each was a world onto herself, eyes closed, sensing us perhaps only through proprioception. We were brought into the piece through attention to particular dancers and the persistent march in rotation around us.

Eventually, action moved to the stage, where dancers explored solos, duets, and a few moments of ensemble work. They moved among long banners made of textured paper, sometimes behind them, mostly before them, in the moody, shadowy, sparse lighting of designer Heidi Eckwall. On the video screen at the very back of the stage, impressionistic video with contributions by Elizabeth Day, with brief lines of poetry by Heid E. Erdrich, appeared. Sometimes the shadows of the performers flickered through the light, reversing the relationship between embodiment and mediation seen on at the start of the performance with the projected images on the blanketed dancers.

II. Epidermal

In the talkback after the performance, Rosy Simas not only talked about the meaning of the piece’s title, she also described her choreographic direction as intent on bringing out the best of who her dancers are as individuals, which is to suggest the externalization of internal qualities. But what I was struck by witnessing Skin(s) was that when they danced, the performers felt as if they were bringing outside things into their expressions of self. Rather than insisting on some static, authentic expression of identity wrung out from deep within, the dancers moved through many states. They moved through worlds, acquiring and referencing things to assemble their own senses of self. They were free, capable of combinatory gestures. They were multitudinous. They drew upon things beyond them to explore their inner workings.

This meeting of inside and out took place at the epidermal layer, where bodies leave themselves, and come back to rest. Mimesis flickered across their movement, like the many different LCD images that had danced across their bodies and blankets as they danced, people in the light, to begin the work, as they entered the theater.

These performers seemed to find themselves through awareness of others, across the threshold of skin. Imitating and incorporating forms, shapes, gestures, ideas, shadows, traces, ghosts, people, memories, animals, and inanimate objects through their movement, they located the self, described the self, rendered the self, centered the self, and performed the self through citation and quotation as well as distinction and singularity. This made their selves flexible, alive, polymorphic. There was a confidence in their effort. They were profoundly comfortable in their own skins, which they moved through.

These interactions between self and other took place at a permeable yet definitive juncture, where skin met air, where the body ends, and begins. Eyes closed, stretching, grasping, turning, jerking, turning into a deer for a moment, contemplating inscrutable inner pondering there, pulling back in a flash of anger and frustration, slowing down the pulse, encircling the audience, moving around the skin-like paper banners on stage, casting silhouettes on the background skin of video abstractions, to François Richomme’s sound composition, which itself crackled like animal hides being dried by the heat of a fire, Rosy Simas and her ensemble—Taja Will, Lela Pierce, and Zoë Klein—established selfhood as something relational rather than essential, determined out of interaction rather than brought forth from some interior sanctum. Much as each dancer kept to herself often, something slowly turned inside out here, the depths of concentration brought to the surface, the surface rendered deep with associations and connections.

Moving in circles, around the audience, the dancers generated another kind of skin too: the outlines of theatrical performance itself. Constituted out of movement, here was a space defined for coming into contact even without actual touch. And what is touching anyway? Hitting a nerve, raising the hair on the neck, bringing bodies into things and things into bodies. This was a summoning of forces and ideas, states of being and states of becoming, centripetal, edging us together at the edge of meaning.

III. Skin in the Game

Finally, what is it like to view a performance that is not made for you? In this instance, it was not a case of violating ethics. Rosy Simas’s Skin(s) is not solely for certain eyes, but she does describe wanting to make a piece explicitly for audiences of people with indigenous Native American identities and backgrounds. They are the primary audience. This is for them, she explains, but this direction of intention does not mean it might also be for you, for all.

I am not of Native background, and so while I had permission to watch the performance, it was also with an awareness that I was on the margin. This created a state of watching that was not quite voyeurism, for Skin(s) is too inclusive to push that perspective forward, but rather something like a mood, for me, of visitation. Was I getting everything? What was I missing? Should I be missing it or not? Was I watching appropriately, with respect? I was not sure I knew all the rules.

One might say that in this way the performance flips roles of identity when it comes to who moves to the center, who feels not exactly unwelcome so much as more aware of one’s outsiderness. Perhaps I was being put, for a time, into a position commonly held by a person of Native identity or any other non-dominant position in relation to structures of power and histories of racialized, gendered, colonial power. Not unwelcome, sometimes even celebrated, but always uneasy.

In this sense, I was asked to consider if in the end I really had no skin in the game of Skin(s). And yet from the moment the dancers move down the hallway, then slowly but resolutely in circles around the audience, one was brought into the performance. One was, indeed, included. This piece surrounds. All are asked to be present, to attend to what unfolds, even when awareness of difference, of privilege, is heightened. One finds oneself, in the theater, taking part with the whole body of people in attendance. Together in that body, many bodies, for its duration, come to life.

This capacity to intensify awareness of difference, audience, identity, and hierarchies while also proposing that there is a potential place for all to belong was tantalizing. There was a solidness in the solemnity of the piece, a healthy dose of suspicion, even anger, but also the sense of potential for healing, an expanding feeling of freedom as the circling performers brought us together, a presence of alertness to deception but also the possibility arose of honoring truly reciprocal obligations across myriad boundaries of distinction and diversity. This performance left its mark. Exploring skin(s), it went deep.


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