July Digest: Mary Lyn Graves in conversation with the work of Dat Nguyen

Below is a kind of dance memoir piece from Mary Lyn Graves, who you’ll remember from her six beautiful seasons dancing with Ririe-Woodbury. Mary Lyn recently attended a performance of Dat Nguyen’s work in New York, performed by a cast of Utah dancers whose names often grace the pages of this site. She then interviewed Dat about the process, and how the piece came together in his absence. This is just the kind of experimental dance-writing the digest exists to encourage. 

-SBH, editor

courtesy of the artists

courtesy of the artists

I came to Will the Sheep Come to Be Cleaned simply for the rare treat of watching some friends from far flung Utah dance.  Choreographed by Dat Nguyen, the work was presented as part of the Tank’s Pride celebration in New York City.  Not planning to write about Will The Sheep Come To Be Cleaned, I didn’t watch the dance with an eye particularly focused on detail or structure or craft; rather I just watched the performance.  So as I begin to write, my recollections are mostly fragments.

Nora Lang diligently cleaning up the stage at the start and near end of the piece, effortfully pushing a wadded shirt across the floor.  Brilliant monologues by Emma Sargent, hilarious and unclear, filled with silence and beeped out words and the voice-less telling of what could (or could not) be important information.  Light bouncing off a roll of mylar unfurled like a path for a broad and watery duet which left soft smudges on the silver sheet. The director of a religious dance group’s tirade about why the group would not be studying Gaga. Hysterically delivered by Sargent, the only spoken words in the speech were “Gaga" and “Ohad Naharin,” the rest mouthed silently while the other performers expertly parodied Gaga stereotypes.  Emma Wilson twerking on stage mere feet from their parents, who were supportively stationed in the first row.  The unabashed joy and humor of the six performers lip-syncing and screaming and jazz splitting to “I Need A Hero” by Bonnie Tyler.  Lang’s serene and silent presence against Sargent’s tension in a moment of unison that pushed their disparate movement qualities towards disparate emotional states.  A revelation that the director of the religious dance group was “…you know…”  A morbidly captivating article on how sheep are prepared for slaughter read by Eliza Kitchens clad in a sweater sprinkled with cartoons of the aforementioned victims.  An unusually effective false ending where the performers took bow upon bow without regard for the audience’s clapping stamina. 

I create chaos and in the midst of this chaos I find things, to stitch them together, to guide the performer through this experience so when I see it, it speaks back to me. 

Will the Sheep Come To Be Cleaned relied on rearrangement and redaction.  Nguyen continuously fractured and reassembled movements and narratives, offering neither resolution nor the need for it. A jumble of distinct images whose relation only appears in retrospect, these collected moments might be the best way to remember the performance and the experience of reflecting on the show is more similar to actual memory than to impressions descriptively crafted by critical attention. In truth, I should sit in the audience with this mind set more often.  Things you are meant to take from a performance usually present themselves without much looking.

I don’t think my art is something big. I think my art is one bullshit after another. But the good news is, through this chaos and bullshit and stuff, because we treat it very seriously, because it’s a gateway for us to understand ourselves, so this bullshit becomes very meaningful. 

The performances at the Tank were a restaging of the work, which premiered in November 2018 at Sugar Space (thoughtfully reviewed here) so the dance I saw was itself fractured and reassembled.  The original iteration featured Nguyen and Natalie Gotter, neither of whom performed in New York.  Reworked with new dancers Erica MacLean and Victoria Meyer, a new beginning, and a new end, Nguyen removed entire sections and rearranged roles in the process of revising the work. Practicality shaped some of the decisions.  MacLean lives in New York so was a natural choice for one of the additional performers.  But the distance prevented the full cast from having more than a day’s worth of rehearsal together and even when they did, Nguyen, who recently moved home to Vietnam, couldn’t be at the rehearsal to direct.  The closing section was a walking pattern too complex for a single rehearsal so Nguyen chose to replace it with material from a different work.  

The decision to revamp the beginning was less practically driven though.  Originally opening with a burlesque section, Nguyen felt the moment was Natalie Gotter’s; no one else could embody the opening section as fully as her so since she couldn’t perform in New York, he changed the beginning entirely. 

There was no point in trying to recreate it.

Even if performers, space, movement remain constant, restaging a work is a process in and of itself. You inevitably grapple with the passage of time and how that has changed the performers, physically or otherwise.  If new performers are brought in, the shifts become even more pronounced, rippling through the dance in often unpredictable ways. Transferring movement from the original performer, with all of their experiences and tendencies to a whole other body with its own unique mixture of memory, habit, and desire makes a sort of alchemy happen.  That particular role, whether it remains intact or is reconfigured, becomes a third entity, existing both amongst and entirely separate from the performers. With the distance from personality this can provide, the heart of the dance sometimes appears.  It’s a complicated thing to experience as a performer, both when entering a work and exiting it.  

I know this material and I’m performing it and I know exactly what the story is about.  You watch this being told and you can feel it but at the same time you are not allowed to experience that physical catharsis.

You disappear from the dance and simultaneously become more deeply rooted in its DNA.  Your contributions are thrown into relief by the shift and it affects everything else in the work. You are forced to make new decisions. What do we have to keep?  What do we want to keep?  What do we want to change?  What do we have to change?

The dancers on their way to rehearsal

The dancers on their way to rehearsal

The practice of revisiting heightens the historical aspect of dance more than anything else.  You don’t just dance with the people in the room, you dance with the people in the life of the creation and as you perform, your body enacts that history in real time.  I saw Will the Sheep Come to Be Cleaned the day before another performative enactment of history, New York’s Pride March.  With this year being the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, questions of history and inclusion saturated the parade, which is perhaps so far removed from its radical origins that it has forgotten what or who those origins even are.

But watching Dat Nguyen’s work, I was witnessing a different, infinitely more nuanced enactment of queer experience, history, and spectacle.  Celebration was there, just like in the parade. And so was silence and separation. And so was chaos and joyful indefinability.  For me, the relationship between the two Emmas, Sargent and Wilson, embodied this encompassing indefinability more than anything else.  A quiet thread throughout the evening, you knew the events of the relationship but you didn't know the timeline of these events, much less the relationship’s boundaries.  The depth of the Emmas’ intimacy was apparent and unclear. Though there was a lot of information, it was contradictory and unmoored.  But I don’t think clarity was the point, rather a willingness to hold multiplicity with others and with oneself.  Through its refusal (or inability) to define itself, Will the Sheep Come to Be Cleaned sought and found a way to embody more than just one thing.

Sometimes in the midst of exhaustion our body can no longer lie. Our bodies become too tired to try to be something else so our body is there to be itself in all its honesty and vulnerability.

Mary Lyn Graves is Brooklyn based dancer who has a deep love for Utah and roots in Oklahoma.  From 2012-2018 she lived in SLC where she performed and revisited many dances with Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, as well as Molly Heller and other Salt Lake makers.  She is currently in process with Megan Williams and spends the rest of her time manning front desks, sitting very still for artists, and dreaming about the San Rafael Swell.