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SEE ME, HEAR ME!
David Neumann’s symbioses of sound and body
A rock ‘n’ roll production manager with serious ‘tude once told me she’d give up tickets for The Who to see a David Neumann show. That trade speaks volumes about the love generated among those-in-the-know for a dancer/choreographer who, since the early 1990’s, has been making relentlessly smart dance on the New York Downtown scene. And if sound counts when Pete Townsend winds up a guitar, it is equally important at a Neumann concert, in radically different ways. Describing himself as a “closet sound designer,” Neumann’s aesthetic matches a curiosity about vernacular movement with a sustained investigation of sound and the body. “I like to have a choreographic context to start with,” he says. “And usually I go to outside sources, from different kinds of dance movement to instruction books for karate to a recording of a hockey game.” The hockey broadcast turned into ‘Adirondack,’ a piece from the early 90’s that explored the gesture and physicality of this fast-paced contact sport . The karate, meanwhile, took root in this year’s ‘Pearl River,’ a dance-theater odyssey that riffs on Hong Kong action films. Working from martial arts and the extreme physical vocabulary of these films, ‘Pearl River’ rejects cinematic dubbing techniques, even as it questions notions of easy inter-cultural assimilations. For instance, as voices on the soundscape grow increasingly animated, the B-film action heroes on=stage lip-sync clumsily, their mouths unable to tongue the sound of another culture. But when the words stop and the real fight begins, movement becomes virtuosic. Here, dubbing works, but with a difference: the taped sounds of the fight scene elicit precise, high-speed chops and kicks from the dancers who feign body impact, where little to none is actually had. Body as universal language? This is not the same song-and-dance essentialism. Instead, the move Neumann tries to make is towards and understanding of gesture as a way of being as opposed to knowing.
Did I mention this is fun? Part of the trick he’s mastered is to fuse hardcore theory with pure dance joy. In ‘Pearl River,’ it doesn’t always work, at times slipping into parody in the midst of too little dance and under-developed narrative. Last year’s astonishing ‘Oyinbo’ is perhaps a more fully-realized example. Taking the fragile Appalachian culture of the American Southeast as his inspiration, Neumann melts two discrete oral practices (Appalachian hollering and western square dance calling) to create a soundscape out of sampled recordings and spoken worked for the dancers.
Here, sonic possibilities morph into high-test choreography. As the show begins, a recorded voice calls out, “How long has it been since you labored in the fields of the Lord? How long has it been since God broke your heart?” When the lights come up, we see dancers moving frenetically on the spot, their labored breath work the sole accompaniment. Throughout the dance, sound and gesture overlap and diverge strategically: there are head turns that echo the moves of standing fans which hum white noise on stage; there are botched square dances, when the calling intensifies and leaves dancers unable to keep pace. There is a story about how hollering may be used to find your bearings when lost, only the tape loops, and the accompanying live performance does likewise, and “pretty soon, you find yourself right back where you started. “ Attempts at oral communication remain circular, off-target and always terribly witty.
In Neumann’s world, language and the words we speak are rendered suspect. If his postmodern predecessors liberated dance from music, Neumann’s face-off between the two underscores not only how gesture produces sound, but also how gesture might illuminate meaning when words continue to fail. His sustained attention to the gap between lived experience and told experience points to the limits of spoken language and reiterates dance’s potential as a parallel lexicon.