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gloATL’s “Bloom”: A patron’s personal take on Flux’s first project

Editor’s note: “Bloom,” gloATL’s Valentine’s Day dance performance in Lenox Square mall, was the opening salvo of Flux Projects, a funding organization founded by Atlantan Louis Corrigan to encourage artists to push themselves and their boundaries and to engage the public in new ways. Not only a patron, Corrigan is a thoughtful and deeply involved viewer, as this analysis of “Bloom” demonstrates. (All photos are by Adam Davila.)

There are many reasons that I’m gaga for Lauri Stallings and her gloATL dance troupe, but crucial among them is their fearlessness both emotionally and spatially. It’s rare to find such accomplished artists so comfortable embracing uncertainty to find new ways to connect with their audience.

So I wasn’t surprised that Lauri and her dancers would accept the challenge of working in Lenox Square mall, a beast of a commercial space with almost overwhelming currents of visual and aural energy, some of it authentic, but most of it prepackaged and commodified. Indeed, while watching gloATL rehearse in the space a few days before the premiere of “Bloom,” I realized that I had such confidence that this would work spectacularly well that I had forgotten how bold this endeavor was. I had forgotten it still might fail. Something about that thrilled me.

Artists need to find means to express themselves, but that process, however messy and uncertain, usually manifests in something that they ultimately control. There is the impossible, fraught work of making; then there is the product of the work. The artist stands at some remove from the finished work, however much it may show her hand or reflect her vision, however raw and personal the work may feel.

This story holds true, I think, even of most performances. There is a formal stage. There is a script of some sort — a set list, scenes with a script, a choreographed routine. The artists are armed with ample methods to keep uncertainty at bay. The performers may in ways feed off the energy of the audience, but the performers know where they are even as the audience, under the best conditions, goes for an emotional ride of identification and release.

Even in the mall, gloATL also depended on such scripts. The “gravity point” in the middle of Lenox was an obvious stage where four of “Bloom’s” major choreographed pieces were performed, accompanied by music, def poetry and special lighting. Yes, this was a diffuse, 360-degree stage, with dancers melting into and out of the surrounding crowd, and even up and down the adjoining stairs. But for all this fluidity and spatial proximity to the audience, this segment of “Bloom” still mostly relied on a recognizable division between performers and audience.

Such conventional staging makes an audience an audience and can allow viewers room to be emotionally moved in ways that are quite powerful. I saw gloATL perform sections of their work “the plum line” in New York on a lab stage, the most conventional setting I’ve seen them in, and I was unexpectedly left in tears by a swarming choreography of longing, release and near-stillness, accompanied by Arvo Part’s “Tabula Rasa.” At Lenox, the very physical tugging duet between Nicole Johnson and Sarah Hillmer provided a similarly wonderful example of the moving set piece.

GloATL would not work without Lauri’s ability to choreograph such emotionally powerful, physically assertive pieces. And yet, gloATL would not be what it is without the entirely different capacity to embrace a more organic, free-floating engagement with its audience. Every gloATL performance has the encompassing quality of real life, with more going on than you can possibly take in at once, and yet with moments that are all your own, however shared.

Throughout the early and late sections of “Bloom,” I believe gloATL extended its already porous relationship with its audience to create a new space of intimate dialogue. This is a space so rare, so seldom sought, so unlikely to achieve, that I can merely point to it without quite making sense of it. It is an emotional space where the audience of the dance becomes the dance, where the performer implicitly asks the viewer what they are made of, what they are capable of. And then listens, aware that the answers will be diverse and unpredictable, aware that this dialogue can at any moment take new turns.

Lauri and the dancers talk about the audience “softening,” or becoming emotionally and in some sense physically open. For me, the softening I initially felt at “rapt,” gloATL’s Woodruff piazza performance, came swiftly with a sense of joy and release, of epiphany and transformation.

“Bloom” began at the mall’s valet entrance near Peachtree Road, in front of a crowd of people who knew or half-knew what they expected to see. Dancer Jessie Shapiro materialized from the crowd to ride the escalator up and down, to fascinated eyes. But very suddenly, dancers Nicole Johnson and Sarah Hillmer sprang forward beyond the escalator and toward the rest of the mall, with its unsuspecting shoppers. They looked back briefly as if to beckon people to follow; then they bolted ahead into the maelstrom.

When I saw this Saturday, I felt a euphoric adrenaline rush. Amidst the ample weekend crowds after Atlanta’s unusual snowstorm, this thrust into the mall sent reverberating waves through the building like ripples from a bomb blast. The dancers had broken past the safer realm of those who had come to see them and were now directly engaging, and changing, the mall’s energy.

But the dancers had blasted their way into a performance bounded on every side by uncertainty. There were choreographed vignettes to be performed, but what do you do when the bench for your set piece is occupied by six shoppers who aren’t budging? Well, if you’re dancers Mary Remy and Nicholas Goodly, you end up nearly in their laps. At this early stage of “Bloom,” Lenox shoppers were still startled by art in their midst and sometimes had no idea how to respond. The process of softening had only begun.

This was part of what was unique about Lenox, as compared to gloATL’s other amazing performances over the last eight months. Most of the audience was not there to see art. They happened upon it. So they entered this dialogue with the dancers from radically diverse degrees of “hardness.”

Most seemed quickly overwhelmed with a sense of wonder and delight. But a small number of shoppers were simply annoyed that they had to maneuver through the crowds. I winced when I first heard one of these complaints, but then I realized that this was part of the reason the performance was so gutsy. Part of what it means to present art to people in their everyday lives is that on any given day, some people don’t have time for it, don’t like it, don’t understand it, don’t care.

A different response on this spectrum involved a group of teenage boys talking trash and laughing in the vein of “You think you’re so cool. I can do that too.” But then they whipped out their cell phones to take pictures of the dancers. Then they stopped taking pictures and just watched. And watched. This is part of what “softening” looks like.

This language of “softening” sounds like an artist working with clay. It locates the work, at least in part, in the audience. It makes sense, then, that the stories of the performance of “Bloom” are not only about the dancers but also about the audience, about hundreds of moments that created specific individual experiences, making it hard to point to one thing and call it “the performance.” Shopper Alja Jackson, who challenged dancer Meaghan Muller to a dance-off, was not in the script.  Numerous shoppers became dancers.

The pictures of “Bloom” reflect this physical dialogue between dancers and audience, and hint at the evolving emotional dialogue. Sometimes the spectators watch with amazement as a dancer flies by in motion. Other times, the dancer is simply poised silently, nearly touching someone, sometimes looking off into space, sometimes looking directly at the audience member. GloATL knows how to do this so well. But doing it in such an unexpected place heightened the impact. These are intimate moments when the viewer is drawn in to an unscripted and often intense interaction. What does the dancer want? What will she do next? What do I want? What can I give her?

I’m intrigued by the quality of this intimate space.

I think we all understand something about the conventional dynamic of pretty, young women performing in beautiful costumes. A feminist language might talk about an objectifying male gaze and an appraising or self-appraising female gaze. But such objectification requires the comforting, separating distance of the stage, which gloATL always seems compelled to collapse.

The artistic limitations of working in Lenox Square ended up aiding this collapse. Outside the gravity point, “Bloom” took place in the mall’s natural lighting, which made no distinction between dancer and audience. In this environment, a curious 11-year-old boy can yell down from the balcony to the dancers, “What do you think you’re doing?” And a woman following them can yell back, “They’re dancing. Can’t you tell?” That too becomes part of the performance.

Still, the dancers are performers, dressed up and made up, given the permission we give performers to act unconventionally. The obvious analogy is with mimes, but that also helps explain what the dancers are not doing. Mimes mimic and sometimes mock. They can be funny and playful. Yet they are also deformed and restricted by wielding the power of the satirist. The mime critiques pose and position, the outward signs of social self-regard, from the Fool’s position of intellectual superiority. The process involves deflation and a kind of violence. The mime ignores the possibilities of the soul, the potential for the viewer to enter the conversation as an equal.

But that is exactly the thing “Bloom” was alive to.

Soon after the dancers exited the gravity point and finished their exuberant cascading down the mall’s central escalator, the performance entered a slow fade “mapping” of the space toward the Bloomingdale’s end of the mall, encountering more unsuspecting shoppers along the way. This was a choreographed segment, but one where the dancers freely responded to their surroundings. One dancer positioned herself in front of a store window mannequin, where she looked with physical longing at the dress on display, underscoring the mall’s commodification of desire. Another molded herself against a wall amidst the jungle foliage of decorative planters, a mysteriously real creature in a faux setting.

This intentionally diffuse procession found an organic, improvised gathering spot the first night, one that Lauri and the dancers then embraced for the coda over the following days. A group of dancers clustered around a bench on the main level nearly overlooking the food court, moving around the space. Dancers Nicole Jones, Mary Jane Pennington and others periodically sidled up to audience members and uttered the only words that came from the dancers all evening: “Did you find what you were looking for?”

The salesperson’s come-on had a new valence in this context. This was “Bloom’s” most direct address regarding the mall’s consumer culture. Yet the question avoided the pedantic stance that offers too easy an answer and closes off the audience’s own engagement. Its kick was more existential. What had we all been looking for? What had we found?

Within this provisional new space, the regal Toni Doctor-Jenkins, who earlier had lain poised like a cat on the central stairway banisters, reached out slowly to seek the hands of a nearby woman. Toni held the woman’s hands softly, then led them slowly to Toni’s abdomen, the source of core energy in the gaga dance philosophy created by Ohad Naharin and practiced by Lauri and gloATL.

This was a small gesture in an enormously varied dance piece. But it encapsulates the intimate and generous offering of “Bloom,” with its willingness to connect to and be transformed with the audience. Very little contemporary art takes such risks or is capable of achieving so much for the risking.