Critical Dialogues

By Rachel Howard


WHAT IF, rather than writing a review, a critic sat down with a choreographer to have a two-way conversation about the work? That’s the experiment behind Critical Dialogues. For this fifth installment, punk singer, choreographer, and dancer Brontez Purnell, who performs with Sophia Wang as the Brontez Purnell Dance Company, met for coffee with critic Rachel Howard to talk about the January 17, 2015 performance of Purnell and Wang’s Ceremonious/Unceremonious at the Fresh Festival. In Ceremonious/Unceremonious, which closed the final night of the Fresh Festival, Purnell and Wang set up clusters of balloons, then handed balloons to some people in the audience. They blew up balloons (first stretching the deflated balloons from places on their sexual anatomy) and wrote obscene messages on them with a marker, parading the balloons like the women at a boxing match who hold up placards. The first half of the approximately 20-minute piece involved heavy-footed, awkward movement passages. In the last section of the piece, Purnell and Wang brought out two white screens, stripped behind them during a blackout, and then danced naked behind them, backlit so that the audience saw silhouettes, with Purnell’s penis and Wang’s nipples noticeable.

Purnell has described Ceremonious/Unceremonious as inspired by their recent graduation rituals (Purnell from the dance program at California State University East Bay, and Wang from UC Berkeley with a Ph.D. in Literature.) He said he was also influenced by his Baptist childhood: “We’re basically the children at church that everyone’s telling to shut up.” Ceremonious/Unceremonious was developed during an AIRspace Residency, and had a work-in-progress showing as well as a performance at Kunst-Stoff Arts, before the Fresh Festival. Rachel began by asking who Purnell’s sources for critique had been.

Brontez Purnell: It’s Ernesto [Sopprani, co-curator of the Fresh Festival] a lot. Sometimes the girls from Salta, [the experimental performance collective based in Oakland].

RH: So the girls from Salta give you feedback? What kind of notes for Ceremonious/Unceremonious came along?

BP: They never give negative feedback. They’ll say rad, or why’d you do this or that. [Longtime Bay Area-based performer] Keith Hennessy’s critique was ‘There’s this one move you do.’ I only did it once in the performance but at the pre-showing several time. [Purnell steps into the middle of Black Springs Coffee and demos standing on tip toes and raising one arm above his head, then swooping it down.] He said, ‘It’s almost balletic.’ I was like, yeah. He said, ‘It looks weird or like you’re trying to find it.’ He says he likes it when I do the more African moves. But I’m like obsessed with ballet. It always looks weird on my body. Even when I’m correct, I have flat feet and weak knees, you know?

RH: So it looks interesting. Because you’re seeing something made strange to you again. It’s an “enstrangement,” as the literary critic Viktor Shklovsky would have said, you know? Defamiliarization.

BP: I love my constant conversation with my failure at ballet. But Keith really challenged us on that. And he also said there are parts when, essentially me and Sophia would like to work more as an ensemble and at parts we are more in tune. But Keith was like, why do you all bother with ensemble dance? Like, no ensemble dance, like as a rule. But I don’t know. You’re dancers, not a synchronized swim team, that’s the saying. But sometimes I would like to be a synchronized swim team. Me and Sophia, our body languages are so different, the same thing never looks the same on our bodies, but we play with that. And we work a lot on diagonals.

RH: I noticed that. You seemed like bulls charging one another

BP: We weren’t thinking that. Every dance I do, I try to dedicate it to an element. In Ceremonious/Unceremonious, the element is air. That’s why there were a lot of moves like this. That’s creating clouds, atmosphere. This move [demonstrates hands swirling overhead], I was thinking helicopter. It all started with the balloon structures, the balloons taped to the ground. I saw that shit in a Kid Cutty video five years ago. I knew I wanted something with balloons, something about celebration. So then we wanted to do a piece about ceremony, but about the parts of ceremony we felt uncomfortable with.

RH: Right. I had talked with you about the piece before the show. I’m trying to be aware of what I was bringing in, watching it. And I noticed another thing I bring in when watching this kind of dance, to be really honest, is knowing that there’s a community, a lineage of postmodern dance, and it’s a very tight one. I always have an internal hesitancy, worried there may be references to prior Trisha Brown dance, or Steve Paxton did this. And then an intimidation arises of, what if there’s a reference to another choreographer I’m not getting. It can feel insular, even to me, and I’m interested, because of that intimidation factor coming in.

BP: I definitely read about Judson Church coming in. But, how to say this? OK. There’s Christine Bonansea. And that’s a woman who has crazy fucking training who can do ballet shit that I can never dream of. But I was at the Sonic Body Series [that Bonansea led during the Fresh Festival]. And when she gets down and lies on the ground in corpse pose, she makes that shit look like poetry. And I’m always trying to get an element like that. I’m the first to admit there’s a clumsiness to my body. I’m trying to be with it, but also fight against it.

RH: It sounds like you do want the power to be in the moment itself for the perceiver. I guess this may be a false assumption on my part, but sometimes I feel that if I didn’t respond, and the choreographer gets angry that I didn’t respond, they can shoot back, “Well, that was a reference to Steve Paxton doing this in 1973, and you didn’t get it.”

BP: I never come at people like that. It’s like when I first started playing music. We had a lot of attitude, not a lot of technique. But you have to be bad to get good. Some things I do onstage and like that, but I’m not at the point where everything I do is poetry to me yet. I feel people like Keith [Hennessy] can read what I’m doing and say, ‘Looks like you’re still finding that.’ Were there any parts that you didn’t get?

RH: So, starting with the things I did. To me, the dance passages were intriguing. And the way you and Sophia costume yourselves [in tight jeans and t-shirts, wearing heavy boots] contributes to that. The unapologetic force of those shoes against the floor is becoming part of your aesthetic and your language.

BP: Plus, we try to be mod. Seriously, everyone on the dance scene wears crazy funky hippie clothes.

RH: Right!

BP: And I think our race plays a part, too. One thing I learned as a punk kid is that if you dress normal, you get in there. Not that we won’t pull out some crazy fucking outfit one of those days.

RH: But also I think it shows that you’re aware of the culture, the stereotypes of the current culture, and you’re working against them, not being oblivious to them. Back to the dance passages: I thought they were interesting and important. But I found myself puzzling about your relationship with the audience at various times in the show. When you were handing out the balloons, every time you’re making eye contact with someone in the crowd—the way you do it, because of who you are, it’s powerful and keeps reverberating through the piece. I thought handing out the balloons you were making the audience complicit and breaking down “you’re going to be the obedient audience there and watch what we’re doing over here.” Then when people started batting the balloons, and a guy had a lighter under one and popping them. . .

BP: Back in Gravy Train!!!! [the electroclash band Purnell performed with] I was the hype man and I noticed the party would always get better when we broke the fourth wall. I would spend two or three songs in the crowd dancing with people. I’m always thinking of ways to alter the audience’s mood.

RH: So before I move on to places where I wasn’t sure about your intentions—if someone had written a review, what would you have been excited to see it say?

BP: Gosh, that’s hard. I would want the reviewer to speak to the way the piece is very classic. Almost twee, you know? Childlike. Which reflects the scene I came out in. Did you ever listen to K Records? I told Sophia we have a Riot grrrl aesthetic. We’re celebrating raw creativity. We’ve got some balloons, we’ve got some ideas, let’s make this work. I don’t have the language yet in dance. But I’d want someone to speak to the classic-ness of it. The set-up of the dance seems weirdly traditional. When we did the piece at Kunst-Stoff, I didn’t feel the piece looked like that. It’s weird how much a white space with a dark floor [at the Joe Goode Annex]. . .

RH: It feels like being in a museum. Sterile and controlled, and maybe that feeds into it feeling classical.

BP: The first fucking night was horrible.

RH: Oh no.

BP: The sound tech didn’t push the music all the way in, and didn’t turn the lights up. There was seven minutes of dead air and we had to come out front and say, ‘Sorry, guys.’

RH: I wonder how that was experienced by the audience? Because one of my favorite moments from the second night was when your glasses dropped on the floor and I got a feeling it wasn’t planned.

BP: It wasn’t.

RH: I get excited when something unplanned happens to Brontez. So if it happened in a big way and you had to come out to the audience . . .

BP: Some people thought it was part of the piece. Some people said shit happens. Also, one of Ernesto’s critiques was ‘I feel that piece could hold more text.’

RH: That was what I was going to say. For me, when you screamed, I thought, ‘Let’s keep taking it up a notch and keep having more interaction between you and the audience.’ But as the piece went on you didn’t escalate the interaction you had in the beginning and I felt the energy declined because of that.

BP: I purposely did that because I feel much of our work is text heavy. Sophia and I are both writers. I wanted to explore what it was like to shut the fuck up a bit. But I regret that about the piece.

RH: Well, I think it’s good that you tried it and then can make a decision. You have to be scientific about it, when you’re developing a performance style and aesthetic—if you don’t test it, you don’t know.

BP: But the next piece we’re going to be doing is going to be maybe too much text.

RH: The text was what I missed. The excitement of you being in direct communication with the audience, because of who you are and the way you do it. I think Sophia is so useful to you, and it’s great that you’re recognizing how and putting that to work. But you’re such a different presence than she is, and the way you interact with the audience is electric. Perhaps this is playing off the awful cultural trope of the dangerous black man in a powerfully uncomfortable way, but it’s a little scary.

BP: [Laughter.] I have a lot of practice at it. Sometimes I feel I was supposed to be a Baptist minister. But this is my church now.

RH: So even if it wasn’t text, screaming, noise, moving in and out of the audience more. Just wanting to bring you back into it.

BP: I originally wanted silence to be another way of fucking with the audience, but I feel that part failed.

RH: I loved the music for that section. [The section when Purnell and Wang go behind the white screens, backlit, and dance naked so that we see only their silhouettes.] It was porn music, very tongue in cheek, soft-core porn. Or is that just me?

BP: It’s a Rock Steady song, a slower version of a disco hit. But that’s something we worry about. We’re so naked a lot, and we’re a guy and a girl. Sophia’s whole thing is ‘I have to fight to not look sexy on stage.’ But if you’re naked and dancing it’s going to read as sexy.

RH: It came with a wink, though, because of the music. It wasn’t as though you were trying to be sexy.

BP: The whole context was supposed to be more twee than that. We can play with sex in an intense way, but we meant to have a childlike aspect. In Gravy Train!!!! I was often naked onstage, and nudity reads as sex to people . . .

RH: Not always. I’ve seen a lot of work by Jess Curtis, who’s practically naked all the time, and not reading as sex.

BP: Well, in the context of Gravy Train!!!!, a bunch of hormonal 20 year olds . . . I always really think about nudity, exactly what it means.

RH: So, in the piece, I wasn’t sure how being naked behind the screens was relating to the Ceremonious/Unceremonious theme.

BP: That part was supposed to be a strict contrast. There was so much whiteness in the piece, and we wanted to play with darkness and shadows. That’s all that was about.

RH: It seemed like a very quiet ending. I was waiting for anarchy to explode. It didn’t resound in me as much as if I had seen the first half of the piece and left.

BP: I was thinking about playing with anti-climax. Because in Haitian dance—it reminded me of being in a Baptist church, everyone wearing white and going crazy. But, you know the dance is building up and building up—you’re calling on the spirit. But, the second the spirit comes, everything gets peaceful.

RH: But the peacefulness—the whole point is you’ve come through this passage, so the peacefulness is on a different plane of reality than what you were in before you went through the catharsis. So I think that’s the challenge.

BP: I have to say, there is no part of that dance that ever built to that high a pitch. Definitely parts of it failed in translation in the Joe Goode space, but in other ways it had so much more depth. I’m excited to see what we do in L.A. with it.

RH: I think that’s how art develops, absolutely.

BP: And it was cool that some friends who had never seen dance before—this one kid I knew from Bloomington was just like, ‘I never thought dance like that was an option.’ Postmodern theater, I think celebrates being human. And as cheesy as that sounds, that’s what I want in my art. Like when I started bands, the idea behind punk rock is you hear someone play and think, ‘That’s so simple, but it’s amazing.’ And then you think, ‘I could do that. I should do that.’ You know what I mean?

This article appeared in the March 2015 issue of In Dance.

Rachel Howard has written about dance in the Bay Area for about 16 years. Her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times, Dance Magazine and many other publications. She also writes memoir and fiction.