Notes on Rendering Vessels

By James Fleming

January 17, 2023, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Five dancers embrace each other with black clothes over their faces.

Photo by Saami Bloom
[ID: Five dancers from RUPTURE collective, including jose e. abad, Styles Alexander, Gabriele Christian, Clarissa Dyas, and Stephanie Hewett, embrace and lean into each other with arms and hands outstretched together. Their faces are covered in black cloth.]


Author’s Note: This writing is an accumulation of reflections on transformation taken from dark/lessons/rupture, an evening of performance excerpts featuring new works by Jess Curtis and Beyond Gravity artists, Silk Worm and RUPTURE (jose e. abad, Gabriele Christian, Stephanie Hewett, Styles Alexander, and Clarissa Dyas), co-presented by Gravity and CounterPulse. These works will premiere in 2023.

For the program description for each new work, please see “More about dark/lessons/rupture below.

I. dark

We are feeling for a place for new things to grow. A thing that gives form, simulates, then supersedes, a vessel then for rendering.

Switch the flowers in the vase. Maybe replace the vase altogether and lay the flowers on the table, on the floor. Add a side dish, a cut of roast chicken. Turn the lights down, turn them off entirely. Now it’s a party.

In total darkness, dancers move across the stage. Murmurations and breathwork accompany the vibrational resonance of feet slapping and sliding across the marley floor. Fluid air oscillates from their bodies to ours, an intractable embrace.

In the absence of light, the stage expands into endless surface, like a vase cut down the middle and spread by a dough roller. It is malleable, soft.

The vessel is thrown over a poised ensemble of dancers. A small light flashes in the hands of Gerald Pirner and his voice calls out across the pitch-black expanse:

Here is a hand on a shoulder, a head with hair dangling down, a hand and an arm, a head in their lap, the body laying on the floor. Michelangelo’s Pietà. It reminds me of the Pietà in Rome. A modern Pietà in America.

With each flash of the light in his hand, a light sculpture renders into ‘the picture as it were a blind invention of the picture’.[1] It is felt through bated air over the hairs on our arms, gilt on the cheek, as dancers carom in darkness.

A multitude of embracing forms spread across the stage, beyond the stricture of light, where artists are passing[2] through pietàs, are becoming mama rays[3], in verdant twilight sky.

II. lessons

Be sure to remove the sack containing the neck and innards from the cavity.[4]

The vessel is soft, pliable. It has skin, like a bird for roasting. It washes the harvest season’s terrible history of destruction away with splashes of giblet-infused gravy.

When I close my eyes, I recall Cate Blanchett presiding over her family thanksgiving dinner in prayer: I am for… ham art, pork art, chicken art, tomato art, banana art, apple art, turkey art, cake art, cookie art. I am for an art that is combed down, that is hung from each ear, that is laid on the lips and under the eyes, that is shaved from the legs, that is brushed from the teeth, that is fixed from the thighs, that is slipped on the foot.[5]

When I open my eyes, Silk Worm is there, posing gloriously on the pedestal for the audience. She is covered in a many-hued garnish of boas.

Silk Worm holds a microphone on a dark stage.
Photo by Robbie Sweeny
[ID: Silk Worm holds a microphone in her right hand as she gazes toward and above the camera. She is wearing a white shirt under a white fur vest. The background is completely dark.]

One step at a time, she presents to us Lessons in Anatomy.

Step 1: hold onto your ultimate outcome with your mind and your favorite cooking vessel in your hand.

The vessel is prepared delicately, it is patted dry and probably rubbed with salt all over. Inside it, Silk constructs a repository for the semiotics of ‘bodily transformation, namely with changing sex’.[6]

Above her, a sonic drone laps and lays, swaps and enfolds: lips smack, liquids pour down throats, cans pop and fizz as material is pushed by the larynx into an acidic oceanscape of the stomach. Composer Jules Lc fills the vessel with the gestational interior spaces of the body, where silence becomes something of an embodied sine wave.

By Step 7, Silk instructs the audience: Open the oven door wider. Force yourself to confront a raw chicken, a greasy little bird lying in the dark waiting for the sun to come up.

The vessel reveals itself through an intimate congress of ‘psychic garbage’, in a language that congeals and affixes like cold gravy solidifying on your plate.

As the heap roasts, Silk cries out jubilantly: You did it! Look at that bird. Oil, chicken juices, dead flesh, crispy meat. The color, slammin! Super flavorsome.

Teetering on a black banister above the audience, she waves into the lights, reciting the lyrics of Humpty Dumpty. A cagey wink and a flick of her wrist and the vessel is sent off; dinner, and the past with it, is over.

III. &theruptureisnow

It is no secret that vessels often lie. They hold things plucked from elsewhere, like flowers in a vase, rosemary and sage and thyme in the cavity, all of us in the places we’re in.

Dancers collect around a table. Hands move swiftly beneath an iridescent coterie of laughter. They are playing spades, which is also to say they are studying[7] how to make the future.

The movement set expands onto the dance floor, Gabriele Christian, Clarissa Dyas, and Stephanie Hewett develop a score, working each sequence toward organic unity. With each pass, improvisational variations are loosely woven together, we cry out in joy as they alight in unison. Gabriele grins, improvises an alternate advance, and the framework expands again.

I speak to RUPTURE collaborator jose e. abad over the phone. They describe to me a rich tapestry of the collective’s multi-year collaboration exploring Black Life, drawing from deep research and engagements with Ishmael Houston-Jones, Joanna Haigood, and Fred Moten, among others.

jose says: The rupture in these artistic spaces is when we get together and be in a place of freedom and exploration and study together. It ruptures the chokehold on queer Black arts and culture, we’re imagining our coming together is a rupture within these places, spaces that we adore but also rely on.

The ensemble rests together on the floor, limbs intertwining into a state of decadent relaxation. Above, a film of Styles Alexander whispers stunning mnemonic poems, toward a deep future through the ages, across ‘a sea of sunflowers’ at their back, through nights of ‘delicate fervor’, the visionary promise:

Either way we will arrive
To renege, rebel, recall, rename,
We will continue to remember
We will continue to rupture.

Vessels dissolve in a yawn-scree of cicadas, in the undulating weave of Moktar’s Arabic instrumentation[8], culminating in the transcendent bell beat of Madre Guía’s Solar Plexus Defense.[9]

Clarissa calls out and the audience floods the stage in reverie to join the dance.

Edges and borders burst forth, blooming into the provisional space for buds to grow, as the beat sheds the theater’s semblance, becoming now something of a field of wildflowers.

Above us, ontological exhalations of crew alight as the ensemble pose together. Liminal affection plays through referential glimpses and strokes. They are figuring it out[10],  a commitment to rendering a future beyond the temporal containment of a vessel; a dance; a performance; on a stage; for an audience; inside an institution.

Turns out, there is no vessel.  No container exists to render toward utopia, only artists at the fore, tracing improvisational desire lines[11] toward a more caring and revelrous future.

More About dark/lessons/rupture

Into The Dark is a new ensemble work instigated by Jess Curtis in collaboration with a diverse ensemble of Blind, Low Vision and Sighted performers, addressing the physical, subconscious, and literal effects of western culture’s binary mythologizing of darkness and light (Artists: Jess Curtis, Sherwood Chen, Gabriele Christian, Rachael Dichter, Gerald Pirner, Tiffany Taylor).

Lessons in Anatomy, a new solo(ish) piece from Silk Worm, aims to create a repository for all the negative thoughts, fears, doubts, and second guesses that come with bodily transformation, namely with changing sex. Navigating a medicalized transition, it turns out, produces a landfill’s worth of psychic garbage, and Lessons in Anatomy hopes to take out the trash.

&theruptureisnow, an excerpt of a large prismatic performance work by the RUPTURE collective (jose e. abad, Styles Alexander, Gabriele Christian, Clarissa Dyas, and Stephanie Hewett) premiering in late 2023, shares some of the group’s research on Afro-Diasporic—primarily African-American—folk games and functions as sites of chance, vernacular, and transformation. Working through Fred Moten’s understanding of “study” as all that you “do with other people…talking, walking…under the name of speculative practice,” RUPTURE sources recreation, rest, and revelry as the anchors between community care and stage composition.

[1] Pirner, Gerald. “Ueber.” n.d.

[2] “A feeling-vector contemplates its passage, attending to the dance of an occasion coming into itself.” Erin Manning, The Minor Gesture. p. 62.

[3] Mutu, Wangechi. MamaRay. 2020. Nasher Museum of Art, USA.;jsessionid=3B98710F9B7DBBD92F745B0050C0838F 

[4] Clark, Melissa. “How to Cook a Turkey.” New York Times. November 25, 2022.

[5] Manifesto (11). Directed by Julien Rosefeldt, performance by Cate Blanchett. 2017. In the piece, Blanchett is reciting remixed excerpts from Claes Oldenburg’s essay, “I Am For…” (1961). 

[6] In a conversation about Lessons in Anatomy between Silk and I, she references Martha Rosler’s “Semiotics of the Kitchen” (1975), a performance piece that explores the commodification of women’s roles in the kitchen. Rosler describes the seminal piece, saying that “as she speaks, she names her own oppression.”

[7] From &theruptureisnow performance description, the collective is “working through Fred Moten’s understanding of ‘study’ as all that you ‘do with other people…talking, walking…under the name of speculative practice.’”

[8] Moktar. “PEAR.” HeForShe x femme culture Vol. 4, femme culture. Bandcamp. Track 8. 2022. 

[9] Guía, Madre. “Solar Plexus Defense.” Ancestral Frequencies EP. Bandcamp. Track 3. 2021. 

[10] Moten, Fred. “Stefano Harney & Fred Moten.” The Poetry Project. April 24, 2015. In conversation with jose, they reference an excerpt from this recording. Moten describes how “this kind of weird inkling or transformation might begin to occur in which you realize that what we’ve been trying to figure out how to get to is how we are when we get together to try to figure it out.”

[11] Mitchel, Rashaun; Reiner, Silas. Desire Lines. 2017-2018. 

This article appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of In Dance.

James Fleming writes about performance, queer futures, and new natures. His recent writing can be seen in SFMOMA’s Open Space and Art Practical.