How can you go in the house all day and not go anywhere? That is the question Ralph Lemon asks in his latest work, also doubling as the work’s title, which marks his return after a four-year hiatus. The part-stage, part-video, part-dance, and part-I-don’t-know-what-to-call-it multi-media piece poetically explores themes of loss, grief, and rebirth through a science-fiction framework. Not only does he provide us with a performance, but he also pushes his audience as far as he possibly can.
The work is very personal for the artist as it masterfully weaves fact and fiction together, leaving the audience wondering what is false and what is truth. The performance begins with the artist narrating on stage along with a video projection through which he tells us about his life, past work, falling out with his colleagues, grief, and loss. We also are told of Walter Carter, with whom Lemon collaborated, who is shown dressed as an astronaut re-enacting scenes that the narrator tells us: the story of him and his wife, Edna, and how she would fall asleep to the film Solaris. Actual scenes from the film are weaved into the video. Though the story is very personal to the artist and in a sense, a documentary of his life, he never mentions one important detail—the fact that he recently lost his partner, dancer Asako Takami. Although this bit of information may not be essential for the viewer, it does create the layers of fact and fiction that are embedded in the work.
After a dramatic scene in which Walter the astronaut walks slowly toward the camera, the screen rises and the dance portion of the performance begins. In the video, the artist mentions a previous work of his that had lasted three minutes, but would have liked to see go on forever. He commits to that idea and exhibits a 20-minute incarnation of that performance, in which six live dancers perform an improvisational “ecstasy” dance where they move around in the space, often coming into contact with each other, flailing their bodies around, conveying a sense of “formlessness,” one of Lemon’s approaches in his practice. There are many beautiful moments in which the performers come together and act in unison, which is impressive considering that it was not choreographed and done spontaneously. Though interesting, this is where the artist truly tests his audience. The artist questions what dance is in the same vein that Merce Cunningham did fifty years ago: is this dance or is it not dance? Lemon ultimately uses the body, movements and gestures to create something that is not typically considered dance. The “formlessness” is also conveyed on-stage when the six individual dancers appear to act as a singular mass of bodies. During rehearsal, the dance is performed under the influence of marijuana and alcohol, the dancers are able to underscore this “formlessness” through their varied movements and gestures, in which they use in juxtaposition with a routine reenacted completely sober. The concurrence of the two routines challenges the conventions of traditional dance and references itself to Cunningham’s early innovative dance work, through which dance came to include daily movements and chance gestures. The dance is definitely the centerpiece of the show and whether you love it or hated, there is no denying that the artist succeeded in his goal of invoking a reaction from the audience.
The following segment creates even more tension when the dancers go offstage and a woman is heard sobbing uncontrollably for almost as long as the last sequence. This scene demonstrates Lemon’s ability to create powerful and emotional moments, as it kept me captivated all the way through. Through this emotional scene, he also created a space for empathy, as I found myself empathizing with the performer. Other audience members also admitted to wanting to comfort the woman. But then, before our eyes, a dog seemingly wanders on to the stage; it is no ordinary dog, rather, a projection of a dog, and it is not until other animals come on stage does the audience become aware that this is a visual trick, essentially a series of projections. The stage resembles a zoo until the animals slowly start to walk off stage. Lemon alludes to the story of Noah’s ark through these animal projections, and the juxtaposition of the crying woman and the animals one after the other implies rebirth after loss, rejuvenation after grief, the central themes of his work. In the end, Lemon begins a solo dance, which eventually turns into a duet, elegantly echoing the previous dance of Walter and Edna. Both performers collapse and lie on the floor, and the performance ends when Lemon screams “YES.”
Though the REDCAT introductory descriptions of Ralph Lemon’s work amplifies the sci-fi aspects of it, I was disappointed in how little of it there actually was. The set from the promotional photographs did not even make an appearance in the show. The work was very much about endurance, not only for the dancers, but for the viewers as well. Although all the drawn out sequences make the hour-and-a-half long performance seem a bit lacking in content, it is amazing how much Lemon does with what he provides the audiences. We are taken on an emotional rollercoaster from the lighthearted and humorous scenes with Walter, to the sadness and empathy of the artist’s loss, to frustration of sitting and enduring the dance scene. How can you stay inside all day and not go anywhere? Why stay in when there is so much to do, so much to see, so much to explore? The take-home idea is: although grief and loss happen, there is rebirth and rejuvenation. You’re never too old to explore.