Retracing Steps Along The Great Forest Highway

July 27, 2011 · Print This Article

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Matthew Goulish on the Art21 blog. Much of that conversation centered around a performance by Every house has a door that took place this last June. I wanted to reenact some aspects of that performance through writing. Memory is like a muscle, in a way, and what follows is an exercise of memory. 

“The body (its matter) is eternal; the soul (the form of the body) is transitory” - Bela Bartók (1881-1945)

Every house has a door, "They're mending the great forest highway," 2011. Performance. Photo: John W. Sisson, Jr.

We met at the poolhouse in Holstein Park. It was a humid summer day—due to the heat we were asked to stay outside before the show. There was concern the room might get too hot from our cumulative body heat; the longer we could avoid its accumulation, the better. So we gathered around a bench, following incomplete conversational paths, subjects pursued to pass the time and, if necessary, abandon altogether should the doors open unexpectedly. In these preceding moments I realized, for the first time this year, that it was summer: a time for slow and amicable drifting.

Imagine you sit on this bench with us. You look at your watch; people have started to filter indoors. You follow them. You purchase a bottle of water from a vending machine and climb a set of stairs. I am just in front of you. The banister is wrapped with caution tape but you use it anyway. At the top of the stairs we enter a small, half-court gymnasium. Windows surround the upper third of the room. They are old fashioned, connected by a single metal bar; if you turned a specific rod, all the windows would open at the same time. Through the open windows, you hear the sound of children playing in the swimming pool outside. Sometimes you hear a car from the street. The room stills in anticipation of a beginning. You notice the sweat in your palms. It is very hot. Sun brightens the room and when you follow my gaze look through the windows, the sky is a Midwestern blue.

Every house has a door, "They're mending the great forest highway," 2011, Performance. Photo: John W. Sisson, Jr.

Hannah Geil-Neufeld approaches the microphone. The performance is beginning. It has begun. She begins to read from a rehearsal journal. Like the rest of the audience, we listen to her voice and thus enter the process that created the performance we have come to see. Her voice admits us back stage. She quotes Wallace Stevens. “The poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully,” she says.

The rehearsal journal ushers an experience of intimacy. It welcomes the audience. It calms us with stable, descriptive footing. But of course this is a performance and we are in a theater watching people who have rehearsed the ensuing movement multiple times. This diary is also a practiced devise. It is a grounding point, coherent and personal and common. It opens the door providing a lens through which to see the rest.

Every house has a door, "They are mending the great forest highway," 2011. Performance. Photo: John W. Sisson, Jr.

Three men come to the stage. They wear coats and ties. Brian Torrey Scott is not among them. He has been struck from the rehearsal journal as well. Scott was one of the original dancers; he was in the preview of this same performance put on a year ago at the Cultural Center. He moved away, I heard, and Jeff Harms took his place beside Goulish and John Rich in this performance. Harms appears in the rehearsal journal as though he had been there from the beginning. His dance movements are the same–you remember for instance, the comic flop Scott enacted periodically. At the Cultural Center the arms out, face down semi-dive made people laugh. In the gymnasium we laugh at different moment.

In the gymnasium, these men enact a dance. The gestures comprise a vocabulary because they are specific and repeating and sometimes traded off. Each dancer opens and closes his body differently, as a kind of breath. A delicate syncopation, they execute repeated patterns of movement, weaving in and out of one another. Harm’s flops down and up. Goulish wraps his arms inward and twists. Rich rotates, turning back and forth on an ankle. While the movements themselves are coherent  and descriptive, it is impossible to translate their meaning into words. The letters of this language are limbs. The body almost resists the intelligence. Someone coughs at your shoulder. There are people sitting on gymnasium mats and I feel fortunate to have a chair. By watching the dancing men, you feel cooler. Because they must be very hot.

Charissa Tolentino sits in the center of the room with an economical table. She plays music from her computer, blending organic, forest sounds with varied samples. The samples weave in and out of one another. You catch a phrase from Iggy Pop and catch my eye. I drink some water. The bottle is perspiring also. The various beats of Tolentino’s music mix with the dancers’ claps and stomps, making the room’s noise greater than that of the children outside. And after a built-in rest (the men stand on the side lines breathing noticeably while Tolentino’s soundscape fills the center of the room), the dancers bring scores and music stands to the middle of the gymnasium. John Rich is the only one who keeps his coat on. He gathers with the others, resuming the focal point of the stage to read and perform the notes inscribed. Here we see the body as an instrument and movement becomes its muscular folk music.

The body is also a diary in which memories are embedded, bound by tissue and variously noticeable tensions. It can be inspired, unexpectedly. The tri-tone stirs the body even when it’s listeners resist (John Rich jumping up and down with a red plastic devil’s fork. His feet make stamping sounds when they land on the otherwise squealing wood).

The tri-tone, Bartok and Barry Goodman are all characters in this performance. They linger in the air, as spirited figments, swooping down to possess the dancers periodically. Bartok was a pioneer of ethno-musicology. He collected folk songs like the Grimms collected fairy tales, traveling through the countryside with an Edison phonograph. The ease of his travel was impeded by the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but he continued to visit what became Romania, trapping voices in an historical box. Folk singers regularly used the tritone without any evil associations and Bartok used it in his own compositions, smuggling the diminished fifth symphony halls. His violins were retuned to play dissonant notes on open strings and his audience was curiously moved in ways they didn’t understand. Americans were similarly afraid of Jazz (it made the young people dance) but in 1938 the Goodman Band played at Carnegie Hall, what had otherwise been a site for classical performance. By drawing you into this gymnasium, I am trying to conjure the ghost of experience. Now we have these figments between us, as they were in the gymnasium.

Every house has a door, "They are mending the great forest highway," 2011. Performance. Photo: John W. Sisson, Jr.

And so we come to the final act. Goulish approaches the microphone and begins to read from the rehearsal diary again. He describes the movements of an opera. He returns to the idea of mothers while describing an after-rehearsal walk. We have left the center of the performance. In leaving the center, we approach the bounds of its circumference and crossing that line will mark the end. Goulish conjures a looming maternal presence–a presence that seems to have always been in the room, lurking in the shadows of each and every one of us, ill-defined until it was named. Mothers are the beginning of material experience. Her multiple facets standing like a grove of aspens with one single root system. This is the forest we have been walking through inside of this bare-bright gymnasium. The wooden floors, rife with patterns to measure court games, collecting sweat like a forest floor. The performance is a delapidated road and by its enactment it wants to mend itself.

But first, there will be a death scene. In the first month of summer, in the middle of a very warm day, you watch three dancers die while thinking of an opera you have never seen. Goulish describes the opera as I am here describing their performance. Their bodies jerk differently as they imagine themselves drowning in this dry heat and when they leave they exit out the gymnasium door. Goulish drowns last.

We cannot tell if it is really over, which is what happens with death. Material bodies are stupefied when they can no longer move themselves. The room begins to applaud. Performers come out from their backstage retreat to bow. The Director, Lin Hixson, is called out from where she has been watching in the audience with a smile. The room applauds with a bigger noise.

Back down the stairs you realize the banister you’d been using for support is only partially screwed into the wall. Thus the cautionary tape. In addition to the memory of the performance, you also remember (perhaps by accident) the faces of those sitting around you. The same faces you walk down stairs with. Strangers watching a partially silent music.