Yalies explore creation, destruction

Emily Coates ’06, who used to be a ballet dancer, interacts with a sculpture reminiscent of a cart or boat — or a medieval torture device — as part of a performance art piece at X Initiative on Nov. 14.
Emily Coates ’06, who used to be a ballet dancer, interacts with a sculpture reminiscent of a cart or boat — or a medieval torture device — as part of a performance art piece at X Initiative on Nov. 14. Photo by Carol Hsin.

NEW YORK — On the multi-colored, tiled floors of X Initiative, a non-profit art gallery here, theater studies lecturer and World Performance Project artistic director Emily Coates ’06 interacted with sculptures made by School of Art student Tamar Ettun ART ’10 from every day objects such as crutches, yarn and doors.

“Empty Is Also,” a performance art piece exhibited Saturday by Coates and Ettun, explores the dialogue between the disciplines of dance and sculpture, and the acts of creation and destruction.

The sculptures that Coates and Ettun interact with are made from ever day objects, like yarn, and audience members occupy the same space as the performance itself.
The sculptures that Coates and Ettun interact with are made from ever day objects, like yarn, and audience members occupy the same space as the performance itself.

“We were thinking a lot about permanence versus impermanence in our respective mediums, sculpture and dance, and the idea of disintegration,” Coates said. “Each discipline has its own history, conventions, sense of time. Tamar and I worked hard to create something at the junction of the two.”

By taking ordinary “found” objects that have their own history and attaching them together in sculptural forms, Ettun said a new story is created that also carries with it the original memory-function of the items. These ordinary items are transformed and given a new significance through art and their placement in the sacred space of a gallery, she said.

When designing the sculptures, Ettun took into account how each would move, change and collapse though their interactions with Coates — both actor and object.

While a dream catcher, made from crutches and red yarn, and a small projector repeatedly playing a video remained stationary throughout the performance, a painter’s scaffolding moved around the bare, white-walled performance space. Sculpture, in the performance, was not strictly immobile.

Coates, a slim 5-foot-5-inch former ballet dancer wearing a red dress, alternated between acting upon and becoming a motionless part of the objects.

The dancer creates, destroys and tries to rebuild the structures, Ettun said. And after Coates changed, and thus destroyed, the creations, she attempted to rebuild the structures to their original form. John Phillip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” played in the background.

In these instances, Ettun and the saxophone player, Jane Ira Bloom, came to Coates’ aid because the objects are heavy and resisted change. The grace of the dance was replaced by a rushed and desperate attempt to return the objects to the original — without success.

“It’s the reversal of usual expectations,” Joseph Roach, English professor and the principal investigator of the World Performance Project, said.

Though people often view sculpture as enduring and dance as fleeting, Ettun and Coates played with these expectations by making sculptures fall apart while Coates’ historic dance sequences endured, Roach explained.

Coates incorporated sequences from famous choreographers Yvonne Rainer and George Balanchine in her dance, selected because of their “durability.” The dance pieces are easily recognizable and have remained “intact” throughout many decades, Coates said.

The meaning of objects in the performance are changed and recontextualized, Coates added. Ettun manipulated objects into sculpture, which were further manipulated by the dancer.

Two wooden wheels, for example, were originally used in a spool for electric cable, but Ettun recreated them in a sculpture that resembled a cart or a boat. The dancer then lay on the wheel itself, giving it a new meaning possibly evoking the racks — a Medieval tool of torture.

The performers occupied the same space as audience members, who were invited to enter or leave while the performance was in progress. The viewers thus became a part of the impermanence of the work as they walked around the performance space to get a better view of the dancer like visitors at a museum.

The name of the performance, “Empty Is Also,” Ettun said, was derived from the manipulation of a Buddhist phrase from the Heart Sutra that says, “Form is emptiness, emptiness also is form.”

The two envisioned this project at the suggestion of Roselee Goldberg, founder and director of Performa, a non-profit interdisciplinary arts organization that funded the project. They met in Coates’ dance studies class, where Ettun was a student in dance composition last spring.

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