“The Stone, Our Sundial” by Rebecca Chaleff and Rebecca Ormiston

Saturday, 29 June 2013
6:30 – 8:30 pm
Old Union Courtyard

Blog response by Bryan Schmidt

Photos by Jamie Lyons

Chaleff and Ormiston’s piece relied on, revealed, and reveled in the tensions between multiple temporal registers: the cosmic tempo of the setting sun as it moved across the Old Union courtyard, the standardized, linear time tracked precisely by the intermittent ringing of a nearby bell tower, unique bodily rhythms that became apparent in extended physical gestures and the performers’ increasing exhaustion as they repeatedly enacted them. Described, in part, as an investigation into the “dislocation from the outside world” that academics experience through their unusual work schedules (crystallized in feeling alienated from the cycle of dawn and dusk), the two-hour, intricately choreographed performance highlighted the friction between desire and discipline, nature and institution, public and private.

The performance began with the stroke of the clock at 6:30. Chaleff, sitting on a bench in the heavily populated courtyard (which simultaneously housed the Dwight Conquergood book signing and Helene Vosters’ Haunting the Past’s Present) began repeating an extended hand gesture as if turning the page of a book. Ormiston then appeared across the courtyard in an arcade divided by several columns; moving back and forth between the different archways, she raised her hand into the area still lit by the sun each time she changed locations, all the while jumping on one foot. Although the performers exchanged no words, the gestural language seemed to imply a relationship between them, however ambiguous (maybe something like student-teacher), and also a desperation to capture what they could of the fading sunlight. They rarely seemed to lose eye contact with one another, their gaze creating an energy that pierced through the active goings-on of the courtyard.

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And how active the courtyard was! During this first movement, a number of public elements entered the work’s frame: a group of young people burst through the arcade near Ormiston, and proceeded to frolic in the fountain at the courtyard’s center; a conference attendee sat next to Chaleff and began mimicking her gesture; passers-by repeatedly could be seen coming to the realization that the two women in matching blue outfits were performing a play (and awkwardly trying to sidestep the area between them). This created a productive clash between the public performance space, and the private gaze of the two performers, underscoring the piece’s theme of disconnection.

Eventually, the performers left their initial areas and came together near the center of the courtyard. Here, they enacted a series of gentle gestures that involved one performer placing her hand at a distinct angle, and the other setting her head upon the hand. The intimacy of this moment suddenly snapped, and a frenetic movement began in which the two chased each other throughout the courtyard space. There seemed to be a degree of menace or even violence in this section of the piece, which culminated in Chaleff foisting Ormiston into the central fountain. After a few moments—when Ormiston had become sufficiently drenched—, Chaleff dressed her in a yellow poncho, an act of reconciliation that seemed to come too late.

The next movement was characterized by what seemed to me to be a reversal of roles. Ormiston extricated herself from the fountain and then dressed in a graduate cap and gown. Whereas, before, she had been the one jumping on one leg, waving her hand in the air like, say, a student desperate to get her teacher’s attention, now Chaleff repeated that same activity. Concurrently, Ormiston began creating modest, extended gestures that one might associate with a professor—she waved with her hands, for instance, as if to say “go on,” perhaps eliciting a more detailed explanation from something the student had said.

Here, perhaps, I am attempting to make too much sense of what was, for the most part, a purposefully abstract piece, but for me, many of the gestures resonated with my own experience of the student-teacher relationship. There were moments of distance and moments of closeness; moments of encouragement, moments of denial; moments when the student desperately seeks attention and acknowledgement, and moments when s/he attempts to escape the teacher’s forceful disciplining. From a spectator’s perspective, the energy created in the oscillation between these different moments (sustained by the performers’ intense connection with one another through the gaze) filled the space during the passage to dusk, and so although there was no need to put a story with the piece, the fact that it took place in the context of an academic conference made it easy to do so.

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The piece’s penultimate movement involved Ormiston—her cap and gown having been removed—stretching a roll of paper between two trees, creating a sort of “finishing line” for Chaleff to break through as she sprinted around the courtyard. The act implied the completion of something, and yet, each time Chaleff broke through, Ormiston simply built the line over again. Closure was denied. As in the world of intellectual pursuit, the end of one challenge—or, perhaps, the answering of one question—led to the beginning of another. Plateau built upon plateau, with nothing ostensibly changing save the passage of time.

And it was the highlighting of this passage of time that finally closed the piece. Ormiston and Chaleff lined up on opposite sides of the arcade surrounding the Old Union; while slowly inching away from the performance space, they popped their legs in and out, in and out, in stark, angular gestures. Like the subtle but ineffable ticking of a clock, the performers crept out of the performance area, slowly disappearing from sight. Notably, though, the performance ended not with their disappearance, but with the bell tower striking 8:30.

Emphasizing the passage of time as it related to the daily activities of academia, The Stone, Our Sundial searched for meaning not in significant occasions, triumphs, and failures, but in the moment-to-moment grind.

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