“Ambient Cowboy is lonely and joyous, dark and funny, violent and loving. Seeded by a visit to Philip Johnson’s Glass House – with its brilliantly audacious imposition of serene, spare modernity on the abundant, looming wilderness -Ambient Cowboy explores this fertile landscape of contrasting elements, through dance, drama, sound, and setting. “ – http://www.newyorklivearts.org/event/Ambient-Cowboy
Excited chatter and low murmuring filled the room, as the age-diverse New York City audience settled in to their seats. The stage was set for a majestic and insightful production called “The Ambient Cowboy” at the New York Live Arts Theater. The set design was simple – white floor, black backdrop. No props, no scenery. Just a simple, silent, stark canvas for the performers to color with simple lighting rigged off to stage left. The Ambient Cowboy is a masterful performance piece that seeks to relate two very different concepts to one another – modern dance and modern architecture. Baldwin’s “Ambient Cowboy” more specifically seeks to compare dance with Philip Johnson’s “Glass House”. For those of you not familiar with “The Glass House”, it is a National Trust Historical site located in New Canaan, Connecticut. Honoring the legacy of Philip Johnson and David Whitney, The Glass House was built in 1949 and “offers its 47-acre campus as a catalyst for the preservation and interpretation of modern architecture, landscape, and art; and as a canvas for inspiration and experimentation”. *
Baldwin’s “Ambient Cowboy” opens with a man and a woman positioned at diametrically opposed corners of the stage. The man, closest to the audience and under a soft yellow light at stage right, holds a strange pose and begins to breathe. And he breathes, and breathes, and breathes, in a highly rhythmic manner. The woman is abandoned in the shadows, to stage left in the backdrop. All performers are wearing very little by way of costume – just a loose, sheer, black top and very small black dancer’s shorts. The man’s breathing was so prolonged and rhythmic, I felt as though he may pass out. By relation, I felt like I may pass out! My first impression was, “Wow, I’m really uncomfortable.” Does the producer know this performer’s breathing capacity? Is he really going to pass out? Will I have to witness it? Why is he breathing so irregularly, what does it mean to the piece, and how long can he DO that? Is this whole performance really going to be in silence? Hope my stomach doesn’t growl!” Subsequently, it did. That aside, I did not understand all of the nuances, but I was definitely becoming emotionally involved and invested in what I was seeing within the first few minutes of the show. So began my journey into the experience of Baldwin’s work.
The entire dance was performed in silence and soft lighting, punctuated by music reminiscent of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and superimposed by a visual arts presentation that could be likened to “Etch-A-Sketch”. Most of the choreography had each dancer performing a unique dance, and at his/her own pace. Many of the movements were erratic, disconnected, and uncomfortable-looking – with muscles straining, joints bent in awkward positions, unnatural postures, pauses and vocal outbursts. I struggled to make sense of what I was seeing. As the performance went on, the dancers began to interact more with one another, and move with more synchronized choreography. At one point, I said with pride to myself, “Ahhh, now I think I understand. Now we are getting somewhere!”
Baldwin does a fantastic job using her choreography to illustrate the tension between “the practical, ethical, aesthetic, and political questions of how to place themselves in a specific location.”** When the dancers were disjointed, movements out of sync and sporadically placed about the space, I felt the same kind of disorder, discomfort, and misunderstanding as one may feel when a garbage dump is haphazardly set into a residential neighborhood, or a modern building design fights with its surrounding city or landscape. I understood that the choreography that lent to dancers cooperating, moving together in a beautiful motion, or forming geometric patterns also parallels with the relevance, power, and inspiration of well-placed modern architecture. I really enjoyed the added touch of the video presentation – which added a beautiful and emotional dimension to the performance.
The performance ended abruptly with a fade to black and boisterous audience applause. I felt like my mind had opened to the parallels Baldwin sought to draw between the very different fields of modern dance and modern architecture. I enjoyed the performance very much! Congratulations to the Ambient Cowboy crew for a great opening night – performed by Lawrence Cassella, Eleanor Smith, Molly Poerstel-Taylor, and Ivy Baldwin, with sound design by Justin Jones, video consultation by Joshue Ott, set design by Anna Schuleit, and lighting design by Chloë Z. Brown. Thank you to Anna Schuleit for inviting The Origin of Cool contributors Melissa Del Toro and Jason Schaffner.
Melissa Del Toro
Origin of Cool Contributor – New York City
*You can find more information on The Glass House at http://philipjohnsonglasshouse.org/
** Source: New York Live Arts Playbill for “Ivy Baldwin Dance: Ambient Cowboy” May 2 – 5 at 7:30pm
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