Revealing through the cracks: Responses to Breaking Ground part 2
I’m a little in my head after “white onion.” Watching a powerpoint in a dark and crowded room must have tricked my subconscious into thinking I’m back in a college lecture hall, because my eyes are getting heavy and I’ve smothered a yawn or two. The stage darkens and a low drone fills the space. A figure appears in the back corner, neck craned, casting a fixed, curious gaze across the long diagonal of the stage.
Then BOSS slashes across the stage like a knife, vaults their body airward, twisting in midair, lands at the front edge of the stage, and peers under an arm to turn that gaze on us. It’s a little like being hit with a searchlight.
Okay, I’m awake.
“Thru” leans unabashedly into showmanship and virtuosity to deliver a self-excavating autobiography with real entertainment value. Spiraling, acrobatic movement sequences propel along lines of diagonal tension. In an age when shows like “So You Think You Can Dance” define most American’s expectations for contemporary dance to wow with physical feats, BOSS seems out to give the people what they want, delivering movement that would impress your gym teacher. Importantly, these more challenging physical movements are inhabited, not just executed, so that they become integrated into the story of the work rather than left as shiny decorations.
Of course, it’s not just about tricks. BOSS masterfully engages the full range of their face, voice, and body to create a multi-dimensional, kaleidoscopic self-portrait of a driven, charismatic, and possibly neurotic protagonist. Movement languages are sourced from contemporary competition dance aesthetics, gestural theatre, performance art, drag, and even a little salsa. Vocally, there’s a defiant rendition of “Ave Maria”, a whispered conspiratorial dialogue with a costume, an operatic beginning of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” cut short by a strangled cough. A cast of maybe twelve different characters all clamor for expression onstage, and BOSS simultaneously acts as both medium and manager for them all. Watching this piece feels like watching a television when someone is flipping through the channels, but on every channel there’s a different scene giving us a different insight into the formation of the BOSS. It can feel chaotic, non-linear, and at times hard to track, but I am engaged the whole time; BOSS demands nothing less than my full attention.
One of the paradoxes of virtuosity is that the more masterful someone is as an artist, the less we see the work behind it. As a result we often mistakenly attribute someone’s excellence to “artistic genius” rather than recognizing the sacrifices, sweat, and hard work it took to get there.
Photo taken by Rick Meinecke, courtesy of CONDER|dance
What makes this piece memorable to me is the way that virtuosity is balanced by vulnerability. It’s the moments when BOSS lets us in to their inner monologues and motivations that really make me care about the piece. Working up into a shoulder stand, they verbally coach themselves through, driving themselves to work past a point of fatigue: “Up — come on — up.” A small moment that matters greatly; it’s the crack in the doorway allowing us to peer past delusions of “genius” or “innate talent” and see the effort underneath.
My favorite of these moments happens midway through. The work has been moving, stewing, when BOSS peers out into the crowd (dialogue here is approximated) and asks: “Hello! Are you still with me? Can you all do me a favor? Can you hold your hands out like this?” BOSS reaches their hands out, both palms together. “Are you doing it?” I wasn’t, but now I reach mine out too.
“Now, will you clap for me?”
The number of times I’ve been asked to clap for performers by the hosts or an MC are way too many to count. I feel secretly annoyed when emcees tell me to “put my hands together” or ask if I’m “having a good time” (I can’t hear you!). I usually clap resentfully, lethargically putting my hands together once or twice before setting them back in my lap.
But this moment is so different. BOSS’s invitation is intimate and almost childlike, the way I sometimes still ask my mom to play with my hair or rub my back. It’s a pure expression of need. And I do clap, not resentfully at all, but actually charmed at being hoodwinked into participating. For me at least, this is one of the few moments in the night where I feel real emotion. I’m moved by seeing a masterful, seemingly self-sufficient artist reveal their deep-seated need for the audience’s validation and approval. Even the BOSS needs others.
I circle back to Brené Brown’s three part definition of vulnerability: uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Uncertainty — does the audience like this? Are they with me? Risk — revealing the artists’ dependency on audience approval, something that can be taken away. Emotional exposure — showing the underbelly, expressing need. The power of this work resides not in physical prowess or ferocity of execution; it’s in the artists’ willingness to let us in through the cracks, revealing the multidimensionality of the very human character at the heart of the work.
Hyoin Jun dances on the wood floor of an apartment, dressed in creams and whites. Behind him is a white refrigerator, a small wooden table and two wooden chairs. The lighting is warm, streaming in through a window. The camera alternates between two shots, a close and a wide.
“a Human is a complicated Puzzle” is the dance equivalent of a home video, a testament to the power of the smartphone, and a work birthed in the era of Instagram, where dance artists use the digital stage of social media to curate and share their movement practices. DIY simplicity is the name of the game.
As a self-professed Luddite who loathes video conferencing and believes in showing up in person wherever possible, I’m surprised to find that experiencing this work as a film actually increases my sense of intimacy with the artist. Jun’s digital body is larger than life, filling the stage space. We can see subtle changes in the way he’s breathing, the movement of the hairs on his head, and every shift of facial expression. Sharing the work as a film enables Jun to invite us into his personal world; I feel like I could be sitting in a chair in the apartment, just out of view of the camera.
In a contained space, detail and nuance are everything, and Jun layers them thick. Jun’s choreography is rich, imagistic, and surprising. He favors isolation over flow, and sequences movements unpredictably, in a way that demonstrates a mindful attention to disrupting patterns. This unpredictable sequencing is similar to the postmodern aesthetic in “white onion,” except that in Jun’s movements, we can see causal relationships: an arm threads, to attach to a knee, to move a leg, a Rube Goldberg sequence without an obvious end in sight. I’m surprised to learn after the fact that Jun’s original movement background is in ballet, since he eschews classical lines and plays so much with isolation and illusion, qualities I associate more with popping.
The film is about Jun’s personal experience with depression. And I confess that when I read that initially, I groaned a little inside. If I’ve seen one, I’ve seen fifty contemporary dance pieces inspired by the shadow sides of human consciousness. The dancers usually dress in black and do a lot of writhing.
But this film is different. It’s full of light colors, earth tones, and creams. The music is soothing, like something I’d listen to to fall asleep. And Jun’s face, while it certainly wears shades of melancholy, is pretty angst-free. Depression is experienced not as a raging despair but as a quiet, heavy presence that creeps in and settles in the bones. The contrast between content and aesthetic evokes the hollow feeling when your insides don’t match up with your outsides: like the feeling of sadness on a sunny day, or being surrounded by people and yet experiencing loneliness. It’s a more complex portrait, a song with sad lyrics but a danceable beat. A complicated puzzle, indeed.
What gets to me about this piece is the earnestness of Jun’s performance. There are some gestural moments, like when Jun’s arms are rippling like a bird’s wings, that are so literal and straightforward in their depiction, it’s like a third grader created them. The execution of these moments is so beautifully free of artifice. Jun believes them, so I do too.