Kristin Clotfelter/Studio C Projects: On You
Monkey Bottom Collaborative, Durham
Bathed in red light, Pin-Han Lin finds her shape against a wall. Her maneuvering resembles rock-climbing without the toe-holds that enable vertical lift; still, it seems conceivable, with her arms reaching toward the piping overhead, that she’s hovering. Her poses—spiky and fixed, like they’re outlined in chalk—prompt Kristin Clotfelter to ask two questions as she crosses the room toward Lin: “How are you doing? What are you working on?”
I’ve employed these workaday interrogations with friends and colleagues to anchor the emotional heavy-lifting of the first question in something more material: the specifics of a project, the outline of an idea. But in Kristin Clotfelter/Studio C Projects’ On You, the inquiries arrive together, modifying and answering each other through movement. “How are you doing?” becomes a technical question when Clotfelter assumes a position similar to Lin’s along the wall. One way to ask and to listen, Clotfelter and her fellow movers demonstrate, is to try to integrate the movements of another. The sequence of actions that make up the fifty minutes of On You enact a sort of reciprocal pedagogy, a physical experimentation that’s collaborative and mutually attentive.
Clotfelter, Lin, and Matthew Young channel a gentle investigative energy from the get-go. As we enter Monkey Bottom Collaborative, Clotfelter asks each of us if she can make our portraits. If we agree, we lean in and find ourselves reflected in a square mirror as she traces our necks, chins, and hats onto an old-school projector sheet. When the messy, colorful pile of our faces is later beamed onto the wall, I find myself tugged by the appeal of easy self-recognition. Seeing an approximation of my face assures me I was there, like a Sharpie scrawl on a bathroom wall, a participatory token.
But what the projector makes visible is just the most literal trace of our presence in On You. As Clotfelter, Lin, and Matthew Young proceed from room to room, they sling, pocket, and rearrange space as if they’re making one big contour drawing of us. When they approach audience members, they seem most interested in the negative space between us and them. As they align their elbows with ours or return a smile, they understand we’re also complicit in sculpting the air and in creating the dance. Whether we do and if we respond is, at least in the moment, a different question.
This focus on audience attention is critical to the work of many local dance makers. Its choreographic implementation, however, can sometimes feel so invested in individual flash points that the larger thematic heft—the stakes—is left elusive. In On You, I kept thinking of the portrait representations we agreed to and the conversational encounters between performers: moments when a power dynamic and an ethics began to emerge, more weighted than ethereal.
In all the ways they move, Clotfelter, Lin, and Young are compelling guides. In particular, Clotfelter’s spatial inventions urge new phrase-making; in my notes, I refer to her gestures, both consolidating and buoyant, as “socketeering.” When she asks Young what he’s up to, his skittish energy manifests in a leg flap, a torso tug, and a clear statement that belies the scrambled movement: “I’m trying to communicate nonsense.” What follows is an extended, inclusive workout of this idea, as Clotfelter both tries on and warps Young’s physical expressions, filling the room in pursuit of confusion.
James Clotfelter’s design work is a crucial choreographic element. His staging is the most clever and intuitive I’ve seen in Monkey Bottom Collaborative, which can feel more suited for a middle-school lock-in than experimental dance. His procedures tie the rooms, and the dances, together: the projector light illuminates a disco ball, but when shifted down from the ceiling, it creates a tight square box where Lin and Young make shadow-play onstage. Each technical transition refocuses our attention on the dancers, who send the energy, however subtly, back to us.
I came to regard the show’s title—On You—as neither a burdening gesture nor an aggressive request for participation. It’s more about how audiences feel themselves implicated, on a micro level, in dance work. Mostly, it’s just a soft propulsion, a wave sent from across the room, from dancer to dancer, dancer to audience, audience to audience, body to body. It urges, but doesn’t prescribe, self-recognition in the unfolding action.