Zachary Whittenburg is Manager of Communication at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.
“I wanted to try to control myself,” says artist Martin Creed, maybe a third of the way through his Work No. 1020 (Ballet). “I feel like life is out of control all of the time.” Onstage to his left, dancer Lorena Randi coughs into her hand, then replaces it where it belongs when you’re in third position and you’re doing ballet.
Work No. 1020, 90 minutes sharp, happens this way. It just happens to be formal, in a way. There’s a large, long video projected at the end of the work, of a young woman squatting to take a dump in a white room. There are thirteen cacti in a row upstage right, the shortest nearest center, the tallest adjacent to the wings.
Diagonals emanate from this upstage right corner during the performance. They cut through an orthogonal grid marked on the floor with three colors of spike tape (blue, green, and lime). When ballet shapes “work,” it’s because the dancer’s body expresses distinct tensions between orthogonal and diagonal lines. Ballet lives in the play between the grid (en face) and its corners (effacé, croisé, écarté). Creed’s performance lives in the play between its viewers and the play between ballet and Martin Creed.
Work No. 1020 looks at the house of ballet before going in, looks at the basics of ballet’s envelope. One of many songs the five-member rock band plays during the piece is an alphabet song, and there’s a counting song, too. The five dancers, including Randi, walk through ballet’s five positions like piano students practicing their scales. Their dancing is basic, their technique so-so. The projected numbers that keep pace during the breakneck counting song are big and crisp and black-on-white, and so are the letters that take turns behind Creed and the band during the alphabet song. The musicians and their instruments (drums and guitars) are in a diagonal line, from the upstage right corner to downstage center. Well, just a little to the right of center, the place dancers call “eighth.” Yeah, there.
“I hope you feel free, at least,” says Creed to the audience, after explaining that he doesn’t feel free. Over a black T-shirt, he wears a knit sweater vest, sleeveless like the faded Van Halen T-shirt the one male dancer, Karl Friedrich Wilhelm Gehrig, wears not tucked into the waistband of his footless black tights.
“As soon as you’ve got rules, then you do things wrong,” Creed observes, offhandedly. When he swaps electric guitar leads a little later, the new cable comes up short. He’s unable to both play his guitar and stand where he belongs, just a little to the right of downstage center, like at eighth. A production coordinator hurries to the stage to help push a heavy amplifier closer to Creed, to bridge the gap. It’s not a tense moment for us in the audience, because no one onstage seems concerned. “I didn’t plan this,” Creed tells us, “but I wish I had, because I like it.” People laugh. The Work continues, back on script.
The program notes for Work No. 1020 (Ballet) include a brief statement by Creed, which concludes, “A ballet dancer is standing up straighter than anyone else. It is an extreme example of the work of living. That’s what I like about it.” Yes, but the five dancers in Work No. 1020 are not extreme in their execution of ballet building blocks, taking turns in closed cycles and patterns. There’s slack in the cable connecting each dancer to the big, buzzing box of ballet. Instead of “stage face,” we get “class face.” We can see the work behind the art. During another song, Creed forces out these lyrics, his stare intense: “I’ve been practicing, practicing, practicing for you.”
When Creed’s choreography touches complex, it backs off, and chooses another fundamental dance-making strategy to approach and assess. Deep within ballet, where the Work does not go, precise épaulement and dynamic phrasing deliver ideas through the form. In this Work, the figure is still hidden in the stone. This Work is preliminary bulk reduction done with eyes wide open, the hacking away at a corner not needed, the standing back, the looking at the big stone, the taking away of another chunk, the identification of forms the big block might contain.
With the same number of strides, taken simultaneously but with different lengths, the five dancers enter from stage left. Farthest upstage, Gehrig’s strides are full splits, to the floor, which take him all the way to the opposite side and the tallest cactus. Randi’s steps along the edge of the stage, conventionally scaled, take her only about half as far.
The three other dancers’ strides deposit them regularly between, so the group arrives in a diagonal line in unison. They turn around and exit the way they came in, taking their final steps offstage together.
The Work is the play between constants and variables, with themes and variations waiting in the wings. In the middle of the Work, on video, one by one, a little dog, a big dog, and a man cross a white room on the diagonal, while voices direct these three animals from out of frame.
Ballet’s codes, traditions, architectures, aristocratic beginnings, physical demands, and abstract ideals are like a giant sphere in this Work. Creed’s work covers this sphere’s surface with dimples as it makes its way around and presses into it with different fingers and degrees of pressure. He says at the beginning of the show that he wants to try to show us something, that the Work will contain “things designed to be looked at.”
The magic part is how these meetings around a membrane reveal glimpses of cores. In the age of hermetic pockets of fluency, here’s a performance of approach, an investigation, a detective’s first visit to a crime scene, a student’s thoughts after his first lesson. Following the last dance, Creed says, “there’s no real ending.”
Then all of the performers, standing shoulder to shoulder, take their bows at the very lip, coming as close to those of us watching as they can without falling off of the stage.
Martin Creed’s Work No. 1020 (Ballet) received its US premiere at the Edlis Neeson Theater, November 16 and 17, 2012. These two performances marked the eleventh month of the artist’s yearlong residency, Martin Creed Plays Chicago, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.