After the Feast is an evening-length project that fuses movement, music and visuals to imagine an urban dystopia caused by vanishing resources. Mills’ highly physical movement and daring partnering propel the performers further into this dire situation – the next phase of human existence. In the work collaborators ask: Can a community emerge from an urban wasteland? What will remain after the final feast?
– artist statement, from the program for After the Feast
I write today in appreciation of An Hour-Long Dance Performance Which We Saw Two Weeks Ago, aka, Tiffany Mills’ After the Feast.
And a great deal of the context for me writing this today comes from last December, when I saw Souleymane Badolo’s Yimbegre. I was fascinated and impressed, and I regret not seeing it twice – but even more so, I regret not writing about it at the time, when it was fresh in my memory. I regret not setting down a recorded observation of the complexities which I so loved and appreciated, and the ideas that spoke to me in a very personal way – especially since dance is such a fleeting art form, and so difficult to capture successfully via a recording. So writing down my thoughts at the time would have been, also, a way to remember it better.
This time around, with the lessons of Yimbegre in my head, I did see After the Feast twice, and I will be writing about it. And that is that.
The thing about most modern dance pieces I see is: they’re abstract. They have a satisfying logic – there is a progression and evolution of gestures and visual motifs; there may even be a noticeable theme, or set of ideas, behind the progressions – but rarely do they have an overt narrative of any sort, not even in the vaguest or most general sense.
I mean, rarely am I in the audience for a modern dance which is, like, “hey so this is Sleeping Beauty, and now she is leading her army in battle, and we’re gonna represent her battle with violent flailing gestures of the arms—”
After the Feast was unusual because there was an overt narrative (in the vaguest and most general sense, but still, it was there). The narrative was noticeably political; and it was relevant to a lot of things I’d been thinking about recently anyway (such as Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed); and I enjoyed and appreciated the narrative level for those reasons too.
But, it also meant that in addition to the usual (and highly rewarding) ways that I look at and understand dance, there was this extra layer that had to do with the “story”, and with the metaphorical ideas and themes – largely abstracted, yes, but present and worth tracking. And I want to discuss that a little bit, and make a record of my appreciation.
A quick run-down of what happened in the dance, before I nitpick over the details that fascinated me so:
Gradually, six dancers make their separate and distinctive entrances onto a minimal and suggestively apocalyptic stage. The base vocabulary of gestures is quickly established, and the personality (if you will) of each of the dancers, and their persona within the piece, is established too. (Mostly in the way each dancer uses and interacts with the gestures.)
Several minutes in, we see a pairing off, against the stone wall in the back. It’s a sort of aquarium view of three complex and simultaneous duets – which, though happening side by side, frequently bleed into each other’s space. And the duets connect, also, in the way the dancers weigh off each other’s bodies. In more than one moment, a dancer is only upright because they are held by the support of their partner – who lets go, and the dancer topples. This is important in a visual sense, but especially worth noting in a piece that asks so many questions about balance.
Soon, one dancer – in a persona I mentally labeled as “the General” – begins to hijack the balance of duets. He moves the piece into a call-and-response, which demands obedience from the other five dancers (with varying levels of success, depending on which dancer/persona is doing the following). This attempt at co-option climaxes memorably, in a distinctive and vicious chest-against-chest pounding gesture where “the General” essentially takes over a duet pair which is not his own and visually tries to force his own self into the body of the other dancer.
Doesn’t go well, of course – leads to the simultaneous collapse of every other dancer on stage – the death of the “co-opted” dancer thus causing the death of everyone else as well (because this is a connected society, says the dance, a precarious balance; we do not exist in a vacuum). All the dancers but “the General” are on the floor like the dead petals of a flower – a sort of instant hibernation/death. There is a gradual self-removal by the General, appalled for once at the consequences of his actions; the hibernation/death only slowly and gradually climbed out of…
And that’s the start of the piece.
The remaining forty minutes or so are, in fact, the moments referred to in the title – the moments “after the feast”. We see metaphoric projections into a future (our own looming future) of scarcity. I felt like we were moving through eras, in stages – like in the scenes of the dinosaurs in Fantasia, where an entire age can be summarized through a Cain-and-Abel-like clash. Varied problems and attempted solutions play out on stage, rising out of that base conflict of what are the rules of survival now?, and the answers attempted by the dancers evolve the action and move us through the core ideas: co-option versus cooperation. Take-over versus sacrifice. Overflow versus deliberate limiting.
And throughout the evening, the dancers clapped their hands to their mouths – they clapped their hands to their partners’ mouths – they manipulated their own heads (and each other’s faces) through a hand pressed to the mouth. In one memorable section not far from the end, they kept breaking into a brief group waltz that spun around the stage.
A waltz where, instead of holding each other’s hands to do their waltzing, they held each other’s faces by the mouth – gagging each other, and accepting each other’s gags, twirling around and around.
The Gag Gesture
So okay, covering the mouth brings focus to the eyes. And I know there are other purely visual/choreographic reasons to cover the mouth within a dance. Plus, you could even say that, in a dance about famine and scarcity, covering the mouth is a subtle reference to just that – don’t eat, don’t partake; one of the five senses has been restricted; we are making our way through a limited time.
But also: this a dance so emphatically about that whole “co-option versus cooperation” dynamic. The dance turns out to be less of a narrative about a specific famine, and far more about a sense of how we got here, and how we survive it, and the unlearning of destructive habits, and the necessity for sacrifice. And other things besides.
So covering the mouth becomes about control. Checks and balances, in the waltz: regulating each other in a rare balance of power, set within the larger context of a piece where power and its destructive abuse are the driving points.
Or, the gag as tyrannical dominance, in other moments. Imposing your self onto another.
The self-gag as a difficult (and sometimes failed) attempt at self-control, in certain moment.
Or, the gentle gag, as a reining in, as a quieting of a corybantic spirit.
And, just as many times: the gag simply as a gesture. A connective tissue in the elaborate choreographic patterns of the dance. An element in the vocabulary which the dancers draw on.
The gag also evolves and skips, in an absolutely delicious way. It transforms at one point into a “hands over the ears” gesture instead of just “hands over the mouth”, and in doing so prepares us for that trio gesture that is so familiar from our culture – the infamous three wise monkeys of speak-no-evil-hear-no-evil-see-no-evil. Thus, in the penultimate moment of the dance, when Mei has to put Kyle down (into death or hibernation or permanent sleep), she can do it in the quietest way. When Kyle offers himself up for sacrifice (implicitly for the survival of the rest), Mei can slip her hands over his eyes – close his eyes like we do respectfully for the body of a loved one – and complete the trio of gestures in a moment of choreographic “aah”, while Kyle’s body pools through her hands and crumples to the floor.
Complete the trio moment – satisfy us, choreographically – and at the same time take his life.
There is something so quiet and poignant about the way it happens. Maybe because it feels like the entire dance has been preparing us for it, in a strange way. There is that structural beauty of “in retrospect, inevitable” which always gives me a visceral thrill. But there is also that intersection of two totally different layers of meaning – choreographic meaning + narrative/metaphoric meaning – combining in this one “death-climax” that lays ground for the climax of the ending.
(And – in the final moments of the dance – when Tiffany does this vibrating gesture with her hands, like shaking off water from her fingers – this is a fourth, unexpected evolution of the “wise monkeys” trio of gestures. It is a doing away of the gags, of the deafness, of the death-blindness – a quick and frenetic removal of that trio of gestures from the vocabulary the dancers have at their disposal. Shaking it out, shaking it all out of her fingers. And, in a way, it is the preparation for the final evolution of the pointing gesture, which the dance concludes on, and has been leading up to all along.)
The Pointing Gesture
The dancers point a lot.
Like the gag, it is another recurring and evolving gesture which, visually, has its own reasons for existing and being part of the dance – but is also narratively/metaphorically significant.
Pointing as command: at another dancer, usually. To command, or to invoke.
Pointing as a sort of corybantic invocation of the invisible/divine – a index-and-middle-fingered point, usually, done by one specific dancer in the role of her particular persona.
Pointing outward, to deflect.
Pointing to trace; to draw; to map.
And pointing to connect. To assert, to re-establish, to signify, to communicate. Pointing simply as one gesture of many – just like the gag, communicating sometimes on a narrative level but also always on a purely abstract level: a choreographic element present constantly.
And like the gag, it skips and evolves in a delicious way. (And this is where I’m especially glad that I saw this dance twice, because I didn’t quite catch this the first time around.) The climax of the piece – the very last thing we see, and on which the lights fade – is the ultimate evolution of the pointing gesture.
The dance is nearing its end, with Kyle’s sacrifice – with the discarding of the gag – with the sense of loss by the other five, expressed in their own individual ways – and then, in a hold-your-breath moment, the elevation of one dancer onto the shoulders of another.
Kyle’s body lies motionless on the upstage right portion of the stage. And on the left, close to the audience, Mei is standing firm and tall upon the shoulders of Emily, balancing against all odds, and slowly rotating with Emily as Emily moves, as Emily turns and walks away. The other three dancers circle the pair tightly, giving support to Mei with hands against her calves and at her palms, keeping her balanced and upright as they all slowly walk into a fading darkness.
It is a terrific visual moment.
It is also visually a transformation of the five-fingered pointing hand into a five-figured pointing body. Mei as the index finger, held upright by the rest, all gesturing as a group to the heavens.
(There is something a little painful, here, about Kyle’s “death”, because it becomes not just about a sacrifice in the face of scarcity so that the remaining will survive, but also an amputation of the sixth figure in order for that distinctive, five-figured “hand” to visually manifest and conclude the piece.)
For a dance so firmly about co-option versus cooperation, to end with this ultimate cooperation (a subsuming of identity in the name of the life of the whole) feels quietly triumphant and also terribly bittersweet – because it is a moment that can only really happen when literal self-sacrifice enters the visual vocabulary. Death to give life; and not a death through the efforts of others, but by knowing choice.
Artichoke in the Audience
Absolutely, this is the perspective of one measly audience member among many – and I know just how much I’m not doing nearly enough justice to so many other moments and aspects of this dance which I liked so much, and I was delighted for the chance to see it twice in one weekend.
Not only was this a dance that, as choreography, was really satisfying to see, and so intelligent; and not only were the dancers frankly fantastic and distinct and really great to watch; but as a narrative/metaphoric discussion of ideas, it was smart, and unflinching, and it felt like it talked ideas with me just as much as certain pieces of fiction do.
And then I find myself thinking of that previous dance, from December… Yimbegre, which I didn’t see twice, which I didn’t write about – the one I talked about at the start of this letter… Yimbegre was written about, and terribly, by the New York Times. They were the only people to write about it in the end.
I still find myself wanting to say something about Yimbegre (even though my memory of it has gotten a little patchy). It’s maybe this spiteful desire to set the record straight – to add a voice that says, yes, I saw what you were doing, it spoke to me, and it was brilliant and you made my night, my week, my month. I loved it, and I’ve thought about it a lot since, and I’ve discussed it to pieces with the person I saw it with, and I would have seen it again if I could.
Dance is so fleeting, compared to so much other art. It exists only so long as you dance it, and only so long as there are others in that specific space with you, watching it.
(A recording is not the same – even more so than how a play adapted for television is not the same. Dance is an art that exists in a physical space as much as it exists in time.)
Maybe for this reason it feels somehow important to me that I record, at least, my response. At least something is recorded. Especially when this response is to a piece which really just makes me want to say: thank you, thank you, thank you.
Anywaaaay, I hope you had a good weekend visiting my apartment, ONION, and that I’m not keeping you awake with my typing right now! I’ll see you in the morning! Off to bed I go…
P.S. I will probably write an additional, appendix-like letter that is only about the music for After the Feast, and my thoughts on it as a fellow composer-for-dance. But that’s a very different sort of conversation (and more about me, really, and my thoughts on composition, rather than my thoughts on the dance as a whole). So I’ll save it for another time.
P.P.S. I literally was about to post this letter and then thought to google “after the feast tiffany mills” to double-check a detail and, what do you know, the New York Times has a tiny review of it and, of course, the review is terrible. However, the thing that kind of delights me is that this review is by the same person who wrote the gobsmackingly tone-deaf and vaguely racist review of Yimbegre? Do I challenge him to a duel? He’s reviewed other dances I’ve seen which I thought were absurdly terrible, and he thought those dances were absolutely great – so at least we’re consistent in our disagreements I suppose.