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Gets Leather by Language: A Report on Clarinda Mac Low’s 40 Dancers Do 40 Dances for the Dancers

By Harriet Staff

Jackson Mac Low’s Forties and all its incarnations and extensions are something we’re very into. Lucky us: X Poetics has a writeup from Tyrus Miller on Clarinda Mac Low’s 40 Dancers Do 40 Dances for the Dancers, based on the text by Jackson Mac Low, The Pronouns: A Collection of Forty Dances for the Dancers. The event took place as part of Platform 2012: Judson Now, Danspace Project, St. Mark’s Church, in New York in September (we wrote about that, before it happened, here). Miller writes in detail about Mac Low’s “creative iteration,” after attending two of three nights of performance, and speaking with Clarinda about the piece:

In her program notes, CML characterizes her work on this presentation of The Pronouns as an anthropological investigation into the network of relations existing in the New York dance community, as well as an exploration of how an artistic work / performance event such as the 2012 Pronouns may inflect the bonds of that community and help extend them in new directions. She writes, “The resulting piece is not so much an esthetic product as an esthetic by-product of a social situation, where the provisional community formed by a shared project is as important as the performance itself” (CML, “Director’s Note”).

Miller provides a beautiful elaboration on the relationships between Clarinda’s process, the original text, and the dancers, who “rang[ed] from senior dancers such as Simone Forti (who performed a version of Nuclei each night) to various children, and from professional dancers of different training and artistic orientation to musicians, writers, and other artists.” Before we get there, here’s a bit about the origins of Jackson Mac Low’s Pronouns, from his EPC site:

Mac Low’s interest in event undergoes a new expression in The Pronouns–A Collection of 40 Dances–For the Dancers. Its initial appearance is as a self-produced mimeograph in 1964. It has been republished twice, each time with revisions, once in Great Britain in 1971 and again by Station Hill Press in 1979. The Pronouns can be seen as a development of the “action pack” for The Marrying Maiden by way of a performance card pack, “Nuclei for Simone Forti” (the dedicatee is a very innovative and influential dancer, choreographer, and improviser). Typed on each card are single words drawn by chance operations from the BASIC English Word List and action phrases from a separate pack made up of words similarly drawn from the BASIC list. After Forti had improvised around some of the “Nuclei” cards in 1961, the dancer-choreographer Trisha Brown did so in 1963 and borrowed the pack for teaching purposes in California. The dancer Fred Herko, who had seen Brown’s performances, asked to use the pack before Brown returned it to Mac Low, so the poet wrote a “He” poem for Herko by a deterministic (non-chance) procedure applied to the pack of action phrases that had “fed into” “Nuclei.” Then he wrote a “She” poem for Forti, Brown, and other women dancers and subsequently thirty-eight other poems, each centered on another pronoun or pronounlike noun. Written February-March 1964, the forty dance-instruction poems have frequently been performed and published in magazines and in anthologies as well as in their three editions. Lanny Harrison and other performers have improvised around “Nuclei” cards in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Pronouns is a book of poems that are also scores for actions. . . .

Now back to Miller’s report of the recent event:

Each dancer was given considerable freedom to interpret the piece as they saw fit, but also confronted with the daunting task of realizing by some means or another every line / instruction in Mac Low’s text and rigorously observing Mac Low’s syntactical cues of sequence, simultaneity, and consequence (thus, attending to words such as “then,” “afterwards,” “at the same time,” and so on). One of the most notable features of the performances, and something that I became even more aware of over two nights, was the extraordinary range of interpretative means that CML’s performers employed to meet this challenge. At one extreme, there was pure verbal recitation of the poem, as in the performance of the 34th Dance on the third night: a voice speaking the lines in the dark. At the other, there were almost purely dance-gestural interpretations, largely free of any evident mimetic content, however much these might have been part of the dancer’s original thinking about the various lines in the piece. (For example, as she explained it to me in conversation, in developing her performance of Dance 15, Lise Brenner obliquely used the music’s introduction of the word “saddle” to capture Mac Low’s line “gets leather by language,” while other parts of her performance were made up of relatively improvised site-specific interactions with the St. Mark’s space.) In between these extremes of almost purely verbal and almost purely non-verbal interpretations, there were numerous shades of language use and vocalization…


This plurality of interpretive approaches created a lively variety of performance types across the different pieces and across the three evenings of performance. It also, however, related in interesting ways to a hidden, internal “rhyme” structure between the pieces, which contributed to the underlying cohesion of the three-night project as a whole, while never imposing an external design. To a very careful viewer or to a viewer (like myself) who brings a closer awareness of Mac Low’s text to the performance, some of the means of this internal structure may become visible from time to time before submerging again in the flow of the individual pieces. Because Mac Low utilized procedural means to generate his texts, several actions appear multiple times across the forty dances, actions such as “reacting to orange hair,” “fingering a door,” or “doing something under the conditions of competition.” Yet textual repetitions of this sort—which, as noted, connote a relation to the work of Gertrude Stein for readers of Mac Low’s book—may remain nearly indiscernible for most of the audience, who are viewing the textual details only through the multi-semiotic translations of performance, which disseminates and greatly expands the compact terseness of Mac Low’s poems. To the extent that one is aware of these verbal “repetitions,” for instance by referring the performance to the instruction-texts, one can understand how Jackson Mac Low offers a new pendant to Stein’s important argument that her “repetitions” were not repetitive at all, but creative. . . .

Full post here. Photo of Clarinda Mac Low and Masumi Kouakou (c) Ian Douglas, courtesy of Danspace Project.

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Posted in Poetry News on Friday, October 19th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.