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writing : Moving Backward, Forwards Remembering:

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Moving Backward, Forwards Remembering:
Goat Island Performance Group

Sara Jane Bailes

The first time I saw Goat Island’s work in the school hall of a briny sea-town on the coast of Wales, I quietly, comfortably, fell asleep. Actually, it was a slip into a mild state of reverie, between sleeping and waking. That threshold where, if lucky, we sometimes retrieve our dreams, and dreaming feels like a kind of remembering. I felt safe, secure, and utterly seduced. I’ve since had to wonder at what happened, for in years of making and watching performance, this had never occurred – this drift into a hypnotic register. Fading in and out of The Sea & Poison (1998) that night, I swooned into the unfamiliar folds of a strange language; and perhaps this is an accurate way to describe what the company brings to the spectator – the gift of another language. They describe a world which, like all experiences with things strange, is unfamiliar yet coherent, difficult to understand and beautiful to behold. It is a world full of subverted grammar and unruly syntax. Goat Island release expression from the burden of meaning, giving breath to the cramped spaces of live representation by imaginatively reassembling its vectors and, arguably, its very purpose. Time expands, something shifts; and the world is not the same place afterwards. The company’s commitment to fathoming the logic and aesthetics of a restructured world is rare, precious even. As is waking to find yourself in a hall full of people hushed, transfixed and forward-leaning, as a small man meticulously plants a bean on his head, and nurtures it lovingly with a watering-can.

Chicago-based performance group Goat Island has evolved a performance language that is strikingly original and, once witnessed, instantly recognizable. It is dominated by a distinct movement vocabulary - an assemblage of what sometimes look like backwards gestures threaded forwards through time, displacing gravity, such as when the four performers in the 1991 show Can't Take Johnny to the Funeral run while lying flat on their backs, or catch their own legs and hop forward in a self-restricting motile sequence. An engagement with impossibility marks this physical vocabulary, and with tasks that are difficult and awkward to perform. The spectator feels caught in a strange loop-back effect that throws perception off, with its uncanny combination of grace and awkwardness, of stilted moves which appear to draw the performers through narratives we only partially glimpse. Performances combine movement, text, music, and composed tableaux with the occasional incorporation of furniture - the odd table, desk or chair - and poignant, functional objects to invoke an event or to bring us more tangibly into a particular fictive or historical world.

When Karen Christopher pumps and then hoists to her back a hazard yellow canister with an attached spray gun in The Sea & Poison, we sense immediately that something is awry in this measured world, where the performers' ungainly but eloquent frog-like movements already hint at deformity. The marked-out arenas in which they perform - usually flanked by the audience on two, three, or four sides - are bare. But soon the space is inscribed with the movements and patterns they make, punctuated by breath as it slows or pants the body through exertion. By 15 minutes into the show, the room no longer feels empty, pounded by the residue of this physical labor, and the image of the four members' extended jumping sequence. Elevating themselves vertically in pogo-stick leaps, they work in a square, one arm folded up behind their backs. Through this movement - part gymnastics, part punk, but then again, not really of either world - they begin, cease, and begin again, following their own collective course. These shards of scenic and choreographed interplay appear as remnants of another system, another world, half-lived and half-hoped for. And somehow, we as audience are caught in the imaginative space between these two states. Together, these aesthetic strategies make up a minutely organized schematic for un-telling stories. Things unravel and drift apart, only to fall squarely, evenly into place with mathematical precision.

The company formed in 1987, and has undergone several changes in its membership since. The current ensemble - Karen Christopher, Matthew Goulish, Mark Jeffery, Lin Hixson, company manager CJ Mitchell, Bryan Saner - have collaborated since 1996. (Note: changes to company membership have taken place since this essay was written. Please see list of current members.) They have now completed their second full-length work together (Goat Island has completed 7 performance pieces in a 14-year life), which premiered in Vienna, June 2001, and in Chicago Spring, 2002. The show is currently touring while the company simultaneously develop their next performance. Titled It’s an Earthquake in My Heart, the piece was focused initially by a study of immobility, cars and accidents, and the tension produced by arrested or derailed movement. By physically imitating the chase and pursuit patterns of a car accident, and incorporating specific sequences copied from Pina Bausch’s seminal dance piece Café Muller, the company create connective passageways that open into larger themes. With Earthquake, the company acknowledges the German choreographer’s place and influence on their work. Since the late 1970’s, Bausch’s dances, created for and with her permanent company Tanztheater Wuppertal, have influenced groups such as Goat Island, who strive to discover an original theatrical vocabulary, and one that evolves through a sustained creative working process that incorporates spoken text, movement, and gesture. Bausch’s performance aesthetic, at once tender and brutal, emerges at the intersection of dance and theater, and pushes hard into the limits of both. It suggests physically and emotionally charged ways to narrate desire and, specifically, the love and loss of relationships, ricocheting between moments of mournful tragedy and the extreme comedy that often accompanies such desperate moments. In Earthquake, Goat Island use the physical efforts and conditions of making a performance to explore the territories of memory and the aftermath of destruction. These are common themes in their work, which engages with some of the major social and geopolitical issues of our times - the incomprehensible destruction of war, our refusal to acknowledge atrocity, and our irresponsible plundering and poisoning of the planet. They ask, what does it mean to live within the repeated aftermath of catastrophe? To survive the traumatic event? And we wonder as we watch, how it is that we surrender to this strange language, as if we knew it from another time.

Alongside the ongoing labor of their lengthy devising/rehearsal process - usually a period of one and a half to two years - the company holds summer schools in Chicago and various locations in Europe, sharing their collective methods with students and artists who work in disciplines ranging from architecture to poetry. The courses are less taught than led by the company members, who provide an elaborate scheme of tasks, exercises, lectures and fieldtrips from which the participants’ collaborative installations and performances evolve. As an extension of this practice, their work with children in local schools investigates the community-building aspects of performance-making, creating structures of value in a collaborative and playful learning environment.

Goat Island’s aesthetic and political values evolve continually under the acute guidance and intricate sensibilities of director Lin Hixson. Hixson’s extensive performance art background in LA (she was influenced by Rudy Perez among others, and in 1990 worked with Rachel Rosenthal) informs a praxis insistent on interdisciplinarity. In rehearsal, they work from many sources, such as personal narrative, documentary footage, found images or observed and copied gestures (such as the Bausch movements), and fragments of text. This approach encourages work that resists the usual hierarchy of formal features consistent with traditional theater practice, or the development of meaning through linear narrative. Instead the performance unfolds as a network of associations. As with other collaborative performance groups who prefer an egalitarian approach to making work (such as Lucky Pierre, also Chicago-based; Elevator Repair Service in New York; and Forced Entertainment in England), the role of the director is functional and necessary, in helping construct the interior world of the performance, and assess its overall shape. Despite this, the performers, alongside Hixson, are responsible for the conception, research and writing of the work, and each member brings her/his own found and formed material to the process. In the 1996 How Dear to Me the Hour When Daylight Dies, specific personalities who bare significance within the broken narratives of the twentieth century became a focal point; for example, Amelia Earhart's television appearances, and in particular her clipped delivery, interested Karen Chrisopher. A route of inquiry became apparent for The Sea & Poison, when Bryan Saner recounted the incident of his finger being bitten by “a small creature” on a camping trip in the Grand Canyon. The following morning, Saner’s arm was streaked red from wrist to elbow. As one of many narratives concerned with the altered states our bodies undergo when poisoned, the story informed the final performance.

In many ways Goat Island’s work sits more comfortably in a genealogy of performance art rather than theatre, though such categories are, in any case, unstable and contextual. Their use of written/spoken text is spare, especially in earlier pieces such as Can’t Take Johnny to the Funeral, where long, durational movement sequences are punctuated by brief, verbal exchanges. The texts used are both original and found, the latter borrowed directly from sources such as film, TV or literature. Often these echo with the histories of their origins. Testimonies are delivered, those ‘truthful’ inscriptions we rely on to bring us authenticity, and that we hope will bring us closer to the experience of something ‘real’, whatever that might mean any more. At the same time, this harried juggling of events and people in their performances problematizes the distinction we tend to make between fact and fiction. Gradually, this illusive division fades, or is, for the duration of a performance, no longer applicable. In How Dear to Me the Hour When Daylight Dies, we hear the amplified words of Mike Walker, the Fattest Man in America who, after fighting in Korea, developed a pathological appetite and reached “the unreal weight of 1,187 pounds”. Walker’s pathetic speech and self-exhibitionism – originally released on record and intended as a warning to others that they might avoid his fate – is croaked into a microphone by Karen Christopher as the splay-legged, prostrate Walker. The character Mister Memory (from Hitchcock’s 39 Steps), played by a bespectacled Goulish, stands at an upright microphone, his head feverishly nodding as he splutters factual remnants in a broken chronology of the 20th century: "Pablo Picasso paints the Guernica; Porsch designs the Volkswagen to the requirements of Adolf Hitler; the Pabulan tribe saw the telegraph and they built a tiny replica so they could talk to the dead." And throughout it all, Bryan Saner’s MC attempts to order the events, much as we try to make narrative sense of our own and other’s lives. Walker’s defeated tale of a descent into obesity is as humorous as it is tragic. But what lingers in the image of Walker’s stagnant body is the trauma of war, an un-heroic casualty who fails to show up in our history books, and instead makes it into the Guinness Book of Records.

In The Sea & Poison, the central motif of toxins and contagion allow for a consideration of the destruction and deformity humankind has inflicted on the planet. The work directly references the Gulf war and the invisible, insidious damage wrought on Iran and Iraq. It gestures to the proliferation of deformed animals – frogs in particular – and contamination across the globe. At one point, plastic frogs pelt down over Mark Jeffrey’s extended, back-bending body, and litter the space. A hand-held light concealed in his hand flashes like a beacon, a warning, so that the image is at once risible and disturbing. Earlier, we see what appears to be white insecticide raining down on Christopher, ageing her in an instant as she becomes, briefly, the mother of a deformed Iraqi child. The same deadly substance marks out a square on the floor that, through the duration of the performance, increasingly suggests an isolated space of contagion. A fragment from Hamlet - the poisoning of Hamlet’s father in the orchard - is delivered with arch Shakespearean gravitas. And we segue, who knows at what point now, to the nostalgic jingle of an old Camay soap advertisement with its promise of "a smoother, softer skin", crooned at us oh so sincerely by Bryan Saner. A letter from an unknown soldier who, we assume, never made it back – “Dear Mother, I am at the foot of a bone bridge…” – arrives from a place we can’t possibly know, but think we’ve already been. We’ve seen the movie, read the book, or caught that newspaper fragment in transit. Things resonate; they feel familiar enough. This figure of the soldier, emblematic of troubled, unfinished pasts, returns as a poignant thematic, from their first show, Soldier, Child, Tortured Man (1987), through to their recent work. The undead seem to infiltrate the staked-out arenas in which Goat Island perform, and this emphatic reminder of human lives lost makes the performances fragile and haunting. We are moving, sometimes, amongst the ruins of things, while at others a life we had not yet realised seems to begin.

Music is intrinsic to the work, often used to shift focus and mood rapidly. Musical intervals punctuate the beginning and ends of sections; and here, too, a mix of eclectic and unpredictable tunes (prerecorded or occasionally sung) accompany the tight, visual score. Songs juxtapose images, as with the cheery eruption of Doris Day’s Che Sera, Sera in How Dear To Me, during a quiet, choreographed gestural sequence of trembling hands and tic-like head movements. At other times the music cradles what we see, as when the wistful, frail cadences of Gavin Bryar’s Jesus’ Blood Never Failed me Yet fade in to accompany Mister Memory as he intently circumscribes the rectangular space during the lyrical, fading sequences of the show. In fact, a Goat Island performance text resembles a musical score with its subtle structure, its phrasing orchestrated by tempos and melodies that become cumulatively apparent through refrain and nuanced alteration.

The repetitive and sometimes exhaustive movement sequences, as blunt and coarse as they are fragile and tender, are the company’s hallmark. They function adjacent to other narrative structures in the work, counterposing moments of quietude and stillness. The aesthetics of the work is clean and spare – the performers wear overalls, or khaki shirts and trousers resembling uniforms, with sensible footwear. Things are utilized for their symbolic or poetic value, as with the propeller fan that Christopher as Amelia Earhart holds in front of her, or Jeffrey’s flashing light that signals contamination, and Goulish’s bean and watering can suggestive of growth and renewal in The Sea and Poison. As quickly as they appear, props are tidied away, as in a childish game of make-believe where boredom soon overcomes enthusiasm. They create an atmosphere that is both playful and utilitarian, and it is a world strangely at odds with itself. Nothing distracts from these poised images, suggestive as they are of the half-forgotten memories immanent within each performed moment.

From the perspective of a European audience member, the landscape experienced here is quintessentially American, whatever that means; and the point is that it means differently to us all. Yet, those diverse interpretations we all cultivate are thrown against a shared sense of largeness, the breadth and openness of this enormous landmass and its vast skies, and the wish-fulfillment of so many already bedded into its vexed and modern history. And, too, within these worlds of difference thrown up before us by the company’s meticulous process of discovery, certain narrative threads morph and repeat. This performance world, as detailed as it is abstract, widens out like an expansive montage, reverberating with the multiple voices of America that haunt our collective memory of the last century, a century marked by a preposterous number of face-to-face battles and wars, and characterized by mass cultural amnesia. The tableaux Goat Island present us with so frequently address what (or who) is missing, what lingers just beyond the frame, beyond conscious recall. As witnesses, we are reminded of the persistence of forgetting as it competes with - and often survives - our ability to remember. The four performers move through these worlds with a dead-pan solidarity, which underscores the wily humor of their work.

During a Goat Island performance, things become apparent retrospectively, or in the between spaces of tightly-knit temporal and spatial configurations. In this way, the work echoes the process of history - the way we assimilate and order events as facts as we look back. Our lives are narratives we construct in retrospect, embellished by our present-day thoughts and past experiences. The performance space delineated by the company fills with the residue of many layers and textures, suggestive of meanings which will only become apparent through repetition. Matthew Goulish’s intent hand-movements at the beginning of How Dear to Me - arms held out straight in front of his body at chest level, the left hand rubbing small, circular movements on the right, pausing, then rubbing again - seems to summon or else remember something external to the performance itself. Later, when this movement recurs, Goulish is joined in this gesture by the three other performers. First isolated and perplexing, it takes on meaning as it repeats, not because we understand it better, but because in the spaces between repetition, meaning has already transformed. This quiet revolution of form, emphasizing the return to an original place of inquiry or enchantment, is typical of the way the group develop a shape, mood or idea, which then comes to structure a piece. Appearing a second time, Goulish’s movement already feels at home; and it is we who have found a place to store it, and who now hold it in memorium. In this way, Goat Island’s performance praxis draws attention to the processes of recognition and familiarity, reminding us how easily we become accustomed to (or, as easily, resist) the strange or the unfamiliar, how quick we are to rearrange the past to accommodate a future. Inevitably, we plot our own, private journey through these resurrected and broken events.

At the beginning of How Dear to Me, a soldier steps out of the darkness and tells us "All we have left is our faith in each other". For Goat Island this sentiment is key. For each member of the company, performance is an ethical practice, defined by a belief in the value and efficacy of collective work and collaboration. In his book 39 Microlectures: in Proximity of Performance, Matthew Goulish writes, "Maybe when we began our little performance company, we thought a perfect performance could dismantle a bomb". Acknowledging, with an irony that charms, the potentiality of small acts, as well as the interconnectedness of things great and small, Goulish reminds us of the company’s critical investment and ambitious belief in the political and actual currency of performance. This profound commitment is worth heeding, in times where politics is often strategically separated from the arts, when arts funding is dwindling, and when artistic as well as private practices are heavily patrolled. Goulish’s reflection hints also at the risk performance involves: the risk of making things as hard for the spectator as they are for the performer; the risk of failure; and above all, the risk of truly committing to a better, more peaceful world.

Goat Island performances create a space in which to reckon with our simultaneous and shifting positions as perpetrators and victims in one another’s stories. Exploded narratives spill out as overlapping memories, dreams, and with such longing. Surprising and awkward associations confront us; we learn that things do not already mean, but that meaning is contingent. We are all complicit in making the world. Hopeful, this performance work proposes other orders and worlds, gathered out of the illness and beauty of our lives. "I wanted to dance Hamlet in a world of frogs" says Goulish’s nostalgic theatre manager in The Sea & Poison. The images pile up, but tell us nothing. We are responsible for our own understanding, our own creative and critical response. Goat Island sends many messages; but ultimately for me, the power of their work lies in its gentle but firm reminder that we must all become authors of our own.

Originally published in New Art Examiner, July/August, 2001. Revised for Alternative Theatre Website/Daniel Mufson, November, 2001.

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