The Choreographer as Sisyphus: Gallim Dance, “Sit, Kneel, Stand”

The program notes for Gallim Dance’s premiere “Sit, Kneel, Stand,” referenced a quote from Camus: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Andrea Miller, Gallim’s founder and choreographer, took on Camus’s challenge by imagining the interminable Sisyphean task as that of the choreographer, to hilarious effect.

As the audience filtered in on Friday night, dancer Troy Ogilvie writhed, blank-faced, through a series of disjointed movements along the front of the stage. When the house lights came down, she hopped up onto the stage and rolled into the plane of other dancers as the curtain rose. The six dancers she joined were dressed in shorts or skirts and boxy, cropped tops, which encased, without touching, their bodies. In the upper left corner of the stage was a sculpture-like pile of white folding chairs.

The piece quite literally announced its comic intention, as Francesa Romo strode onto the stage making exaggerated presentation-like movements and yelled, in a high-pitched voice: “This is how we gonna start!” After her exit, a section of straightforward dancing to the sounds of birds tweeting provided a stark contrast to the overblown physical comedy, a pattern that would recur throughout the piece.

That pile of chairs started to take on life as Jonathan Royse Windham began to fret, in sometimes-audible mumblings, about Arika Yamada and the chairs upon which she was dancing. His body seemed hardly under his control, as he found himself in extreme positions after trying to execute simple movements or struggling to control his own leg after it flew up to an extreme angle. When he managed, after much struggle and muttering, to shift a chair, allowing Yamada to continue her dance uninterrupted, he broke into ecstatic celebration: think gymnast sticking-the-landing.

After Yamada is carried off by Ogilvie, much to his relief, Windham joined the other two male dancers (Mario Bermudez Gil & Dan Walczak), and attempted to keep up with the complex choreography they performed unselfconsciously. His exaggerated awkwardness mocks the contemporary dance clichés they engage in, such as staring out at the audience. Windham’s performance foregrounded the way in which the movement in the piece often seemed to originate externally: as if the dancers were removed from their bodies, exploring, observing, and occasionally attempting to control what happens there. He made visible this disconnect and the attempt to bridge it.

Romo returned to her high-voiced persona again in a later section, assuming the role of choreographer, as she attempted to make her dancer, Gil, achieve the shapes and effects she desired. Her frustration only increased as they continued, and his large body became the Sisyphean boulder in relation to her tiny frame. Like Windham, Romo possesses an incredible comedic instinct, with zany facial expressions to match. The counterpoint to her increasingly hysterical frustration was once again Yamada, who danced with an unflappable, oblivious fluidity, while Romo lamented her inability to control or even touch her: “Lady! Stop lady!…Wrong way lady!” Yamada cannot be controlled, yet her movements are the most controlled and contained in the whole piece.

photo credit: Christopher Duggan

At times, Romo herself was the one dancing, using her dancer, or his limbs, only as a prop. The adjustments she made to Gil echoed the way that the dancers adjusted or manipulated each other throughout the piece: sometimes mechanically, sometimes tenderly. What is the choreographer’s role in relation to the movement that continues outside of, and impervious to, her efforts?

Romo finally conceded her inability to affect Yamada and the futility of manipulating Gil, and the piece segued into a poignant duet. The duet is at its most basic, a simple contact improvisation exercise, but was the transfer of movement between the dancers, now struggle, now support, was mesmerizing. Eventually, the rest of the dancers returned to the stage and began to echo these slow, careful movements. Even as Caroline Fermin took on the role of frantic Sisyphus, attempting and failing to satisfactorily rearrange those still-present chairs, this dancing continued, just as Yamada’s had earlier.

photo credit: Christopher Duggan

How does one end a piece about interminability? Miller answered this conundrum with a playful, shrieking game of tag for her cast. Tag of course, has no definite end—it always begins again when a new player is deemed “it”—and yet this detracts not at all from the pleasure involved. The dancers’ game of tag also returned to the idea of the transfer of movement from one body to another, which had been so central to the piece. Here, perhaps, is a suggestion of how Sisyphus might be happy.