Stop making sense: Linda Austin’s ‘A Head of Time’

Austin, all dressed down and ready to leap into the space-time continuum.

As I was watching Linda Austin’s slyly funny new dance performance A Head of Time at Imago Theatre on Saturday night, my brain jumped to a “Cul de Sac” comic strip I’d seen a few hours earlier in the morning newspaper.

“MOM,” the kid cries out in the middle of the night.

Mom rushes into the kid’s bedroom: “What is it, Alice?”

Alice, sitting up in bed: “I had a dream. There were MONSTERS & THINGS & BEASTS & SPIDERS! And BATS! And CREATURES! And LEAKY FAUCETS! And SMELLY SHOES!”

Pause in the last panel. Then Alice, wistfully: “How do I make that dream come back?”

Austin’s been at this contemporary-dance racket going on 30 years now, and she’s adept at making the dream come back. Chances are the narratives she puts on stage don’t make a lot of sense, at least in the old-fashioned linear way. Not that they’re illogical. They’re more non-logical, closer to free-association leaps than anything you could hammer into a point-by-point outline for a seventh-grade English essay. And like free-association games, the overall pattern might be indiscernible but each link probably has a rational connection to the one that came before. What you get in an Austin dance is a dream-story: fleeting images tied together by little, perhaps, but an empathetic feeling and the coincidence of being clustered together. Maybe it’s Freudian. Or maybe it’s only a cigar.

Another thing about A Head of Time, which had just three performances and closed Sunday: You do want the dream to come back.

A little like Imago’s Carol Triffle, her sister in splintered coherence, Austin can carry you into potentially horrific territory – monsters & things & beasts & spiders – and make you like the trip. No matter how harsh things might get (and in this piece it’s not very, unless you consider getting buried beneath a tumbling wall of quilts and blankets harsh) a feeling of benevolence hovers over the enterprise. Austin’s a comedian in the broad sense of the word, which aligns her with the likes of Triffle and BodyVox and Do Jump! on the Portland performance scene, although each approaches comedy in its own way.

Austin’s way, like Triffle’s, is on the abstract edge of things, but its “lightness” doesn’t signify a lack of seriousness. Good comedy’s a subversive beast, and in its way more sophisticated than tragedy. Tragedy says, It’s all hopeless: we’re going to die. Comedy says, OK, and so what? – let’s do something in the meantime. If a person proposes to actually live life through to its end instead of counting down the clock, a touch of the comic is an excellent companion.

A Head of Time began before it began – that is to say, as you walked into the theater space you walked across the stage through an installation that consisted mostly of the eight performers standing or sitting around. In the middle of the floor was a silver bucket in which you’d been instructed to deposit the flower petal you picked up when you got your ticket (which, as it turns out, was the flower petal). Video screens of various sizes and types were scattered around the stage, and blankets were tossed on the floor. The audience passed by a tall wall of shelving that was filled with folded textiles so it looked from a distance like a big hanging rag rug; it, too, served as a video screen. One of the dancers in the installation was munching on something. “There are cookies on the table over there,” she said brightly, and pointed them out. Nice touch. As far as pre-game shows go, it was kind of sweet.

Austin was joined on stage by two male dancers (Keyon Gaskin and Philippe Bronchtein) and five more women: Jin Camou, Catherine Egan, Esther LaPointe, Danielle Ross, and Lucy Lee Yim. It was a good ensemble. For quite a while, as the performers were lying and rolling around narcoleptically on their blankets, lazing into things, I wondered whether maybe this performance oughtn’t be called dance.

Performance art, maybe. Or Catching Forty Winks. It was appealing, in its low-key way, but seemed to be coming out of the arguable if defensible school of thought that all movement, if considered from the proper perspective, is dance. Then, almost imperceptibly – one of those canny moments from Jeff Forbes’ lighting cues tipped it off – the movement became undeniable dance, brisk and purposeful and skillfully performed. Austin and her dancers were smudging the distinction between performance and existence, but doing it in a highly performed way. Contrary to Cole Porter’s lyrics and persistent misinterpretations of Merce Cunningham, anything does not go: even the idea of entropy has a shape. “Think of the stage,” a voice intones at one point. “Do not think of real life.” At another point, in a stage whisper: “We are that thing which must happen.”

No doubt. I wasn’t sure what it meant (I’m not sure it mattered what it meant) but the moment was right, and I rolled with it. A key to enjoying truly abstract forms of art: Don’t try to “understand” it. In the immortal words of the Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense. Or stop trying to make things make sense. Tough prescription for a writer, but that’s what the art doctor ordered.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t ideas to the piece. It only means that the ideas that helped the creators form the dance aren’t necessarily important for the audience to understand. Indeed, once the piece is shaped, they might not matter even to the creator anymore. They might have been just a prod. Recorded and spoken words in A Head of Time come from the avant-garde theater artist Richard Foreman, Austin, and the cast. The highly effective score is by Seth Nehil, with field recordings (mostly snatches of conversation) by Austin; the unobtrusive but vital videography by Austin and Karl Lind.

And the program includes two quotations from Charles Yu’s novel How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe that may, or may not, illuminate the meaning beneath the non-meaning:

 “Everyone has a time machine.”

“I am transmitting a book that I have, in a sense, not yet written, and in another sense, have always written, and in another sense, am always writing, and in another sense, will never write.”

It’s an alluring dream, all right, filled with oddly untethered and strangely imponderable things.

And creatures and leaky faucets and smelly shoes, too.

3 Responses.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    I thought this was a lovely piece, if perhaps a little long. And while I agree with Bob that striving to “understand” in verbal terms this kind of work, while it’s our job to do just that as critics, more often than not is an exercise in futility. But “A head of time” is an exception–I should have read my program much more carefully than I did. This work is about something very specific: Austin’s sister Kathy died ahead of time at 54 in the same year as her 19 year old son, swept out to sea by a wave. All of that information is not in the program–but Austin and her son’s dates are, in the dedication.The details were given me this morning by my dancer/choreographer friend. So in retrospect, the work becomes much more clear. And Bob isn’t in the least wrong in linking the piece to that wonderful Cul de Sac cartoon strip, I hasten to add: it is about “monsters and things” and the demons we all carry with us. Linda, even when dealing with devastating loss, has a wicked sense of humor and I hugely admire her ability to put that on the stage; every Shakespeare tragedy includes comic moments that simply serve to heighten the tragedy.
    I’ve written very little about Austin’s work over the years, but I’ve seen a lot of it and always respected it. I think this is the best thing she’s done and I hope it can be repeated so that I, selfishly, can see it again, and more of Portland’s young creatives [sic] can see what a seasoned, experienced, wise creator can do with a cast of dancers it was a consistent pleasure to watch.

  2. Bob Hicks says:

    Thanks, Martha. That background adds immeasurably to thinking about this dance. I saw the dedication in the program but didn’t know the background. Monsters, indeed. It makes the piece braver, and sweeter. I’ll stand by what I said about the essential benevolence of Austin’s artistic world-view; the Cul de Sac comic strip seems even more apropos. All of this really is subterranean, like the dream world. The dots aren’t connected, and they don’t need to be. But knowing the emotional territory intensifies the experience.

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