Body Language

May 1, 2012

The concept sounded almost too simple: Dancers using their bodies to spell out letters of the alphabet. (Didn’t we do that in preschool?) And yet, in a press preview of Paulina Olowska’s Alphabet yesterday at the Museum of Modern Art, observing this task proved strangely absorbing. The work is part of the performance series “Words in the World,” presented in conjunction with the exhibition “Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language,” which explores language freed from its conventional contexts.

From the back of MoMA’s cavernous atrium, three performers emerged: Kathy Pile, Jessie Gold, and the former Cunningham dancer Daniel Squire. Clad in handsome red dresses (a jumpsuit for Squire) and black shoes, they mounted a stage that looked like a massive block of marble and stood in a row, facing the audience. On a raised podium behind them, the actor Kevin Hurley recited those 26 sounds we call letters, “ay” through “zee,” each its own distinct pronouncement, embodied dutifully by the dancers. Together, they advanced through three-letter combinations (“cat,” “now,” “ego”) and convoluted poetry (by Joef Strau, Frances Stark, and Paulus Mazur), movement speeding up in tandem with language.

But this wasn’t just an exercise in limbs making shapes. There was a specificity in the angles and lines and curves, in the quality of how the dancers moved through each character, that invited you to think about how much information resides within something so basic as a letter. “K” took shape succinctly; arrival at “J” was more languid; sturdy “U” and “W” required squatting. When the trio spelled “FIN,” it marked the end of a feast for a very primal part of the imagination, a part that wants nothing but to make meaning from the meeting of images and sound.


Public performances of Alphabet run May 3–5, 4:30pm, in the MoMA atrium. Details here.


—Siobhan Burke


Photo: Paulina Olowska makes the letter “A” in her work

Courtesy Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Cologne/Berlin.