Marjorie Gamso: Dancing the Enigma
A tribute and contemplation by © Kenneth King
Come now, surely you know that dying is also one of life’s duties? —Seneca, Letters from a Stoic
Beginning in the 1960s, and throughout the following two decades, a sizeable cadre of choreographers, led by Merce Cunningham, was identified in the pages of the New York Times as experimental because of the explorative nature of their work.
Often their concerts and dances bewildered audiences because they pushed against the boundaries of possibility and form, and discovered unconventional, even radical approaches. This occurred before the economic necessities of career and hype reared their heads as the marketplace usurped the grounding of their art, by the mid-1980s.
Marjorie Gamso was one of those daring experimentalists who often worked on the fringes and incorporated texts and media into her dances. And as Jacques Derrida has pointed out, the margins of a text—its fringes—reveal its frontiers. In contrast, media wizard Marshall McLuhan reminded us that we get information on the fringes of our peripheral vision.
Watching Marjorie’s dances afforded both experiences. A recurrent image: she steps sideways with sudden emphasis, thrusts one leg behind her standing limb, arches back as she flicks her head in counter-torsion while her hand, with little finger flourishes, mysteriously brushes alongside her head grazing the zone of her peripheral vision. Following this enigmatic gesture, she looks askance over her shoulder. What is she seeing? Her dance always confronted and celebrated otherness. A cogent dance outsider, she inspired wonder—so understanding was permitted to take a rain check.
Her dances were unusual, complex, fascinating, confounding, enigmatic, and obsessive. Filled with idiosyncratic movement laced with oblique inflections, unusual nuances, and a fractured classical vocabulary, they often read as vignettes interwoven with allusive dramatic textures. They informed and were informed by shrewd insight that evidenced a keen secretive intelligence and invited philosophical reflection.
For her, making dances was a way to discover hidden knowledge about the world. Like Madame Defarge knitting cryptic patterns into her garments in A Tale of Two Cities, movement has the capacity to inscribe codes. Over the years, Marjorie developed a loyal following that included enterprising choreographers and dancers eager to work with her, and that momentum made each of her concerts a much-anticipated event. Her works were performed at such venues as Marymount Manhattan College, Theater of Riverside Church, The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Paranarrative Festival at PS 1 in Queens, Merce Cunningham Studio, Construction Company, Washington Square Methodist Church, and The Larry Richardson Dance Gallery.
Her choreography was for the adventuresome. Unlike ballet or modern dance that depend upon defined templates and known styles, you had to be willing to watch and suspend your beliefs and preconceptions when you crossed her threshold. At first, watching might seem like you’re in a foreign country and only able to grasp intermittent words.
Dance evolved from ritual, from chains of motor repetition to effect natural or supernatural transformations, and modern dance concerts are (re)enactments that arouse empathy and collective cohesion through their visual symbioses. And because a dance is composed of movement phrases, choreographers and dancers have an ongoing concern with translating their physical impulses into a motion syntax.
A phrase is a sequence of movements, the way a chain of words comprise a sentence. The phrases of her dances were assiduously worked out so that their variations, modulations, and fluctuations created a sinuously reiterative kinetic grain. In conversation she reminded me that Jacques Derrida begins a sentence and by the second clause is already editing and qualifying the first phrase or statement. Confluences and congruencies are built into the dialectic from the outset. Thus, movement that investigates its own possibilities becomes reflexive. The starts, stops, and overlays create field resonances. Being is a sense of the sense of the other. And the other, along with possibilities latent or subliminal, lurks within the shadow of doing.
Modernism presents challenges that force the viewer to think and see outside the box. Imagine how viewers’ minds must have been blown in 1909 when Braque’s startling cubist painting Violin & Palette broke apart the represented image and dislocated the planes in space, or when readers of the Victorian novel confronted Kafka or Beckett for the first time.
Experimentalists force you to suspend your expectations, habits, and preconceptions—not always easy or pleasing, but necessary. Autonomy demands you find your own handle. This choreographer confronted you with challenges you hadn’t suspected existed.
This is what Marjorie Gamso’s dances insisted upon, and the intrigue was that as you looked at her dances and discerned their surface changes, then saw into and through their structures and textures, you began to comprehend in another way.
Marjorie has remarked that she began working in unison with dancers, and then decided to skirt conformity. She became more interested in the delays, variations, and interruptions that phrases created as bodies moved in and out of synchronization so that unusual overlays and relationships of body parts, gestures, and isomorphs created a discontinuous fabric. (An isomorph is the relay of design relationships between the readability of shapes.) When bodies go in and out of phase, the interstices or little spaces between their gestalten activate momentary windows and hidden signs with elusive messages that bestow tangential insights.
She became increasingly fascinated with repetition. Industrialization and factories were undoubtedly the source of mechanical synchronization, but in the arts repetition first appeared as a literary reprise at the turn of the 20th century in the work of Gertrude Stein. By the 1970s, minimalism in music and dance made it preoccupational. Watching repetitive enactments could be arduous, obfuscating, or thrilling, and could leave audiences bewildered, exasperated, entranced, or enlightened, or all of the above. Repetition could also be an antidote against fragmentation, though initially it might seem to be an extension of it.
Marjorie grew up on the upper West Side of Manhattan, attended Hunter High School and graduated from Columbia University. She spent the end of the 1960s in California where she studied with the legendary ballerina Carmelita Maracci in Hollywood, and also appeared in two of Steve Paxton’s early works, Satisfyin’ Lover and States at the Ace Gallery in Venice, California in 1969.
While she was in California she presented her first dance, Octopus City, at an Experiments and Technology festival at the University of Southern California. Eight dancers performed on Plexiglas platforms stopping and interrupting the choreography as they were remotely cued by a grid of colored lights beneath their feet. In NYC she became a friend and student of James Waring, an important downtown avant-garde choreographer in whose company many of the original Judson choreographers first performed. Marjorie studied at the Merce Cunningham Studio as well and spent innumerable hours watching and discussing his work.
The postcard flyer for one of Marjorie’s concerts titled Descent/Dissent (circa 2002) frames her dressed in black, poised at the top of a long steep industrial fire escape in a shaded alley silhouetted in front of a large bright window. She is wearing a svelte summer hat pulled mysteriously forward for concealment, like a phantom, with gamy, shapely legs. Shot from below, she looked like an apparition and her shielded identity reaffirmed that anonymity pays ontological bonuses. For after all, watching a dance can have a kinship with spying—in the interstices of its moment-to-moment ephemerality subliminal signs are activated.
In addition to the semiotics of motion perception, one of dance’s enigmas is identity. Do performers become someone else, a different persona, say, or do they transcend identity while on stage? Is anonymity a way to neutralize, evade, reinvest, or reinvent identity? What can we know through movement and corporeality that language cannot disclose—the mystery of the double and other? Mary Wigman has stated that when we dance solo, we always dance with an invisible partner.
Marjorie’s dances’ rigorous repetition structures were exacting and meticulous. They involved more than patterns because they built up choreographic tissue and captured traceries that created a continuum of psychological nuances from kinetic detail with the accretion of their motor variations. Always a performer with a self-conscious nervous edge, on stage she created a heightened attention for the viewing eye. She shunned emoting or obvious theatrics, but behind the structural ingenuity an interior drama resonated.
In one intriguing solo, This Is Not My Dance, performed at the Construction Company with a body mike, she recited a text of hers, accompanied by a brief recorded passage by the jailed South African author, Breyten Breytenbach, about confinement and testimony. Her cryptic gestures, while seated on the floor, spine tilted back, legs raised in the air, created an ontological decoy, a subtle double deferral of focus that drew the viewer into the dance’s riveting intensity while deflecting it to an unknown destination with an indefinable message. The gestures were like scrying, as if she were probing mysteries that lay on the other side of what can be seen or known—using textual denouement to heighten the effect and impact—driving perception across an unsuspected threshold.
Marjorie was an engaging writer, too, as evidenced by her contribution, "Cover(t) Stories," to Elena Alexander’s anthology, Footnotes: Six Choreographers Inscribe the Page (1998).
The first dance of Marjorie Gamso’s that I saw was Deed, A Dance and Its Undoing, performed in 1973 at Washington Square Methodist Church. It was the first time I saw Jane Comfort and Janiki Patrik, then young dancers who later evolved their own choreographic styles and companies. The idea of making and unmaking, doing and undoing, creating and decreating, has links with the metaphysics of quantum theory.
As much as making a work, its necessity lies in its simultaneous unmaking, or unmasking, that reveals its concealed spring and structural ciphers. And because dance is ephemeral, one of its necessary components, like sculpture, is its surrounding negative space that contains integers of the invisible—necessary for movement perception. Visceral and kinetic, Gamso’s work always delivered cogent stimulation. Ideas lurked around the edges. Conceptually fluent, her dances were more than conceptual.
Another of her early dances, Population Densities & Destinies, was announced on her flyer Marjorie Gamso and The Energy Crisis (1975), the name of her first company. The dance was performed in the cavernous hall of Synod House at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The dance had a rough-hewn constructivist set with video monitors—the early days of multimedia. That was the year the global oil monster reared its head with gasoline rationing and long lines at the pumps. Her deployment of dancers caused your eye to try to encapsulate multiple events simultaneously. But instead of bodies surging out into space, it was their close intricate encounters that gave multiple points of view necessity and readability.
Tale of Two Cities (c. 1979), performed at Washington Square Church, deployed two teams of dancers in relays of alternating sections. Among the striking dancers were the tall, commanding Catherine Kerr, Alan Good, and Ellen Cornfield (all of whom had long careers with Merce Cunningham); the equally tall and archly dramatic Carolyn Lord; smooth, seductively engaging Carter Frank; Janaki Patrik; and Scott Caywood. Each was remarkable and distinct, and each brought an indelible edge and riveting concentration to Marjorie’s choreography, with its quirky mirrored structures, unusual spatial deployments, and concatenating kinetic motifs. The intricate suturing of phrases cohered on a threshold just east of meaning.
One of the most ambitious Gamso productions was Her 1001 Nights (1988), performed at Marymount Manhattan College by the choreographer, Anne Lall, Murray Kelly, Henry Montez, Leslie Satin, and others. The nearly three-and-a-half hour performance was an obsessive feast of rigorous, repetitively spliced phrases that upended and suspended time by building up rich skeins of thematic overlays and a virtual veil of confounding detail.
Marjorie had long been fascinated by finding ways to explore group structures by constantly interrupting one phrase with another, altering their routes, calculating choices and possibilities, then reconnecting the stitches. Instead of lyrical flow, a clockwork of deconstruction and reversals, retracings and dissenting divertissement filled the stage. Time was arrested and suspended.
Her choreography was tightly wound, like the inner spring of a clock. Instead of surging into space (which she identified as male conquest synonymous with Manifest Destiny), her preoccupation has been with the coiled space around the body’s axis which she reached into, etched out, and reiterated with sharp but delicate nuances, interpressed gestures, reflexive decoys, and steady-state rhythms.
Like a spider building a web, her movement strategies developed and defined themselves by their insistence on careful incremental accretion. Twisting and torqueing her body, her legs, shoulders, hips, head, and arms stepped, nudged, reached, swung, and twined, creating rhythmic counter-rotations that materialized webs of layered movement. Impulses, signals, and gestures reinforced and recircuited linear sequencing. Sequences weren’t just serialized. Progression occurred by overlays, temporal accumulations of steps, shapes, and isomorphs.
Marjorie Gamso has always been an enigma, too. A dedicated autodidact, and one of the best read choreographers, she was an artists’ artist. Curious about the unusual and inexplicable, she sustained a unique attunement to the subliminal. Always eager to turn others on to new sources and books, one day she called excitedly to tell me about an important “find”: Laurence Rickel’s book Aberrations of Mourning: Writing on German Crypts. The “crypts” are not only a brilliant mind-blowing analysis of Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia, but a fascinating semioanalysis of Nietzsche’s and Freud’s secret history derived from astute puns and inventive word play.
We spoke at length weekly for decades and shared insights about dances we saw and made, books and references we found stimulating and ground-breaking. We had different sensibilities but compatible spirits. Dance was the means to fuse mind and body, make them reciprocal, and interrogate theory through practice by mirroring the body’s autonomic feedbacks.
In thinking about how a dance frames time while suspending it, during one of our last phone conversations while she was in hospice, I reminded her of this gem of Wittgenstein’s from the end of the Tractatus: “If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.”
Watching Marjorie’s dances allowed viewers to experience a sense of simulated timelessness, and therefore a glimpse of eternal mystery—which is consciousness itself. Like dancing, consciousness is always ongoing, and therefore independent of, and not contingent upon identity, mortality, or individuation.
Like an origami, her dance’s indelible cuttings and traces revealed a hidden geometry. The eye watching became synonymous with thinking (insight) and reflection—akin to a puzzle reconfiguring its own legibility, like shifting contexts, screens, or a flower opening. Heraclitus’ reminder is pertinent, too, that stepping into a river is never the same experience—thus every movement, despite being repeated exactly, always creates slightly different nuances that recalibrate the whole, thus revealing a submerged lexicography, a repository of shifting indexes and innuendoes.
The physicists’ dilemma applies, too—the instrument used to record or measure alters the phenomenon or reality, as does writing about dance or the person. But Marjorie’s dances played with this instability and debility inherent in perception, which after all, are relayed and reflexed through movement. The retina is not passive, and as Merleau-Ponty reminds us, corporeality—the phenomenon of having and being a body—has its own indices of subterfuge and reflexion, delivery and revelation.
During the 1990s, Marjorie worked on a series of solos entitled The Enlightenment. Each dance was centered on a theme of different historical instruments of illumination, a project that she conceived in collaboration with lighting designer Pat Dignan. Though the actual Enlightenment aspired to be a “rational” age of reason, unreason preceded and followed it.
She completed and presented four of the projected twelve to fourteen solos: Madame des Inquietudes (“Madam Anxiety”) referenced 18th century Late Baroque/ Rococo and was performed by Gretchen MacLane, a lyrical dancer capable of sharp and silky movement. The motif of Being Bitten (1994) was a gooseneck lamp to signal mid-20th-century post-war America, and it created a strange double innuendo because it was performed with the pristine delicacy of a vestal virgin by Anne Lall, wielding a long black prop serpent. The dance’s trope—the passion to dance—could be likened to being bitten—coupled with the theme of electricity as serpent power. The third dance was Sand Script (1996), designed to feature oil lamps, and performed by Leslie Satin, possibly a play on the primordial ability of movement to reveal ancient inscriptions.
Due to lack of funding the project remained unfinished, but the fourth dance was especially accomplished and memorable. At the Stake, performed at the Construction Company by Karen Strand, was intense and hypnotic. Strand, a trained Sufi dancer, wore a red silk jacket of “fire” that at the end of the dance she placed atop the two wooden planks that served as the stake—for the immolation.
The dance, about an outsider's illumination, consisted of a two-part structure, a dance-within-a-dance. Strand traced out intricate and reiterative weavings with sharp, emphatic, dramatic, and arcane gestures that filled the air with filaments as she advanced incrementally toward the audience, delineating two defined paths that connected the stage’s corpus callosum. A dance’s intense concentration can trigger conjurations, spells, and enchantment through its vortexes and force fields. Like Carlos Castaneda, dance spins a ring of power.
The viewer might not have known the “theme” was the sorceress, witch, shaman, rebel, heretic, or iconoclast—all permutations of the same archetype. Following the performance, Marjorie screened Carl Dreyer's sensational 1943 movie Day of Wrath, which spelled out the literal and historical fate of the witch to clinch a sensational confrontation. Dreyer also made the movie The Passion of Joan of Arc, outsider par excellence.
The dance seemed to mirror a bicameral connection that might also explain why Gamso worked with dance and text. Neuropsychologists have discovered the reciprocal functioning of both neural hemispheres of the human brain that work simultaneously in perception. Dance is a non-discursive art, and language being discursive; the unite to create a scursis, double readability, or rapid relays between the logical and illogical, the cognitive and esthetic.
Writing, unlike photography or video, reaches for dance’s primal essence by focusing the kinetic image solely in the mind’s eye, its final habitation, penetrating appearances and intention, and thus making memory—mimesis—blossom. Dancing is writing in space.
At the Stake also created a unique legibility in time. It appeared abstract in form but was given another kind of closure by Dreyer’s psychologically-laden film. The effect was powerful. The evening raised the issues of how eye and brain field signal, impulse, and image, then translate them into association, meaning, and symbolic cohesion.
Dance's mystery has always been rooted to its visceral relationship to the ancestors and ancestral. The act of dancing may have even preceded the practice of totems, which, after all, are representations and proxies for nature's animals, elements, and forebears. Most of our ancestors are lost and forgotten, but though distant and inchoate, their remnants and revenants still circulate in our bodies, bloodstream, and genes. Movement evokes and materializes them.
Around 2004 Marjorie embarked on an unusual project involving a family secret. A year before her last parent died (her mother, in 1995), she found out that her father had had a sister who had been institutionalized all her adult life—her Aunt Esther. Naturally Marjorie’s insatiable curiosity was piqued by this unknown figure and she wanted to make a dance about this missing relative. She tracked down the asylum, wrote, and requested her aunt’s medical records. But because the patient was deceased, and due to the complications of medical bureaucracy, she was denied access. Marjorie wasn’t deterred.
When it came to books, researching, and tracking down the unknown, Marjorie had supremely uncanny instincts. She discovered the book Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake by Carol Loeb Shloss about James Joyce’s daughter, who had served as his muse while he wrote Finnegan’s Wake. Lucia Joyce had been an avant-garde modern dancer in Paris during the 1920s, had known Beckett, then had a breakdown and was institutionalized for the rest of her life. Making dances often uncovers invisible connections.
Marjorie learned from census reports that her Aunt Esther had been confined to the Middlestate Homeopathic Hospital for the Insane in Middletown, New York around 1920, at about the age of twenty, during the same decade as Lucia Joyce, and died in the late 1940s when Marjorie was a child. In June 2011, she choreographed After You, with Linda Seifert and a relative, sixteen-year old Sophia Orlow, as proxies for Esther Gamso and Lucia Joyce—or for Marjorie and Aunt Esther?
Making a dance often resembles a puzzle. You get clues and pieces and have to find or construct the through-line. Dancing can also act as a mirror, looking glass, or palimpsest by activating trajectories, substrates, and subtexts that connect disparate times and elements. We all have a secret history because our families know only a portion of their ancestral past. Evoking subliminal traces triggers mimetic connections that disclose submerged or occluded narratives.
Marjorie made big sacrifices to keep making dances during the last 30 years. Her stringent and often deprived life meant she always lived on the edge, strapped for funds. Against all odds, she was extremely resourceful, not without stoical ingeniousness. She was not able and did not wish to keep a dance company that toured, but she was always active and engaged. She went to see a lot of art and was always well informed.
After she lost her apartment her situation grew dire. She made Video Veil, the stage installment of Inside Story: Your Life in Storage Your Life on Hold, performed at the Construction Company in March 2009. She had performed early versions of the dance for selected guests in the actual storage facility where she housed her belongings.
Her hauntingly evocative text, spoken like a muted elegiac chant, was composed using only the 15 letters contained in the title and wove together subtle transformations that were suggestively anagrammatic. In the doorway at the back of the performance area from which she appeared and retreated, she played with tentativeness by veiling herself with shrouded gestures (and later appeared in an actual veil), as if she were trying to tell something that couldn’t be spoken. By this time her health was in jeopardy. Here is an excerpt:
At this hour there are nurses on night duty; there’s an all-night shoot;
there are gangsters dressed to threaten other gangsters;
there’s an old shoe lying in the gutter, and near to it,
a lost dog longing for another lost dog to hug
There are dandies, drifters, groggy tourists,
Throngs of hungry, isolated souls
Throngs of hungry, isolated souls
And to these hungry, isolated souls
The footfalls and the sighs and groans of ghosts
Are, though dissonant,
Sonorous and strangely soothing
Sonorous and strangely soothing
Is the aleatory oratorio of ghosts
To a hungry, isolated soul
And so it goes…
On September 30, 2011 Marjorie phoned to tell me she had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and time was limited. It always is. When we hung up, I reached for my copy of Seneca: “There are times when even to live is an act of bravery.”
Even in hospice, Marjorie continued to choreograph, working on a legacy video and choreography with her long-time collaborator Andrew Gurian that she began after her diagnosis with dancers Linda Seifert and Bryan Hayes.
Performing is an incomparable high. Dancers feel so alive, as if there's a life that's more than life. For years Merce Cunningham placed a short paragraph on all his programs reminding audiences that dance gives very little in return except the experience itself and pleasure of doing it. The unconventional path has its own returns.
The final enigma is why Marjorie Gamso never ceased to be fascinated by and committed to dance. Her extraordinary intellect, charisma, and keen insight could have been an asset in many other endeavors. She would have made a terrific writer, professor, social scientist, or psychoanalyst, but dancing was the practice that most fulfilled her. I suspect it was the visceral intrigue of otherness, the kinetic deflection of knowing through its physical embodiment, and dancing’s sheer exhilaration that gave her uncanny cogency, determination, and certitude.
Special thanks to Sally Bowden and Anne Lall whose conversations and correspondence helped clarify details about Marjorie Gamso’s life and dances.
Kenneth King is the author of Writing in Motion: Body—Language—Technology (Wesleyan University Press, 2003). He was a contributor to the anthology Merce Cunningham: Dancing in Space and Time. Recent essays have appeared in The Rio Grande Review, Hotel Amerika, New Ohio Review, and Movement Research Performance Journal.
Say you're perpetually impeccable designer Thom Browne. Say you're planning your Spring 2020 Paris menswear show along a "Versailles country club" theme. Say you want a world-class danseur to open the show with some kind of appropriately fabulous choreography.
Who do you call? James Whiteside, of course. On Saturday, the American Ballet Theatre principal—wearing pointe shoes and a glorious pinstriped tutu—kicked off Browne's presentation at the École des Beaux-Arts with a 15-minute, show-stealing solo. Whiteside choreographed the piece himself, with the help of detailed notes from the designer.
I'd been a professional dancer for five years when I realized the pain I'd been feeling in my hip and down my sciatic nerve was not going away. I had been treating it for two years as we dancers do—with regular visits to my masseuse, physical therapy, baths, ice and lots of Aleve—but I never stopped dancing. It finally dawned on me that if I kept going at the speed I was going (which was, well, speedy), the pain would only get more severe and unrelenting, and I might never dance again.
I told myself I'd take two months off, and all would be better.
That first morning when I woke up at 10 am, I had no idea what to do with myself. My life until that moment had been dictated by class and rehearsal, every hour accounted for. How should I fill the huge swath of time ahead of me?