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On Taste

Claudia La Rocco

Davison Scandrett, Rashaun Mitchell, Claudia La Rocco and Silas Riener in Taste, a site-specific performance and installation by Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener, in collaboration with Claudia La Rocco and Davison Scandrett. Costumes by James Kidd. Presented at the BFI Gallery in Miami, in collaboration with O, Miami.

The carpet is impossibly white
The tower is a double crescent

There is a way in which the translator must love failure
The thin line of light splitting the morning sky

Silas and Rashaun asked me to be in this project with them and Davison. I wasn’t sure what to expect.

“Claudia: We feel that it is important for us to deal with our identities as performers/collaborators/lovers in this piece. It’s not about making our relationship a public issue perse,but it would be in authentic to overlook this aspect as it relates to the duet form. Certainly our perceived identities come into play. Since you know us as individuals and collaborators very intimately we think that you and your writing could be very helpful in fleshing out this content. Also your identity as a critic-turned-performer needs to be dealt with if you are to continue as a collaborator beyond Miami. We propose a text or a series of texts that act as a sort of intervention or commentary or critical description. It may even be interesting to compare and contrast our bodies/ movements as they relate to taste. We may even want to repeat the same section of movement exactly, with and without commentary. The other component is that we will probably need to change clothes, so the text can act as intermission or palate cleanser to the dancing. I think we both feel that text as a simultaneous but indirect component (as in Nox) is not the way we want to go with this. Also as much as we love the sci-fi idea, we think it may be a completely other piece, which we are happy to entertain and pursue at some point. You of course, can cleverly weave that in if it feels right to you.” 1

And I’m not really sure what to write now, from this fuzzy in-between vantage point of participant-observer.

BFI is in a warren-like, artist-run building on NE 11th street in Downtown Miami. Here are a few things you can see from the sidewalk: the color-saturated façade, its rich blooms of color marked here and there by delicate graffiti commentary; an exotic dancers club; various high-rises, some of them attended to by the city’s ubiquitous construction cranes; mostly empty parking lots, the asphalt fighting a losing battle with vegetation; a lot of down-and-out people, some of them apparently homeless, some of them apparently in the throes of addiction; big, gorgeous sky.

S. & R. chose BFI during an earlier site visit. The four of us (joined for a few days by the costume designer James Kidd) spent a week there in March, trying to figure out how the philosophical (hypothetical?) ideas undergirding Taste might be put into practice.

“The piece has many ever-changing ideas, some of which have been discussed to varying degrees with all of you. It is still a conversation around bad and good taste, and the racial, cultural, class issues that inform taste. We are still interested in the food/wine tasting phenomenon as a demonstrative device. The piece is also about a response to space. It does not exist in a conceptual vacuum, but rather its identity is formed by the context of the space. Also it is more broadly about us as objectified performers and the fetishization of dancers. We have used 17th-century baroque music and silence and are still interested in those.” 2

Shortly after arriving in Miami we drove to BFI. Almost immediately after we exited the rental car, a Chrysler 200, a man approached—one of those indeterminate approaches, in which you are pretty sure but can’t quite tell if this is someone asking for money. He wanted to shake hands. We didn’t want to. “Don’t worry, man, the black won’t rub off on you,” he told R. This was an interesting choice, perhapspointed, the only one of us who is not white. 3

Yes, he wanted money. “You people come down here, you don’t contribute anything.” Menacing in a strangely friendly way. He subsequently called R. a sissy.

Look. Apollo and Dionysus.The whole thing. Sweat & glitter & spandex.

There are lots of ideas about dancers (even as dance, in this country, is an invisible art form, surrounded by an impressive cultural illiteracy). One of them, maybe the most prevalent, is the sexualized dancer: the knowing smiles around dancers in bed. All of that flexibility. The splits.
This is obviously irksome to lots of dancers. I’m sure I would be irked. I’m pretty sure.

Rundown on poets: precious & cloistered.

Critics: can’t drive the car, generally fat & bitter & loathsome.
But of course their relationship is a public issue. It’s a handy little journalistic hook.

In the essay “Poetry and the Problem of Taste,” Brian Phillips writes that taste is “a vital kind of negative capability—the capability within an audience that allows it to combine the subjective andthe objective in a single aesthetic experience, and thus not only to distinguish between the good and the bad in aesthetics, but to sustain a multiple notion of what the good and the bad can be. This is an ability of critical importance in our effort to develop a complete relationship to a given form of art, which is why, when we think of taste in a broad sense, we think of what it makes possible, and not what it forbids. Its very contradictoriness contains propulsive cross-currents, like the cave of winds in Virgil.”

I mean it’s not always easy to look
This is my job and I can tell you it’s not always easy
I mean, I never give money to the homeless
I’m not that kind of humanitarian
I just like it when you do that
I like it when you do it just like that

The body works it out
The body gets closer
Standing in the sun squinting
Of course we’re all mourning for ourselves
Of course we get uncomfortable around our kind It’s subjective
One of the things I did not anticipate doing was reading David Hume’s essay, “Of the Standard of Taste,” through a rented bullhorn and changing into cutoffs, bathing suit and wedges while being driven around and around the block in a Mercedes E Class by D., himself made rather conspicuous by the donning of a pink lace ski mask of sorts, as S. and R. improvised various movement phrases in the parking lot across the street from the BFI, watched by audience members through the raised loading- dock gate and whoever else was passing by.

“What is the value, the allure of this thing we do? I feel really sensitive to the way I was raised, the education I’ve had. I always feel inadequate. I think a lot about workmanship and work ethic in dance, that working class ethic. And then something more privileged.” 4

Those people come down here, they don’t contribute anything
They talk about the quality of the light
The all new & improved
Don’t worry, the black won’t
These two are real professionals.
They’re very flexible.
Something about that white flower, that dark hair

I saw my first hooker in Miami 5
Stick insect orange street lights stretch
It’s like they say, you only know what gunshots sound like
after you hear one
They don’t look like anything else

The amount of labor that goes into a dance is astounding. So much of it is handmade, improvised, provisional.

There is the repetitive, often tedious work of creating and then refining gestures, steps, phrases, etc.—hours and hours in the studio, worrying at what will in the end be mere seconds of movement. This process happens whether the end result will be improvised, set, or something in between.

In writing this happens, too. The hours spent staring at a blank page or screen, striking through words or doubling back, puttering around the house like a maniac in your pajamas. Staring out the window, at the ceiling, at godforsaken social media sites.

But in writing you at least6 have drafts. Physical drafts. Something to which you can return.

And there is the logistical work, when the practical realities of what and how swing to the fore. D. is a wizard at navigating all of this. It’s pretty exciting just watching him work. He makes you feel marvelously taken care of. There are these big flashes of anger that come up, thunderstorm-like, obscuring his demeanor. Build-up, obscenities, calm.

And watching S. & R.—that is also exciting. The intelligence that these two artists carry in their bodies… It is a privilege to be in conversation with that intelligence. And it is fascinating to watch them negotiate their tangled layers of collaboration: where they push, where they give in, the moments when either of these things is more about their relationship outside of the studio than inside. You can’t die on every hill.

It should go without saying that no one ever gets paid enough to do this. That the practitioners, particularly the dancers, subsidize the whole crummy system, often at the cost of their credit ratings. Commissions, ticket sales, grants, blah blah blah—none of it adds up to much.
During the dress rehearsal it poured and poured. Beautiful. Water and sweat streaming over S. and R., as they moved from outfit to outfit, ending eventually in almost nothing, dirty rivulets snaking down their skin. The Hume essay rumpled and bleeding. They ended splayed, bodies interlocking on the dirty concrete floor of the loading dock. We had no more cardboard signs to hold up. D. handed me the champagne bottle, which I dutifully swigged, and then poured. R. curled his back, as if protectively. S. arched up, fish in a fountain. These two are perfect. Their bodies are wrecked; they are doing that for us

We come down here, we don’t contribute anything
We talk about the quality of the light

Isn’t that something
Cherry coke remarkable
Isn’t that…

You make sense without words
The frigate birds wheel high above, sharpening their knives
I do not want to spend my life without knowing anything else
We look at war
We look at the crushed flowers from the night before
The carpet is impossibly white
The tower is a double crescent
Rubber doll, techno something
You’ve never met more awkward rock stars
There is a way in which the translator must love failure
The thin line of light splitting the morning sky

1 An email Silas and Rashaun sent to me, Davison and James Kidd on January 9th.

2 Ibid [at first I typed ibis, a happy error]

3 He has been described as charismatic, animalistic. Silas, who is of (black?) Irish descent, is much more animalistic as a dancer, I would say; I’m not sure if he has ever been described that way. This makes me think of Serena and Venus Williams, how their success is often described in terms of sheer, brute physicality, while their (almost always white) opponents are more likely to be discussed in terms of strategy. And then I think (especially when in Florida) of Indian Wells, the inevitable annual calls for the Williams sisters to return. Really? What’s in that for them?

4 R. talking to me during dinner at Pangaea, a restaurant across the street from Danspace Project, in New York, where the next iteration of Taste will be performed this November.

5 This is true.

6 Actually, I’m not sure if that’s better, or worse. “At least” might be misleading here.