Context Notes: Juliana May
1. The soft internal organs of the body, especially those contained within the abdominal and thoracic cavities.
2. The intestines.
Juliana May’s newest work, COMMENTARY = NOT THING is pure viscera. Guts. It is an exercise in the literal guts of the human body, the metaphoric guts of a choreographic process, and finally, “the guts” it takes to do what she and her dancers do in this piece. Observers might feel moved. Transformed. Nauseous and strangely aroused. Gutted. Her work registers at low-lying longitudes where innards and entrails reside. It all spills out and nothing is left imagined.
COMMENTARY = NOT THING is a gutsy regression into the primal, pre-conscious human body; a visceral journey whereby the base functions and impulses of the body are mapped in space. These are bodies before “appropriate” social conditionings. Bodies before “right” or “wrong.” Bodies beyond reproach and repression. Beyond shame. Beyond guilt. These are bodies uncensored. May’s choreography reads like a non-linear stream of corporeal consciousness. It’s a discursive swirling of irrational physical gestures, beyond thought. These are bodies that feel the contours of Self and Other without the intellect to complicate or mitigate the experience. Dominant notions of thinking Self quickly dissipate and are replaced with the form and function of the feeling body.
In her work, May employs these feeling bodies to populate and create what she calls a “postmodern aesthetic-ritual.” Specifically, in COMMENTARY = NOT THING, she says she is most interested in “language and the naked body and how abstraction can distort and frame meaning.” To this end, she directs her dancers to manipulate their own internal/external organs and to publically experiment with their correlating feelings of self-consciousness. These bodies are curious. Excessive. Exposed. Uncontained and leaking out into what May terms, “incredibly close encounters.” In this way, COMMENTARY = NOT THING is both an innocent and violent exploration — one that reveals human desire as being absolutely LAWLESS.
Lawlessness rules as May closely examines the “ins and outs” of the body and “the psychological systems” that control these kinds of internal shifts. She returns to the earliest phases of human development to investigate our most basic drives. Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychosexual development put forth a template for what he deemed “normal” human development, starting at birth. Between birth and 1.5 years, infants experience what he termed “the oral stage.” The oral stage is marked by experiences of pleasure and aggression through the mouth orifice. May’s dancers explore this orality throughout the piece by sucking in their own breath, and by savoring words and utterances. Orality is characterized by the need for instant gratification. May’s dancers never stop moving or hungering or touching. They are in search of something to fill an unknown, yet unyielding need.
Next is what Freud called “the anal stage,” which unfolds from ages 1.5 to 3 years old. This is known as a time of gaining internal control and achieving a sense of autonomy over one’s own body. This is also the time of testing the boundaries of emerging Self and Other. In this dance, themes of anality are evident in these boundary testings and repetitions — holding on and letting go. Pushing and pulling. And again.
Next is the phallic stage whereby the child begins to have sexual and romantic fantasies. This is an exploratory phase of pleasure and pain and desire. The performers become preoccupied with the genitals and arousal becomes a possibility. What will be the plight of three?
COMMENTARY = NOT THING inhabits the spaces of these three, initial developmental moments. Three adult bodies make a brave return to something buried, deep within us all. It is a return to something that perhaps we have no memory of in our own selves. It is a return to the material of Self before the Self is known on its own, individuated terms. It is a return to an infantile cauldron of sensorial chaos.
In addition to testing the limits of the body, May’s process is also testing the limits of the public sphere. She charts an exploration into urges, impulses, and feelings that are unacceptable to the conscious mind and to the public domain. These are the private, even secret aspects of having a Self. But May lets it all hang out, rendering COMMENTARY = NOT THING with no thick skin or armoring to defend against social inquisition and judgment. Rather, the piece asks us all to push through our own moments of shame to reach some kind of energetic, ecstatic climax. It is an unforgettable development.
Cassie Peterson is a New York-based writer, thinker, and lavender menace. She works as a psychotherapist by day, and moonlights as a dramaturge, essayist, & performing arts critic. Her extemporaneous musings and critical inqueeries can be found on her art & theory blog, Self & Other, as well as being featured in various performance publications.