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Containing Multitudes

Ralph Lemon/Cross Performance: How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? –

Ralph Lemon takes the long view in the latest work from his Cross Performance company, How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? presented at the REDCAT, Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater space November 10-14, 2010. His previous company followed a traditional annual touring schedule, presenting a mixture of old and new works. With Cross Performance, he creates large-scale multi-disciplinary projects over many years. This single-project approach creates an atmosphere in which Lemon, a Guggenheim and US Artists Fellowship recipient, among many other awards and honors, feels comfortable attempting to integrate his responses to an admittedly impossible set of big questions on his way to being recognized as an artist.  How Can You Stay . . . is a true representation of profound human struggles with mortality, relationships, racism, invention, grief, communication, memory, perception, knowledge, structure, time, and truth.

Lemon is well aware that the audience will be challenged by the variety and intensity offered up by How Can You. . . He begins by seating himself in a white plastic lawn chair on stage, then reads from his “Sunshine Room” script while a 30-minute film with original footage and clips from other films are projected. His reading, sure and without drama, invites us to take a chance. He shares his need to start over again and again with each new project, re-returning to his beginning to find a dance that is not founded in dance, a “no-dance.” During the narration we learn that his partner Asako has recently passed away. An hour later, during the live dance segment, the stage is vacant and we hear off-stage sobbing for many painful, disturbing minutes. Eventually Okwui Okpokwasili enters the stage, continuing her sobbing, standing and facing away from the audience. It is the sobbing of grief, unself-conscious, canceling all other sounds.

But in between Lemon’s story of grief and Okpokwasili’s embodiment of it, we see in the film “Sunshine Room” a hundred-plus-year-old man (Lemon’s friend Walter Carter) dressed as a 1960s astronaut, rolling around on the floor of a metal contraption that resembles a miniature carousel. To force a structural connection between these three elements does a disservice to the experience, which is perhaps meant to mirror a life in which wildly disparate, inexplicable occurrences invade our attention on a daily basis.


At the end of the evening, in the “No Room” section of the work, Lemon returns to the stage, moving in straight lines, then collapsing. Each first step in a new direction after returning to upright appears to be the first step he has ever taken. He keeps his promise of starting over, even as his eyes are locked open taking in the enormity of his manifold subjects while admitting certain defeat. One can’t help but recall Ezra Pound’s Cantos, the epic everything-and-the-kitchen-sink-attempt to assay the poet’s knowledge. Despite Pound’s understanding that his attempt would be not be fully successful he proceeded with the publication regardless.  As the Cantos jump around from language to language, in and out of time and styles, so does Lemon’s work display an acknowledgment of multiple ways of expression.

My first impulse was to scold for Lemon’s attempting too much, to address so many ideas using several media in a single two-hour piece not being fair to the material: no idea will receive the attention it deserves. But the themes frequently inform one another–and as we confront simultaneous significant events in our own lives, so may an artist choose to present them in encapsulated form.


Even though Lemon offers effusive credit to his dancers for their collaborative contributions, he still made the choices that identify the work. One remarkably risky decision was Lemon’s choice to have no music during the dancing–this sonic austerity was reinforced by the spare stage, simple outfits, and full lighting. The message was clear: “Here we are, and here it is.” The sounds of the dancers’ bodies and their breathing became an engrossing soundtrack. I couldn’t help but wish for more dance works to allow us to hear the actual sounds of dancers dancing.

My greatest struggle with the work is rooted in the dancing itself. The dancers, who are consistently and thoroughly magnificent movers and have evolved a “natural” style of movement that seems in keeping with Lemon’s “authentic” goal, are Djédjé Djédjé Gervais, Darrell Jones, Gesel Mason, Okwui Okpokwasili, David Thomson, and Omagbitse Omagbemi. They present ecstatic, committed, declamatory actions: whirling windmills, leaps, sudden collisions. But witnessing someone else’s catharsis isn’t necessarily cathartic; in fact, it can create a chasm of detachment. During the ensemble dancing, I recalled the quote from Tarkovsky’s Solaris that had appeared during “Sunshine Room” on screen: “As he approaches truth he is condemned to knowledge.” Thus were we set up for the struggle of these formally trained dancer/athletes whom Lemon demanded let go of technique, rules, and structure. Their knowledge prevents them from truly inventing, so we are privy to the result of that inner conflict. During the “Sunshine Room” narration, Lemon had shared his earlier method to free his dancers from formal oppression: to have them practice drunk and stoned for hours, until they had achieved truly free movement, a foundation on which to build, sober, his new affect-free dance. But what’s left is largely repetitive, not necessarily compelling. Left to its own devices, each body defaults to a few discrete authentic actions, perhaps four or five. We soon learn what each body does and we crave more variety, more . . . thought. And due to the nature of the movement, opportunities for deep partnership tend to occur relatively infrequently; otherwise, the dancers could injure one another with their rapid, forceful movements. When they do enter, after some solos, a series of synchronized leaps and precisely timed simultaneous falls, we feel the success of that sequence and are relieved, not by their having done harm to themselves, but by the reminder that they have the choice to cooperate, to not navigate this world mindless and alone, rather to fly and land together.


One can’t help but consider the nature of improvisation itself. Ideally, an improviser acts from a universe of possibilities. But as the Solaris lines suggest, the more we know, the harder it is to be spontaneous. Most jazz musicians, after all, work from a vocabulary of modes and chords; few have consistently achieved results greater than the original melodies they are using as a framework for their “improvising.” Lemon has, remarkably, succeeded in taming the training out of his troupe, but what’s left is perhaps most valuable to the dancers themselves, not to the audience–I felt left out. I could not experience the transformation I assumed the individual dancers were undergoing. The more they danced, the further from them I felt, despite my very determined impulse to find a connection with their extraordinary surrender. Perhaps this unanswered longing is something Lemon anticipated–it was certainly personal–but I understood why some performances of this work in the past year had included a fourth section, “Meditation,” in which the audience could visit the space after the presentation was concluded.


As if to emphasize the temporality of existence, before Lemon returned to do his pacing, a scrim fell, the lights went out, and an illuminated dog meandered onto the stage, stopped dead center, and sat, panting and looking around disinterestedly. Then one of the dancers appeared in a hare outfit and approached the dog. They were soon joined by a bird, deer, cow, ostrich, bear, and giraffe. It took most of us off guard: at first the dog seemed real, as did the dancer. But all were pre-recorded projections sent to the dark stage in neon outline. These projections will outlive their actors, just as will the film of Lemon’s aged friend Walter Carter dressed in a space suit, reenacting scenes from Solaris. We spend a lifetime acquiring knowledge, the “condemnation” in our ascent to truth, which could be interpreted as aging itself. Sometimes we are young enough to remember what we know, as Lemon’s partner Asako did. Lemon tells us that Carter couldn’t remember what happened five minutes earlier. Either way, what others remember about us isn’t what we have learned about ourselves: whatever enlightenment we experience is ours alone. Lemon’s message is that what will outlive Walter is not Walter’s truth–and the same goes for all of us.


  1. Denise Spampinato says:

    I really enjoyed reading this thoughtful review. Rarely do reviewers allow their voice to express ambivalence in productive rather than reactive ways. Ambivalence it our entry to knowledge and complexity and this article offers an exemplary instance of what could be called “creative doubt.” I found Alan Berman personal and intellectual meditation not just persuasive but very illuminating.
    Thank you…

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