Are You or Do You?
February 25, 2020 Femme Fest at Dixon Place Choreography: Alexis Robbins in collaboration with Luiza Karnas Performers: Luiza Karnas and Alexis Robbins Whisper, tap, slide, snap. Rhythms emerge out of darkness, layering in complexity. Swoosh, tap-tap, clap. Stage lights come up slowly, revealing performers Alexis Robbins and Luiza Karnas standing behind a stack of boxes. Tapping their fingers, knuckles, palms, and backs of their hands, they employ its surface to generate their sound score. Using their hands like feet, they articulate a complex unison phrase. Their hand dance grows in dexterity and urgency- hypnotizing with a tribal feel. As Robbins continues, Karnas translates the choreography to her feet, her tap shoes adding a crisp overlay to the blunt sounds of Robbins’ palms.
Are you or Do You? offers a satirical, humorous look at a universal dance practice- using hands to indicate what the legs and feet will do when performing movements fully. The duet expands like a balloon from isolated gestures to full-bodied dancing. Robbins moves like viscous liquid, mimicking Karnas’ tapping. As she strikes the wood, Robbins reflects the tone with a flick of her bare foot or light touch to her forehead. They take their cues from each other, listening and responding like a study in transference. Karnas creates a rhythmic structure that appears in Robbins’ body in contractions, level changes, dynamic pauses, and arm slices. The dialogue continues and the duet rotates in space like a 3D model. Combining her love for tap and contemporary dance, Robbins blends the two styles effortlessly. In her work, the crystalline specificity of sound inherent in tap dancing mirrors the idiosyncratic gestures of contemporary styles. Although Are You or Do You? is light and whimsical, there is deep intelligence in its structure. The women put together a puzzle with pieces they create. They do not merely fulfill that task once and move on. Rather, they take time to explore and expand a variety of movement possibilities stemming from a few opening phrases. Evidenced in the ease with which they improvise together is trust and time invested in the piece’s development. In one standout moment, the women face each other and Karnas steadily increases the tempo in her feet. Robbins carries those dynamic changes into her hands and torso, articulating her fingers with dexterous ease. She performs the modern dance version of Karnas tapping with floor rolls, tours in the air, and knee slides. The duet becomes more conversational, a melding of common expressions. Their offhanded groundedness belies the buoyant freedom necessary to move with such speed and enunciation. Towards the second half of the piece, Robbins joins Karnas in tap shoes, displaying her deftness and ease with both forms. Like DJ’s creating and mixing sounds at the same time, the pair adds a vocal layer to their score of breath, taps, and claps. Silent yet percussive torso movements indicate tonality without making audible noise. “Are you a tap dancer or do you tap dance?” Karnas questions. “Can you be all that you are, all of the time?” “Does not knowing weigh you down?” Robbins responds defiantly with a flurry of lightning fast footwork. Karnas joins her and they tap and slide their way back to the stacked boxes, picking up their hand-ography from the piece’s opening. With one final, obstinate slap Robbins answers. “Yeah, it does.”
Catching up with Alexis Robbins, I was able to get a deeper look into her process. Check out our interview below. Motion By Degrees: Can you tell us about your process in creating Are You or Do You? Alexis Robbins: I'll never forget our first weekend of rehearsing, we did a self constructed 3 day residency/deep dive. We began simply by making our own hand-ography phrases. I wanted them to be semi abstract while also leaving opportunity for them to become movements that could be done with our feet. We went into separate corners, made phrases, and then came together and combined them into what became 10 bars of 5, and the base of much of the movement for the piece. When we finished solidifying that phrase, we felt like we were personifying our hands- they were their own characters. So we decided to play into that a bit deeper. I had no idea at the time how we were going to perform with our hands on a stage. At first I imagined we might be lying on our stomachs and have our hands crawl into a pool of light on the floor, but I am so glad we ended up standing because it allowed for so much more play. It took an entire day to turn the hand phrase into a tap dance phrase. After that, every time we worked with our hands, one of would be like, "wait....what if we did...", and then insert putting our hands in our shoes, having a 'battle' against each other, just doing personified fingers crawls....the list goes on. The opening section changed every time we've performed it. Adding our voices in the dark was one of the last things to get added (many months later). All of the hand-ography and surrounding moments got richer each time we worked on it, and changing it was very much dependent on audience reactions. People laugh every time the first pair of tap shoes gets plopped down and my hands 'react' and decide to go inside. So admittedly that's one of my favorite parts. MBD: Did you and Luiza do a lot of improvising or was the material mainly set?
AR: During the initial creation period we spent almost a full day just improvising with each other. Luiza tap dancing and me without shoes mimicking her rhythms with my body. So much of our process is improvisation. To this day large sections of the piece are very structured improv in performance. We also created a decent amount of tap dance phrase work during those first few days. We spent a lot of time in rehearsal writing and discussing how we define ourselves personally as dancers. Thinking about marking movements had got me thinking about "tap arms" and how we feel like tap dancers get made fun of for using their arms in certain ways and/or feeling like it's really hard to break those habits. So at first we were focusing a lot on our arms, because we thought as tap dancers that would be challenging for us and interesting for the audience. That led us to have deep discussions about how we define ourselves and what we want others to see. I'm usually the worst with titles, but I had written down "Are you or do you?" by day two. In a way sometimes I feel like this work is about my personal identity crisis as a dancer. MBD: What was most interesting to you about this way of working?
AR: I think two of the most interesting
things about this process was our ability to create very choreographed sections with great meticulous care, and our ability to just be playful and film ourselves improvising for hours at a time. There's a part in the last 4 minutes where we decided to retrograde the entire phrase. It was so stressful. But of course worth it. And I think it's the hardest part of the dance. The chemistry and connection between us while improvising has grown so much. We can anticipate each others moves now. Listening, reacting, choosing, and waiting while moving together has become so simple. It's really a practice within itself. Which of course we know as dancers, especially as tap dancers, but finding a true connection without a meter, without external sound....I'm pretty proud of us. And I know we can keep investigating.