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In Performance: Jen Rosenblit, Clap Hands (American Realness 2017)

Jen Rosenblit
Jan 6-10, 2017
Abrons Arts Center, Experimental Theater

Metal bleachers line the walls of the Abrons Experimental Theater at the top of Clap Hands, the latest movement-text mashup from creator Jen Rosenblit. With only a breath of separation between audience and performers, and bathed in designer Elliott Jenetopulos’s diffuse white light, the room is part theater, part gym, part research laboratory. Four performers enter the space and meet our gazes, taking in our presence with little affect or expectation; costumes suggest a boxer (Rosenblit), a fencer (Effie Bowen), a squash player (Admanda Kobilka), and a stage technician (Alexia Welch, aptly credited for “supportive performance”), but any associations with sports are swiftly de-centered by Rosenblit’s fractured yet poetic opening monologue. Instead these four become our guides and proxies through an unfolding exploration of separation, togetherness, and the labors we endure to traverse the chasm between those impossible poles.

Through an accumulation of spoken text, movement scores, and arresting feats of live sound design (by Kobilka), what transpires among this playful, gently sardonic ensemble–described by Rosenblit as an “over-crowded solo”–is a matrixed and un-precious play with the technologies of coming together. Like the costumes, Clap Hands is all fractured references, offering momentary pauses in recognizable images before reconfiguring so repeatedly that any weight of meaning floats up into a foggy haze above our heads. What is left in the center is all the stuff in between: the comedically slippery sweat of three performers who carry an enormous pile of neon-pink felt from one side of the space to the other while changing clothes; the giant boom mic that Welch holds above Rosenblit’s head to allow her to speak clearly to people just inches away; the mess of electronic sound equipment in the center of the room that become Kobilka’s second body.

While the tone of questioning in Rosenblit’s work is deeply existential and its aesthetics bright and popular, the political implications of Clap Hands are not to be overlooked. Her mano-a-mano spar with the slipperiness of meaning and form, especially with regard to the body and relationships, is decidedly queer, as is her unapologetic yet unassuming nudity as she lies bare on a table just inches from the audiences’ eyes. Over and over, Rosenblit dares us to notice meaning and let it go, to instead move the spotlight to the malleable structures and devoted labor that create frames of meaning. The discoveries therein transcend scale as they reflect the individual in the relational in the social in the cosmos and back again. And when Welch approaches a bleacher of audience members midway through the performance and instructs them to stand so that she may move it–radically shifting their point of view of the space–she reminds us that if and when we wish to remake the worlds inside and around us, we do the heavy lifting ourselves.

photo by Maria Baranova

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