Off the Page: Staging Poetic Language at IN>TIME


The fourth iteration of Chicago’s IN>TIME performance festival, which runs through Mar. 4, features an impressive roster of local and international artists at 15 venues across the city. A constellation of works included amid IN>TIME’s expansive programming propose politically and affectively charged translations of literary texts into live performance.

The most potent of these works drew inspiration from poets of color who address questions of embodiment and race. Anna Martine Whitehead’s new dance piece Treasure responds to a segment of Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen (2015) titled “June 26, 2011 / In Memory of James Craig Anderson,” wherein Rankine discusses Anderson’s death as the transition of a black body from subject to object. The chilling resonance of this formulation gave rise to Whitehead’s ongoing series “Treasures, Objects,” which includes the forthcoming chapbook T R E A S U R E | My Black Rupture. Her performance for IN>TIME originated in a four-month residency at High Concept Laboratories and in collaborations with co-performer Mlondolozi “Mlondi” Zondi, assistant choreographer Felicia Holman, and sound and video artist Marie Alarcón.

For Treasure, which ran Feb. 11-13, the walls at High Concept Laboratories were covered in black plastic, creating an immersive environment. Spectators, seated near the center of the dimmed room, were implicated in the unfolding action. Whitehead and Zondi performed in matching glittering garments, visual manifestations of Whitehead’s interest in reinserting femme identities into discussions about the vulnerability of black bodies that tend to focus on police murders of black men. They marched the length of the space, collapsing in unison and lying motionless before rising again with arrhythmic, propulsive movements. With virtuosic force, they deftly traversed an array of styles and techniques. A fog machine emitted dense plumes of smoke that fully obscured the performers from view until they reappeared moments later—an oscillation of temporary disappearance with hyper-visible presence.  

The Chicago-based performance troupe Every House Has a Door (EHHAD) navigated the interplay of presence and absence by different means in The Three Matadors Project, an adaptation of Jay Wright’s book-length poem The Presentable Art of Reading Absence (2008). Performed for IN>TIME at the Poetry Foundation on Feb. 20, the work represents a collaboration initiated in 2014 between EHHAD director Lin Hixon and dramaturge Matthew Goulish with the mesmeric performers Tim Kinsella, Sebastián Calderón Bentin, Taisha Paggett and Stephen Fiehn. Billed as a “micro-play,” Three Matadors serves as one part of an evening-length piece slated to premiere at the On Edge Festival in 2017.  

EHHAD’s mission is to resurface neglected and understudied cultural artifacts. They secured permission to adapt Wright’s previously unstaged text with the stipulation that they would perform “all the words exactly as written.” Approaching Wright’s bilingual work (written in Spanish and English) as “macaronic”—a term Goulish used to denote the entwining of two tongues—Three Matadors was an ecstatic, arresting combination of poetic utterance, organ music, prerecorded audio and choreographed dance. In one impactful segment, the three matadors, wearing silver lamé versions of a bullfighter’s “suit of lights,” realized a bravura feat of endurance recitation. Urgently delivering lines referencing locales in Spain, they circumnavigated the space and rapidly issued gestures that nodded toward the bullring. They spoke until they were breathless, dramatizing the material effects of language use on its speakers.  

Other IN>TIME presentations pursued related lines of poetic inquiry. Michal Samama’s On-Holding at Aspect/Ratio was prefaced by instructions to read a chapbook of poetic prose, copies of which were distributed on a bookshelf ballasted by the artist’s body. The document’s contents—ranging from a recounted dream about a bisected refrigerator to an account of a protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—cleverly materialized in physical form in the presentation that followed. Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s trancelike BLUE LIGHT and WAVE, hosted by the Red Rover Reading Series at Outer Space Studio on Feb. 12, framed poetic language as an electromagnetic transmitter with the potential to alleviate social trauma. Lee performed movements from the Korean dance form salp’uri as she read her work, while a video installation depicting subarctic Norway transferred blue light to the bodies of audience members. At 6018 North on Sunday, The Data We Breathe—a collaboration between poets and artists Caroline Bergvall, Judd Morrissey and Jennifer Scappettone—investigated the role of copper wiring as the infrastructural conduit for telecommunications technologies. Such IN>TIME offerings dislodged poetic language from the page in order to rearticulate its potential uses in the social field. In these performances, poetry became the basis for new models of dialogue in theater, activism and beyond.