[Please join me in welcoming Mindy Aloff to CriticalDance. – JH]
Brooklyn, New York
June 4, 2023
The word mausoleum incorporates its own history. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, it is “a very large and magnificent edifice adorned with sculpture, built by Queen Artemisia of Caria as the tomb of her husband, King Mausolus, at Helicarnassus, about 350 B.C., ranking as one of the seven wonders of the world.” In common parlance, it means a large tomb or a stately building for several of them, or, when you get right down to it, a large, gloom-ridden room.
This is a report by someone who sat through the 70-minute, intermissionless dance-theater performance called Mausoleum, attributed to Chris Masters, and experienced a mundane and intellectually derivative exhibition of controlled chaos that felt as if the events had a running time of several hours, in a large, gloom-ridden room. In contrast, nearly the rest of the audience around me (about 100 persons) sat through it attentively and, according to one fan who attended several other performances, those other audiences were admiring, one going so far as to include members who accorded Mausoleum a standing ovation. Nobody, to my knowledge, has gone so far as to call it a wonder of the world—yet. Still, the literary canon of the twentieth century is invoked. As Masters told interviewer Karen Hildebrand in an interview he gave her with Eva Yaa Asantewaa, the title refers to a sentence in William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury: “The character Quentin talks about a pocket watch that his father had given him and he alludes to the ‘mausoleum of all hope and desire.’ The entire text sticks out to me as having a lot to do with love and loss.”
Masters – who takes credit for the concept and direction of the dance-theater production – did not choreograph the movement. Here, according to BAM, is what he and his collaborators, some of them well-known, contributed:
“ChrisMastersDance (CMD) presents Mausoleum at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Fishman Space, June 2–4, 2023. A dance work that considers and interrupts what has come, Mausoleum investigates our overconsumption of media, addiction to drama, inertia that concretizes unsustainable forms of life and work, and the inextricable link between love and loss.
“Mausoleum is directed and conceived by Chris Masters, and choreographed and performed by cove barton, Sabrina Canas, Abigail Linnemeyer, and Marcus Sarjeant. Overstimulating and non-stop, the work is set to original music composed by Ex-Fiancée and features costumes designed by Oana Botez (2007 Princess Grace Award-winner), with lighting design by Maruti Evans (2013 Drama Desk Award-winner). Additional collaboration includes dramaturgy by Eva Yaa Asantewaa [2017 recipient of a Bessie for Outstanding Service to the Field], photography by Robert Flynt, and writing by Jayson P. Smith.”
On the web site chrismastersdance.org, one is given further instruction for how to think about the show:
“ChrisMastersDance is a Brooklyn-based contemporary dance company built by a team of interdisciplinary collaborators and directed by Chris Masters. Founded in 2012, the organization’s philosophy in dance making is that the work should function as a container, seamlessly blending movement invention, theoretical investigation, and character-driven theatricality. Like a container, the work can be unpacked in myriad ways, allowing for greater accessibility and connectivity to diverse audiences.
“The New York Times notes ‘the work is “psychologically driven… you might want to be in a mindful state.’ The primary objective is to create an empathetic avenue for dialogue between performer, witness, and community. The organization’s body of work includes over 20 dance works, ranging from solos to ensembles, from shorter, site-adaptive projects to evening length site-specific performances.
“Recent highlights include invitations to present work at Danspace Project, a sold-out run at La MaMa Moves!, years of professional level classes at Mark Morris Dance Center (among other professional schools), the construction of a commissioned evening-length immersive dance theatre work in Beijing, China in 2015, and a dance film which has received over 650 awards and selections in the most competitive year in film festival history.”
And so you can see that, in this case, disagreement is a heavy lift, especially for those who are not in a mindful state of mind. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word mindfulness means “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.” The Cambridge dictionary adds that mindfulness “can be used to alleviate feelings of anxiety or depression.” You can appreciate the bind that someone like me is in, whose attempts to adopt mindfulness and empathy while trying to figure out what the hell is going on are precisely the ignitions of tense feelings and bleak thoughts.
In that event, although I know that it’s a fail, here are a few fragments collaged from my experience of Mausoleum, splattered with mindfulness and empathy.
There are four dancers, whose cat’s cradles of movement drawn from several dance vocabularies are momentarily interesting but ultimately, so to speak, red herrings: They are individually complicated and without any way to remember them; the result, for this viewer, is illegible. They cancel one another out. Masters has stated that he did not want to impose his “autobiography” on the cast. and so he encouraged them to impose their autobiographies individually on the audience. I can tell you that Masters has identified a portion of the origin of what Hildebrand called in The Brooklyn Rail interview “the Chris Masters movement aesthetic” as an omnium-gatherum of “Laban and Bartenieff, classical ballet, release technique, and lots and lots of wiggling.” However, for this viewer, it resolved itself into: the dancers do exhausting dance stuff for nearly the full 70 minutes, much of it horizontally positioned on the floor. And despite the input of several dramaturgs—Eva Yaa Asantewaa is only the lead dramaturg on the production—there is no discernable dramatic throughline nor any design apart from the peregrinations of one, nondancing figure.
The dramatic focus of Mausoleum is the composer and operator of the video camera Ex-Fiancée, identified elsewhere on the Internet as Sven Britt, Chris Masters’s husband. The dancers wear asymmetrical costumes in black; Sven Britt wears a sparkly long white gown and no-nonsense black platform shoes. Half his head is shaved and the other half is the site of very long, freefalling blonde tresses. His lips are glazed in india-ink black, in the manner of the queer theatrical collective Blacklips. (At one point, the blown-up image projected from the camera shows that black lenses have been placed on his eyes, so that light bounces off them. The cameraman has been rendered blind.) However, the most amazing element of his costume is inscribed in the skin of his upper back: An extremely intricate scene of a winged figure in what looks to be a forest with a flock of birds flying away. It is exquisite. I wish we had seen more of it and less of the lips and hair.
Britt’s job is to wield a video camera, which he trains on various parts of the theater to produce, on a large surface in front of us, simulcast videography of both the audience – silently glued, glassy-eyed, in our seats – and the highly stimulated dancers, each locked in their own, unstoppable crossover-dance uniqueness as they relentlessly relate, cavort, handstand, and otherwise engage with one another or, as revealed through the miracle of simulcast, themselves backstage. There is no obvious design for their group efforts, no before-and-after, no significance to anything. Meanwhile, billed as the composer of the show’s original score (a medley of sound effects, snatches of everyday sound, relentless pulsing, touches of Chopin’s “Funeral March,” sometimes layered, sometimes isolated), Britt functions now as a haunted thing, a ghoul, and now as a sullen avatar of Dr. House, diagnosing our psyches and souls by projecting the dancers to the audience and the audience to itself, in a variety of lighting, some of it colorful. I suppose a sense of necessity for complete transparency required the close-ups of the dancers’ exhausted faces, streaming with sweat, every blemish countable. (I thought that a special cruelty of the show.)
The dancers do not come out at the end to bow or receive applause. The lights go on, and that’s all folks. At the performance I attended, I was the first person to pop up and go at that point; however, I was not the first person to flee. About an hour in, the stranger seated next to me suddenly jumped out of his seat, muttered “I’ve got to get outta here,” bolted over my knees to the aisle, and fled. There is a special kind of longing that attends the moment when another person can leave an experience in which one feels – or is – trapped in the mausoleum of all hope and desire. That longing flooded my mindfulness to the point of drowning it entirely.
Mindy Aloff’s most recent book is Why Dance Matters, from Yale.