Site icon Art21 Magazine

“Elephant,” or Why I Love Performance Art

Recent guest blogger Marissa Perel wrote a post following up her residency on this site. — Ed.

Deke Weaver as Hero in "Elephant." Photo by Valerie Oliveiro.

2010 wouldn’t be complete without the Art21 world knowing about this mind-blowing show in a stock pavilion at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign from September 23-27. I don’t know where to begin here — whether it was Deke Weaver’s humor, epic video productions, or thoughtfully crafted dance and music by his collaborators, Jennifer Allen and Chris Peck. Of course, I loved all of those aspects of Elephant, which is why I love performance art. It might be one of the rare forms where too many cooks can actually make a genius broth that appeals to more than one palate.

Elephant is the second in Deke Weaver’s Unreliable Bestiary, a project that utilizes writing, video, and performance to explore the lineage of animals and chart our relationships with them in feats of compelling and intimate grandeur. The show, which was funded by Creative Capital and the Center for Advanced Study has been picked up by the Sundance Film Festival to be performed there this January.

The show opens with four dancers led by Allen, dressed in gray jeans and playing on the iron rails that line the pavilion. The clothing doesn’t give anything away, but as they continue tilting their heads and necks, it becomes evident that they are in fact embodying baby elephants. The pavilion darkens to reveal a video and what looks like a talk show. Weaver comes out in an elephant mask and gray suit to tell the story of his life as an elephant to a TV personality.

Weaver as Hero being interviewed. Photo by Valerie Oliveiro.

While Weaver’s costume is humorous, his story is not. It is one of dislocation, exile, grief, and longing, especially as he discusses the elephant’s reliance on memory for survival. Environmental devastation is creating a loss of major markers for elephants’ memories of the locations of water, food, and shelter. It’s part of what causes their deaths and the recently coined “elephant rage.” Apparently, elephants’ acute memories compel them to seek vengeance on those who have caused them suffering.

This theme runs through the evening, which is split between two stories about elephants. The first is of Hero, a circus elephant, who was shot to death during a snowstorm by the townsfolk of Elkton, South Dakota on May 15, 1916, and the second is of Weaver’s journey to a Conservation Center in Thailand, where he partook in elephant training. The stories are interwoven throughout the show with alternating footage of Thailand and Weaver’s trip to Elkton, where he spoke to relatives of people who witnessed the death of Hero.

After Weaver has finished his interview, the curtains behind him open to reveal the immensity of the Stock Pavilion that is lined on either side by rows of hay bales. Allen and dancers lead the audience to the hay and pour cups of water for each audience member. This is a small gesture, but with stark lighting in the otherwise darkened pavilion and blue light from two massive screens on each side, the pouring of water became a haunting symbol of this basic elemental resource. 

"What a strange thing to die alone, in the middle of a blizzard, on the Great Plains of North America," Hero video with elephant puppet. Photo by Valerie Oliveiro.

It was enough just to be sitting in this place where livestock pass everyday to feel a mixture of awe and melancholia about animals and what we do with them. Peck’s use of sound shaped this atmospheric quality. The almost imperceptible echoing of the sounds of chains crashing, waves lapping, snow falling, foot-falls on various grounds, and, of course, elephant cries and trumpets, created a resonance that brought the audience into the events of those distant places.

Weaver’s videos were stunning. One would think the screens of IMAX proportion would overwhelm the performance and dance, but the images and the live actions worked together. Weaver’s style, a layering of live footage, stop-motion animation, projected text, and monologue combine to create a sense that there is more to a story than what we see or hear. An event is more than one immediate action. An event is a result of many historical actions and it includes the desires, expectations, and mythologies we project onto it.

Weaver as an "American" man telling the story of mahout elephant training in Thailand. Photo by Valerie Oliveiro.

I found that the way in which the different parts of the show came together was beguiling. I use this word because it is the best one that I can imagine in order to convey the trickery, or guile, with which the piece was delivered. At the core of Elephant is the gruesome fact of brutality and the mistreatment of elephants the cause of which seems to be humanity’s inability to treat another being as an equal.

Because we do not know the creature, we beat it, experiment with it, make it entertain us, and put it to work. We might revere its mythology, especially when it’s hybridized with our own creation, such as the story of the trunked-God Ganesha, but we don’t know how to interact with it as another living being. However, the secret of Elephant is that this reality is wrapped up into a package of video, music, dance, and narrative performance that is sensational, entertaining, and humorous. We laugh, but we’re trapped in these stories with the elephants who can never escape.

Weaver as mahout with Jojo the elephant video. Photo by Valerie Oliveiro.

Throughout the piece, Weaver is changing in and out of elephant-inflected garb to inhabit multiple characters for each of the stories. He deftly switches roles, going back and forth between his elephant training experience in Thailand, where he performs himself as a stereotypical American guy in an “exotic” land, and as the mahout who is training him how to ride an elephant. Then he plays Anastasia, a little old lady in Elkton, SD, who recounts the story of Hero’s death.

Weaver as Anastasia telling the story of Hero, surrounded by dancers playing baby elephants. Photo by Valerie Oliveiro.

What we come to learn from both accounts is the brutality with which both elephants were trained, and that both experienced failed attempts at retaliation. Jojo’s failed attempt to run through the jungle left him a large scar by the eye, and Hero’s failed attempt got him stabbed, shot, and eventually sliced into elephant steaks. Really. But again, the information doesn’t come all at once; the stories are played out in a manner that sometimes feels like A Prairie Home Companion. Peck’s scoring of Thai folk songs about elephants, along with his original compositions for folk songs and a choral piece of scientific facts about elephants, were too beautiful for their cruel content.

Composer Chris Peck performing original folk song "An elephant's blood is very cold" with a projection of a medieval illustration of a dragon assassinating an elephant. Photo by Valerie Oliveiro.

So, here’s the recipe: Weaver’s Spalding Gray-inspired delivery of monologues, Peck’s compositions referencing Ruth Crawford Seeger’s quirky modernist works, and Jennifer Allen’s choreography with the timing and pedestrian aspects of Yvonne Rainer and the investigative focus of Simone Forti.  One of the highlights of Elephant was Allen’s choreography of a baby elephant learning to play with a soccer ball.

Weaver performing as the mahout elephant trainer with dancers Steve May, Kyli Kleven, Jennifer Allen, and Jessica Cornish performing as baby elephants playing with soccer balls. Photo by Valerie Oliveiro.

I have never seen a dance like it: people embodying young animals who are learning how to play a sport for people. Because the costumes were minimal, they enabled the audience to see the dancers’ movements clearly as they sensually rolled the balls with body parts and softly stumbled on the ground like children learning how to balance. Their gestures grew from shy circumambulation around the balls and one another to running, kicking, and pounding the dirt with boxing gloves that served as elephant feet.

The dancers lined a row with Weaver as a mahout elephant trainer in the background. Photo by Valerie Oliveiro.

Given the incredible amount of space for four bodies to occupy and perform, Allen’s ability to create subtle yet precise differentiations in the dancers’ gestures and formations was remarkable. I could shift my perspective from the detailed movement of a singular dancer to the group formation, and I could see Allen’s vision of the dance as a spacious and empathic platform for play and investigation that was both virtuosic and gritty. This was a rare 2010 moment where I felt lucky to be in the Midwest. I am curious and hopeful about the response Elephant will receive at Sundance, but I have a feeling it will be a mammoth step for Weaver into 2011.

Jessica Cornish as Jojo the elephant with boxing gloves and soccer ball. Photo by Valerie Oliveiro.

Marissa Perel is an artist based in Chicago.
Exit mobile version