Lucy Guerin: "Untrained" Review

- at Brooklyn Academy of Music -
November 30, 2012

"1/2 human.
1/2 alien.
1/2 machine."

There is such a thing as good television, but one of my favorite things to watch are the makeover episodes of essentially any lifestyle channel. Tyra Banks’ “America’s Next Top Model,” Dr. Phil, Oprah; each has their version of transforming a somewhat ragged-around-the-edges individual into the inevitable beauty. Watching Ugly transform into Beautiful in an instance with “before” and “after” shots provides shock value, makes you glad that you aren’t a “before,” and is addicting.

We get this split screen effect for 1 hour in Lucy Guerin’s “Untrained.” The piece begins with a construction that lends itself to comparison: in quick succession, each dancer stands facing the audience and gazes pointedly but easily out at us, until they shift to the right and walk out of a taped square. The square is where most of the action in "Untrained" occurs- a boundary that matches the playful tasks that the dancers attempt, like a game of foursquare on the playground. Yes, the dancers would have won the game of foursquare. To say nothing of the later handstands and improvisations, they are better at standing than the untrained dancers. They are strong in their stance, easy in their bodies. The untrained dancers take their position with a nervous shuffle and when they stare it is hard not to look for signs that they are the lesser; lopsided and hunched shoulders give them away. We chuckle at these differences. Later, we fold in half with laughter when an untrained dancer follows the professional, trying to copy him movement for movement. When that movement is a handstand to a swift plank position, the duplication is more of a tuck of the head to a slow lowering, knee by knee, to the ground. But Jake Shackleton, the untrained dancer, has his eyes glued to dancer Michael Dunbar, and he within his physical limits he is copying this improvisation as closely as possible. It turns out this is not a competition at all. All movement- the awkward, the fluid, the strong, the subtle- is endlessly absorbing if you have a mind to be inquisitive about the minute. 

Guerin, in the Talk Back after the show, said that she is interested in how bodies move, and how the contrast in training for each dancer is physically manifested. Instead of the silliness of an overweight man taking off his shirt to reveal a bare belly, she sees the patterns and the rhythms in the rote action. The silliness that might be someone taking off their shirt becomes intricately involving when the performers each describe how they take off their t-shirt. “I hook my thumbs under the collar like so….I cross my arms and pull upwards…” Paired with a clinical analysis of the taking off of a shirt, they perform each action with staccato control. Guerin is looking at the details, a micromanaging that transcends the humor that enlivens the performance, and reveals the truth and beauty of physicality and thought processes that can be distilled from each movement.

The effort of mind and body is visible. In both the dancers and untrained dancers, we can see their minds work (at one point, performers take turns teaching a short piece of choreography to one another on the spot, and we hear “yes, I understand,” “umm…hmmmm…..ok….”). This candor and informality is important, as it lends to what might be most essential for the success of “Untrained,”: honesty. It would be easy to make this piece funny by subjecting the untrained dancers to tasks that reveal their incapabilities. The audience would know it was a cheap laugh, but we would laugh nonetheless and it would fulfill our expectations (if they, as I did, had only a hilarious YouTube video featuring 8 minutes of the performance, for reference. Judging by the number of times the video has been viewed – 6,804 – it is likely that they did expect humor).  

Amazingly and blessedly, Guerin does not find this piece funny. At the Talk Back, with a confused shake of her head, she said that even 3 years after the piece first debuted, she cannot fully comprehend why the audience laughs. The audience responded to this incomprehension with their own disbelieving headshakes. Is she watching the same show we are?

Because Guerin does not think of “Untrained” as a comedic piece, it becomes so much more. I hold my breath watching Alisdair Macindoe’s assemble, which almost quivers in the air as though he is lengthening away from the floor with an impossible resistance midair. But Ross McCormack, untrained as a dancer but for the two weeks he has spent rehearsing this piece (dancers are usually cast in the city of the performance, rehearse for a few weeks and then perform), has a groove as he pokes and bumps his way through an improvisation that similarly influences me to move and breathe with him. "Untrained" is as addicting as watching a stay at home mom in a sweatshirt and jeans transform into the woman that you take out to a fancy restaurant for dinner. But instead of leaving the "before" behind, we get to know them. We get to know the untrained dancers as creative individuals and learn that the trained dancers have their own insecurities. There is a leveling, an equaling between 4 very different men. Humor is the result of honesty that we are not confronted with often. If laughter was at first a response to discomfort and only a base understanding of the performers as individuals, the gleefulness felt in the audience with time stemmed from an excitement that the performers were so willing to share themselves with the audience.

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