Watching Hijack (Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder)

In a preview of Hijack's upcoming performance, Lightsey Darst explores why this duo's recent dance is so fascinating. See them at the Southern Theater this Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 8, 9, and 10.


1. Opening the gap: Kristin Van Loon directing Morgan Thorson and Arwen Wilder in rehearsal of “Johnny Weir” at the Southern Theater

I don’t think I know anything about dance.

I watch as Morgan Thorson and Arwen Wilder finish one section of “Johnny Weir,” walk over to a piano in the corner, and improvise a duet. “Really nice piano playing,” Kristin Van Loon says of their plunking. Of course it’s awful, that’s what she means; it’s the good kind of awful.

That’s not what throws me. What throws me is that some sections of this duet look different each time they run it. Morgan and Arwen are improvising—but the improv is more free than I’ve ever imagined. I never see two runs alike. One time, Arwen and Morgan lean around each other to hit piano keys; another time, Morgan slowly drives Arwen’s head down onto the keyboard, making a discordant plash. I’m used to seeing improv either on its own, as the dancer’s own creation, or, if it’s embedded within choreography, with a clearly defined score (set of directions given to the dancers). For example, two dancers might improvise rolling on the floor, or a dancer might improvise within a mood. But what Morgan and Arwen are doing looks more like different scenes, different moods in one relationship, as if I were spying on my neighbors for a day. The score broadens in my mind each time I see the dance, until finally I can’t understand how the dancers know whether they’re doing this right or not, can’t understand how Kristin can create a dance with such variability.

As rehearsal goes on my confusion alternately dims and grows. Some sections have entirely set choreography. Of course I don’t know how this choreography came about—it’s strenuous, inorganic stuff mostly, with a lot of awkward grasps and tricky timing—but still I feel on firmer ground here, slightly firmer ground. I’ve seen Hijack’s work before and I never felt confused. I wouldn’t say I knew “what was going on,” but that never seemed to be the point. I was fascinated; I felt something and I felt it clearly, even if I couldn’t name it. But now I’m writing about the work; now I have to be able to name it. And I can’t.

“Oh, sorry,” Morgan mutters as she and Arwen collide. “Oh my god, I had such dyslexia about spacing,” Arwen exclaims when the run’s over. She has a high, sweet voice, as if she’s going to offer you ice cream. It’s been a while since they’ve run this piece and they’re all talking about how they learn, how they process. “That’s a part of how I learn,” Morgan says. She’s been in dance for what, twenty years, but she’s talking about this as if it were a recent discovery. “I do it well and then it all falls apart.” They all take this conversation seriously. It’s as if the process determines the product, is a valid part of the make-up of the product, rather than just what you do to get there.

I try to sort out the dance values in front of me. “There is a right and wrong, and you can fuck up—but having a sense of humor about it is right,” Kristin says to the dancers. I don’t know what wrong would look like. Maybe it would have to do with a failure of motivation. They’re all fanatic about motivation, how they feel and how that becomes movement.

Like the rehearsal itself, Kristin’s comments are strange to me. “It’s nice what that will do to your bodies,” she says. Later: “I love that you all are not censoring the option of sometimes being a body.” I don’t know what she means. I get the feeling she’s choreographing in a junction, an interstice I haven’t thought about before.

Kristin threatens to call me later because “hardly anyone has seen this.” Luckily she doesn’t know my phone number. I haven’t been in the critical frame at all. I’ve been thinking hard, but not about that.

2. The human element: Hijack directing “Border Town” rehearsal at the Heart of the Beast Ballroom

This is the work for which Hijack recently sent out a call optimistically asking for “a cast of thousands.” Well, there aren’t thousands: more like twenty-five. But a number like that, once set spiraling around the room, begins to assume the complexity of a thousand for my watching eye. They warm up by running, crashing into each other, falling down, getting up, running backwards. I see collisions and near misses; I see people jumping up like popcorn; I see some seeking, some avoiding; I see Wilder running through the horde, dressed in bright, birdlike maroon and orange; I see little communities forming and dissolving. Maybe this is what it’s like to be an astronomer, charting the motion of galaxies.

Van Loon gives the cast a simple command—run five times back and forth, decelerating constantly—and then tops it off with “and I’m not going to say go—I’m going to let you all try to start together.”

Simple as it is, this command produces something marvelous. The line of dancers sways as they start off, somebody in the middle running break-neck, somebody on the end stuttering late into motion; they hit the end, turn and run back, hit the other end, turn and trot back, dancers breaking through dancers with the chaos of waves; and then they’re walking the fourth lap, and then slowly, slowly creeping through the fifth lap, each one trying to match the snail’s pace of the next dancer over, vying to see who can shift most slowly, who can most articulately lift that dirty-soled foot from the floor. They take forever to reach that last wall, like Xeno’s paradox in motion.

It hits me: you couldn’t do this with robots. Wilder and Van Loon intentionally give the cast of thousands open-ended phrases, setting their cues to “when you think everyone’s there” and “when you’re ready”. Where robots would turn the whole thing into math, humans make a delicious hash of it, fraying the edges with their crazy diversity. I see a little further now into the improv that so puzzled me last time: improv is a human constant, and Hijack is interested in that, whatever the level of determination of the choreography. They’re almost more interested in seeing the moments of choice than they are in seeing the choices themselves, more interested in seeing humans try on motion than in seeing the motion itself. What Hijack’s choreography makes (among other things) is a setting for human behavior.

I email Van Loon my epiphany. She writes back about “that really alive and textured presence in the performers”. Yes: Hijack likes life. She says something else that catches my eye; discussing the ease and difficulty of choreographing large groups, she says it’s “easy because, shit, put a bunch of people in a room, have them walk across the floor, and it’s beautiful.”

3. Taxidermy, history, orange rinds, meaning, and the political: Van Loon and Scott Heron rehearsing Wilder’s “Speculum” at Spacespace

Kristin and I are the first ones at Spacespace this morning, and she tells me about the place’s history while she’s setting up. Once it was an alternative performing venue run by three local choreographers, but they could never get the funding to turn this downtown rental into a fully accessible theater, and eventually they let go of it. Hijack performed the last show here in 1998. Now it’s a photographer’s studio, but although he has clutter everywhere else, he doesn’t use the dance floor, and he lets Hijack rehearse here.

Arwen’s not here to direct the rehearsal of her work. In fact, there won’t be much of Arwen in this article, because she’s a very busy woman. She has a ten-month old baby girl to take care of. That would be enough to keep her moving, but in the week before the show, her partner and the show’s lighting designer, Heidi Eckwall, is in a car accident. She’s fine, but it’s the kind of fine you don’t want visited on you and yours anytime soon: broken bones, painkillers, blood thinners, weeks of doctors’ visits ahead. Arwen is a small, self-contained woman; she often seems like the quieter, less outgoing half of Hijack. But when she sits down to talk with you, it’s like having a lighthouse beam turned on your face. She’s intense. Right now, though, all her intensity is occupied.

In one corner, right next to the dance floor, a heap of objects lumps under a sheet of plastic; Kristin identifies them as deer heads. The drawers of a cabinet near me, she says, are full of dead birds, some fancy taxidermy and some “just dead birds.” The atmosphere of this place influenced Hijack’s dark 2005 work Fetish, she says. When they performed here in 1998, they drew a blue chalk line on the brick wall, promising Spacespace’s proprietors that the line would come out; it’s still here, blurry and ghostlike. Van Loon says she winces every time she sees it. She says she winces but she’s smiling. She likes this history.

Scott Heron shows up and he and Kristin start running through the piece. They keep mentioning props that don’t exist: mirror, oranges, fake rock. Meanwhile I’m noticing a ping-pong table, a broken mannequin. “Speculum” ends with two poses, distinctly portraiture, as if Arwen had found some old photographs and copied the stances. (Later I learn that these poses are from the painter Alice Neel’s work.) I pick up an idea of reuse, of making work from what’s around you. Thrift stories, hand me downs, history, the found object—I sense the political in this, especially when Scott Heron talks about the small performance space he runs in New Orleans, which uses the original soundboard from Patrick’s Cabaret. The line of human touch matters to Hijack. Perhaps this organizes some of the potential chaos of their work.

Kristin tells me how some of the current piece came about. She doesn’t know too much about its inner workings, since Arwen made it, and Kristin and Arwen are, for this concert, working apart and making duets for each other with other people. She knows that Arwen was interested in surveillance, self-consciousness, and the work of Sophie Calle. Like Sophie Calle, she’s made some of this work from arbitrary assignments.

For example, Kristin and Scott each have a “b phrase,” made of b-words turned into dance; Scott’s begins in box, busily befuddled, bourree backward, etc. Research-based assignments and word-based phrases are frequent elements of Hijack’s process. It’s a different way to create movement, Kristin says, than just going into the studio and—she throws her arms into the air in a pretty, goofy pose. Now I have a little insight into the choreography I saw in “Johnny Weir”: those steps aren’t the physical manifestation of emotion. At least not directly, because everything human ends up being emotional, however it started out; I learned this lesson in my first two Hijack observations. What this process does is allow space for slippage and interpretation, those very human activities, rather than declaring the movement, determining its course and meaning from the start. These steps are the found objects of dance—and now I make a connection with the props, the sense of history. Is the composition process a political choice? The answer wells up: of course. It all is. And Hijack’s aware of that.

Now Kristin tells me what she sees in “Speculum.” There’s a moment when she cuts up some oranges, “washes” herself with them, and tosses the squeezed-out halves over her shoulder. Then Scott picks up each orange, circles its location in chalk as if it had been a precious body, and creates a tiny dance in the chalk circle. He piles the oranges into a sculpture, then lies down and makes a dance the height of the sculpture. Finally, Kristin finds the sculpture and imitates it. When she imitates the sculpture, she’s so into it that her hands shake with tension. She speaks about this part poetically: “All of these false narratives were created from the detritus” of the original orange-washing, she says. False narratives? Yet her shining eyes tell me she thinks it’s beautiful, this meaning-making, even when it’s misguided.

Misguided—well, meaning-making is always that. It always has been (could someone please tell me, concisely, what the Mona Lisa means?), but lately even the pretense of saying what you mean has been ripped away (along with the pretense of believing what you say), and among the avant-garde now there’s a crisis masquerading as a joke, a lot of nervous laughter, over that departed ideal. If we can’t mean, if we can’t say or believe, what can we do? Perhaps this is why outsider art is so popular now: the avant-garde gets to vicariously enjoy conviction through those deluded outsiders. (I owe this idea to my husband, Jay Orff.) But Hijack cuts this knot by making dances that depend on false narratives, their own and the audience’s, dances that invoke and portray the helpless human meaning-making activity. Is this a solution or just a clever side-step? I can’t tell. But Kristin’s right. It’s a beautiful thing to see.

4. Traces: last rehearsals at the Southern Theater

In an email, Kristin lays out some of the initial impulses behind “Johnny Weir.” (You’d think Johnny Weir would be the inspiration. Actually, he’s behind Kristin’s other piece, which was titled “Johnny Weir” until very recently, when Kristin switched the two titles.) She wanted to highlight focus by spinning the body, she wanted to work with physical manipulation, she knew she wanted the music (the crazy little songs of local duo Lady Hard-On). “I wanted to make a dance that was unapologetically dance. I wanted to make a dance of many parts that was a cohesive whole. I researched the baroque/rococo. Order next to chaos. The two spilling into each other. Pattern. Rick rack. Embroidery. . .”

Do I see all this? Yes and no. I see focus, but I also see the dancers’ wild improvisations, and I see my own projected meanings. It doesn’t particularly matter. As Kristin points out, the initial impulse is just that, and what finally shows up on stage is something else. Plenty of work and thought goes into that initial impulse, but then Hijack gives it permission to be something else; purpose turns into a found object.

Watching Arwen’s “In which Ruthie, Iris, and Betty Ann,” I watch myself make meaning out of the dance. I know I’m wrong—Kristin is not a mother and Naomi Joy is not her teenage daughter struggling to get away but continually falling back—yet I still enjoy that connection as it flickers across my mind. And then there are other moments when I feel sure I’m not mistaken, these sad, almost elegiac moments that crop up in every Hijack piece: Naomi Joy facing the audience, looking directly out, while her left hand swings slowly around her body, palm up. Or Kristin holding a crumpled Naomi but looking away from her, raising her hands and gaze for a moment as if praying. The story I make here—that she’s praying—is a false narrative, but it’s the garb, let’s say, for something true. Whatever we’ve discovered lately about meaning, the body is still a stronghold for it. No wonder Hijack fearlessly pushes into meaninglessness and chaos; they know that human emotion will always arise again from time and the body, and not arbitrarily.