The Most Non-traditional Review: An Experiment by Ashley Horn & Lydia Hance

This is a story about the most surreal experience I’ve ever had. It may read like a novel by Haruki Murakami or like some modern Alice in Wonderland in which Alice is 33 years old and drives a Subaru. But this story isn’t fiction. It happened to me on Friday, August 18th at Frame Dance. My name is Ashley, not Alice. I’m 33 years old. I drive a Subaru.

The actual beginnings of this experience started weeks prior when Mollie Haven Miller, Executive Director of Dance Source Houston, emailed me with a “non-traditional review request.” Like all writing requests I receive from Mollie, it opened with a warm greeting followed by the details of the purposed assignment. Since Mollie knows I don’t usually accept reviews and prefer to write previews for the Dance DiSH, it was clear she deemed this one unorthodox enough to be of interest. Here’s a very brief synopsis of the email I received:

(*To make things even more confusing in an already confusing story, I must point out that there are two Ashleys involved— A Tale of Two Ashleys, if you will.)

Hey Ashley,
I hope you’re staying cool and hydrated these days! …non-traditional review request…  Ashley Horn is collaborating with Lydia Hance… August 18-20 at Frame Dance’s studio… They’re intentionally keeping a lot of mystery around the process, which does make this a little tricky.

And then Mollie included a blurb she previously received from Ashley Horn who I’ve known of for years as a multifaceted artist and costume designer in the Houston dance community. The information was intentionally vague, but included the key points that she and Lydia Hance, Founder and Director of Frame Dance Productions, were experimenting in their new project. Ashley Horn obscurely explained:

“…we are trying to experiment with shifting the audience internalizing and reflecting process into priority over a performative focus with the performers’ experience.”

Now, this is when I’m going to be painfully honest, and hopefully my MFA in Dance won’t be stripped from me. I had no clue what that meant. But also, my understanding or decoding didn’t really feel like the point. I easily bought into the vagueness. Ashley Horn went on:

“With that (obtuse statement) in mind, do you think it would be possible to have a reviewer write about the show who is a dancer and would actually participate…as a performer and write about that experience? It would be the same commitment as a performer (2 hours in the space and getting some mail) and we would supplement their writing fee with the same payment the other dancers receive.”

The email concluded with Mollie asking if I was “interested / available” and if I had any questions. Did I have any questions? Well, as someone who related to a character in HBO’s Succession describing herself as “pathologically incurious,” I didn’t. I didn’t have any questions. Maybe that is something I should feel concerned about or ashamed of, on a personal level, but that is for another day, another piece of writing. I responded with: 

“Hi Mollie,

This sounds very interesting and outside the box.
I’m up for it!

Thank you,

For this “non-traditional review” to be readable, I’m going to gloss over a few details that led up to August 18th. The main takeaways during this period are 1.) I was supposed to receive mail to my home address from Ashley and Lydia but didn’t. 2.) I was instructed to post things on social media related to the undelivered mail but couldn’t. 3.) Ashley and Lydia started referring to me by the street’s name on which I live. 4.) They organized me and my presumed fellow participants into “flocks.”  5.) They began referring to themselves as “The Ornithologists.” (Ornithologist: noun. A person who studies birds.)

I was also given an arrival time, was told to wear black undergarments, don shoes for dancing on “uneven terrain,” have my hair “pulled back but messy,” bring a shoe box, and they emailed me a photo of a postcard, presumably the one I was supposed to receive from USPS:

Right. Let’s pause for reflection. At this point, I ask that you humor me; really consider putting yourself in my position. With all these ambiguous details and requests, what are your assumptions? What would be your assumed part in this experiment?

Having consumed untraditional art and immersive dance before, I made a lot of automatic assumptions. I expected to be minimally involved–an integrated human set piece perhaps. Maybe I’d be asked to do something or say something or hold something. Maybe they were going to dress me up in a bird costume or put me in a cage with feathers in my hair for an hour. I didn’t spend much time constructing possibilities (“pathologically incurious”) so when my assumptions proved completely wrong, I was propelled into the deepest level of confusion.

When I arrived at Frame Dance Studios the night of the experiment, I was greeted by Ashley and Lydia, The Ornithologists. The space had a cool, unpolished rawness to it—not hiding the clearly ongoing renovations. There were wooden scraps, paint cans, and a ladder on the perimeter of the main room. The floor was covered in an even layer of newspaper. Upon entering, I recognized familiar faces from the Houston dance community. There were 5 dancers silently warming up while wearing black undergarments. With knowing grins on their faces, The Ornithologists handed me a paper with type-written instructions and requested that the “dancers not speak to each other.”

Realization: “Oh, *expletive*! Am I dancing in this?”

As would become a theme for the evening, I was internally freaking out.  Is everyone as confused as I am? Did they know they would be full-on dancing tonight? I couldn’t ask. I got to work on the choreography assignment. Next, costumes were distributed–solid-colored jumpsuits for each of us. Mine was crimson red. Once showtime was near, The Ornithologists corralled us, now six dancers, in a make-shift backstage area. It was then I noticed another room that appeared to be a second performance space. Counteracting the unfinished appearance of the main room, this smaller one was intricately designed. Through the view from backstage, I could make out a large nest constructed of newspaper—large enough to stand inside of. Strung lights provided an inviting glow. The audience began to trickle in.

What proceeded from here was an evening-length improvised dance and music performance guided by Ashley Horn and Lydia Hance. Throughout the show, us performers were supplied with periodic instructions printed on paper delivered by The Ornithologists in tiny, folded envelopes. An echo of the pre-show mail?

We interpreted local maps in our bodies. We became moving installations with string and paper cranes attached to our costumes. We crafted flight patterns. We followed a spotlight. At about ¾ of the way through the show, as we were flying to a vintage tune, The Ornithologists began cueing dancers to exit the stage by calling their designated pseudonyms one at a time. Everyone continued to improvise until it was their time to exit. Eventually I was left dancing a playful turned confrontational duet with a fellow dancer. His name was called to exit. I was the last one left.

For the briefest moment, my mind turned to fear. The fear felt primal. All my incorrect assumptions about this night came to a head. I didn’t know I would be dancing. Not only was I dancing, but I was now dancing alone…in front of an audience of real people…who were watching me. Like a switch, I turned off the fear. Nope. Don’t do that. Decades of experience turned on, and I began making choices. I wadded newspaper into balls and threw them, first in a blasé fashion. I repeated the action, altering the intention, pace, and emotion. It became unexpectedly emotional from a visceral source. I hadn’t visited this internal place in front of an audience in such a long time. The solo went where it wanted to go.

Another realization: This was my first time performing dance for a formal audience in a decade.

Ask a dancer and they’ve likely had this classic nightmare: You find yourself moments away from performing, costume on. The location is likely connected to your dance past. For me, it has been my high school’s football field where I kicked and smiled for years. Of course, you’re positioned front and center, despite having somehow missed every single rehearsal. (Interesting that your team’s director didn’t cut you from the dance…) You don’t know the choreography. Not a single count of movement. Panic, isolation, and horror ensue. You wake up before the music begins.

My experience on August 18th at Frame Dance Studios had all the markings of this nightmare. Luckily, this surreal, dream-like evening turned out to be invigorating. It was the artist’s equivalent of skydiving or some other adrenaline-inducing activity. I felt lost, boundless, and simultaneously completely attuned and grounded by my experience. My mind would race and then calm, race and then calm. The automatic ability to do took over. Observe. React. Listen.

The performance ended with our ensemble assembling a nest made of all the materials we could compile. We fit our bodies into tight spaces between the wooden scraps, paint cans, ladder, newspaper, and shoe boxes. The lights faded, and the audience applauded. I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t help but laugh. The dancers guided each other to stand, holding hands. I led the bow from the center of the line. I laughed some more. I had emerged from the dream.

My brother was my first phone call on the drive home (in my Subaru); the need to share with someone, anyone was fervent. I stumbled over words, recalling details as I told the story. “I led the bow!” I cackled with laughter. Words like “trippy” were used unironically. “That’s insane,” he kept repeating. “That’s insane.” It was.

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2 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Kathryn Goodfellow says:

    Wow! I am blown away by what you experienced and your brilliant accounting of it start to finish. Thank you.

  2. duncan says:

    What a wonderful review. The performance is so vividly described, the tension is palpable. For anyone who’s had the spotlight on them, this dream-like sequence of events is a vicarious telling of that feeling of pressure — and, needless to say, rising to the occasion.

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