Linda Austin is “a head of time” in new, ongoing work.
Don’t think too much. About the past, or what the bundles of colorful extension cords on the floor mean, or how flexible you’ll be at age 62. Don’t ask if you’ll even make it to 62.
At “A head of time” you’ll be transported into another’s timeline. Your timeline exists only as a projection appearing as images on a collage. Under the memories of your life peeling at the sides, Austin reveals envisioned-by-you life moments; it all peels off and nothing but a ticking clock — or just black — I’m not sure what the back drop is to all of this.
Ok, this is weird. But each time I leave the little universe sealed in the dance studio off SE Foster where traffic can still be heard, inside Performance Works NW, I feel like I’ve been poured back into my body while lifting from the seat. In the most subtle, unsensational way — but still not cerebral — it’s an out of body experience.
“A head of time,” which I witnessed on Friday, was originally performed in 2012 with an ensemble of well-known names from Portland’s experimental dance community, such as Lucy Yim and Danielle Ross. However, the solo performance spread out on the floor, like it was only meant for her, alone on stage, in front of the audience of about 35 people, her 62-year-old singular figure establishing a timeline, a story we will all follow, celebrate and mourn.
It’s described as “tragicomic” from the start. Agony, absurdity and humor breathe together in Austin’s spoken words. Turning in small circles, she begins the night listing aloud random criteria: “For anyone who has ever died in an act of violence…for anyone who has ever gotten up in the middle of the night and on the way to the bathroom to pee in the dark, whispered aloud, I’m alive…for anyone who has ran, figuratively or literally, to a cliff and jumped off.” Off the wall, random, excluding no one.
This time machine idea would be awesome if instead of transporting, it froze the present and explained itself.
From here, Austin moves with a few props to the sounds of Seth Nehil. She wears coiled extension cords, then unravels them as she plugs them into one another. She unfolds blankets, hangs them, wears them. She takes a hammer to a balloon. In this context of loss — the program dedicates the performance to four people close to Austin who have all passed in the last decade — she seems reliant to these objects, they are important to her. From the perspective of an audience member, she seems to enjoy how they feel, how the wires sound when they hit the floor, how she can arrange her movement around them — how there is something to arrange for. The choreography is determined by the placement of these objects, on her or in her space.
At first, it felt like a treatment for nostalgia, the objects as part of a game of show and tell or something to bring us back somewhere familiar. Maybe grief is easier to handle when we convince ourselves to be nostalgic instead. There is a sweet component to nostalgia usually, it can be wrangled and tossed. I don’t think grief handles this way, or even has a handle or a way to grab onto it.
Nehil’s background helps cycle the tone from lighthearted to somber. There are recordings of a sports game, crowd cheers and the familiar sounds of sneakers squeaking on a court faded out by Nehil’s quietly ominous noise. A familair pop song, “If You Leave Me Now” by Chicago, comes on twice, and each time it’s a jarring but pleasant arrival, like the scene has been unmuted.
Austin builds a time machine with paper and two stools. The current date is written in water on paper. It fades away, slowly, unevenly. She is preparing for time, trying to get in some position: ahead of it, realizing she’s behind, she’s experiencing loss by the relentless movement of it. This time machine idea would be awesome if instead of transporting, it froze the present and explained itself.
I’ve seen two shows at PWNW. And I’ve seen Austin at most of the performances I’ve been to, supporting the dancers who’ve also performed at PWNW. Ever since a friend pointed her out, she is hard to miss. On a PICA bus tour I went on, she cameod on a street corner in the Pearl to speak about the Time-Based Arts Festival experience she remembered a decade ago. But last night was the first time I had ever seen her perform.
Austin is an all-around performance artist: dancer, speaker, humorist. She traveled her timeline, revisiting each age on the way, embodying the aimlessness, joy and sadness of a life.
“Think about your life, how it’s going to end. Think about the play, wait for it to start, wait for it to end. When does life begin, when does it end?” She asks.
And yet, it wasn’t about death. At least not in the way that feels like the end.