By Annie Moye, contributor
“I felt like I’d never danced before,” says movement artist Mech Tunstall of her first experiences with gloATL in July of 2016, despite having worked in multiple dance companies previously. “I had danced, but I didn’t know what dance or movement was,” she continues. “It’s wild and nerve-wracking if you feel like you know how to do something, then you don’t.”
If you visit the High Museum of Art’s Cousins Gallery from now until September 8 during gloATL’s Supple Means of Connection residency (and you should), you might experience the same kind of upending of your expectations that Tunstall describes. And like Tunstall, you might discover that you’ve come to redefine the entire field of dance and movement art.
Coming upon a glo activation, as their “performances” (a word the group avoids) are called, can be a disorienting experience. There is no stage and no separation between artists and audience. There is no front view or back; all vantage points are valid. Many of the movements don’t appear graceful, as you might anticipate from dance, and some even seem awkward or unnatural. Suddenly, however, what seems like chaos merges into elegant synchronicity. The fourth wall has been broken, and now we’re in a new universe of possibility. In a sense, too, it feels like the movement artists are discovering the moves as they go along, and perhaps that is because, in a way, they are. That’s not to say that what they are doing is improvised, however. Quite the opposite. All of the “systems” the movement artists “mix,” to use their terms, are highly choreographed and practiced before they are introduced to the public. What, then, gives these activations that distinct air of freshness, uniqueness, and unpredictability?
gloATL mastermind and choreographer (and the High Museum’s first-ever choreographer-in-residence), Lauri Stallings, has an inimitable philosophy and work ethic behind her vision for the dance group she founded ten years ago this summer. Part of that vision is access: who has it and who doesn’t. Interestingly, glo’s first public performance was on the front lawn of the High Museum, and Stallings is flipping the script on that original activation in 2009 for the one she has the movement artists practicing at the High today. As artist supporter, Rick Sockwell, notes, “In 2009, they were luring people out of Woodruff and onto the street; now they’re luring people off the street and into Woodruff’s campus.” True to Stallings’s vision of connecting with underserved communities through her work and platform, she is reimagining the museum’s target market, offering an invitation to anyone outside to join the group free of charge inside the museum’s walls.
And Supple Means of Connection does, indeed, transform the typical idea of what a museum experience can or should be. For instance, Stallings had most of the temporary gallery walls removed or repositioned to open up the space, and she insisted on opening the gallery windows to let in natural light. She built a grassy mound in the middle of the second room, arranged large limbs from projects done across the state into special installations, and provided her field recordings of bird songs to be played as a kind of soundtrack for the activations. A minimalist mural on one wall offers the words of writer Pearl Cleage: “A bird flies into the room./ No! A bird flies into this room./ No! A woman flies into this room./ No! A tribe of free women flies into this room.” She has also invited members of the larger Atlanta community, ranging in age from nine to eighty-nine, to serve as guest movement artists. On opening night, for instance, legendary Atlanta photographer and arts advocate Lucinda Bunnen reclined in a chair in the center of the gallery, performing her own activation from a seated position as she looked out on the passing visitors. To be sure, Lauri is blurring the line in this residency between outdoors and indoors; institutions like museums and the beauty of the natural world; practiced movement artists and unpracticed enthusiasts; expectation and reality; high and self-taught art.
Suggesting new possibilities for art is also part of Stallings’s signature Traveling Show, in which she and the movement artists immerse themselves in rural communities (mostly) in Georgia (Walker County, Rabun County, and Meriwether County, to name a few), connect with community members and stakeholders, and devise a plan of volunteer work and arts education. This isn’t about “educated” artists swooping into needy communities and “saving” the locals, however. This is about real community building and collaboration.
It was during one of their recent Traveling Shows that Stallings and the movement artists were in process in preparation for the High residency. Thanks to a grant from the Georgia Council for the Arts, Stallings and her company completed a residency at the art environment known as Pasaquan, in rural Marion County, Georgia. Created by Eddie Owens Martin, or St. EOM, as he later called himself, Pasaquan provided an inspiring backdrop for gloATL during the week of Memorial Day 2019, with its pagodas, decorated walls, portraits of gender-bending aliens, and Martin’s recreation of symbols from seemingly all the world’s religions.
Over the course of four days, the movement artists showed great dedication to the work ethic that Stallings hopes to instill in her students as they battled intense heat, from sun up to sun down, while practicing new movements on Pasaquan’s grounds and volunteering at local sites. They also activated the nearby Stewart County square, a particularly meaningful collaboration in honor of El Refugio, a non-profit located in Lumpkin, Georgia, that houses families and friends who have loved ones being held in Stewart Detention Center, one of the nation’s largest immigration facilities. This activation illustrated perfectly Stallings’s use of her platform to bring attention to pressing issues of social justice, and she hopes to work with El Refugio again in the future.
The glo process, as more than one movement artist explained, is a process. “It’s like an unlearning of what you were taught about dance,” reflects movement artist PhaeMonae Brooks. With traditional technique, Tunstall adds, “there’s a ‘supposed to,’” but with glo, “there are all these choices and possibilities that I didn’t know were there.” She continues, “With [traditional] choreography, typically, you need to understand everything and know how things are going to pan out, but glo is challenging because everything is up in the air when it comes to moving, where we’ll go, etc.” “It’s a learning, an unending learning,” muses Tunstall. “There’s always questioning; there’s always learning,” she adds. She continues, “Process isn’t just learning something new; it’s always in process, always working.” Several movement artists even described this as being part of the letting go of knowing how things will turn out since, as Tunstall notes, “It’s not just coming from you; there are other things happening.” In that way, being a glo movement artist is about accepting mystery and allowing things to influence what happens in any given activation.
For Tunstall, “Lauri introduced me to things I’d never questioned before; she invites you to experiment, to explore.” In that sense, Stallings is asking movement artists to focus on their bodies, the environment, and their emotions in ways that dancers doing more traditional work are encouraged to ignore. Movement artist MJ Pennington describes the process as a “beautiful continuum” with “no end and no beginning.” “It’s continuously evolving, shifting,” she reflects. Tunstall adds that they “allow things to influence what’s happening and movements get changed and reshaped.” Pennington even says the process “feels sacred” to the movement artists, and she likens it to a ritual, one for which they have to prepare, mentally and physically.
To be sure, there’s something metaphysical about glo activations. The practice transcends the physical body and depends upon the mental and emotional intelligence of the movement artists to succeed. And it does. As Sockwell reflects, “The mental acumen that it takes to remember all of the technical things they are doing while making it look like they are still discovering blows me away!” He adds, “[The movement artists] have an air about them,” Indeed, during activations the artists seem to be in a trance, perhaps meditating over Stallings’s singular choreography. Their glazed-over eyes see right past you, or perhaps through you. They might dash right by you, and then they engage you. In that way, too, just as Tunstall suggested, the audience is part of the activation itself; an audience member’s mere presence in a particular space shifts the activation in such a way that no activation is the same as another. “It’s so much more than dancers doing moves,” adds Sockwell. “There’s so much more going on mentally — that’s where the art is.” He continues, “All of it comes from process. All of it started as a raw idea, and it becomes this long stream of process.”
Central to the overarching process of gloATL is the special bond among the movement artists themselves, a bond many compare to a family. “I can feel their [the other movement artists] support and belief in me sometimes more than I believe in myself,” Tunstall muses. The relationship between movement artists, therefore, informs each activation as well. Many describe reading each other’s energies when deciding non-verbally how and whom to approach during “Marx” systems, an occasion when the movement artists either collectively or individually approach members of the audience and sometimes deliver a “relational,” such as “Be love” or “It’s going to be ok.” “We’re all so different and comfortable with who we are,” Tunstall relates. “Everybody is so open, and we immediately felt close; from day one it felt like I had known them and that we had journeyed together.” She adds, “I miss them when I’m travelling out of town!”
The trust in Stallings and her unique vision is also universal. After a moment of reflection, Penninton expresses that Lauri “is of magic. She is brave.” “Courage” is a word that Sockwell uses to describe Stallings’s approach, but for him, it goes beyond simply having the bravery or courage to do what Stallings does. He continues, “It’s more of a shining a light on things that need to be illuminated. She’s very good at highlighting problems, situations, or underused spaces, and showing, ‘we can do better.’” He concludes, “It’s a relentless optimism!” Optimism in the face of an imperfect world, one might say, is hard to come by these days, but that seems only to reinforce the public’s need for the kind of work that Stallings is producing.
Tunstall takes this notion one step further:
[A]s long as we keep trying, there is always hope. And when I think of Lauri, I think of hope. She is hope. Through art and what she does, there’s a hope about it. When I see my kid, I think of hope, and with all that’s going on in the world, (Stallings) doesn’t stop. She has a vision.
Sharing in the realization of Stallings’s vision helps everyone involved in gloATL feel that they are combining their interests in the arts with practical, far-reaching social activism, which in turn gives them a sense of doing meaningful work that makes a difference in our communities and our world.
In Supple Means of Connection at the High, Stallings wants above all to transform the way we see each other as human beings. Tunstall describes her own reflections on the issue: “I find it interesting that people can look at art and be curious, but they don’t find anything curious about other people.” She continues, “Maybe seeing us as art will inspire people to look at other strangers, too.” Indeed, when you first enter the Cousins Gallery, you are greeted by giant neon signs that read, “Beautiful Stranger Thank You For Coming,” in Stallings’s own handwriting. What comes next depends on the particular time you stumble upon gloATL’s activation process, and as the movement artists make clear, it is part of a joyous process that is always evolving.
As Pennington notes, Stallings frequently tells the movement artists to “Stay curious; stay hungry; and listen, listen, listen!” She encourages us, too, to take our time in the High Museum’s Cousins Gallery, spend a few moments meditating over Stallings’s choreography, enjoy the movement artists’ precise execution, and as one of glo’s signs reads, “Please take as much energy as you need.”