Bringing layers of meaning to Cloven Kingdom

November 29, 2010

Pajamas or flip-flops are not worn to palatial dinners, nor are prom dresses and patent leather shoes the attire of choice for an afternoon at the beach. As a civilized society, the clothes we wear dictate the kind of comportment one should have for the occasion-casual clothing for a casual atmosphere, formal attire for the formal function. Wearing the wrong clothes at the wrong time can be the most embarrassing faux pas because it shows a disregard for societal rules. And without society's rules, what else would separate us from the animals?

This must have been the question Paul Taylor posed to himself in 1976 when he created his opus Cloven Kingdom. The modern dance work opens with the Baroque music of Arcangelo Corelli as men in tuxedos and woman in floor-length gowns take the stage. Set in what the Paul Taylor Dance Company calls a "cotillion ball," the costumes fit perfectly in such a festive, party atmosphere. Dresses and suits are what people are expected to wear at such events.  But as the music changes from Baroque to a more percussive modern style, the party guests' composure drops as the men seemingly morph into our Cro-Magnon ancestors, and the women mime sowing seed and giving birth like the fertility goddesses from a more primitive past. Suddenly these costumes don't fit the occasion anymore, but rather feel like a thin sheath barely concealing humanity's base and animal tendencies.

"The costume [provides] a third or fourth of the meaning," said Francisco Graciano, a dancer in the Paul Taylor Dance Company, during a Skype interview in which he was asked about the role of costumes in a dance like Cloven Kingdom.

In the real world, the only time a man is seen in a tuxedo and lying on the floor is if he is drunk or dead. But the male dancers featured in Cloven Kingdom crawl, slump and roll-tailcoats and all-across the stage. With this costume choice, Taylor contrasts our preconceived notions of how a man in a tuxedo should act with the animalistic tendencies present in human nature. Faces grimacing, with elbows and knees bent at sharp angles, the men turn positively primeval as a pulsating, discordant drumbeat overtakes the previous Baroque music. Their feats of strength are reminiscent of totemic rituals and tribal dances-very earthy and purposeful. 

During his first dress rehearsal for Cloven Kingdom, Graciano said his first thought about the choreography was, "How am I supposed to do that in this monkey suit?" Over time, Graciano explained, he learned how the assumptions people have about tuxedos bring a new meaning to the animalistic dance.

"You have to find the connection between the movement and the costume that you're wearing," Graciano said. Throughout the dance, the women wear enormous mirrored headdresses that constantly reflect back onto the audience, as if to include the spectators in their jarring return to nature. It may seem barbaric, but underneath the thin veneer of modern civilization, the human animal waits just below the surface. "We wear these façades, but we're animals," Graciano said. "Just like the rest of the kingdom."

Inspired by the rich symbolism of the costumes for Cloven Kingdom, I decided to convey just how spectacular this show will be. Using ribbons, mirrors, crowns and a lot of hot glue, I created 18 ornamental Cloven Kingdom-inspired artifacts, which I strategically placed around campus. These pieces are designed to catch the eye of passers-by with the glint and dazzle of mirrors and glitter, just as the dancers' mirrored headdresses do.

Placed in the hallowed halls of an academic campus, these shiny artifacts seem as out-of-place at a university as Taylor's dancers writhing on the floor in gowns and tuxedos. Like the dancers, my guerrilla-marketing technique plays with the preconceived notions people have about certain objects. These pieces are sure to entice some Gophers to learn more about Paul Taylor and to partake in the performance experience.

-Cristeta Boarini is a junior studying journalism and film studies at the University of Minnesota. She wrote this post, and created her guerilla-marketing project, as a student in "Covering the Arts: New Media, New Paradigms from Criticism to Communications."