August 27, 2017 (Sunday)

by Yule Heibel on August 26, 2018

Yesterday evening we dropped in on Sarah Slifer Swift’s opening reception for her new arts / dance space, MAGMA (which stands for Movement Arts Gloucester Massachusetts). It’s on the top floor of a 19th-century building that’s no longer in its glory days (and, from the evidence, suffered neglect and abuse during the various economic downturns which have plagued the region). MAGMA’s main element is a huge former ballroom under a vast, domed ceiling, a perfect space for dance performances and classes.

What actually made the building financially viable again – aside from several businesses at street level (cafe, pottery studio, etc.) – was that cell phone companies needed to rent the roof for their towers and relays. The revenue from renting out the roof meant the owner could stop fantasizing about plans to carve up the space into condos (which would have been a nightmare to pull off anyway), and continue instead with just not using the interiors, especially that ballroom. Until Sarah came along.

I knew or at least recognized quite a few of the people at the reception – dancers from Floating Lotus, as well as artists from Matthew Swift’s Trident Gallery. While a fair number of people arrived, the ballroom continued to seem almost empty, a testimony to the space’s vastness. I noticed that many people preferred to bunch up in the two anterooms, rather than breach the ballroom and experience its paradoxical ability to induce feelings of solitude. But Sarah will be able to fill the space with performers and audiences, or leverage that solitude as part of the artistic message. In a way, however, the high ceiling makes it nearly impossible to fill the space because you can’t put people up there. Projections, perhaps. But I would play with the distinction(s) between the floor and the vast “aboveness,” that unoccupy-able space above.

Meanwhile, a few people, including the painter Susan Erony, began to sit on the floor, eschewing the chairs; this is what I actually wanted to write about. I recall seeing Erony and several men, all in their sixties, maybe one or two in their fifties, but all “older” folks, sitting – occupying – on the floor in a small corner of the ballroom. And this morning I thought of this and of how it reminded me of children and teens. When we’re little or still very young, we naturally touch the floor, and as we grow older it’s kind of socialized out of us. We use intermediaries – chairs, for example – or we stand. At the reception, at least 98% of the attendees remained standing. Only this tiny subset of adults chose to occupy the floor.

I was thinking about this in terms of our relationship with one another. The floor-occupiers were kibbutzing, conversing if not not intensely then at least intentedly, if I may invent a word. Something tugged at me about how that sort of intentionality – exploratory, earnest, pleasure-seeking – is typically absent from so much of adult life. I was moved by memories of experiencing it myself as a teenager. I wondered about who remains standing and who claims his or her ground (literally) by sprawling all over it. No, wait. Sprawling is the wrong word entirely. It’s actually a question of making more than just soles-of-feet contact, it’s a question of claiming the ground with the whole body, a body that’s then in horizontal, not just vertical, proximity to other bodies… We give up some kind of distance when we lounge on the floor. I also wondered how a generation raised on smartphones might miss out on that nest-warmth. And how wounded people are not likely to floor-sit, either.

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