Aching Distances

Ali Robson’s performance response to Dancing with Tantalus in review By Jillian Groening
  • Ali Robson / Photo courtesy of Robson

It has been more than a year since dance artists have been able to experience skin-to-skin contact with collaborators. But this absence is now offering generative spaces for explorations of proximity and touch. 

Ali Robson’s performance response to the visual art exhibition Dancing with Tantalus considers what is cultivated through the dynamic proximities of bodies, surfaces and art objects in virtual space. Presented by the University of Manitoba School of Art Gallery, Dancing with Tantalus was curated by Lillian O’Brien Davis and featured the work of Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill, Katie Lyle and Ella Dawn McGeough. The works were on display at the Winnipeg campus from January 21 through March 13, and Robson’s performance took place in the final days of the exhibition. Livestreamed on March 11, and currently available on the school’s YouTube channel, the performance remains as a virtual choreography documenting a dance of proximity. 

By navigating thoughtful, measured movements across a corner area of the gallery, the 10-minute solo imparts a yearning for contact that is lulling yet vibratory, removed and yet grasping. Through the precise, minimal articulations of limbs clad in simple dark clothing, Robson invites proprioceptive experiences of touch and a heightened attunement to the sensations of air on skin, feet on ground and the weight of a shoulder against a wall. In a short amount of time, Robson sensorially maps the body in proximity to the objects and architectural parameters of the gallery space. What is revealed by this mapping is a resonating ache of the palimpsestic imprints remaining from past experiences of touch. 

In her exhibition essay for Dancing with Tantalus, titled Clean Hands, O’Brien Davis brings forth the concept of “infrathin,” which Marcel Duchamp conveys as “the warmth of a seat that has just been left,” she writes. O’Brien Davis accesses infrathin in the context of visualizing “the space in between where two things meet.” This charged space between matter is further illustrated through the Greek myth of Tantalus, who was punished for a crime by being “made to stand in a clear pool where water receded before he could drink, underneath trees laden with fruit that forever escaped his grasp,” writes O’Brien Davis. Looking to the resonances of touch as well as to the implications of colonial violence that the term “contact” carries, the visual artworks featured in Dancing with Tantalus explore touch and its absence through the manipulation of surfaces: “building up paint on canvas and then stripping it away, melting and reforming wax, or sewing together tender and delicate tobacco leaves.” 

Robson / Courtesy of the School of Art Gallery


Robson’s performance could be perceived as simulating the unfulfilled reaching of Tantalus. The result is an affective encounter that generates a sensation like infrathin. Robson was filmed from a distance with a stabilized camera, and while watching, I found myself reaching towards the spaces she created with her movements. Curled towards my screen, I clung to the sound of Robson’s skin against the smooth concrete floor and followed her weight against the gallery wall with my own body. In spite of the distance, I felt her movements in vivid spatial and tactile imaginings. As Liz Clayton Scofield writes, “Can we reimagine distance? Distance not as measurement, but… how far does it feel? Is a centimeter six feet or miles when you can’t hear a heartbeat?” How might performance audiences reorient towards notions of distance and proximity that allow for affective configurations virtually?

One moment of Robson’s performance that evokes clear inquiries around distance, touch and virtual spaces is when the artist circles a blue-painted moveable wall upon which is mounted a green painting, fuzzy and distorted through the camera lens. Her movements resemble the continuous crashing of waves, summoning a sense of forces that flow over and pull under. As Robson orbits behind the wall and out of sight, her shadow appears on the gallery wall, framed by a bright white light. The shadow is doubled and the overlapping forms loom over the gallery space. Not only do the shadow forms perform their own dance of (close) proximity,  the relationship between live performer and shadow performer is destabilized by the virtuality of the audience’s realm. For viewers, it is another moment of grasping towards something, of leaning in towards someone who is out of reach. 

Robson’s performance response to the Dancing with Tantalus exhibition asks how contact with surfaces, skin and shadows might inform how distance is perceived when watching performance in virtual spaces. By engaging with the palimpsestic qualities of touch, the work draws lines of connection through notions of distance that cause temporal and spatial boundaries to overflow.

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