Lo Lo is an opulent work that examines the strange flames of inspiration, iconography, myth, and environment. This project was made possible by the Fulcrum Fund--a grant program of 516 Arts & the Andy Warhol Foundation.
Allie Hankins, Billy Joe Miller and Lo Lo
By David Leigh
At the end of spring, I found myself driving to Albuquerque’s Los Poblanos Open Space to see a performance by artist Billy Joe Miller and his collaborator dancer/choreographer Allie Hankins. It was called Lo Lo. I left the dirt parking lot and crossed a small bridge. It was just before dusk, and the sun was slowly dropping over the west mesa. The fields were freshly irrigated, and a small rivulet of water ran under the bridge. I stood frozen for a minute, captivated by the flow of the water. In the distance, a few other people sauntered across their respective dusty paths toward a giant cottonwood tree standing at the edge of the open space.
If you want to blow your mind, watch the footage made in 1896 by the Lumière brothers of Loie Fuller’s DanseSerpentine. The film was hand colored, and over the forty-five second run time, the fabric of the dancer’s ultra-elaborate costume quickly changes from yellow to pink to green to blue with a seductive ombré effect that heightens the rhythm of the performance. Previously, in her own performances, Fuller had used complex, colored lighting arrangements, and the ever-shifting palette of the Lumière film was meant to approximate that. With each turn and recoloring, the movements are refreshed in a hypnotic, seemingly never-ending loop. The spectacle is completed as the dancer’s head is repeatedly obscured by the undulating patterns of her arms or when her head vanishes into the dark background. At those moments, all you see is a floating butterfly or exploding flower. It’s so sudden and credible, the transmogrification from dancing woman to an all-convincing otherness.
Here is the extent of the notes I took when I sat under the canopy of the cottonwood tree, waiting for Lo Lo to begin:
Giant Cottonwood tree—at sunset
BJM in red outfit—blankets & towels all over the ground
Sandias in the background
Newly irrigated fields—water running in the small canals
Richfield Orchard & Farms (?)
Los Poblanos Open Space
A Hawk and a Hacksaw playing
Ropes hanging down
People sitting on logs
And then I stopped writing. The performers had come out, and I was sucked into the unfolding spectacle before me—two capable and serious musicians and two capable and serious performers, in front of two dozen or so capable and serious audience members. Oh shit! I thought, this might be the real deal. So, I set my ballpoint pen and notebook in the dirt at my feet and gave over to it all.
Here it is. Always been. A strange flame. Inside, inside out.
Hankins and Miller drew inspiration from Loie Fuller’s life, choreography, costume, and lighting designs for Lo Lo. The shapes of the fabric, the dramatic lighting (mostly toward the end of the night), the exaggerated movements, are all threads tied back to Fuller’s sense of drama and transformation. And maybe I’m just ignorant or ill-informed, but I didn’t know any of this at the time. I was fresh on the heels of a meeting about the Fulcrum Fund and felt that on some level had infiltrated an art constituency of which I had previously not been part. I was the Russian spy embedded in a 1950s American neighborhood, looking for the root of Americanism or military launch codes, or, in this case, looking for something close to value and meaning in two people communicating directly to one another underneath a tree.
Instead of Fuller’s grand stage or elaborate silk costumes, though, Miller and Hankins performed in simple red and white outfits. Modest and bucolic, covered in dust, they unveiled their abstract drama in front of a veil of live music provided by two musicians—Heather Trost and Jeremy Barnes (A Hawk and a Hacksaw). Everything was simple and essential. Even the short title of the performance added to its specific visual and aural quality. The doubling of the word in your mouth and on paper. The rigidity of the ‘L’. The hole of the ‘O’.
In my head, spectacle is not about scale but about the suspension of time. It’s impact is overwhelming and awe-inspiring. Maybe it’s watching a field of oil derricks pump in the same rhythm, or maybe it’s watching 3 million fire ants bond together for survival after a flood. Spectacle is where the viewer stands dumbfounded in front of the beautifully uncanny.
While watching Lo Lo, I thought I knew what it meant when Miller and Hankins made dramatic arm motions toward one another. I knew what it meant when they were tied in a giant cat’s cradle of rope, pulling apart yet still held together. I think I knew what it meant when Barnes’ hammered dulcimer hit out into the night and coyotes called back to the musician (this actually happened). Or when an all-female choir chimed in with the chant of “Here it is. Always been. A strange flame. Inside, inside out.”
What it meant is that the persistent replacement of actuality with virtuality can numb us to the intensity of the people and the spaces around us. There are just too many ways not to pay attention. It meant that the self is enough. And that love is enough and that friends and nature are enough; as long as we pay attention to them.
And I say this as someone inured to the disappointment of the art experience over the past 10 or so years! Lo Lo was a fecund intersection of experiences, and even in its fleeting essence, that night, under a cottonwood tree, I wanted to sing with the chorus. After all, I had figured out the words: Here it is. Always been. A strange flame. Inside, inside out.
Performance by Allie Hankins and Billy Joe Miller
Live music by Heather Trost and Jeremy Barnes
Textile art by Colleen Davy
Video by Jesse Littlebird
David Leigh is an artist and educator living in Albuquerque. After receiving a BA in Art History from Arizona State University, he attended the University of New Mexico, where he received an MFA degree in Painting and Drawing. In 2004, he founded Donkey Gallery with Larry Bob Phillips and Sherlock Terry, where they showed work by local and national artists for nearly four years. Subsequently, he was director of the College of Santa Fe Fine Arts Gallery and co-founded Generator gallery with Ben Meisner in Albuquerque. As an educator, he has taught at UNM, Santa Fe University of Art and Design, and he was the Visual Arts Program Director of Working Classroom (2009-2011). Currently, he teaches art at Albuquerque High School. He has shown his own work nationally and internationally.
This article was commissioned by 516 ARTS and published in a catalog documenting the first two years of the Fulcrum Fund, a grant program of 516 ARTS that is part of the Regional Regranting Program of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
As part of our generative rituals for Lo Lo, we developed a song that we sang to each other each day as we began working. It was based on the two journal entries below--one written by Fuller and another written by 14 year old Gabrielle Sorere who would later become Fuller’s life partner.
“The mirror was placed just opposite the windows. The long yellow curtains were drawn and through them the sun shed into the room an amber light, which enveloped me completely and illumined my gown, giving a translucent effect. Golden reflections played in the folks of the sparkling silk, and in this light my body was vaguely revealed in shadowy contour. This was a moment of intense emotion. Unconsciously I realized that I was in the presence of a great discovery, one which was destined to open the path which I have since followed. Gently, almost religiously, I set the silk in motion, and I saw that I had obtained undulations of a character heretofore unknown. I had created a new dance. Why had I never thought of this before”?
A crackling flame in kindled. It turns, twists and glows . . . In the midst of the tumult, licked by torrent of foaming fire, a mask, also a strange flame, is outlined in the reddish air. The flames die into a single flame, which grows to immensity. You might think that human thought were rending itself in the darkness.