“To Us At Twilight” is an installation and a solo performance, that explores a heritage of graveyards, bad blood, secrets and family loyalties. Generations of women in Pou's family walk the razor’s edge of madness under a veil of southern manners and genteel eccentricity.
Weaving the personal and the social, “To Us at Twilight…” evokes emotionally charged archetypes as it addresses issues of racism , sexism and the hopeful persistence of the human spirit.
A selection of reviews from five publications can be viewed on this page:
High Performance Magazine
Performance Art Magazine
Santa Barbara Independent
TO US AT TWILIGHT
High Performance Magazine
To Us At Twilight
By Jerri Allyn
“Why does a sudden constriction grip my chest…?” Pou asked. It’s not just because he opening was sticky and awkward. It’s because she conjured up“the wet, warm southern air that winds around (her) like an invisible vine,” accentuated by scattered white roses and swamp sounds scratching out over a child’s record player.
Pou’s previous works have been largely stunning, imagistic pieces that suffered only from “affected acting.” To Us At Twilight represented Pou’s development as a convincing performer.
In this beautiful, funny, dreamlike and haunting piece, Pou mixed a sparse movement/dance and gestures with storytelling to resurrect 30 black dresses. She gave them names and attitudes as she meandered through her Southern family graveyard introducing women from the last century.
A wonderful evocative hand dance said: under this history is buried a living, breathing, sensual girl body – a surviving, very much alive, artistic WOMAN who fled the south to define and make a life for herself. Under Pou’s fingertips these dresses danced imaginatively into sensual black snakes, cleverly became huge, then flighty, sickly and small again. All 30 humorously stamped the floor together, and even gave birth.
In a simple gesture, Pou lifted a floor length dress ceiling high to reveal a rippling circle that recalled a sea anemone gently rocking to an ocean tide as the only visible body part, her legs, rhythmically crossed the stage. As she turned, the rippling anemone suspended Pou’s upper body – a dramatic, surrealistic image that resounded deeply and spoke of the mind/body split.
So many women in our lives are driven ill or insane with the (still) restrictive cultural definition of crippling hypocrisy allotted them. Pou escaped and plucked from this legacy all the eccentric, creative determination she could find in the women left behind in her life.
Pou’s mother flew a plane, shot a gun, manufactured toy designs, hitchhiked West and moved to Mexico as an expatriate. Then she suddenly returned home to fulfill an expected role. We see a high-strung, dizzy, hysterical woman – pleading with her child to do the chores.
Pou’s great grandmother never learned to cook. She colorfully painted her house yearly, made gadgets that moved in the wind (often declaring that they fell from the sky), talked to the air sometimes, and made piles of painted rocks to keep her land from blowing away. “I was born the day my great grandmother died and I know we passed.”
For years Pou has explored women’s relationships, the sensuality beneath the surface of “woman as a sex object” and the power and self-knowledge in that sensuality. In To Us At Twilight, she also explored women’s power to create, to literally give birth and to destroy themselves and others: the sticky and awkward moments. These genealogical explorations are striking metaphors of women’s collective history.
Volume 19, Number 1
By Elizabeth Lide
ALYSON POU: TO US AT TWILIGHT
Arts Festival of Atlanta
King Plow Arts Center
Alyson Pou transformed the cavernous two-level gallery space at the King Plow Center into a place of dreams, stories, objects, movement, and tableaux, thoughtfully considering the architecture of the space to present her exquisite installation and performance, “To Us at Twilight.” Charles Olson wrote, “Whatever you have to say, leave the roots on, let them dangle and the dirt just to make clear/Where they came from.” By leaving the roots on and not hiding of what and where they came, Pou not only created a memorial to her own ancestry but a memorial to all women – their passions, sensuality, earthiness – the state of being connected to themselves and to generations of females before the confusion inflicted by social pressures. For three nights, the installation became an environment for her 30-minute solo performance, which Pou has previously performed at P.S. 122 and Artists’ Space in New York and the Contemporary Art Forum and New Langton Arts in California. The installation has evolved over several years, with new objects and dresses being introduced as each engagement and site specific work developed.
Although Pou has lived in New York for 14 years, she grew up in the South and, as she says in the beginning of the performance, “ (is) deeply of this place, possessed by it, and completely uncomfortable with the possession of it…Escape to return to escape again or maybe not, never really leaving behind the South, its sensual presence, yet never being able to fully express or understand it…And I have to seek the safety of Northern climates and temperament to slow down and look over my shoulder.”
Upon entering the space, the viewer was confronted with a barren and beautiful “field” of red clay, a sure signal of contradiction that this room was about the South. Pou covered the entire floor of the lower level of the gallery with Georgia clay – malleable, iron-filled, and reminiscent of blood – so that viewing of the objects placed in this space was done from a distance, from steps and a ramp that led to the upper level. No walking on this precious dirt. The railing that divides the upper and lower section of the gallery was completely covered with layers of long reddish brown synthetic hair that flowed like water onto the red clay, making a wall of hair, a mysterious boundary or divider of sorts to be crossed only after careful consideration. The focus of this organic combination was the earth – the dirt that Pou says she has to come back to, to walk on, and to smell. In this reddish brown glow, she placed white objects – dresses, a bed skirt, a glasses filled with milk.
A 20’ long antique white satin wedding gown was dramatically suspended from the ceiling, the train touching the red clay and enveloping and protecting a simple wooden chair on which were stacked layers of dripping honeycomb. When honeybees sting, they give their life for the survival of the species. The sensuous honeycomb under the dress sweetened the gown, a symbol of new beginnings, dreams, hopes and illusions of being a bride, and at the same time, flirted with exposing the truth about its making.
In Sweetbriar Woods in March, a simple white slip dress imbedded with leaves, their vines painted with blood and embroidery thread, hung on the whitewashed red clay brick wall. Nearby was the cotton bed skirt hung to reveal the hand-embroidered text “Thy woman’s Hair, my sister, all unshorn Float back – disheveled strength in agony – Elizabeth Barrett Browning.” A long braid of brown hair intertwined with corn roots hung above the bed skirt. On the third brick wall were mounted ten water goblets filled with milk. The mild separated quickly in the Georgia heat and continued to change for the duration of the installation. The ramp on the edge of the clay field brought the viewer up into the mail gallery space, stark in contrast to the warmth of the room of milk and honey.
Sixteen black dresses, accessories (gloves, pantyhose, metal coat hangers), and adornments (roots, hair, a chicken foot, rose petals, thorns, sticks, magnolia pods, rocks, lace) were hung in combination on the white walls. Each dress told a story. Here lay the family secrets, put out for all to see. Pou used the black dresses as the foundation to investigate and reveal women in her family. There was Lottie Gather Wilson, Great Aunt Jean, Emma Washington, Cousin Becki, Me, Cary and Frances.
The first piece on the wall was made of three black dresses woven together at the sleeves like paper dolls, all cut out at the same time, but taking on different sizes and styles, suggesting the rhythm created between generations of women – the passing of time and the passing along of family characteristics. Cousin Becki was represented by an antique dress covered with dried rose petals attached to the dress with straight pins. In Whispers, a see pos encased in a hand embroidered linen handkerchief was stretched over the belly of a white slip with an embroidery hoop. Accompanying text was Mary Oliver’s Whispers: “have you dared to count the months as they pass and the years/while you imagine pleasure/Shining like honey, locked in some secret tree?…” There was also a sense of humor in these dresses. The Breast Dress and Body Hair were a playful coming together of the basic black dress with organic materials. Pou’s elegant and sensuous combinations of materials – the truth dug up from the earth (organic) vs. the elements used to cover up (the fabricated) were indicative of what would be revealed in her performance.
Pou’s well-timed performance told stories: stories about women in her family; stories about the women represented by the black dresses on the walls; eccentric stories, funny stories, stories that made me and others around me teary-eyed. On a platform stage were 30 black dresses laid out, stretched on a grid, like specimens to stumble on, like dead bodies to walk around, like tombstones that never move. Through a series of spoken remembrances and movement, Pou introduces us to her grandmother Mama Frances and her mother Cary in the graveyard frequently visited with “us girls.” Her grandfather, when he went along on a graveyard visit, would recite “names, names, names,…like a litany, a list, a puzzle,” carved in the stones, and told of who was descended from whom, who married whom, who begot whom, the professions of all those mentioned and how long they lived. “James, you just hush now, these girls don’t need to know anything about their dead relatives,” warned Mama Frances.
There was Lottie Gather Wilson, born in 1884. “At 40 days after bearing her eighth child, she broke her hip, took to her bed to recover and never again emerged from her bedroom where she ruled her family with an iron fist, lace bed jacket, and bitter tears.”
“I was born on the same day that she died.” Pou told us of her great-grandmother, Emma Washington Cartwright, who never learned to cook. She single-handedly painted the house a different color every year, decorated her front yard with geegaws, and piled painted rocks on her head to keep it from blowing away. “Everyone thought she was crazy, not because of her outdoor décor but because she had absolutely no interest in housekeeping.”
And then there was Becki, the cousin who moved a straight pin up and down her forearm, sliding and jabbing until blood surfaced, an activity that was never spoken of in the family.
“At 15, my mother could fly a plane and shoot a gun. Her toy designs had been manufactured. At 16, she hitchhiked to California, lived in San Francisco, then move to Mexico as an expatriate and became a road crew surveyor. At 19 she returned home, married my father, and from then on lived within a mile of her parents and cousins.”
Intertwined with the oral history were Pou’s clean and poignant movements – on her back, a hand dance, scratching, jerking a swatting her arms; putting on layers of dresses and taking them off; dancing and singing with the accompaniment of a child’s small phonograph. She stacked all 30 dresses and tied them around her waist, weighted down by the bundle and swinging her hips to “Mr. Moon, Mr. Moon, Mr. Bright and Shiny Moon, Won’t you please shine down on me.” She dropped one dress at a time making a path for her exit – her escape to her own place in the world.
Although the custom of wearing a black dress during mourning is not practiced as much in America as it was in previous generations, it is still symbolic of loss, particularly the death of a husband. Pou’s movements in her assortment of black dresses – long-sleeved, short-sleeved, fancy dresses, housecoats, slips, a velvet coat, and a satin gown – suggest activities not at all directly related to mourning. The passing of black secrets from one generation to another. Keeping it all proper. Keeping it all in the family. Until now. “The little black dress” was not among those chosen to tell her stories. All of Pou’s dresses were old and used, having belonged to someone else, in someone else’s family who also has a history. By using other women’s dresses to tell about her own family, Pou made “To Us at Twilight” a true and personal account and at the same time created a universal framework for members of the audience.
As a woman who grew up in the South, so much of Pou’s work felt very familiar to me. I also had a great, great aunt who took to her bed for years with a broken hop and had a grandmother named Emma. The seemingly overwhelming discourse on relatives, the emphasis on elegant clothing and apparel, the natural objects collected in the rural South, and the straight pins used for something other than sewing haunted me and brought up remembrances of my own southern influences. As I moved with Pou through her performance, I wondered if I were getting more than viewers who had seen the work in New York or California. I wanted to know how they interpreted the parts that felt so close to home. At the same time, I knew that “To Us at Twilight” spoke to anyone – male or female – who has know first hand other generations or has delved at all into family history and discovered patterns, secrets, and links to the present – and has attempted to understand and accept them, rearrange and reemphasize them in order to regain that early known connection with ourselves.
February 16, 1993
By Elizabeth Zimmer
The success of Alyson Pou’s performance is undeniable, albeit somewhat baffling. She takes the stage (actually a section of the Artists Space gallery floor, alongside her installation of “wall dresses,” black garments woven or decorated with twigs, leaves, and other natural ephemera) in a totally unassuming way; there’s nothing actressy about this bespectacled person, her nondescript hair pulled back in a ponytail. Nor is there much technique to her movement; it’s fresh and sincere and self-absorbed as a teenager might be, sharing tales of her female ancestors.
Sounds of bayou life float in the air. On the floor are more black outfits, laid out like pattern pieces on a cutting table. Pou gambols among them, playing scratch records on an old portable phonograph, choosing garments and putting them on in layers, telling us stories about their original owners that we soon realize are recitations of the captions attached to the dresses on the walls. The performance is the installations come to life, embroidered with additional details about the obstreperous women who people her southern heritage, like a strange young cousin who scarifies her own flesh with pins, and a stubborn aunt who broke a hop and took to her bed for the next 40 years. ON of the dresses yields a crop of white carnations, which Pou stuffs into her bosom.
The performance and installation are eerie and captivating, exhibiting what my companion called “that slight cast of perversion you get when you mate the artificial with the organic.” Talking and wandering in the field of clothing, Pou ultimately stack everything neatly and burrows under the pile, ties it to her waist with a couple of long sleeves, gets up and flounces about like a matter-of-fact Cinderella, obviously full of as much mystery as her southern relatives. A lot of thought as gone into every detail, much care into the execution of the dresses and the task-oriented performance (Sue Poulin designed the lighting; Pou received technical, directorial, and choreographic assistance from Dee Evetts, Deb Levine, and Tamar Rogoff, respectively). The result is a marriage of exquisite craftsmanship with natural, down-home speech patterns and movement, of black silk crepe with ginkgo leaves and tangled vines.
Performance Art Magazine
Issue 22, Summer 1991
By Deborah Hede
To Us at Twilight
New Langton Arts
San Francisco, CA
June 8, 1991
In the middle of her performance, Alyson Pou dances under the weight of twenty-two black dresses tied to her waist, a child’s plastic phonograph broadcasting unintelligible hymns to her swaying hula-hoops. She impatiently rips the needle off the LP, and in the proceeding silence frames a story of her mother’s youthful adventures – shooting guns, flying planes, traveling to unknown cities – a life folded and put away, like the dresses, when she returns to Louisiana for marriage, domestic chores, and familial obligations. Later, of course, this arrangement leads her to worry about the Alyson’s future; to plead with the girl to hang the wash on the line, not to dry mudpies on the bottom steps, to take on the woman’s role. People are talking. But Alyson knows the mixed messages of family loyalty. She was born when her grandmother died; in passing, her mother refused to name the child after the dead.
Alyson leads a different life, yet the loss she articulates is a kind of homelessness. As she muses in the opening moments of her monologue, she visits, to find, “…one never returned…deeply of this place…uncomfortable with the possession of it…to escape, to return, never fully able to express it.” The displacement she feels corresponds to the generations of mothers, grandmothers, aunts and cousins who abandoned themselves to the duty of family. She is warned, “Don’t forget where you came from.” The family women “had their secrets…they didn’t want them, they didn’t tell them either – whatever it was was gonna stop with them.” And just as the buried bodies in the town’s graveyard remain a puzzle to the living, Alyson watches as her women relations, who “don’t know what to do” with themselves, destroy themselves. Three generations – daughter, mother and grandmother – descend upon the graveyard where Alyson kneels by her grandmother’s side, “a party to her tenderness,” clearing debris from the family plots. Lineages are recounted by names etched on marble slabs; small town stories made into histories. As they plunge further into the past, Alyson’s mother frantically keeps to the present, closing the car door to wait for their return.
Like grave markers, each dress Alyson lifts from the floor of the performance space brings to life a story of a woman in her family. Jean, who is “not of this world,” keeps gardenias hidden within the confines of her black dress. Cousin Becky, draws back her dress sleeve to pick at wrists and forearms with straight pins – varying the strokes and stabs of the needle with gruesome repetition. Grandmother Emma, who passed from life as Alyson entered, never learned to cook or clean house and, single-handedly, would paint her house a different color each year. She anchored her land with painted rocks, spoke to the air, and measured the wind with homemade devices. She is the woman closest to Alyson’s life as an artist, the one everyone – family and townspeople alike – claimed as crazy. Yet the madness coursing under the repressive guise of kinship expectations, like the “Wet, warm southern air that winds around like an invisible vine,” is the heritage Alyson flees.
The Santa Barbara Independent
May 23-30, 1991
“Who Is the Crazy One?”
By Ann Skiold
To Us at Twilight
Performance by Alyson Pou at the Center Stage Theater, May 29, 8pm
Alyson Pou tells her stories on an unadorned stage, in a one-woman show, in her own form of dance, gesture and, movement, and recitation. To Us at Twilight, written and performed by Pou, is a personal, yet universal story of “taking on the past, shedding it, and finding ourselves,” as she said in a telephone interview from New York.
The piece, a narrative of her family history, is predominantly concerned with the odd, different female relatives, the ones who did not fit the nice straightjacket that society had tailored for them. Pou suggest that strong people dare to be unusual, and many people in her story chose to be deemed crazy, so that, as Pou said, “They could go on doing what they wanted to do undisturbed.” That could be a very intelligent, cunning choice. Now, who is really the crazy one?
Pou’s great-grandmother used to talk to the air and paint rocks, which she put in piles on the earth to stop it from blowing away. Or what about Pou’s mother, who at the ripe old age of 15 could fly a plane a shoot a gun? These were women who dared, were “foolish” enough to do and express what they wanted, not what society’s narrow chart deemed permissible behavior for them.
Pou uses only a few props (sound tapes, 15 black silk dresses and a handful of gardenias”, and this gives her presentation an uncluttered, stark, almost early-Ingmar Bergman feeling. The dominating colors are black and white, which tend to arrest the eye. Vibrant, muted, and subtle moods are expressed through Pou’s tone of voice and how she moves.
There are wonderful, unexpected diamonds of humor sprinkled throughout the performance, where one image of reality is juxtaposed against another. Pou’s performance should be a refreshing and strengthening experience for both men and women.