Baryshnikov Arts Center
BAC invites writers to interview our Resident Artists and observe them working in the studio. The resulting BAC Story essays offer an intimate behind-the-scenes look at the creative process.
Mar 8, 2018
How do we live? How do we go through any given day, whether we are a brain surgeon scheduled to confront a confounding cerebellum, or a marine entering strange new territory, or an old woman waking, taking the first breath that she notices, breathing in, breathing out.
Is breathing a repetition or a continuation of something once begun? Is each step the same step again, or is walking always new, each step like no other before it? These are George Stamos’ questions, presented at the opening of a piece he calls Recurrent Measures, performed in November 2017 at Baryshnikov Arts Center. If his performance was an answer, then the answer offered by the dancers was less prescriptive than descriptive: the answer is in the question that you, the onlooker, feel arise in your own physical and emotional response.
An archeologist of the event might note Stamos’ mentorship under Sara Shelton Mann, the dancer and healer George met in Novia Scotia, his home as a boy. One might notice, too, that his mom taught him the dances of the 1950s and 60s as well, skills he took to the clubs in the 80s and 90s, skills that he never really lost, that, to cite his title, are recurrent in this piece, recurrent from Latin, meaning “running back;” there is a lot to do with currents and tides in the piece, or so it feels to me. When I spoke with him about his mentors, George acknowledged as well a great debt to Zab Maboungou, the Franco-Congolese pioneer of African dance in Canada, with whom he has studied and collaborated, and who, it feels important to note, is not only a dancer (and founder and director of Montreal-based Compagnie Danse Nyata Nyata) but a philosophy professor. Physical philosophizing, thinking with the mind-of-your-body, or whatever it is that allows the body to know and see and feel the world: this is where Stamos took us at BAC, to what the Black Mountain College professor Charles Olsen might have called an experiment in group proprioception, energy transferences within (in this case) a room.
It was a very personal performance, personal for Stamos, I would imagine, and perhaps similarly for his two primary collaborators, Stacy Désilier and Chi Long, both Montreal-based dancers. I found it personal as well for the audience, and when I describe it (or attempt to) it is as if I am describing a dream, of bodies in motion, bodies creating a kind of gravity. The piece began with Stamos spinning. I had previously read about his experiments with spinning, but nothing prepared me for experiencing the spinning itself. He stands on a small round wooden platform, something like a lazy Susan, though sturdy, compact, flattened. Then, in a beautifully simple boiled-down motion, he spins, inertia coming from small slight moves in his posture, a kind of bodily inhale and exhale.
One spectacular aspect of this particular spinning is that there seems to be so much to say about it, but that, at the same time, the spinning itself sums all that up, makes description moot. Immediately you sense a force, a weight, a seriousness in what manages to stay light and open. Immediately you feel the rhythm. You fall into its tidal flow, a back and forth, rather than the one-way spin of, say, a pirouette. You are drawn to the spinning as if you were tides influenced by the moon.
Stamos spun for an introductory few minutes and then stopped abruptly and walked across the room to stand next to another of the four walls. He began spinning again, this time adjacent to another dancer, Archie Burnett, best known for his appearance in Paris is Burning. They spun, next to the wall, in unison — or a kind of unison, the right hands spinning them one way, the left another. Watching the two spin, you could consider the different ways energy is transmitted between people. How does one movement affect another?
Meanwhile, across the room, on another wall, Chi Long and Stacy Désilier stepped onto their revolving floor disks, and they too began to spin. Similarly, they used the wall to push off, to stop for a breath in between spinning one way and then the other. As they touched the wall — slapped at it, pushed off of it, or sometimes seemed to pull from it — questions arose about the boundaries of the performance, and boundaries in general. The wall in this case wasn’t a point of constriction but an object that powered the dancers, maybe less like a wall and more like a membrane that allowed interaction with a larger space outside. If you let yourself, you could begin to think about quantum physics and alternate nodes of gravities, but the dancing never allowed you to drift too far from the spinning at hand. George moved to the wall with Désilier and Long, where he continued to spin, where they seemed to synch in three parts — not by matching each other but physically harmonizing, small differences that brought them together, bodily counterpoints.
Suddenly, Burnett walked through the center of the room, Voguing: something he not only made famous but invented. Watching him was like watching an asteroid or a shooting star spin through the solar system powered by the other dancers; wondrous joy. He moved to the wall, stepped on a disk, and began to spin again.
By this time, we in the audience were relaxed enough to move toward the dancers, to experience them like living sculptures, and, in so doing, we experienced two more modes. Again, the rhythm shifted. We watched as Stamos, spinning alongside Long and Désilier, left his platform. He slowly moved past the two dancers who continued to spin off the wall, back and forth. As each dancer spun, he came between them and the wall. As he moved slowly past, carefully observing the surface of the wall, shading it, he managed to make it feel more permeable. In these moments, he became the wall, so that at times they pushed off of him. He was in the gears of their spinning, and in a way he was the gear, their hands pressing off of him, as well as the wall, their power source. As I thought about this for days afterward, I began to remember a trip I took years ago to the Grand Coulee Dam, in the Columbia River, on of the largest hydro electric dams in the world. An engineer took me down into the bottom of the dam, down to where the turbines were spinning, pushed by the tremendous force of the mountain-born river. The river’s power was deafening; we wore earplugs. The force of the river shook the room like a constant earthquake. I put my hand to the wall of the turbine chambers and felt the power of the river in my chest.
The playful denouement came when the dancers met in the center of the room, a spatial surprise for us observers who had spent so much time considering the walls. Long and Désilier spun adjacent, collaborated in spinning, entwined. Stamos joined in, and Burnett seemed to playfully scold, stomping his boot, the great interplanetary force. This little set scene was charged by the spinning that had happened before and that would continue as the performance came to an end, as Long and Désilier held still; as Stamos at last did too. You left with the spinning in your ears, with the pulse of the performance in your chest and heart. Maybe an answer to the questions that Stamos offered has to do with what rhythm is. The word comes from rhuthmos, a Greek term for flow. It would seem to have to do with the repetition of beats, but at its origin it is about movement and fluids. You can think of breathing as taking breaths, one at a time, or you can think of breathing as participating in the air, in the currents that make up the atmosphere, the skies and the oceans through which our bodies sail every day.
Robert Sullivan is the author of numerous books, including The Meadowlands, My American Revolution, A Whale Hunt and Rats. A contributing editor at A Public Space and Vogue, he also teaches science at Hunter College in New York City, and writing at the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College in Vermont. His writing has appeared in many magazines, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, and New York. He lives in New York City.
Mar 1, 2018
Since its formation in 2009, The Mad Ones has developed a rigorous, idiosyncratic process for conceiving, generating, and shaping its plays, one that blurs the rigid lines of definition between contributing artists and privileges collaboration and consensus over traditional notions of hierarchical work structures and individual authorship.
We are an ensemble of hybrid play-makers. Performer-writers Marc Bovino, Joe Curnutte, Michael Dalto, and Stephanie Wright Thompson and director-writer Lila Neugebauer collectively serve as co-artistic directors. The company also includes designers Ásta Bennie Hostetter (costumes), Mike Inwood (lights), Laura Jellinek (sets), and Stowe Nelson (sound), and me, the house dramaturg. Together, we create richly detailed, character-driven play-worlds that playfully appropriate and reinterpret genre, delight in moments of theatrical surprise, and examine and illuminate American nostalgia.
(As an aside, I often find myself toggling between pronoun-orientations when talking about the company and its work - we/us, they/them - and these reflections on the BAC residency will probably reflect that.)
The Mad Ones used their November BAC residency to do early conceptual development work on a new commission for Ars Nova. Prior to arriving at BAC, they had winnowed down a shortlist of potential play-kernels (among the discarded contenders: a forensic lab procedural, an emergency room blood farce, a backstage drama about the Booth brothers performing Hamlet) to identify the organizing principle for our latest play: a focus group. Marc, Joe, Michael, Stephanie, and Lila arrived at BAC with scores of questions. Some were essentially dramatic in nature: What is being studied, tested, or examined? Who commissioned and organized the focus group? Is this a slick, polished, professional operation, or more makeshift, shaggy, ragtag? Where and when and who might these characters be? Other questions engaged the realm of the theatrical: What shape, ultimately, might this play take? Will it unfold in a succession of scenes or seamlessly in real time? Will the set encompass a single location or many? What moments of surprising athleticism, magic, or theatrical disruption might the play contain? Others were more conceptual and thematic: what anxieties, preoccupations, values, or assumptions about American life might the focus group illuminate, engage, critique, subvert?
During my three visits with The Mad Ones during their residency, the core company and intern Regan Moro were gathered around tables engaged in conversation ranging from nostalgic to speculative and from playfully imaginative to critically analytic. Michael Dalto gave a lengthy presentation on the political and cultural trajectory of the 1990s. Joe Curnutte talked us through the idiosyncratic filming of a movie called Timecode (Google it). The ensemble prepared and shared written responses to assignments designed to generate possibilities and alternatingly widen and tighten the focus on our collective imaginings. These opened up into long, digressive conversations touching on, among other things, the violence of late-stage capitalism, confirmation bias, the mingling in marriage of sexual and financial intimacy, and whether and how anxieties about personal safety on a large scale (related to, say, national security or climate change) express themselves in our relationships to consumer products like dish soap.
One challenge of a communal approach to play-making can be the risk of diffusion of the work. But over time The Mad Ones have built a practice that allows them to maintain a collaborative process without sacrificing conceptual or aesthetic rigor. Perhaps even more remarkably, they’ve done so while defining a distinct, unified voice. By filtering the developing work through a multiplicity of perspectives, ideas are tempered, tested, and refined. Dramatic worlds and theatrical canvasses are brought into sharper focus. Characters and relationships are conjured into vivid life. Through this iterative conversation, the work accumulates the detail, texture, and multivalence that have become the company’s signature.
It is a process that sacrifices efficiency in favor of the richness and multiplicity that arises from communal effort. This kind of collaboration requires patience, commitment, accountability, and a foundation of deep mutual respect for one another and for the process. It pays off in the fullness and dimension of the completed work, but it’s slow in the making; perhaps more than anything, it requires time. Workshops like the BAC residency become exercises in practicing democracy. The Mad Ones finished the residency, just as they began it, with questions. But new questions, different questions, more refined, more specific. (For instance: Does the play take place in 1999, or 2020? How directly or elliptically will the subject of the focus group reveal itself to an audience?) They have isolated particular fields for inquiry and exploration and have charted an agenda for their next workshop, coming up in the spring.
Visit The Mad Ones' Residency Page
Sarah Lunnie is the literary director at Playwrights Horizons and the house dramaturg with The Mad Ones. Production dramaturgy: The Mad Ones’ Miles for Mary (The Bushwick Starr, Playwrights Horizons), The Essential Straight and Narrow (New Ohio) and Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War (The Brick/Ars Nova/New Ohio); Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House Part 2 (Broadway), The Christians (Humana Festival, Playwrights), nightnight and Death Tax (Humana); and Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me (Clubbed Thumb), among others. She was previously the literary manager at Actors Theatre of Louisville, where she was involved with curating and developing new work for the Humana Festival of New American Plays.
Jan 23, 2018
Slot machines make noise. Emit light. They can also wreck lives on a slower simmer than opiates, speed, or cards. The cheap trance they offer is both throwback and harbinger.
In Cold Enough To Levitate, Christina Masciotti—herself both American language wrangler in a long humanist tradition and forward-looking manipulator of material elements towards a naturalism of reverberation—brings her sniper-like attention to the effects of this cheap trance on Frankie, a war veteran, cop, and accused embezzler, as a window onto a vast societal ping pong of malady and self-medication.
At the beginning of her BAC residency process, Masciotti and her director Mallory Catlett, along with their light and sound designers, were experimenting with deconstructing the slot machine’s functions as a means of washing play and audience in its staccato rhythms as mood stabilizer and saboteur. By the time I visited the rehearsal room in mid November, a few days before their showings, her focus had shifted to Frankie—constructing in the sharpest of detail the human being in front of the machine, the man at the center of the play.
Walking into the rehearsal room mid-scene, I found Frankie facing a machine that would be made manifest in light and sound, talking to himself, through himself, his lawyer George behind him, shuttling between George’s questions and the machine’s lull.
One quick, quiet beat after the scene breaks Masciotti looks to the actor playing Frankie, and says simply “guiltish.” He nods, understanding. I am confused.
They work through a few scenes again. “I’d feel less guiltyish if it didn’t affect them so much,” Frankie says of his parents in response to a question from George. Suddenly I understand too. The actor had accidentally changed Masciotti’s phrasing with a “y” that belonged to the word in the wider world, but not in the vocabulary of the man who had presented himself in her mind as protagonist.
Again the scene breaks. A beat. Again Masciotti says “guiltish.” The actor takes a moment, nods. The next time through he gets it right.
What differentiates Masciotti from the majority of language-attuned American playwrights is that fundamentalist precision, underpinned by an unabashed attentiveness to particularity of place; what differentiates her from almost every playwright attentive to particularity of place is that she is most often focused on places (in this case her native Reading, Pennsylvania) that don’t frequently command art’s attention; what differentiates her from the few living playwrights sharing both of these attentions is that her attention to individuality is equally sharp. She writes people, not functions in plot, but discreet individual human beings shaped not only by the sounds of place, but by their own idiosyncratic circumstances, genetics, fascinations, and tics. Thick, textured American people who do boring, shitty, regular things. Masciotti’s characters don’t live in Brooklyn or Portland, or any of the vaguely interchangeable revitalized industrial districts or exurban clumps of capital threaded between them.
Roughly a century ago, in 1921, Luigi Pirandello had this audacious formalist idea to put six characters in search of an author onstage, to make the major conceit of an evening at the theater the suggestion that the characters themselves had lives, that all they really needed was a medium, a channeling ringmaster with an eye towards coherence to arrange them into circumstance. Pirandello raised the curtain on the playwright’s mind; in so doing he also exposed the confessional booth in which character and playwright had been communing secretly at least since Ibsen and Chekhov began attempting to put life as they saw it on stage.
Playwrights have been figuring out how to negotiate the demands of their characters and the awareness of their audiences ever since. In contemporary American theater, from the most radical formal experimentation to the tightest Broadway cause and effect dramas, we are for the most part awash in authors ignoring characters. For some, it is a point of pride; for others there is simply little recognition that characters are people too.
And then we have Christina Masciotti.
When I see her work I have the sense that she waits with ceaseless patience in bus stations and doctor’s offices and anterooms of bureaucracy for anyone with a sharp, particular voice, a small story not being told, a pay grade lower than the typical theatergoer, and too many mounting concerns to recognize their place in a larger system.
The way Frankie drew her back from sound and light is not surprising. It separates Masciotti as much from Pirandello as from her peers. Without full people along for the ride, audience has little to take away from formalist adventure. If the particular is the pathway to the universal, Christina Masciotti is the medium of which the contemporary American character is most in need.
Ben Gassman is a playwright from Queens. Sam's Tea Shack, a piece he co-created with Sam Soghor and Meghan Finn, was presented this past fall by The Tank in NYC and by Barker Room Rep in Los Angeles. Gassman, along with director Brandon Woolf, is a 2018 Artist-In-Residence at the Performance Project of University Settlement, where they will be launching their new collaborative endeavor, Culinary Theater. bengassman.com.
Dec 21, 2017
A conference room. Tables, chairs. People focused on their computers working in silence. One of them stares away from the table, the computer, the room, at an indefinite point. At the back of the stage, a projection: “What makes a human being? Dignity.”
To the spectator the answer is not only obvious, but reassuring. She recognizes herself in it. It is four hours until a group of coworkers give their presentation in the context of an international conference on human rights. While the characters struggle with nerves, personal situations, and surprising revelations, both characters and spectators become aware of practices with consequences that, inadvertently but blatantly, contradict what they think they believe.
The apparent simplicity of the theatricality on stage, like the apparent simplicity of the initial question, eases the spectator into sympathy with the characters who, involuntarily, trigger laughter. Laughter, skillfully used by Compañía Bonobo, wakes us up. With nothing changing on stage, the neutral space of a conference room emerges as a microcosm that condenses and confronts the spectator with all the layers of a central question: what is dignity?
In this piece, the members of Compañía Bonobo continue their inquiry into the complex phenomenon of violence and the difficulty of identifying it when it happens in a friendly environment where there is no apparent discrimination, injustice, or inequality. What is our role in the violence perpetrated upon another? And who is ‘the other’? How is ‘the other’ constructed? With these questions in the background (like the question that the spectator reads at the beginning of the play), Compañía Bonobo’s crew goes through a creative process in which improvisation plays a key role. What they do seems impossible: turning questions into actions, theory into practice. The bodies on stage enter a silent dialogue to explore relations that are beyond language: context, intentionality, and individual histories color human encounters that, once translated into a staged scene, appear to be simple daily situations. Making visible these invisible relations is Compañía Bonobo’s line of work.
By revealing the invisible in our daily interactions, Compañía Bonobo members explore the light and shadows of human beings and their communities. In the conference room where there is a sharp contrast between light and shadow, the coworkers move between the bright light of the projector and the dark, unilluminated areas of the room. We either see them clearly in bright light as they are, or we see only their silhouette in the shadows. Or is it the other way around? Do we see them as they are in the shadows, but only see their silhouettes when they present themselves in bright light? The question of who the characters are turns into the question of who we are, and who we would be in this situation. The just and fair one? The one with strong judgment? The one with a secret past? The good-hearted emotional one? There is no easy answer; the spectator refuses to identify with any of them and is simultaneously able to identify with all of them.
With simplicity, empathy, and fine humor, Compañía Bonobo turns our attention to the invisible meaningful details of our everyday lives that perpetuate violence. Perhaps, after all, laughter is the beginning to the end of violence.
Teresa Casas Hernández, originally from Manresa (Barcelona), is a New York based actress and PhD student in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research for which she was awarded the fellowship La Caixa and The Onassis Foundation Fellowship in Ancient Greek Studies. With the image of “the world is theater” she is working on the intersection between philosophy and theater with the aim to bring into philosophical discussion elements that have been banned from philosophy since Plato banned the poets from the idea city—vividness, evanescence, co-presence. As a performer, she has worked with Beth Moysés and Tatsumi Orimot.
Dec 20, 2017
Prumsodun Ok is a contemporary Cambodian-American artist who works primarily in dance, theater, and film. He was born in Long Beach, California to parents who were refugees from Cambodia. Two years ago, he moved to Cambodia to continue his dance career and to create the first Cambodian gay dance company.
This article is based on an interview with Prum while he was in residence at Baryshnikov Arts Center. He is an extraordinary dancer who began studying Cambodian classical dance when he was 16.
Rachel Cooper: How did you get started in Cambodian dance?
Prumsodun Ok: I have always loved dance. When I was 4 years old in Long Beach, California, I’d imitate dance from the local TV. The dancers were from the local Cambodian temple, not professional dancers; in fact they were pretty bad. They wore tinsel instead of flower garlands and cardboard crowns with sequins sewn on. Still there is something about art when the spirit is strong, even when it’s not done well. At four years old I felt that spirit of Cambodian dance in me. It wasn’t until I was 16 that I found a teacher. After having watched my sister’s classes, I finally asked if I could learn too, and I became quite serious about dance throughout high school.
RC: How did your family react to your decision to go into the arts as a profession?
PO: My parents were from the countryside and survived the genocide, the refugee camps, and now they live in inner city Long Beach. For them, life was a culture of survival and they were afraid to see me going into art. They even threatened to disown me, but I stayed with it. However, when I started my career in the arts it was not for dance. I went to San Francisco to study experimental filmmaking. The way we were taught Cambodian dance in the United States was not as an art form but as a way of learning your culture, and culture is associated with ethnic identity as opposed to philosophy or your approach to life. One day in 2008 I was editing in a tiny dark basement. It was 6:00 am, I hadn’t slept, and I thought: people are waking up, or making love, or getting their kids ready for school and I am here alone in a basement trying to find light. It was lonely and I missed the physicality of dance where I don’t need anything to make dance other than my body. I decided that was what I would do and returned to Los Angeles and from then on it was making dance, making dance, making dance. I am an interdisciplinary artist: I write, I design sound, I work with video. But really, the art form that informs me the most and gives spirit to my soul is classical Cambodian dance.
RC: Do you see your work as traditional or experimental? How do you think these terms apply to you?
PO: I have had the opportunity to perform on various experimental dance stages that my peers trained in classical and experimental dance have never had. The words that inspire me are from the French surreal poet René Daumal, using a term that I continue to contemplate: “the avant-garde in antiquity.” I’ve contemplated that term for a long time. I’m so over this idea of “new for new sake.” For me, it’s something I got from my filmmaking experience where my professor said, “experimental is not a product, experimental is an approach.” I can perform the oldest Cambodian classical dance and find a way to make it fresh, or bend and break within it, as long as the intention is clear.
For me there are three principles I try to follow. Something is experimental when: 1) it pushes you 2) it pushes the art form 3) it pushes society. I strive to hit all three in my work, no matter what I make. Whether it’s making a dance that uses traditional music, costuming, or dance that depicts gay love or marriage, as long as I’m pushing myself in these three ways I know I’m being true to myself and to my art. I actually don’t care what people call me, traditional or contemporary, as long as they see the value of what I do. I’m able to speak both languages.
RC: How does ethnic identity play into your understanding of yourself and your work?
PO: When I was young, being Cambodian-American was a struggle: you are never Cambodian enough nor American enough, you are pulled left and right at the same time. Now I feel being Cambodian-American is being a center, able to pool approaches, histories, mediums, and cultures, all unto myself. That richness is a source of strength and possibility that others don’t have.
RC: Is your work considered contemporary now that you are based in Cambodia?
PO: Living in Asia I sometimes feel there is a neocolonial reign that some of the cool contemporary curators think they have. For me, contemporary just means “of this time.” Time is layered: it is past, present, and future, all layered into now. I have my qualms with people who enforce what things should mean instead of being open to the spirit of the artist. When you start to label work as contemporary or traditional too narrowly, you shut things down and it can take on an oppressive nature.
RC: Can you say more about how these ideas of traditional and contemporary co-exist?
PO: This idea of the “avant-garde of antiquity” intrigues me. It's the idea of edge. Even if you are dancing a very old dance, how do you add the edge? The reason these dance forms are alive and passed on from one generation to the next is that they have a core; each generation must find the edge to sharpen, refine, push, and transform it. As someone who carries that tradition, I need to maintain that core, that spirit, that philosophy, that essence which is embodied in the form, but then push it out, sharpen an edge.
RC: Why did you decide to move to Cambodia?
PO: I initially went to Cambodia to develop my project called Beloved. I thought I would just be there one year. I asked my friend to help me find young gay men who wanted to learn classical dance and were open to trying new things. I thought he would find me probably one or two but when we had the auditions there were twelve who showed up, between the ages of 17 and 30. After a month and a half of training these young men in my living room, I looked at them and thought this looks like a real dance company; Cambodia’s first gay dance company just formed in my living room. It’s been a journey ever since. After my TED Talk the online comments in Cambodian were very interesting. One stated, “I don’t think there should be third or fourth genders, but I can see that Prum is sharing our culture with the world and this is an effort where we should all support each other in solidarity.” It’s touching this real world. When I was performing in Los Angeles in experimental spaces it was too safe, it left up the walls of an elitist space. I feel very thankful that I see my work now as touching society; I think it is the role of artists to transform society. Over half of Cambodia is under 35 years old. People are looking for things that are new, that are original.
RC: What has the reception been to your work in Cambodia?
PO: Our company had its debut in Cambodia a year ago. We opened the theater an hour before the concert was to start and within minutes it was totally packed. The makeup of the audience really mirrored the population of Phnom Penh. Lots of young people, students, artists, dancers, non-artists, 18-25 year olds, expats, older Cambodians, and parents of my dancers. The parents were seeing their kids on stage for the first time. Since this is a gay dance company it makes a point. I’m speaking to real people - grandma, grandpa, parents, kids - everyone is there. In Los Angeles, it was just artists’ friends and other artists. I was recently featured in a broadcast video as part of an anti-rape campaign in Cambodia. I was with major popular celebrities from film and music. I’m a dancer and that line between the popular sphere and the fine arts context was blurred, which I think is good. Now after my TED Talk my landlord has a new respect for me. He said, “Wow, I saw your TED Talk and I turned on the TV and I saw you on the news today.” This, from an elderly Cambodian person. I feel my art helps to reach and transform society broadly and it is exactly what I want to do.
Visit Prum's Residency Page
Rachel Cooper has extensive experience in the presentation of traditional and contemporary Asian and Asian-American performing arts and the development of interdisciplinary programs. She has presented over 500 performances at the Asia Society and venues across the U.S. She has worked with Cambodian artists since 1995 and co-organized Dance the Spirit of Cambodia. She serves on the Board of Cambodian Living Arts. Cooper was awarded a Best Practices Award for Cultural Diplomacy, Manhattan Borough Award for excellence in preserving the diversity of New York, Dawson Award for Sustained Achievement in Performing Arts Programmatic Excellence from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP), and an Isadora Duncan Award for the Festival of Indonesia. She did her graduate work in Dance Ethnology at UCLA. Ms. Cooper is the co-founder and former director of the San Francisco-based Balinese music and dance company, Gamelan Sekar Jaya, which has been presenting the arts of Bali in the United States since 1979.
Aug 3, 2017
“I am here to remind you… I am here to remind yoooou,” sings Dorothée Munyaneza as she balances the entire weight of her body on her heels before stumbling onto the floor with the microphone stand.
There on the floor, through heavy breaths, she sings again, “I am here to remind you…” What Munyaneza wants to remind us of are the narratives of children born from rape during episodes of war and genocide, in areas of the world experiencing extreme bouts of violence, including in her home country of Rwanda. In Unwanted, Dorothée explores rape used during war and conflict as a “weapon of mass destruction” that not only mutilates women’s bodies, but creates generational damage as women struggle with both disease and children who come to know that they are the children of rape, but do not know their fathers.
Dorothée Munyaneza, originally from Rwanda and now based in Marseilles, France, is an internationally-acclaimed singer, dancer, percussionist, and actress whose practice explores social integration through dance. While her primary work explores her experience during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the nuance of her practice emphasizes that she is not only interested in retelling the trauma, but in interrogating what trauma we retell, how, and by whom. Holland Andrews, an invited collaborator, is a Portland-based performer who blends live looped operatic vocals and clarinet to weave layered sonic experiences that skirt neat categorization. I met both artists when we were all residents at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art’s Collaborative Exchange Lab in the Fall of 2016. I sensed an immediate synergy between their work. While there are clear differences in their practices, both women are united conceptually by their engagement with approximation, or the challenges of articulating that which evades the parameters of language, easy legibility, and public speakability.
As Munyaneza describes her motivation for Unwanted, she shares a growing archive: newspaper clippings, photographs of rape survivors in Rwanda, printed articles, books, and film clips. While Unwanted erupts from Munyaneza’s growing archive, the collaborative performance is itself an archive of sorts, but not an archive in how we may traditionally imagine it as manilla folders with orderly materials that present a concise history. Rather, the archive produced through Unwanted is the one that reminds us of the very failures of archives. In Sadiya Hartman’s essay “Venus in Two Acts,” she asks, “How does one listen for the groans and cries, the undecipherable songs, the crackle of fire in the cane fields, the laments for the dead, and the shouts of victory, and then assign words to all of it? Is it possible to construct a story from ‘the locus of impossible speech’ or resurrect lives from the ruins?” In many ways, Unwanted asks similar questions of how we represent the undecipherable.
In the rehearsal, Munyaneza and her collaborator Andrews did not seek a full articulation of this history but were instead, it seems, interested in how to translate moments of speech disfluency such as stutters and stammers, or the sometimes indecipherable into the movement and sonic experience of Unwanted. In Susan Howe’s 1990 Talisman Interview with Edward Foster, Howe mentions something she read where poet Charles Olson commented that in Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, “the stutter is the plot.” Howe goes on to say that she is interested in the stutter because it is the “sounding of uncertainty.” This uncertainty which creates a refusal and illegibility invites us away from the comforts of neat narratives that lead to romantic resolutions.
Deep operatic bellows erupt from the corner of the dimly lit corner. It is Andrews sonically creeping into the space. Her words are unclear, but the mood is unmistakable: there is a foreboding of sorts, something is about to happen. However, before the expected something happens, the singing ends abruptly, and Andrews leaves her dimly lit corner to begin a circle path that hugs the perimeter of the room. Soon after beginning, she stops to look slightly above the audience as if to peer out of a window as she prunes. She continues to walk, then stumbles, but maintains just enough balance to keep walking. After a few more moments of walking, she stumbles again, yet this time she almost loses all balance. Up again she continues to walk and travels back to her corner where she was once singing.
The live operatic loop begins, and Munyaneza emerges from the opposite side of the room with a green and red patterned fabric cradled in her hands like a small child. Andrews winds up her vocals and ejects a series of mounting screams, then a shriek before this shriek unfolds into a series of unintelligible sentences. As I glance toward Andrews, my attention is dually focused on Andrews and Munyaneza who is now on the floor, then up again at which point she swings the fabric over her head before draping it over her shoulder, then finally weaves it into her white cropped tank top. She crawls across, creeping toward the audience.
She stands up to grip the microphone stand and begins to sing. Three lines are repeated: "I am here to remind you."; "Papa, papa, papa!"; and "because of you, Da-ddy, they call me Yuda!" Between these repeated mantras, she breaks into a singing of George Michael's, "I Will Be Your Father Figure" as well as Stromae's "Papaoutai." "Où t'es, papa," she asks. As she sings, she grips the mic and arches her body backward as if she might fall backward, but does not. Her balance seems to be a feat of its own. She does stumble and fall once, taking the microphone stand with her, but she continues to sing as she regains full footing. The incantation continues, picking up pace, and the sharp transitions between voices and phrases and songs remind me of a radio tuner, one which I have no control over. Or possibly even an exorcism. These stories trapped inside of her throat, her belly, fight for an opportunity to escape, and in the process they trip over themselves, folding and collapsing into one another. It is much like the sensation of stuttering. Again, as Susan Howe reminds us, the stutter is the plot. The moments when Munyaneza appears to have several stories erupting from one mouth simultaneously is a reminder of the many stories of rape during war and genocide that have such few pathways for articulation. It is a reminder of the public speakability of these traumas. It is a reminder that no one neat sentence or dance movement will suffice. It is a reminder that there are parts of this trauma that language and movement may never be able to express.
Munyaneza ends the showing calling out the names of countries where rape was used as a war tactic: Syria, Congo, Ukraine, Rwanda, and the United States of America.
Instead of giving us one neat story with triumphant endings or clear plot points, Munyaneza holds us accountable to telling complex stories; ones fraught with absences, silences, and missing bits. As a visual artist and writer, I am keen to compare this work to mediums I am most familiar with: the erasure poems, concrete poems, Oulipo-based work, and the extensive histories of Black experimental writers. The rehearsal performance reminded me of my favorite kind of poetry, what Lyn Hejinian calls "open texts" in her essay "The Rejection of Closure" (1985). Here she writes, "each moment stands under an enormous vertical and horizontal pressure of information, potent with ambiguity, meaning-full, unfixed, and certainly incomplete." An open text embraces the challenge. An open text does not yearn for linearity. An open text she writes is one where any reading of work is an improvisational act itself as "one moves through the work not in straight lines but in curves, swirls, and across intersections." Open texts take a form that is less of a container and more of a "force" or "velocity." Andrews and Munyaneza’s improvisational form that integrated strategic stumbles and stutters created a velocity that led the audience to cross through various visual and cognitive terrains.
Andrews closes out the performances with a soft twinkle before Munyaneza leaves the stage. The twinkle is a clever invitation: we can re-enter our post-performance worlds to be lulled by the illusions of the immaculate resolution, or we could linger a bit more in the world created by the performance: a world of stutters, stammers, and stumbles.
Kameelah Janan Rasheed is a Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary artist, former high school public school teacher, and writer working in installation, photography, printmaking, publications, and performance. She has exhibited her work at Jack Shainman Gallery, Studio Museum in Harlem, Bronx Museum, Queens Museum, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 2017 Venice Biennial, among others. Learn more about her at www.kameelahr.com
July 13, 2017
With her Paramodernities project, Netta Yerushalmy has landed on an intriguing and challenging experiment worthy of her wide-ranging, even promiscuous intelligences, which are clearly many.
She’s working on a series of investigations that juxtapose landmark dance works by canonic, paradigm-changing choreographers: Nijinsky, Graham, Balanchine, Cunningham, Ailey and Fosse (also, I’m told, a wild-card artist as yet undetermined) – with contributions by writers and scholars, appearing in the flesh. Her overarching subject: the project of modernity.
If this sounds overly academic or dry, I can report that the three rehearsals I attended recently at BAC were anything but. I left each invigorated, alive in new ways to the clanging dissonances of new building construction (or was it deconstruction?) on 37th Street and beyond, prepared by the mashups I had witnessed in the studio six floors above.
In a studio with photos of Merce Cunningham and John Cage as the only adornment, Netta works on an arrangement of excerpts of Cunningham choreography spanning five decades, rehearsing with dancers Brittany Engel Adams and Marc Crousillat. Netta tells me that for this installment she’s exerting her will on the material, working against the grain of Cunningham’s Zen-related objective to let go of his own will, or at least some of it, through the practice of subjecting many compositional decisions to chance operations. Neither Brittany nor Marc is much trained in Cunningham Technique, yet their dancing belies this. To my eye, both could have performed in the Cunningham company.
Mikhail (Misha) Baryshnikov joins me, an unexpected treat, and together we watch a run-through of today’s iteration of this experiment. The movement, at least at the onset, is immediately recognizable to both of us as unadulterated Cunningham. Too, much of what is danced looks like it could be an arrangement Cunningham himself made. But soon little disruptions poke through this surface. How is it both dancers are now playing with weight and gravity in a most un-Cunningham way? In partnering, Brittany always provides support to Marc, never the other way around, an understated challenge to Cunningham’s more traditional presentation of gender roles. But when the dancers begin to speak aloud, relaying their personal histories and markers of identity, and when they begin to dance with, and then to, Ethiopian pop music, I know I’m not in Kansas anymore.
Netta has told us she’s in no way trying to replicate or restage any of Cunningham’s works. This is clear to both Misha and me. “What he wouldn’t have done,” observes Misha. Yet why is it I feel as if I’ve seen something about the Cunningham movement that has somehow remained otherwise obscured? A section in which Netta has organized movements by types – e.g., pivots on one leg, movement with arches, running moves, triplets, jumps – is particularly revealing. A running phrase from a 1950’s work bumps up against running phrases from dances from subsequent decades. I see the movement and the dancers’ labor anew through this novel, utterly un-Cunningham organization. Too, the transgressions to Cunningham’s choreographic practices, like hearing the dancers speak, makes the more unalloyed sections appear in vivid relief. The movement emerges crisp and fresh (dare I say pure?).
Misha points out that talking while dancing is a trope unto itself, even a cliché, “like in The Turning Point.” It takes a moment for Netta and me to recall the rehearsal scenes of dancers gossiping and flirting while they’re dancing in the now-classic dance film in which Misha starred. Point taken.
Today I see a real mashup – Ailey, Cunningham and Nijinsky walk into a room (sounds like the start of a joke, right?) and are met with a contemporary scholar, David Kishik, reading from an academic essay, “The Work of Dance in the Age of Sacred Lives.” This is my first encounter with the juxtaposition of textual and choreographic language that Netta places as vital to her project. Ailey’s choreography is danced by Stanley Gambucci, Nijinsky’s by Netta, and Cunningham’s by Brittany again. At one point Netta directs the dancers to “turn the volume down” on their dancing during a particular section of David’s text, to avoid “putting pressure on what he’s saying.” I take this as an important clue to the relationship of word to movement – both have agency, even autonomy, here.
Each dancer traverses an independent trajectory alongside that of the essay and essayist, with connections both clearly drawn and accidental. Ah, I think, Netta is employing some of Cunningham’s practices of indeterminacy here, which she avoided in the more overtly Cunningham construction. I catch fragments of David’s text – a meeting twixt Christina, queen of Sweden and Descartes resulting in the libretto for a ballet… Mallarmé’s assertion that the body of a dancer writes a poem… Agamben’s countering that the dancer does not so much write with movement, but instead “reads what was never written” – while I simultaneously turn my attention to the emblematic moves of the dancers. I watch Netta assiduously execute the inner-rotation of her legs that is immediately recognizable as 100% Nijinsky, from his choreography for Le Sacre du Printemps. Soon after David begins relating how Nijinsky worked against the idea of the dancer as a machine for manufacturing beauty, the rupture evident, for example, in the awkwardly inverted legs of the dancers: “like Netta’s,” David points out.
All the while another dancer, Sarah Lifson, studies video of Fosse choreography on a laptop in a corner of the room, periodically bursting forth with shoulder rolls and jazz hands. She’s learning material for another section within Paramodernities, but my eye puts everything in the room together. I’m seeing yet another mashup, with Bob joining Alvin, Merce and Vaslav (another joke waiting for a punchline).
The materials today are more clearly cut from the same cloth, a Graham-inflected tapestry. Netta and Taryn Griggs are working with movement they’ve learned, I’m told, only from the recording of Night Journey in “A Dancer’s World,” the iconic 1957 film of Graham and her dancers that culminates with Graham abruptly exiting her dressing room as if to take the stage to perform the role of Jocasta. Carol Ockman, a professor of art history from Williams College, is reading from her essay "Trauma, Interdiction, and Agency in ‘The House of Pelvic Truth.’" Heady stuff indeed! I hear John Berger and Julia Kristeva invoked, the male gaze and feminine power. I find myself studying Netta and Taryn as they plug away at the demanding Graham movement with all its intended passions, wondering about authenticity: are their contractions real? Soon my query is answered by Ockman, who asks aloud what it means for these dancers to be wrestling with vocabulary for which they’ve not been trained.
I later learn that Netta too has asked this and other questions in her writing about Paramodernities: “Can I be faithful to Graham’s tormented Jocasta as I simultaneously dance the role of Oedipus her son? Is this mere mimicry?” “Is a legacy public?” She asks too about “unavoidable failures,” curious if there might be something generative to be found there.
At one point in the rehearsal Netta inquires if I’ve ever studied Graham. I have. She asks, “Did anyone ever say anything about the vagina?” Dang if I can recall any such reference, except in jest.
It’s clear that Netta is truly experimenting with this project, and not just paying lip service to the idea. She’s stated that Paramodernities project is fueled by reverence and violence. In these rehearsals, I found more of the former than the latter. Parts homage, critique, and update; parts performance and symposium. The results thus far are provocative, timely and, as unlikely as it may seem, utterly lively
Neil Greenberg is a choreographer, dancer and educator who, relevant to this BAC Story, danced with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1979-1986 and later created two works for Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project. He is currently a Professor of Choreography at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts, The New School and served as dance curator at The Kitchen from 1995-1999. His most recent project, This, continues his quixotic search for an experience of the performance moment in and of itself.
June 22, 2017
Tóraigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne; or The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne
Love and Death: A Song Cycle in Three Parts
We’ve given ourselves over to maps, though not just any maps. We’ve turned ourselves over to the particular maps that live in our devices. They direct us, in large and small ways, to points in the world that align with what global positioning satellites see on the grid of latitudes and longitudes that delineate the globe.
Coordinate geometry delivers our takeout and our cruise missiles, gets us to work or to dinner on time. But what you come away with after experiencing the collaboration of composer Dana Lyn and poet Louis de Paor, in “Love and Death,” their multimedia telling of the story of Diarmuid and Gráinne, is another kind of mapping altogether, a navigational experience that adds layers and meanings to a ten-thousand-year-old story -- a redrawing of an often-recounted love triangle that you know going in is doomed.
It’s probably safer to say this love story is ten thousand years old at the very least. We see it in Irish writing from the tenth century but it’s a good bet that at that point somebody was at last writing down a story that worked, or had frequently gone over well, or was memorable and thus of interest to the people in the landscape that we today refer to as Ireland. It is sometimes cited as an ancestor of Tristan and Iseult, as well as the story of Guinevere and Lancelot’s betrayal of King Arthur. In the Irish epics, The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne comes at the death-end of an elopement. Gráinne is the daughter of Cormac Mac Art, the high king of Ireland. She is to marry Fionn Mac Cumhail, the great warrior and leader of the Fianna. Fionn’s own wife has died, and he has grieved for seven years. “He is undone, un-manned by grief,” Louis de Paor’s narrator announces. Fionn’s sons arrange the king’s marriage to Gráinne, the most beautiful woman in Ireland, to cheer the old man. Gráinne herself does not protest until the night before the wedding, at which point she flirts with Diarmuid, young and handsome
Diarmuid, a faithful comrade to Fionn, resists, but Gráinne casts something like a spell, making her impossible to disobey. At this point, they flee into Ireland. Diarmuid is still reluctant, but then a river is crossed, no return. Eventually, a truce happens, an armistice in which Diarmuid and Gráinne have children, there is an uneasy peace between the old warrior and the soldier who has taken his young wife-to-be away. Diarmuid and Gráinne make a family, awaiting the day, foreseen by all parties, when Diarmuid will be killed by his own hound.
In Lyn and de Paor’s multimedia telling, a storm opens the piece, and the sound of Lyn’s soundtable, a difficult-to-describe wooden sound-maker, lays down drone-like intonement of deep bass oscillations that might be crying or moaning, that might be an amplified movement of the world, the world collapsing, bending, coming apart, all at the same time. The narrator speaks, bringing us into the night when Diarmuid will die. And then Diarmuid himself, as sung by Mick McAuley, speaks:
I never saw or heard before
The likes of this icy storm.
Even the raven will not find
Refuge in a cave or island cove.
The rock-clinging mood builds, until Diarmud hears the hound barking, knowing he must leave Gráinne’s bed. Gráinne (Yoon Sun Choi) protests, to no avail:
Listen to me! It is foolish
For you to leave this room
When ice shackles every ford
And outside is deathly cold
Diarmuid ponders leaving, and his slow shift from lover to warrior is described in terms of climate change, the warmth of Gráinne and her bed leaving the man’s body: “Desire for blood / Is coursing his chest. / Ice has stitched his lips.”
Flute (Michel Gentile), violin (Orlando Wells), and cello (Alex Waterman) lead us anxiously through Diarmuid’s decision to depart, as Gráinne’s insists to the contrary, notes the cold, the ice, the rain. “Do not follow a cur howling in the darkness,” she says. A collage of abstract images (drawn by Lyn) allude to Diarmuid's departure, his change-to-ice. Mick McAuley sings again the description of the storm over a deep low drone from Lyn’s sound table. Yoon Sun Choi moves Gráinne’s mood change slowly, as Gráinne inches from mourning to resolve. “Rise and make ready for war,” Gráinne says at last.
In the three-part piece, the music of the second section, tonally speaking, makes tactical arrangements for the new relationships – new relationships that are dictated by end of the relationship of Gráinne and Diarmuid. Gráinne seems to review old ground; the melodies are vaguely romantic. Sharp snare drum (Vinnie Sperrazza) marks Diarmuid’s forward looks, his reconnaissance, the mapping of a way that is ultimately backwards — to heed the oath-call of his old leader, Fionn. And then Gráinne changes tempo, herself gearing for a counteroffensive against Fionn, who has broken their common-law truce.
The cello walks us slowly into the third part. There are more images: lovers, a hound, men clenched in battle. Gráinne, who has been waiting for Diarmuid’s return, knowing he won’t return, laments. Accompanied by piano, Gráinne sings of the three things that are, she says, futile to resist: “an old man’s jealousy; the persistence of rain; relentless love of a woman careless of death, who’d tear a world asunder, abandon her children and home for him.” The third thing is of course self-referential. At last, the end we know is coming, with Gráinne’s explicit call for harsh vengeance: “Punish all the world . . .“
Old texts speak to us. This one does, posing questions: When do the oaths of men take precedence beyond the connections of hearts and flesh? Where do laws trump bodies? To whom is duty due? Is there such a thing as worldly shelter from the intricacies of honors, from the complications of pride? And who is more fickle, the woman who decides to love a man she loves, who attends to a trans-traditional call of her body and his, or the rule-fixated old man whose “honor and cold, cold pride” do not allow him peace, or rest. Is honor and pride worth a lifetime of paranoia and surveillance, minding the night for death?
Old texts also work in counterpoint, as this collaboration shows in various ways. Louis de Paor’s English translation alongside Lyn’s orchestration opens the very space that the story describes, and, in the end, the multimedia work makes the coordinate mapping that we are used to seem poor and trivial. With “Love and Death,” the participant’s mind’s eye sees this landscape, of love and death – of the two at once, ultimately. The poem itself is un-translated, as I experienced it, mapped out in rich colors and sounds, and the counterpoints make resonances that mark out some of the ground that covers all the things that go between a woman and a man, between lovers in a world that is ruled by the opposite of love. I left the performance with a sound like wind still in my ears, or somewhere inside me, resonating, and somewhere on the way home I recalled that gaoithe, the Irish noun meaning wind, is feminine.
Robert Sullivan is the author of numerous books, including The Meadowlands, My American Revolution, A Whale Hunt and Rats. A contributing editor at A Public Space and Vogue, he also teaches science at Hunter College in New York City, and writing at the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College in Vermont. His writing has appeared in many magazines, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, and New York. He lives in New York City.
June 15, 2017
How do we know what is true, and why does it matter? In her new work in progress, It’s All True / Grandfather Muna Tseng is exploring these questions as she pieces together the remarkable life of her grandfather Toy Dong, a Chinese American merchant and the prodigious patriarch of a family that included 3 wives and 19 surviving children, and spanned an ocean and two centuries.
But rather than attempting straightforward biography, Tseng is crafting a wry commentary on “authoritative” accounts of Chinese migration, a reverie on (personal and ancestral) memory, and a meditation on loss. There is the “official” version as recounted by Bill Moyers (including the legacies of 19th-century Chinese exclusion and anti-miscegenation laws); the “official” archival documentation including birth certificate, tax returns, property deeds; the personal relics (photographs, forgotten objects and hand-me-downs) that bear traces of the lives that once animated them; the meticulously numbered account of the births of sons and daughters; and the stories recounted by those wives and offspring, translated and reinterpreted across time, space, and generations. And more: Tseng asks, how do these personal stories take shape against an unremitting backdrop of racist yellow-face images of scheming, sadistic villains and lazy coolies that have fueled the popular imaginary of what a “Chinaman” is or does? She explores the entanglement of these histories in the reconstruction of Toy Dong’s life.
With the help of collaborators Chanterelle Ribes (who portrays beautifully the fungible “ingénue” New Wife du jour) and Perry Yung (whose haunted, haunting shakuhachi pierces the layers of distanced historical accounts with a sonic “now” that can be jarring and affecting), the three performers improvise their way backward in time, toward the constantly receding figures of the globe-trotting entrepreneur Dong and his wives.
“Isn’t that hilarious?!” Tseng giggles mischievously as we listen to a snippet of faux-oriental pop music, played under projections of equally kitschy images of “Chinese-ness” gleaned from the internet: glamorous Shanghai cigarette girls from ‘30s advertisements, cartoon drawings of chubby Chinese babies, textbook illustrations of neoclassical English gardens, Pipo Nguyen-duy’s ironic self-portraits (Confederate soldier, rough-riding Teddy Roosevelt, etc.). Almost all the images and sounds Tseng chooses are “fake” — popular imagery hijacked here to tell a personal story. An established dancer-choreographer, Tseng is striking out on a new path, combining movement and visual elements with scripted text and narrative. Throughout the piece, she steps in and out of the role of director/choreographer, narrator/interpreter, and character. The movement, she says, gives her a sense of freedom and playfulness. After all, given the futility of trying to recover a definitive account of Dong’s life, what else is there to do but assemble one?
Tseng’s “playing” in the BAC studio is precisely that labor of assemblage: popular, fictional, personal, speculative, and somatic ways of “knowing” combine to create a portrait of this 19th-century Chinese American “modern man” but also of Tseng herself: the one who longs to know the mysterious grandfather who is unknowable and intimately present in/as her embodied self. “That’s history for you,” she notes near the end of the piece, followed by an exasperated (or is it irreverent?) “Ha!” She throws up her hands and dances it out, as the blinds of the Cage Cunningham Studio open and bring us (back) to the world of the living.
Karen Shimakawa is the Chair of Performance Studies at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and an instructor in the NYU School of Law. Her research and teaching focuses on Asian American performance and critical race theory. She is the author of National Abjection: The Asian American Body Onstage and her current research focuses on the ethics and aesthetics of discomfort in performance.
June 8, 2017
Kyoung H. Park had some new costumes for his actors: bright neon green tights, which he hands to actors Daniel K. Isaac and Raja Feather Kelly, both dressed in pajamas. “Why are we going now from pajamas to tights?” asked Isaac. Park paused before shrugging, “I don’t know yet.” It’s a rainy Tuesday and the three are developing a new work, PILLOWTALK, at the studio at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, as part of a three-week residency.
Pajamas to tights...it’s part of a larger question that the team is grappling with during this residency: how to best integrate the realism of the bedroom drama, with the surrealism of the dance sequences. “This process informed how we should actually choreograph the show when we premiere,” Park told me later, at the end of the residency.
Pillowtalk is a play for two men, about an interracial gay couple, navigating the ups and downs of marriage. It was inspired by Park’s own marriage, and the fight for marriage equality. During that time, Park was “really wondering what marriage meant and what would happen to the queer movement after the legalization of gay marriage.” And crucially, what do such institutions mean to queer communities of color, whose struggles go beyond that? Those musings became PILLOWTALK, what Park calls a “gay bedroom drama,” though the piece isn’t completely naturalistic; it also incorporates dance sequences modeled on a traditional pas de deux.
Like marriage, the pas de deux is a form that is traditionally between a man and a woman. In turning that form into a dance for two men, PILLOWTALK is also making a commentary on modern marriage itself. “Marriage has changed; what is that change and how can we theatricalize that?” Park explained.
For the PILLOWTALK team, the BAC Residency has been a time to learn the rules of a pas de deux, and then break it. “The male and female dancer tropes are so codified,” said Park. “The female version is always very helpless and always looking graceful...and male dancers always have to combat this idea that male dancers are gay or feminine, by doing various athletic, powerful movement.” So, having two men do a pas de deux becomes a way to “play around with those gender norms and gender roles,” he explained. “When you've got two men, and asking men to butch it up or femme it up or be more dommy or be more subby, it's kind of playful if we're intentional about.”
By the end of the BAC residency, the PILLOWTALK team created two different pas de deux: “one of it was adhering to the classical and iconic balletic movements,” recalled Park, “and then a second version that was a little more pedestrian and gestural, sort of anchored more into a body vernacular of the ordinary person.” Both were presented to an invited audience on the last day of the residency. Afterwards, the consensus was that the second version was more powerful (one person even said the traditional version made them “cringe”). This was bolstering for Park, who is currently doing one-more rewrite of PILLOWTALK before the piece world premieres in January.
“Classical ballet is kind of an oppressive sort of cultural paradigm, why would you want to replicate it if you are anti-oppression?” he posited. “So, I think that was one of those things where it was like, ‘okay we need to learn it to know what it is and then we need to undo it.’ It was twice the work, but it’s important work.”
Diep Tran is currently the associate editor of American Theatre magazine. She has a monthly column with the magazine focused on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. She is also the founder and producer of American Theatre’s biweekly Offscript podcast. In 2014, Diep led the creation and launch of AmericanTheatre.org, the first official website for the magazine. Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times, Playbill, Time Out New York, TDF Stages, Backstage, and Salon, among other publications. Her Twitter handle is @DiepThought.
May 12, 2017
A world that as a teenager, I could only imagine through queer memoir reminiscences, my mother’s secretly stashed pulp fan fiction, and my thumbed-through copy of Faggots by Larry Kramer -- all that was available to an Ohio boy’s searching. Ain’s first hand coming of age nostalgia is at once inviting and unfamiliar. I understand the period, the questioning, the wonderment, but the land is foreign.
Through the process of developing Radicals in Miniature, what I have connected with most is the “I was there” fascination with an era, a period, a first person anthropological romp. Ain as “Childe Harold” witness creates an homage to downtown sensationalism, fleeting celebrity, desperation, an insider’s guide to kitsch, hype, camp and everything in-between, where faux celebrity lives, a teenager’s hormonal night dream.
What was most significant about the first BAC residency in 2015 was that Ain, the king of minimal, was able to design the environment from the basic elements in the studio -- tables, monitors, sound equipment, Josh [Quillen]’s eclectic instrumentation, etc... The story was the thing, the tech trappings were there for mere amplification. The elements were immediate, subtle and simple -- a set of keys, a tax return, a pen, carried profound meaning as they were connected and reconnected to a time, a date, a memory. Thanks to BAC, the indelible stamp was discovered early, the environment never changed, it was only enhanced from residency to residency to premiere.
It is the way in which Ain navigates emotion that fascinates me the most. In the early workshops at BAC, he was carefully attentive to the dramaturgical impact of the emotional “reveal,” we discussed the aspect of when and where. Too soon and the entire journey becomes an emotional deluge, too late and the reverence is imbalanced. The key is to understand the depths and challenges of emotion and memory in public, the danger of the reveal. Memory is a tricky thing. Evoking memories in public is a trickier thing. Much of the time is spent mining an endless list of potential story-tellings…which ones to keep, which ones to let go? By the time we reach the end of the first residency, we have begun to experience the ritual, the ghosts join us. Even without lights and all the tech accoutrement, the ritual has arrived, we transcend the technology. There is an immediacy in the room, the dead will have their due.
After one of the first runs in the BAC studio there is a surprise, an unexpected flood of emotion in an unexpected place, it is a brilliant gem that Ain has been reserving. We laugh because almost any moment along the way could be an emotional slipstream for Ain, he must make choices about how he is navigating his feelings, just how revealing does he want to be? Lost in the sense of loss, the wave of nostalgia, the vulnerability…the bittersweet resonance of dashed dreams, memories of the ones who leave too soon, the ones who live long past longing. This is a reoccurrence at every residency along the way, the ghosts travel with us.
Through the experience of Radicals in Miniature we are invited to witness a special time and place and can fill in our own personal radicals. Through the navigation of one life, one street corner, one happenstance, one confluence of events, we remember multiple corners in multiple places, we make a history together.
Emotions creep in, memory is a bitch.
Feelings are not for the weak hearted.
Sentimentality be damned.
Along the way, I make my own discoveries. I add my names to the list. I summon my personal radicals as I watch and witness...the dead will have their due.
Talvin Wilks is the dramaturg for Radicals in Miniature, which was developed during a Spring 2015 BAC Space residency, and premieres at BAC May 16-24, 2017. Wilks is a director, playwright, and collaborative dramaturg based in both New York City and Minneapolis, where he is a professor of theater at the University of Minnesota. His work blurs the lines of many disciplines forming a unique composite of performative expression. This summer will find him in process with four grand choreographic divas - Camille A. Brown, Bebe Miller, Marlies Yearby, and Jawole Zollar/UBW. Look for his new play Jimmy and Lorraine at the Ko Festival in July 2017.
Jan 13, 2017
Before the first stumble-through of her work-in-progress, Manuela Infante pulls a chair to the center of the room, and asks actress Marcela Salinas and lighting designer Rocío Hernández to join her.
The three women and their producer Carmina Infante have been in residency here in the BAC’s Studio 4B for two weeks, and were six days away from their final showing. Sitting aside, I watch Infante calmly recite to her collaborators the piece’s order of events, adding reminders about particular blocking or transitions. Salinas, sitting on a table, follows along in her script, nodding as Infante talks and interrupting with occasional questions. Hernández interjects every now and then from her seat on the floor. I notice that the dark green of Salinas’s sweatshirt perfectly matches the green color of the large plant next to which she sits. Only after seeing the piece did I wonder if the plant had been a part of the meeting, too.
While it is perhaps extreme to suspect greenery of artistic collaboration, Aparato Radical [Radical Apparatus] indeed encourages us to consider a theater—and world—in which plants have as much agency as humans. It is Infante’s most recent work to challenge anthropocentrism, which has been her prime artistic interest since 2010. Although she initially became known for writing and staging bold re-interpretations of historical figures and narratives, Infante works in phases, investigating a central topic or concern over the course of several productions before moving to another. In her last four plays, Infante and her company Teatro de Chile have in various ways questioned modern man’s superiority and autonomy. Now, she imagines a scenario in which plants decide to reclaim their kingdom.
If you’re interested in contemporary philosophy, these ideas may ring a bell. Such source material has always motivated Infante’s theater—for Aparato Radical, she and her collaborators drew heavily on the work of plant philosophers Michael Marder and Stefano Mancuso. Infante has often declared that she uses theater in service of philosophical inquiry: in order to build fictions, she dissects the construction of reality itself. While Chilean theater has a long, ongoing history of directly political theater, Infante’s theater is better described as ontological. Moreover, as her career has gone on, her work reveals growing investment in what she calls the “contemplative dimension” of theater. She celebrates art’s resistance to utility or consumption; rather than clarifying what is unclear, she says, it should make mysterious what is mundane.
The rehearsal I visited, however, had no air of enigma or high scholarship. Everyone wore loungewear; no one wore shoes. The group had an air of comfortable familiarity: Infante has worked on recent shows with both Salinas and Hernández, and longtime producer Carmina, also present, is her younger sister and Teatro de Chile’s archivist. Infante tends to collaborate over long periods: Teatro de Chile, which just disbanded recently, had been together since 2001. Her extended creative processes for each show, which involve intense group research and devising, also necessarily bring her fellow artists close.
Aparato Radical is no different in its long development process. Before the run-through, Infante tells me that the group had already done much work on Aparato Radical in Chile and have planned for three other work-in-progress showings before the June 2017 premiere. While they had already created the show’s characters before coming to BAC, here they co-wrote the texts and integrated a looper pedal into the staging, in order to live record and replay sound onstage. (Infante, a musician, also designs and operates the sound for her shows.) They also worked on the interaction between Salinas and the lighting, and Infante has been grateful for the excellent tech equipment BAC has provided, given the importance of sound and light to the piece. For Infante, an artist whose process is rigorous and lengthy, the opportunity to concentrate fully on the project, with excellent staff support, has been invaluable. The cultural offerings of New York City itself, she notes, have also been a constant source of inspiration.
The stumble-through begins. Salinas takes off her green sweatshirt, as if distinguishing herself from several plants in the room. Yet in the opening sequence, as “Only Fools Rush In” plays, Salinas seems to become a flower, following with her body and gaze the moving wash of light as if seeking out the sun. Over the course of the one-woman show, she would transform many times, into various characters somehow connected to a teenager’s motorcycle crash against a huge tree. The dramaturgy itself is arboreal: the individuals’ stories branch out from the central “trunk” that is the accident and then from one tale to another. Even within each character, Salinas, thanks to the looper pedal, can have multiple voices, mirroring the philosophical concept that a single plant contains multitudes. Despite the non-anthropomorphic theme, the actress’s performance nonetheless confirms the power of human presence.
But Aparato Radical is not just about whether humans or plants matter more. Since we are humans, we are naturally anthropocentric. Yet Infante suggests that we still might benefit from better understanding plants: “If we accept that plants have other ways of thinking, feeling, communicating, defending themselves, other ways of being intelligent, other forms of consciousness and survival, maybe we can see how to transform our own notions of what it is to think, to feel, to communicate, and to be conscious.” This may sound like a daunting task, but Infante has always been able to translate such weighty, intricate ideas into accessible, visceral theater experiences that reveal the world anew. You don’t need to be able to talk to your Christmas tree, but you may now look at it as something other than seasonal decor—maybe even something you can learn from.
Alexandra Ripp is a DFA candidate in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism at the Yale School of Drama, where she is completing her dissertation on contemporary Chilean theater and politics. She has published writing in Performing Arts Journal, Theater Journal, and Theater, in which her translation of and introduction to Manuela Infante’s Zoo is forthcoming. She has translated plays by Chilean theater artists Guillermo Calderón, Trinidad González, and Teatrocinema to subtitle their U.S. tours. She is the former Ideas Program Manager at the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, CT.
Jan 12, 2017
“Being is fractal.” This is the concept that floats in my mind days after witnessing Kota Yamazaki build Darkness Odyssey with performers Mina Nishimura, Julian Barnett, Raja Feather Kelly, and Joanna Kotze.
“A fractal is a figure with a fractional number of dimensions. […] What you end up with looks like a snowflake. […] The outline is endlessly dividing and is therefore infinitely riddled with proliferating fissures.” Every snowflake is different, singular.
In Darkness Odyssey, dissimilarities between bodies, the performers’ cultural backgrounds, trainings, and ways of translating Kota’s choreography live inside a fragmented reality, in which a simultaneity of gestures, utterances, and inflections form an interconnected network. Kota offers a vision of the body becoming like a black hole, which absorbs everything.
Kota isn’t after approaching bodies or cultures as solid, fixed objects. Instead, he extends his porous notion of blurring: “I want to break the western way of labeling different cultures. I am trying to find a way to internalize varying cultures, unlike fusing or mixing. It’s an interbeingness of cultures, bodies, and perspectives. Not me and you – not like looking at a clear mirror of the self. More like when you see into aluminum, you see yourself blurry, not clearly. I’m interested in this kind of blurry image.”
In the studio at the Baryshnikov Art Center, as part of his BAC Space Residency, I witness layers and layers of translation as bodies decipher each other in unfamiliar physicality. Kota speaks in bursts of English and body movement, while Mina translates from Japanese. They are working on a form in which one person remains stationary in the center, in what Mina calls a landscape spasm, as the other person orbits improvisationally. Kota watches and points out moments that connect to his idea. Glimpses of form congeal, and are shaped as they go.
Kota proposes his somatic practice, Fluid Technique, to cultivate sensitivity to an ever-changing body. He then teaches an abundance of phrases selected from years of material captured in his video archive. In conversation I learn how Kota dances everywhere: in his kitchen, as he’s fishing, running. Many of these instances are recorded. In transmitting movement, the inflection of each performer is more important to Kota than the movement itself. I ask Kota why he makes so many phrases, “schizophrenia,” he responds. He doesn’t like to repeat the same movement. He likes things to be happening simultaneously.
This must be why I seem to be seeing fractals. The performers move through layers of interpretation, similar to the way a fractal becomes a “web of proliferating fissures in infinite regress toward the void.” They seem to mutate as sparks fly off fingertips, radiating with vibrant texture. Fiery watery movements grounded and unhinged. They vocalize, too; each utterance is distinct.
Multiplicity and heterogeneity, elements of fractals, also speak to the nature of translation. At first I feel anxious, concerned that a rendering from western bodies may be an impediment. Writing this piece, I, too, am implicated in this web of interpretation as a western practitioner learning about Kota’s relationship to ankoku butoh, butoh pioneer Tatsumi Hjikata’s philosophy of dance of darkness. Kota describes his own approach and interpretation of ankoku butoh: “Dance of darkness is connected to dark emotions, or desire, or the dark side of human nature. This might be the true nature of ankoku butoh. For me, this darkness is more like a black hole. It’s not so much about expressing the dark side of people, it’s more like it absorbs everything.”
As Kota transmits the phrase material, the movement lives in a “state of perpetual transformation, perpetual translation” functioning “somewhat like DNA, spinning out individual translations, which are relatives, not clones, of the original,” allowing the material to live on through multiple iterations. This process reminds me of the words summoned by Eliot Weinberger and Octavia Paz’s Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, suggesting that a “poem dies when it has no place to go.” Across the space, my eye connects these slippery disjointed translations. It feels as if a collective body is becoming disassembled, morphing into a black hole. In this fragmentation, there is a kind of wholeness. A wholeness, which is about dispersing, evaporating, disappearing, and becoming absorbed.
Julian enters with arms as icy shards as three people collide in towards the center, on toes drifting along an invisible terrain. Mina is squeaking, sounding, blowing air past her clipped hand gestures. Raja’s limbs jab erratic. Sounds composed by Kenta Nagai and Masahiro Sugaya move from slippery, watery drips to frenzied percussive repetitions.
In between, fragments are spoken by the dancers. A “firefly hovering,” “the boy became like a shadow, like a black hole,” “the way the fork creates a shadow is like a volcano.” Chills move through my body as the piece builds up steam. The performers move in a rage with siren-like blasts of sound penetrating the space. In an associative rant, Julian recites glimpses of what he sees. “Hudson,” “Jersey.” We are reminded of the extended space in view.
The violence of sound is exalting. Bodies are caught, vibrating. Morphing together, the sound dissipates; everything is swallowed.
1. Massumi, Brian. A User's Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari. (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1992) 22.
2. Massumi 22-23.
3. Yamazaki, Kota. Personal interview. Translated by Mina Nishimura. 21 Dec. 2016.
4. Kota draws inspiration from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia in which schizophrenia is associated with multiplicities and producing connections, rather than a pathological condition.
5. Massumi 22.
6. Weinberger, Eliot, Octavio Paz, and Wei Wang. Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei: How a Chinese Poem Is Translated. (Mount Kisco, N.Y: Moyer Bell, 1987) 180, 184.
Cori Olinghouse is an artist, archivist, and curator, spearheading the Trisha Brown Archive as Archive Director since 2009, a company she danced for from 2002-2006. As an archivist, Olinghouse has worked with film historian, curator, and archivist, Jon Gartenberg, choreographer Cathy Weis, and is currently developing a series of projects with choreographer Melinda Ring. Recently, she was the recipient of The Award, conceived by Dean Moss (2015), a participant in Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's Extended Life Dance Development program made possible in part by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (2016-2017), and a panelist in the Museum of Modern Art’s Storytelling in the Archives forum (2015), alongside Boris Charmatz and Marvin Taylor. As part of her graduate research at the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance (ICPP) at Wesleyan University, Olinghouse is working on a series of hybrid projects that bring together her research in archives, curation, and performance.
Thank you to Kai Kleinbard for his editorial assistance.
Jan 9, 2017
Though she admits, “What fascinates me is people,” for this work, she will go it alone, at least on stage. In recent works, the French-Cambodian choreographer, Emmanuele “Manou” Phuon, who splits her dance life between Belgium and New York, used other bodies to shape her ideas.
For Khmeropédies I (2009) and Khmeropédies II (2011), she used female dancers dedicated to classical Cambodian vocabulary meant to entertain the Gods and steeped in the devotional relationship between Master and disciple. Then, in Khmeropédies III (2013) and Brodal Serei (Freestyle Boxing/2015), she used male dancers to continue her movement discussion on classical Cambodian monkey training and Khmer boxing, respectively. In all four works, there was always a twist; she pushed the norm and, admittedly, took heat for questioning traditional Cambodian dance forms. Often labeled documentary-performances, about Khmeropédies I & II one writer wrote, “she has shocked conservative audiences with her modern take on the ancient Asian art form,” and for Brodal Serei, another wrote, “Phuon tests the audience by feeding small pockets of information on Khmer boxing.” Though her drive remains a questioning of contemporary dance, Cambodian bodies, and reinvention of traditional form, she says “adding to traditional…doesn’t make sense anymore.” Her reasons are many, but topmost on her list is that funding and governmental support for dance in Cambodia is “in a terrible state” after a good run of support 10 years ago. Concerned about not being able to support dancers financially, and not having the space and time to really work, for now, she resigned to making a solo. “I know when I’m available,” she said. “I’m not fantastic or well-known,” she adds shyly, but I’m a dancer, “...this piece will actually prove that. [Laughs]"
The new work, autobiographical in a way, titled A Work for One Dancer and Many Sounds, is set to a sound score by the soft-spoken Zai Tang Mcintosh with whom Manou collaborated on Brodal Serei. Continuing to turn things upside down, Manou invited others from her dance life to make work on her. Her goal for this creative process "was to gather as much material, related to conversations: “about dancing in general as well as my own, in the context of my experience and understanding of what dance is, [and] with people who are my friends and peers.”
In the mix are Elisa Monte, Mikhail “Misha” Baryshnikov, David Thomson, Patricia Hoffbauer, Yvonne Rainer, and Vincent Dunoyer. The plan was that each choreographer would be part of the final piece because of their long-standing relationship. In-between, a good deal of time is spent with the Zai and seeing Manou (shy) and Zai (shyer) work together, is very special. “These first three weeks were meant to be messy, all over the place, and free. This allows me to go back with elements that I can choose to develop, or use as is, or discard all together,” Manou insisted. She also gave herself the option of cementing all this later after working with a dramaturge, and possibly integrating some of her husband’s art. That was the plan. So what happened after three weeks?
As promised, in lieu of a showing for invited audiences at the end of the three-week residency, Manou left her door open and I was invited to watch rehearsals with Zai, and later with Patricia.
The Plan: Manou worked with Monte 25 years ago “when [she] was in shape, [laughs]," so they were thinking about that time together. Some thoughts were: “What to do with me now”? "Maybe we will use a video from that time and I will dance in front of it”
The Takeaway: Monte created a pretty long series of phrases and also recorded her story of auditioning for Martha Graham’s company during their time together. Manou and Zai were working on blending the two.
The Plan: Manou danced for Baryshnikov’s company, White Oak Dance Project, and said “if he’s in the building [BAC] maybe he won’t choreograph a new work, but maybe revive a piece from their White Oak days.”
The Takeaway: “I didn’t catch Misha, who was too busy.” she said, but I have a feeling there may be more to this.
The Plan: Manou said she “will work with David because I love the guy. We don’t know what we will do yet, but the last question he asked me was, ‘why do you dance?’ I may want to turn that question back and ask, ‘how do I keep doing it?’ He’s the only one who didn’t ask me to do “dance-y” things.”
The Takeaway: “David’s work attempts to answer the question about trying to find who you are on stage when you are not doing ‘other people’s movement.’ [His] work could be worked on more.”
The Plan: Manou dances with Patricia in Yvonne Rainer’s works as one of the “Raindeers.” Patricia has “a very strange idea." [Manou said she wants to] "investigate everything Asian.”
The Takeaway: “Pat’s work is related to a conversation we had about European dancers who do not train like we do and are not interested in the lines and technique American dancers have, and how dated (as in old fashioned) I feel as a dancer. Pat’s work is not ‘finished’ yet.”
The Plan: “She will probably just interview me and I will probably jog [laughs]. I plan to interview her on technique and her fascination with ballet.”
The Takeaway: Yvonne will do something later (the film “Trio A” messed up the schedule!)
The Plan: the only French choreographer on the list told Manou that he was “going to wait and see what the others do... [then] maybe [his] work will be the in-between.” “He may also collaborate with a sound designer,” she said.
The Takeaway: He wasn’t in New York, so they will work when she is back in Belgium.
Manou is lovely dancer and an agreeable subject whose intention it is to bring to life each choreographer’s work vis-à-vis their symbiotic bond. There is more to come, but for now, she says, “all of this comes about because I perform in the US, I choreograph and ‘innovate’ in Cambodia, using tradition as a point of departure, and live in Belgium where the sensibility about movement and dance is completely different from the US.”
Dec 15, 2016
I had not seen Dianne McIntyre in more than 20 years. I often raved about her to my dance history students, who sometimes stared back at me with young, vacuous eyes. They have grown used to my enthusiasm, but remain somewhat amazed that I actually know some of the people I teach about in a history class.
So, I was thrilled when I got the message that Dianne McIntyre had called and wanted to speak with me about her residency at BAC. When I walked into the BAC studio and hugged her, the years melted away. I was back in the studio, an eager young student, waiting to learn more from this awesome young choreographer with the wiry but powerful body, the intense eyes, and the mystical connection with music. I was back in New York, where I began my career as a dancer and writer, enthralled by the work of this pioneering artist whose work Takeoff From a Forced Landing (1984) chronicled the experiences of her mother, a pioneering black female aviator: a female choreographer whose work was admired by musicians, visual artists, and writers alike whose work – like hers – was on the cutting edge and unlike anything we had ever seen before; artists who were redefining arts and culture on their own terms.
Watching McIntyre in rehearsal for her new work-in-progress, Speaking in the Same Tongue, I saw her put her young dancers through their paces: a jump reminded me of birds taking flight, upper body curved over and bent low; I was drawn by a leap with the legs flying like scissors beneath the body while the live music built up a series of jazz riffs and Nehemiah Spenser, the lone male dancer, navigated across the floor on his back. Even without music, the dynamic energy of the movement phrases was palpable.
At age 70, McIntyre remains a live wire: electric energy emanating from a taut body, her hair now a soft creamy color wrapped neatly atop flawless skin, her voice a contrast in gentleness. When directing, she seems to suggest, rather than decree, pausing from time to time, with her chin in her left hand to contemplate and adjust the vision that only she can see.
For sixteen years she directed a company called Sounds in Motion, and, although the company is no longer active, the title is still applicable to what she does with her kinetic recipes concocted of spoken word, poetry, live music, and movement. From her earliest days as a choreographic artist, McIntyre worked with musicians, learned to improvise from them. “I never count,” she says, but rather relies on pulse, on feel. The musicians are not accompaniment, she explains; “We are all part of the same band.”
During a break, when all the dancers have finally arrived for the final rehearsal before the BAC showcase, McIntyre forms a circle for prayer, giving thanks, offering a sacrifice of excellence. In her work, as in her life, she acknowledges the spiritual basis of creativity. Before the final run-through, there is a short improvisation with the dancers and musicians. Each dancer is called upon to “talk back” with the musicians, to make a connection. “You can relate to the musicians,” she advises, “but never be cute.” In another exercise to seal the connection, she had four dancers cross the floor on a diagonal, stretching their boundaries. She is not averse to stopping and asking the dancers or the band to execute a “do-over.” For a section of the work called “Scream” she had the dancers practice individual and collective wails, vocalizing with and without the musicians.
Most of these dancers had never worked together before, meeting for the first time for this brief residency. It was imperative for McIntyre’s work that they become a family. Just prior to the final rehearsal and showing, the dancers circled together one final time, making an offering to the creator and the ancestors. “You are divine beings,” McIntyre told them quietly.
Three weeks in the making, Speaking in the Same Tongue is the beginning of an evening length work of new movement and new music. The five sections created at BAC include “Totem,” a reverent and ritualistic work that incorporates spoken word. Dancer Theara J. Ward’s voice was at times too soft, but her full-out energy was exponentially more effective than what she showed during rehearsals. A “Silent Duet” composed of repetitive motifs increasing in speed is accompanied by footsteps and breathing as the dancers seek, search, and question. “Scream,” a trio, begins with a plaintive wail that is echoed by the saxophone player. For part of the trio the dancers sit with their backs to the audience, and when they fall back or to the side, it appears as if they are fighting unseen demons. Here is where the dancers are encouraged to let the silences speak. In “What?” the dancers ask, “What about? But What? I don’t know. . . maybe,” as they cluster, disperse, and regroup, going through phases of frustration and opposition. The work ends with “Freedom Speech,” a quartet with words and music that pairs each soloist with a different instrument. Somewhere in the middle, McIntyre herself magically appears from out of nowhere, pulling each of the dancers back in, one by one. Speaking in the Same Tongue is the start of a journey that strips away familiar language to reveal the music that resides inside each of us.
For Dianne McIntyre, the music and the movement seem to be drawn from a bottomless well that is watering a whole new generation. *Ase.
*Ase (or às̩e̩ or ashe) is a spiritual and philosophical concept of the Yoruba people of Nigeria which speaks of the power to make things happen and produce change. It applies to everything - gods, ancestors, spirits, humans, animals, plants, rocks, rivers, and voiced words such as songs, prayers, praises, curses, or even everyday conversation. Existence, according to Yoruba thinking, is dependent upon it.
Julinda D. Lewis grew up in Brooklyn, New York and studied dance with George Faison, Fred Benjamin, Eleo Pomare, Maurice Hines, Ella Moore, and Pepsi Bethel (to name just a few of her favorite teachers) and at Dance Theatre of Harlem and Clark Center for the Performing Arts. Lewis is Artistic Director of Sarah’s Sisters, a worship arts ministry for women aged 50+; a founding member of the Women of One Accord community dance ministry; Senior Director of the Ayinde2 Children and co-founder of the Ayinde (adult) Liturgical Dancers at Saint Paul’s Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia. Lewis earned her Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in Dance and Dance Education from New York University and a Master of Science in Early Childhood Education from Brooklyn College, and has been a dance and theater critic for more than 30 years. She is the author of a young reader’s biography, Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance, and editor of Black Choreographers Moving Towards the 21st Century. Recently published teachings Dancing in the Bible and The Tabernacle Teaching are available on Amazon.com (look for updates soon). Lewis completed course work for a PhD in Educational Leadership at VCU then studied liturgical dance at Calvary Bible Institute and Seminary (Martinez, GA) where she was ordained in 2009, and with TEN (The Eagles Network) and EITI (Eagles International Training Institute – School of Dance) from which she was licensed in Word and Technique in 2012. She is currently completing her doctorate in Educational Leadership at Regent University. Lewis completed the Sons of Zadok training program under Pastor Sabrina McKenzie/International Dance Commission in 2011 and Year 1 of the Eagles International Intercessory Prayer Institute Prayer School in 2013, and went on her first mission trip to Kenya in October 2013, returning in 2014 and 2015. She also went on an EITI mission to Haiti in 2015. She is currently active in spreading the gospel through dance as the East Region Coordinator for the International Dance Commission and the Richmond Metropolitan Area Leader for TEN under Eagle Co-Pastor Tamara Nichols. Lewis recently retired from the Richmond City Public Schools Programs for the Gifted and is active in the Richmond dance and theater community as Dance and Theatre Reviewer for The Richmond Times-Dispatch, and as a voting member of the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle (RTCC). She is enjoying retirement as an Adjunct Instructor for the Department of Dance and Choreography at Virginia Commonwealth University, an editor for Christian writers, and teaching BeMoved ® dance classes at Dogtown Dance Theatre and Rigby’s Jig Dance Studio in Richmond, VA. Her most daring accomplishments to date have been acquiring a motorcycle license and completing a 12-mile rafting trip with the Girl Scouts in Northeastern Oklahoma. She is mother to three amazing adult children: Jamila, Soleil, and Amandla; and “YaYa” to five adorable and talented grandchildren: Kingston Marley Holmes, Emmitt Christian Holmes, Jasmyne Makayla Ferguson, Ralph Jordan Ferguson, and Kylie Sarai Ferguson.
Dec 9, 2016
There’s an exigency to Sibyl Kempson’s very weird, very wild work that makes me hesitant to describe her as an experimentalist (except maybe insofar as experimentation and trial are continuous conditions of life).
Like many powerful thinkers, Sibyl has no time for the existing valuations of what is high or low in our culture, and a real love of intelligent abundance wherever it occurs. My sense is that her interests are not formally experimental (in the sense of staking out a critical space external to the normative in order to speak to the normative) but rather tend toward the deep-time values of theater: getting in the room, experiencing collective energy as an act of repair. I once asked Sibyl about her approach to singing and she told me her job was “to put the song in the people.” It struck me as a figure for a blood transfusion, apposite in that somehow what I get when I experience the sheer performative force of Sibyl’s plays is counterpart to iron, to potassium, to the basic fact of immunity – something that allows our bodies to act on their own behalf, but is also a record and recollection of a communal, social-physical gift inheritance.
That sense of mission to be a spelunker of our various forms of inherited knowledge about how to live is evident in Sibyl’s new, in-progress play with songs, The Securely Conferred Vouchsafed Keepsakes of Maery S. Sibyl’s plays have always engaged with excess and often with the gleeful ventriloquism of existing forms of dramatic literature (the semi-unintelligible old English curse, the expressionistic Bergman film, the collected Springsteen ballads), but Maery S., like another recent play, Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag, possesses an anti-(non?- skew?)-chronological sense of direction I’m still trying to wrap my head around. It seems to move in multiple, simultaneous pathways along its timelines as well as its latitudinal ones. This has something to do with a perception of confluence and transmission that flows across minor literatures and commonly dismissed forms of speech (like, say, a comment stream on a Bigfoot site). Merging the life of Mary Shelley, Shelley’s Frankenstein, years of Bigfoot research, stages of the Gothic, the figure of Doris Duke, river landscapes of Germany and America (with their campingplatzes and rest stops), the play asks, “Why shouldn’t I write of monsters?” (And what kind of truck stop ballad would the monster sing, after finding some hinge of redirection?)
In past workshops on the piece, Sibyl was focused on expanding the text and the songs (written with Austin-based composer Graham Reynolds). At BAC, Sibyl spent her weeks in residence asking questions about how to get the play onto its feet – not just a question of where to be in space but more urgently of the right set of ways of being in the body that both kept the humor and music alive but also made room for something monstrous to be present, both in Maery and in the monster. When I asked her about what she felt herself drawing on in approaching staging, Sibyl unspooled a wide-ranging set of sources, all of which in some way forms that face terror as both an internal and external form of confrontation: “The psychothriller of the 1970’s… the idea of the empty house… something is in the house, and you don’t know what… films like Klute, Don’t Look Now, The Sentinel, The Wicker Man, The Changeling, and particularly The Driver’s Seat, based on Muriel Spark’s late-career short story… Television shows I was vaguely remembering from when I was growing up and watching a lot of weird TV in the late 70’s that basically scared the living crap out of me, permanently… The prologue to James Whale’s film The Bride of Frankenstein from 1935… a LOT of YouTube video footage of Bigfoot sightings, and other YouTube videos of guys analyzing those sightings, as well as more fully-produced documentaries on the subject… Tours that you get to go on sometimes of old homes that have been taxidermied and turned into stuffy museums. The LBJ library in Austin. The Crook House in Omaha. Edwin Booth’s room at the Players Club. Graceland! Stroud Mansion. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Duke Farms! Southfork Ranch! Places where I’ve hiked and camped in the Rheinsteig region of Germany. The style is in the topography there, gentle and severe at the same time, long-civilized but it hasn’t forgotten its pre-Christian wildness and still honors it by what has been preserved through time.”
The byproduct of these things is like Shelley’s monster: it’s stitched-together, but it’s alive, and it holds a surprisingly large mandate to tell us something about what humans do and are and think. Another thing that happened at BAC was an originally unintended doubling of Maery, played at first in alternating rehearsals and then in tandem by Amelia Workman and Zenzi Williams. “Both are in high demand at the moment and it had been a solution for their complicated schedules,” said Sibyl. “But I loved there being a multiplicity expressed as a multiplied physical embodiment. I was already positing several versions of Maery (one for each definition of the word “Gothic”), and both Amelia and Zenzi brought something very special and variously elemental to the table which worked together beautifully. We could suddenly cover way more narrative ground, and the inhabitation of the idea of Mary Shelley took on more force and immediacy. They became Hecate! There were only two of them, but I kept seeing the threefold Goddess of the Underworld. A trebled face, a populace.”
Karinne Keithley Syers is a multidisciplinary artist and writer who has been making performance in New York since 1997, next up at The Chocolate Factory, where her radio play and paper corridor installation of A Tunnel Year will take place this December. She won a New York Dance and Performance "Bessie" Award for Outstanding Production for her 2010 operetta and museum Montgomery Park, or Opulence. She is a member of New Dramatists, the founding editor of 53rd State Press, and for one glorious year cohosted a show on WFMU, the jewel of freeform radio. She currently teaches playwriting at Eugene Lang/The New School. Find streamable and downloadable treasures at fancystitchmachine.org.
Dec 2, 2016
“It’s kind of like you’re editing a video, but you’re editing real life,” says Andrew Schneider as he tells me about the process of developing his new work FIELD at Baryshnikov Arts Center.
Known for the technological sophistication of his performances, working in a studio at BAC with its large, open space, floor-to-ceiling windows and relatively spare tech set-up presented a new opportunity. “I had gone on some writing residencies – I told myself I was ‘writing by programming’ but I wasn’t. I’d bring all my gear, set it up, make sure it was all working and all of a sudden the time was up.” So he decided to take this time at BAC to investigate storytelling techniques and dramaturgy, do some writing to explore the major ideas of the piece with collaborators sound designer/composer Bobby McElvor and performer/choreographer Alicia Ohs.
“I don’t really know exactly where the idea for this show [FIELD] came from,” he tells me. “I started making sketches after YOUARENOWHERE was in COIL [Performance Space 122’s January festival] but that was about it.”
One of the origin points for FIELD, was Robert Irwin’s Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a book he had encountered previously. “I had always liked the Light and Space art movement, but I didn’t know why. Reading Irwin I realized I liked the work because the ideas he was investigating are ideas I’m interested in investigating too.”
Schneider’s newfound insight and renewed interest in Light and Space was further stoked by seeing the James Turrell retrospective at LACMA while he was in Los Angeles performing in The Wooster Group’s Early Shaker Spirituals.
“I became fascinated by the idea that there is a point when you become aware of your own perceptions. When you’re perceiving your own perceptions, seeing yourself see, this is where the experience happens. And making a show about that would be an incredibly hard thing to do – so I thought I should do it.”
Hearing Schneider describe his creative practice, he is part magpie, part explorer: he surrounds himself with books, images, digital media files, notebooks, laptops, software and sketches – anything that captures his eye and imagination – then starts to arrange, edit, accrete, re-arrange and edit again, worrying at the edge of an idea until things start to come into focus.
Schneider takes what one might call a “rapid prototyping” approach to making performance. His “writing” technique involves both writing in the traditional sense – at BAC he kept an always-growing Google doc for writing new text and tracking ideas – as well as programming, assembling and editing digital media in Ableton Live.
This approach proved useful when Schneider and collaborators had the idea for what he jokingly refers to as FIELD’s “hallucination ballet” sequence, and then realized they needed more performers to see how the piece operated.
“I didn’t need the people, I just needed people!” he laughs. He reached out to Rosemary Quinn at NYU’s Experimental Theater Wing who sent over some students. “Basically I wanted to set up the parameters for the sequence and then ‘run the simulation’.”
By giving the performers in-ear microphones to feed them text and direction and having the scenes cued and played through the Ableton Live software, Schneider could have the performers up and running, literally, with little to no rehearsal or preparation. “We ended up with this crazy 15 minute scene with the kids just running all over the place.”
This phase of development was about building material that will work in conjunction – and perhaps opposition – to other pieces of the work already created. Schneider’s most recent work, YOUARENOWHERE, was in some ways a barrage of sensation; a pulsing overwhelm of light, sound and fractured text moving at high velocity. Schneider intuited he had to do something different. “The metabolism of YOUARENOWHERE was that I was always five steps ahead of the audience, so for this show, I started wondering how do we curate the audience’s attention with the opposite of sensory overload?”
Curious about how sensory deprivation – a lack of perceptual input or change – can give rise to hallucinations, Schneider eventually found himself surrounded by Oliver Sacks books, books about mountaineering and about collective hallucinations in explorers. A new series of questions began to arise: “Can we stage hallucinations in a way that isn’t like a realistic play?” “What would storytelling through hallucinations look like?” “Can we make a shared hallucination?” “Is it possible to induce hallucinations or at least get people to think they’re hallucinating?”
An earlier residency at EMPAC was focused on lighting, stage effects and sound spatialization using High Order Ambisonics (HOA), a technology for 3D audio spatialization that is every bit as space-age as it sounds. “Right now I think the first part of the show will not be presenting the eye with a lot of visual information, we’re going to work mostly with the 3D soundscape.” He cites Elevator Repair Service’s Room Tone as a major influence.
At a moment where so much of live theater is captivated by the so-called “immersive” and “interactive”, and where the media world has become enamored of Virtual Reality, few artists are so thoughtfully, rigorously, playfully and successfully interrogating the nature (and location) of human experience itself. Schneider uses sophisticated digital age tools alongside the traditional practices of stagecraft (he started his career in musical theater!) to create visceral, engaging performances that leave audiences questioning reality and the authenticity of their own experience without ever leaving their seats or donning goggles. He nests layers of ideas and information together and delivers them in unexpected but accessible ways.
One of the great thrills of experiencing Andrew Schneider’s work – whether in development or in its final form – is the exhilaration of entering into the unknown followed by the joy of discovery. We might not be able to articulate what we’ve found, but we know we’ve been through something extraordinary.
I ask him if FIELD is likely to have any surprises as startling as YOUARENOWHERE and he laughs. “Right now there are no spoilers – but I don’t know if that will stay the same.”
Andy Horwitz is Director of Programs at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. From 2010-2013 he worked as the Director of Public Programs for the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council where he curated The River To River Festival, a free, month-long multidisciplinary arts festival at sites throughout Lower Manhattan. Previously he worked as Director of Strategic Partnerships at the Foundation for Jewish Culture, Producer at Performance Space 122, and, from 2007-2009, as co-curator of the PRELUDE Festival at the Martin E. Segal Theater Center at the Graduate Center at CUNY. A well-regarded critic as well as an administrator, Andy is the founder of the website Culturebot.org and a 2014 recipient of the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant for his project Ephemeral Objects: Art Criticism for the Post-Material World.
Dec 1, 2016
When Richard Move first owned a copy of Autobiography of an Androgyne, he couldn’t keep it in the house. The life story of Ralph Werther a.k.a Jennie June a.k.a Earl Lind, was published in 1918, marking the first telling of a transgender life in the underworld of New York City.
According to Werther/June/Lind, being “third sex” at the turn of the century, one had to encounter men of the “ultra-virile,” sort, enduring the worst violent crimes; rape, robbery, beating, and blackmail; to survive such a life. For Move, the gender fluid fatale, most known for his performances of Martha Graham with 20 years of the touring show Martha@..., the story of this life was all too real. But while researching for his Ph.D. in Performance Studies, with an emphasis in Dance and Gender Studies at New York University, the need to explore this autobiography and the survival of this queer predecessor became undeniable.
In his new work, XXYY, Move along with decades-long collaborators, Katherine Crockett and Catherine Cabeen, traces anecdotes of Werther/June/Lind while joining these stories with songs by Alessandro Moreschi, the only castrato to make solo recordings. With masks and costumes by Alba Clemente, Move channels these turn-of-the-century third sex beings as an offering, in parts homage and haunting.
In the two hours I spent observing Move, Crockett, and Cabeen, I time-traveled through their bodies into my own gender fantasies. Crockett and Cabeen, as mirror images and twin jesters, like a two-headed gender Janus, lifted one another and turned each other both toward and away from the tragic narratives they recited. Move entered in patent leather platform boots, loose pants, and shirt, and swayed deftly to Moreshci.
I felt myself at once subsumed in the atmosphere of the dance like a child. I was taken up by Move as if I was sitting in the lap of a world-weary aunt with a book of gruesome fairytales.
It was a couple days after the election. I was shaking the entire train ride to the wind-blown doors of BAC. My body felt newly and at the same time familiarly unwelcome in this world. Something between the delicate steps and hand gestures of Move combined with the violent, lonely, imploring text of Werther/June/Lind felt like a séance, a recollection of a beloved faerie goddess who had not been known to me until that moment.
I spoke of this night in the early aughts when I had watched Move put on make-up in Lucy Sexton’s loft on Hudson. In my early years in New York, Move’s gender non-conformity left me star-struck, worshipping at the altar of the fem and femme. I could exalt without shame.
As I confessed this, we got on the topic of sacrifice and martyrdom, how both Werther/June/Lind and Moreshci offered up their bodies and voices for the betterment of humanity. Move feels intertwined with this sense of devotion to the lives of gender non-conforming people and the desire to touch the sacred with his work.
“Gender identity disorder wasn’t removed as a pathology from the DSM until a few years ago,” he said. “While there might be a feeling of hope about homosexuality with the legalization of same-sex marriage, gender non-conforming and non-binary people are still marginalized outsiders. The lives that were on the line more than century ago are still on the line. The bloom is off the rose! But that’s why these stories are more resonant than ever.”
Marissa Perel is an artist and writer based in New York. She started the column Gimme Shelter: Performance Now for Art21 Magazine, and was editor of Critical Correspondence, the online journal of Movement Research. Other essays, poems, and interviews can be found in BOMB Magazine, Culturebot, The Performance Club, Drunken Boat, and for Trisha Brown: In The New Body. Her performances and installations have been shown at such as venues as The Chocolate Factory Theater, Center for Performance Research, Danspace Project, Judson Memorial Church, Dixon Place, Pseudo Empire, and Golden. Her chapbook Angry Ocean 1-10 is published by Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs. She has read at St. Mark’s Poetry Project with Samuel Delany, McNally Jackson, and Bureau for General Services Queer Division. She was recently a visiting artist at Konstfack College for Arts and Design, Sweden, Wesleyan University, University of Michigan, and Columbia University. She is currently an Artist in Residence at Brooklyn Arts Exchange.
Aug 5, 2016
When BAC asked me to write a piece on the residency of Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy, I immediately said “yes” because I’d seen the two of them perform – as Nrityagram – and it’s embedded in my memory. I’d never want to miss an opportunity like this. - Wally Cardona
Rudolf Nureyev Studio, 3/8/16
S = Surupa Sen
B = Bijayini Satpathy
The room itself feels contained.
The music of Hossein Ali Zadeh (not “Indian” music)
S dances alone, maybe 30 seconds. B watches and responds “It seems like it needs…” (does some small movement)
S repeats second time. Seems deeper, the face more expressive. True? Or is it just what happens when seeing something a second time?
These eyes are always seeing SOMEthing.
Note: S has tape on her foot, the therapeutic kind.
B now dances. More attack, sharper edges. Crap. I’m comparing. Is it just what happens when seeing something back to back? Go with it…
S: a constant supple give at what might be identified as the end of something.
All parts of the body stay constantly full. Filled with what? Where do their bodies hurt?
They stop. A workfulness appears when they stop…but when moving, their bodies seem to take such pleasure out of dancing. Or do their bodies take pleasure in working, in being called upon?
S pulls out a mat and sits. Deep space. Am I watching her sit on “What comes next?”
B says to me “We like to finish each day practicing Odissi.” Was that NOT Odissi?
S dances first:
That crazy stomp/slap of the foot…How is that possible?(see tape on foot)
At every moment, an altered body
Insane stamina. How long has she danced this dance?
“Pure Dance” vs. “Storytelling” vs. Dancing Purely…
B dances next:
Squat jumps, back bends, impossible balances, vicious leg kicks, on the floor one moment, flying in the air the next… But nothing ever calls attention to itself. At any moment, during any and all of these actions, there is an absolute stillness.
Bijayini: For us, generally, if we’re not talking personally, maximum stress is in the legs, in the quadriceps, the hips. That’s where it is.
Surupa: Because you always stand with your weight planted, very solid, and hold that position while the upper body constantly moves with torso isolation.
Bijayini: Traditionally, there wasn’t any cooling down. That was never taught to us, so there were a lot of injuries. Because Orissa is a very warm and humid place, the dancers, when young, can dance without struggles.
Surupa: But if you’re not careful, there’s a lot of stress in your knees and your back, especially from the hard floors. And if you get tired and start to push, if you’ve been hammering away for 25 years…your body is going to say you’re not meant to be doing this like that.
Bijayini: The good part about most of our classical dances is that we have the Abhinaya, the expressional part of it all. But we do have pure dance in India, like the first dance Surupa did: movement vocabulary threaded together to match the melody. That is hard. Very hard.
Surupa: Pure dance does not have a story.
Bijayini: But even in pure dance, though there’s no narrative, it always dwells on joy and love. When you talk about emotional connection, this is something we always have in an Indian context. If it is a narrative, then there are the words, the poems, the context or the characters that give you the emotional connections. If a non-narrative - which is just vocabulary - then we practice and practice and practice, to find the source emotion of that physical movement.
Surupa: We don’t have to give it a word.
Bijayini: We have that connectedness but what we project through it is a different emotion, based on joy and love. Even when practicing little alphabets as our skill practice, it is always through joy and love. I would never do it as an exercise of just shape and form.
Surupa: In each of the forms there is an inherent personality within the form because it has developed out of a particular region where there is a primary deity, and the dance was offered as an invocation to the chosen deity. For every dancer, your being is the representation of the feminine energy yearning to unite with the infinite god head and that god head is considered male. Whether you are a male or female dancer, you dance as if you are longing to unite with that deity.
We’re not thinking of that character but the whole form is developed out of that faith. For us, the pre-given condition is that you are a devotee. You’re not just doing an action. You’re doing the dance as a sacred art, as a devotee, so everything is an offering. And the purest form of offering is without a sense of self. When you bring the sense of self into the offering, then you bring - as far as the concept of Hindu faith is concerned – you bring ego into it. So you try to disassociate yourself from the ego by making a pure dance offering.
Exactly like a devotee going to the temple… As you go from the exterior to the interior of the temple, the journey is as an individual who is alone. Hinduism is not a congregation faith. It is one person, in search. So what they do in a temple is represent the journey of a devotee. Outside is full of sculptures and many things; the second layer is slightly less ornate; and by the time you reach the inner sanctum, there is nothing. It is absolutely devoid of anything. It is a very small space so you and the deity have an individual intimate connection.
The dance is meant like that too… We begin with an invocation, to create an atmosphere where we can all start the journey. The second dance will be an ornate piece, where we do a pure dance offering. It is not meant to tell my story or anybody’s story. It is just me and my body offering to you with my spirit. Therefore…that joy. In the third dance, we’ll start to sing the songs of various aspects of the deities; and in India all deities are very human and have human stories. Then you go into the next level where, hopefully, in that transition, you have completely immersed yourself in the journey and have offered yourself up. So by the time you do the last dance, which is called the dance of salvation, or moksha, there is nothing of you left. You have worked it out. And when you finally go there, you and the spirit have become one.
Each dance has a very specific place in the repertoire. And you are meant to find that space as you go along, so that by the time you have finished, you are Puja, or prayer.
It is a reflection of life. And what you are trying to find in life…is emerging in your dance.
Surupa: Right now, at BAC, I have given myself a particular exercise: to simply explore different sounds. I’m not trying to make a dance that will fit into my repertoire…at all.
This is, for me, to learn something. It might not even be worth watching. But that’s what I’m doing.
Wally Cardona is a choreographer, dancer, and teacher living in Brooklyn.
Apr 8, 2016
“In Merce’s work, front is constantly changing. You have to imagine you’re dancing alone,” Andrea Weber tells me on a break between class and rehearsal in the sixth-floor BAC studio, named for Cunningham and his partner, John Cage. It’s the first of a three-week residency Weber and Patricia Lent lead for the Merce Cunningham Trust.
With 17 dancers, they’ll reconstruct Suite for Five (1956) and Fabrications (1987).
“Suite teaches dancers to hold space. I was terrified when I first danced it.” It’s hard to imagine Weber scared of anything. Her body has so much power it feels like it’s rushing out of her, even as we relax on the studio floor.
I lean into the mirror and wonder, What exactly about Cunningham’s work is frightening? Is it that what’s in front is always shifting? Is it this idea of dancing alone while still in a group?
Rehearsal begins and dancers rush to their places, quietly stand alone. Outside music bleeds through the tall windows: shouts, horns, Hudson Yard construction. A trio pushes and pulls up - and downstage, makes gathering gestures with their arms. At the end of a solo Weber calls out, “It’s about 45 seconds too slow.”
She’s been keeping time on her phone. Occasionally she snaps her fingers or talks in rhythm to convey timing. As is customary, the dancers will work with the score, Cage’s Music for Piano the day before the performance.
“You don’t want to get there too early,” Weber says at the end of the run-through, and I think of how I like it when, at the end of a Cunningham piece, the choreography and music don’t finish simultaneously. It is then we see the truth of life, terrifying as it is: time and space don’t align perfectly.
I’m on the floor again, this time with Lent. She leans her long, fit body forward, excited to talk about dancing. Lent originated a role in Fabrications. “The dance was constructed not so much with a plan as an itinerary. With chance procedure, Merce created puzzles to solve. I think the goal was to go as far as he could, until he had to finish it.
“‘I always start with movement,’ Merce would say. I think he was speaking practically, not philosophically. When he made Fabrications, he began with the movement material, then the structure, phrases, and casting. The dance is made up of 64 phrases, and paired groups. There’s a sense of warmth to the work, maybe because it’s not in unitards, but silk dresses, pants, and shirts. And because of the increasing contact the dancers make. They keep changing partners. In the 20 sections, there are five ‘scenes’ labeled for the nine permanent emotions of Hindu aesthetics. One episode is unlabeled. Fear repeats. The others are anger and sorrow.”
Lent cleans her glasses. The dancers begin. The wide composition demands that I get up from the floor and sit in a chair. The only time I use this much of my eyesight is when I’m dancing. I watch the circular shapes, pathways, and formations. The vocabulary is fresh on these bright, joyful dancers. In previous rehearsals Lent directed the dancers to, “Push contrasts and don’t be afraid to make noise, be bigger.”
Fabrications is loud now, and moody. There’s a sudden waltz; an intense duet that begins on the floor; a jumping quartet for men, one woman leading; a whirling trio that repeats and travels on a diagonal; a duet for a woman bending backwards, forearm to forehead, a man supporting her; a sextet for men; a leaning adagio for nearly all of the couples; a short walking, bending, and kneeling solo that comes halfway through the work, which Cunningham made for himself. The solo seems to split the work apart.
At the end of rehearsal I ask Christian Allen to speak about dancing Cunningham’s solo. “It’s about setting the pace, creating a world where I can explore energy and impulses.”
We’re standing in the middle of the room, and I’ve forgotten that music, Short Waves and SBbr by Emanuel Dimas de Melo Pimenta, will accompany the piece. I listen now to the dancers pack their stuff: socks and sweatshirts, papaya slices and telephones, notebooks with sweat droplets. It’s in the creation, the putting together of things—bodies, shapes, sounds, rhythms, colors—that we find truth. Outside the light changes in Hudson Yards. A new city is being built.
Ian Spencer Bell is a dancer, choreographer, and poet.