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.
Jul 3, 2014
To know Carmen de Lavallade is to know a gentle giant, and learning about her six-decade journey to becoming an icon in the dance world, is to be well informed. Ms. de Lavallade recounts her intriguing story in her solo show, As I Remember It, which received its world premiere at Jacob’s Pillow in June, but for a special audience she opened the doors during rehearsal at BAC just weeks before the show premiered.
Carmen de Lavallade, a Los Angeles native, began her performing career with the Lester Horton Dance Theater, the first multi-race dance company in the United States. She introduced to the school her high school friend, Alvin Ailey, who was also interested in dance, and both studied with Horton for years until Horton’s death when Mr. Ailey was chosen to run the Company. By invitation, during a Company trip to Jacob’s Pillow, Mr. Ailey and Ms. de Lavallade auditioned and were cast in the Broadway-bound musical House of Flowers (1954); soon after, they formed the “de Lavallade-Ailey American Dance Company,” now the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She went on to appear onscreen in Carmen Jones and Odds Against Tomorrow, among other films, and has performed with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Metropolitan Opera, and American Ballet Theatre. Ms. de Lavallade holds the longest Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival performing career -- from 1953 with the Lester Horton Dance Theatre to 2004 with Paradigm. For her momentous return to Jacob’s Pillow, she premiered As I Remember It, described as a combination of “…powerful movement and poignant storytelling to weave a theatrical memoir about her venerable life on stage.” Of a 1993 appearance in Milton Myers’ Ain’t No Way, dance critic Jennifer Dunning of the New York Times wrote, “her performance…ought to be required viewing for today's young dancers.”
It has been long coming, but this year, BAC invited Ms. de Lavallade to complete her solo show, in the second part of a two-part residency. Her “team,” as she calls them, who helped to realize this work are: Joe Grifasi (director), Talvin Wilks (dramaturg/co-writer), Maya Ciarrochi (video designer), and Mimi Lien (set designer). Ms. de Lavallade shared some thoughts on the residency, the process, the “Open Rehearsal” at BAC and the first performance at Jacob’s Pillow.
Charmaine Warren (CW): Congratulations on your opening at The Pillow.
Carmen de Lavallade: Thank you, dear. I'm so happy that it went well. It's not finished yet. This is our maiden voyage, we're going to do some re-writes, and we’re still working on it. We have other engagements coming up at the Kelly Strayhorn Center in Pittsburg and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
CW: The first residency at BAC was in 2012, correct?
Ms. de Lavallade: Yes. Thank goodness for BAC, we could never have accomplished this without BAC because it is so complicated. With the set and the projections I have at least four or five partners that I’m working with on stage. The audience is the other partner because we are going through it together.
CW: Did you set specific goals during the first residency?
Ms. de Lavallade: Yes, but it was bit by bit, starting from absolute scratch working with Talvin and Joe. It's mainly my words but with Talvin’s help we put it together, otherwise we didn't know how to go about it exactly. It was a lot of information.
CW: How did this second residency come about?
Ms. de Lavallade: It's always been Anna Glass [the show's producer]. She's the one that approached BAC. Anna's the angel. She's the person that really put this all together.
CW: Can you talk more about the team that you brought together in the beginning: Joe Grifasi and Talvin Wilks. Why these two men and what brings them to the table?
Ms. de Lavallade: Joe was one of my students at Yale (University). He's part of my Yale family; I have a dance family and a theatre family, he's also part of that special group of people in the 70s that produced extraordinary work. I met Talvin when we were doing those “10 Minute Plays.” He's a dramaturg; he works with words but he's also a director. He knows everything about me, he's like a book, and he has chronicled my whole life. When Joe and Talvin got together, Joe was worried about the relationship. He said, "I don't know, I'm a director and dramaturgs are really just into words and dates...we are from two different worlds." But they worked brilliantly together because they are both directors. Talvin also worked with dance people and has a different outlook, and Joe is particularly imaginative, as actors can be, plus he's movement orientated. Talvin has this thing about words…he sees things that Joe couldn't see in the text. He’d say, "Well this says this here, but we can do this here." That’s how he worked; he tried to make it more poetic, so it wasn't just a linear piece. It's more like a [Samuel] Beckett piece; it pops all over because that's the way memory is.
CW: How long has As I Remember It been on your mind?
Ms. de Lavallade: Anna and I touched on it a couple of years before. But everything was kind of crazy because Geoffrey [Holder, her husband] was having his problems, I was in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and I'd just moved—it was really kind of messy. I was supposed to do a very informal version, but there was just no way, then this evolved. I'd gone to speak to Misha [Mikhail Baryshnikov], and he was very gracious, he took the chance, then it all started!
CW: With the team, the thoughts are not only yours now, so what were the next steps?
Ms. de Lavallade: All three of us [Carmen, Joe and Talvin] looked at each other and said, "where are we gonna start"? And we just threw something together. Joe threw up a set [a bar and a couple of chairs], and said, "...ummmm, now what about Lester [Horton]?" And I said, “Well, he was one of my friends.” And just like that, it came from a little thing and it kept morphing.
CW: At the “Open Rehearsal” for BAC, which was the first time you’d run the entire show, you began with “I remember growing up,” and immediately took your audience to your beginnings: watching your favorite TV shows, you talk about your mother, your many aunties, your cousin and dancer whom you admired Janet Collins, your first dance class, first teacher, and so much more. What was this recall/this journey like?
Ms. de Lavallade: It was daunting! It was also very strange, particularly my mother's story. You want to get the essence of each moment… [but] it was so much. I went to the past because nobody knows where you're from, but those things are a part of you, you can't help being who you are, that affects your choices and how you deal with things. We actually kept changing things the day of the performance. My brain was fried, but everybody was working together. It was a team effort and they were incredible. Now the real work begins. We have to do the nipping and the tucking for the next time.
CW: Were some topics more difficult than others?
Ms. de Lavallade: Oh yes, I think my mother's topic was really difficult. It's a beautiful section; very moving, but then you lighten it up with all the other stories. Of course there was my daddy's story—he’s the hero. My sisters and I think about it, we don't know how he did it, being that young, they must have been in their 30s. They were newly married during the depression, and he with three little girls by himself, boy, what a man. He was an extraordinary man.
CW: You’re known as a dancer to many, but you are also a respected actress. Did movement and acting weigh equally during the creative process?
Ms. de Lavallade: It all goes together. I don't know where one leaves off and the other begins, in fact my dancing changed because I could explore more. I was never a technical person, I was not interested in technique; I just thought you had to have it. I didn't have those big turnouts; God didn't make me that way [laughs], but I was fortunate to work with Lester Horton. When I was in the company, everyone had their knees down to the floor in splits—not me! But I'm the one he picked to dance Salome. I had certain things that I was really good at because my body was made that way, but I didn't have a turnout worth a hoot [laughs]. My knees were always sticking up when everybody had their heads on the floor. Lester was a dramatic choreographer, so was John Butler and a lot of the people that I worked with. That was my strong point; I was more the dramatic person and I work very well with choreographers who work that way.
Then there is all that text. There were times when I didn't remember things and I call for line because that's the way memory is. Actors do that very well, they say, "don't worry if you miss…make it up," and they clean it up later. It's very hard because I'm in dancer mode, and as dancers we don't make mistakes; we get into that mode and if we freeze it drives you nuts! But that can happen to the best of us. Actors deal with words and emotions, everybody gets keyed up but they find their way back. That to me is what I have to work on.
CW: You’ve worked with some pretty important people whose stories you’ve shared. How did you decide who to include and who not to include?
Ms. de Lavallade: That was so difficult. What do you cut, what do you keep? What is going to fit, what is not? I still have to make some changes, I keep saying, "Oh dear, I forgot so and so," but I want to at least mention the things that they did; pop them in. We call it “the book" because you can’t put everything in, we also wanted to keep it at an hour, no more.
CW: Are there favorite memories included in the show?
Ms. de Lavallade: Oh, you took me off guard there [laughs]. All the memories are fun. I think my favorite are of my sisters and I playing radio, we used to make up all our games. We didn't have things, but it was to our advantage, anybody growing up in that period had to invent their own games because we didn't have things, but it was fun. I also want a little more of Yale, we went through that quickly. We added poems and the Titania speech from Shakespeare [“A Midsummer’s Night Dream”] where the old woman talks about her youth. That takes things out of context...it's not linear at all…because we put one thing with something else and it makes it more poignant.
CW: Has this BAC residency revealed new ideas around the work since 2012?
Ms. de Lavallade: Thanks to BAC for this last residency because that’s how we got the set in, at least the mock up, so that when we got to the Pillow we were ready to at least set up. It was complicated, but it never could have happened without BAC. I say thank you Mr. Baryshnikov and everybody there. I know they were wondering what in the world we were bringing; they were nervous. But this was an experience for everybody, it was something new, that set/curtain is like a dream and with the projections, it breathes. At the very end when I walk through the middle, I was like a cat, it was fun. There are other things we want to add…but that's still happening.
CW: How was it to finally premiere the work at Jacob’s Pillow?
Ms. de Lavallade: We are happy and The Pillow is happy. The Pillow didn't want a travelogue, but they were very pleased. It's still a work-in-progress. Like my son said “Ma, you're in your front room.” We will leave openings until we really get it down...but I don't want to lose that flavor, I want to have that feeling like you can go and talk to somebody in this room, this audience. It's a learning process for me, a huge learning curve.
Charmaine Patricia Warren, Ph.D. is a performer, historian, lecturer, consultant, dance writer and yoga instructor. After performing for many years with major New York dance companies, she joined the New York-based, dance/theater company david rousseve/REALITY. She is a faculty member at Hunter College, Kean University, Empire State College's Center for Distance Learning and The Joffrey Ballet School's Jazz and Contemporary Trainee Program. Charmaine is a former faculty member of The Ailey School and the Alvin Ailey/Fordham University dance major program. She co-curates for Harlem Stage's EMoves, and is the lead curator for Dance @ Wassaic Project Festival. Charmaine writes on dance for The New York Amsterdam News and Dance Magazine, among other publications.
Jun 6, 2014
In April I had the pleasure of attending rehearsals during the residency of Emmanuelle Vo-Dinh at BAC. I watched run-throughs and improvisatory constructions she was working on, and had the opportunity to speak with Emmanuelle both in rehearsal and in emails about this work, titled “Tombouctou deja-vu,” set to premiere in 2015.
Emmanuelle started working on this piece from what she called “the idea of going to an unknown place.”
It is such a privilege to see people working in the studio, before lights and costumes render work further into theatrical space, which can make it less accessible on a more intimate human scale. There is a tender easiness to the relationships the performers have with each other, blurring the line between what is on-stage interaction in performance, and what is just us being us together. At many points in Emmanuelle Vo-Dinh’s work-in-progress it was hard for me to tell when they were relating to each other because they know each other, and when it was part of the organized theatrical landscape. This ambiguity was totally charming; drawing me in towards Vo-Dinh’s interest in the “miniscule lives of the characters.” For me this was the gentle and compelling center of the work, these slack indulgences of casual behavior.
There are lots of different kinds of talking in the dance, people repeating names, or whispering to each other, or reading things off of cards (drawn from Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies) which serve as kindling for the constructions and repetitions in the dance. It bothered me not at all to feel foreign in these moments (I do not speak French) because I think I feel that way all the time when a performance is operating with some sort of beguiling or unknown methodology. Also, it fit so naturally into more palpable structures within the dance itself. Language molded casually or surreptitiously as improvisatory material, degraded, or gradually changed just as much as movement. Emmanuelle said of this she was looking for a kind of cross between the body and the voice. Watching the language fall apart becomes part of the patchwork landscape of gesture, movement through space, or fleeting scenes that occupy the 45 minutes of material.
The slanting personalities of the performers are so alluring. In her work Emmanuelle plays with recursive time, looping back spatial constructions, catching a moment and freezing it through repetition, giving a heightened experience to the viewer of how time is passing, and how or why things are important. She calls these moments ‘pistons’ in her work; they give a kind of direct visual satisfaction.
Hesitation seems exalted, like it’s been reclaimed from its in-between-state and is enacted as an entirely honest and separate way of embodying movement, which, to me, was gorgeous.
It was fascinating to see what specifically she worked on, how she honed certain moments or transitions into greater acuity. In a particular section where a microphone is passed from a man speaking to a women (through two surrogates) which devolves into sort of orgiastic floor-bound swaying, Emmanuelle focused not only on the exactitude of the passing, or the intonation but on the rhythms of things, the amount of time that is transition, the amount that is build up. Here the specificity and rigor supporting her work might reference her time studying with Merce Cunningham in the 80s in New York. When the amplified responses speed up, the passing speeds up, and the language loses meaning, until the swinging microphone and repeated responses become a swirl of strange sexualized behavior, which ends as abruptly as it began gradually. The kind of time things take seems so important.
Further viewings recommended by Emmanuelle Vo-Dinh:
Luis Bunuel’s The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)
Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent (1989)
Alex van Warmerdam’s The Northerners (1992)
Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2003)
Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012)
Silas Riener graduated from Princeton University with a degree in Comparative Literature and Creative Writing, and completed his MFA in Dance at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. He was a member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from November 2007-11. As a performer, he has worked with Chantal Yzermans, Takehiro Ueyama, Christopher Williams, Jonah Bokaer, and in Rebecca Lazier's TERRAIN. Riener regularly collaborates with choreographer Rashaun Mitchell. His work has been curated at Architecture OMI, CATCH, as part of LMCC's River to River Festival, at Danspace Project, and at the BFI Gallery in Miami. In 2013 he was invited to participate as an inaugural member of LMCC's Extended Life Dance Development Program. He is a 2014 New York City Center Choreographic Fellow.
Apr 28, 2014
Each time I have experienced work being made in Baryshnikov Arts Center’s Studio 6A, it is hard to imagine that work happening elsewhere, in some other space, on some distant stage. There is so much character in the space, and the space becomes a character—for better or worse—in the pieces made here. The nature of this character extends beyond the aesthetics of the concrete and enormous windows. In this space is a metaphysical presence, a spirit of exploration, inquiry, experimentation, and discovery.
This is a playground for artists to work on their play and to play with their work. Over three weeks in spring 2014 this playground was home to the rigorous work of theatermaker Daniel Fish and his collaborators, as they tackled Chekov’s The Three Sisters.
Fish’s work is well suited for a space so conducive to process and yet so inseparable from the product. Fish, an auteur force in the American theater, made a name for himself in the early aughts by staging radical, severe, inventive productions of the canon.  As of late he has looked to seemingly non-theatrical material (novels, essays, lectures, films) as sources for building his own canon of theatrical experiments, which sometimes land rooted in non-theatrical forms (films, installations). Fish’s theater is as uncompromising and nuanced as his process. To look at the former without considering the latter (not to mention everything in between), or vice-versa, would be to undermine the other. To articulate what exactly Daniel Fish’s theater/process is, allow me to re-appropriate the decidedly non-theatrical concept of an autopoietic biological system.  In the most unsophisticated terms: autopoietic systems (meaning “self creation”) produce outputs, which directly maintain the mechanics of further yield. Fish conceives structures to generate creative output in which said output is in turn fed back into the structure and the cycle continues on loop until, according to Fish, it stops feeling like he is “trying to make it work” and the piece begins “talking to [him].” Even then (usually meaning when the piece is shown to an audience) the product is still inextricable from the process by which it was created, the action-based machineries of those processes continue to play out over the course of each performance.  It is from this indistinguishable process/product dynamic that Fish’s signature emerges.
“I miss doing plays,” Fish told me when asked why this return to dramatic text. This play in particular had been gnawing at him for a while. A prevalent theme in much of Fish’s work is the desire to recover that which has been lost, particularly regarding the American economy and the dying middle class.  “Can I approach this text the way I approach other sources?” Meaning, can he toss Chekhov into a series of experiments, tasks, gestures, technologies, obstacles, and games, gather out the output and toss it back in again? And again?  A brief rundown: Chekhov’s Russian text is processed through three different online translation services. From these three literal, English translations a working text is compiled. Act III of this text is captured via audio recording at a cold read by a full cast. Three of those actors (three women from three different generations, representing the sisters?) spend three weeks in the room with Daniel and the audio. With each cycle of playing the audio recording of Act III, passages of the text come in and out, but in real time. A sound designer feeds various characters’ lines to individual speakers, props are introduced, and physical actions are assigned. Then taken away. Then added, but with an additional caveat. Slowly, meticulously, the system begins feeding itself while yet constantly generating and progressing. What struck me while watching Fish use his process to stage a classic text was that his methods seemed to transcend the dichotomy of playing the surface or playing the subtext, allowing some other kind of hybrid action to manifest. This was exciting to watch, like going down a dramaturgical rabbit hole into Wonderland.
To participate as a performer in a Daniel Fish project is to be the fuel of this Wonderland organism. Tina Benko, representing the character Masha, is instructed to move a baby grand piano across the floor by herself all while attempting to recite the current National Debt Clock from a flat screen TV as it rapidly ticks away (her goal: recite every increase), Bowie’s Under Pressure blaring in the background. “There were some things that were good,” Fish observes after the performers, sweating and out of breath, complete a cycle of the audio text riddled with arduous physical pursuits. He asks them to try again, adding: “what happens when you snap?”
 His production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! is a thing of legend. The minimalist production, set in a simple barn, featured a communal meal of chili and cornbread prepared by the performers.
 This concept, related most notably to biological cells, has often been applied to creative processes, outputs, and experiences. See the writings of performance scholar Erika Fischer-Lichte and textual scholar Jerome McGann.
 For example, a recent Fish work titled Eternal premiered in the form of a two-channel video installation in which two actors repeated the final scene of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for two hours. A year and a half earlier, the piece’s development began with the same two actors performing the DVD commentary track of the Cassavetes film A Woman Under the Influence against the backdrop of the projected film. I won’t unpack the connective tissue here, though will say that in interviews Fish has referred to the language of the commentary (between the cinematographer and sound designer) as that of a married couple recounting their relationship as a labor of love. The final scene of Eternal Sunshine is essentially just that, and in this case recounted endlessly by two actors in… a labor of love.
 See: production of Odets’ Paradise Lost and subsequent film (Dollar General) inspired by it, a stage adaptation of Franzen’s House for Sale, and as described above, Eternal.
 To quote Artaud in his masterpiece of 1938, The Theatre and Its Double, “… thus we shall renounce the superstition of the text and dictatorship of the writer.”
Caleb Hammons is a cultural producer and curator of performance working in Brooklyn and the Hudson Valley. Currently the Associate Producer at Bard College’s Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, he facilitates Live Arts Bard, a professional commissioning, residency, and presenting initiative. Prior to his time at Bard he was the Producer at Soho Rep in NYC, and from 2008-2011 was the Producing Director of Young Jean Lee's Theater Company. He is the Co-Curator of the acclaimed Brooklyn-based performance series Catch, a past curator of Food for Thought at Danspace Project, and co-curated the CUNY/Martin E. Segal Theater Center’s PRELUDE Festival in 2012 and 2013. He was a member of the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance’s inaugural class at Wesleyan University.
Mar 28, 2014
By the end of their residency at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, the musical comedy team Qui Nguyen and Shane Rettig had written more songs in a week than they had for six months. “It’s really hard to get together and make it happen,” said Mr. Rettig. “Here you write something. You hear something. You learn.”
He was speaking from the BAC’s 6th floor studio where, in partnership with the Sundance Theatre Institute, he and Mr. Nguyen had been plugging away on their musical-in-progress, “War is F**king Awesome,” with director Liesl Tommy and a stellar group of performers including Rebecca Naomi Jones, Sharone Sayegh and William Jackson Harper.
Studio 6A has a kind of understated urban elegance: concrete walls with large windows that look out onto city views. Inside, music stands, chairs and fold up tables, a piano, scripts, pencils, water bottles, coffee and snacks from the building’s first floor café. It was their last day of rehearsal, and in a few hours, they’d be presenting a semi-staged reading for an invited audience of fifty friends and colleagues.
“War” is a musical satire about a young woman killed in the American Revolution who is offered immunity if she’ll agree to fight in every American conflict in perpetuity. The humor is political, sometimes irreverent, sometimes piercing, sometimes raunchy---it’s a bombastic comedy, with a comic book feel. But at the core, said Mr. Nguyen, the musical is about his relationship to the war narratives he heard as an adolescent in the States. “In school the Vietnam War was always referred to as a mistake, but in my household Vietnam was necessary. I heard a different response inside and outside.”
The residency at BAC came at a critical time in the show’s development. Given simple, but essential, resources, the creative team was able to move the work-in-progress dramatically in the direction of completion. He and Mr. Rettig’s first residency for the show was last summer at the Sundance Institute in Utah. There Mrrs. Nguyen and Rettig were first paired with director Liesl Tommy, who had selected the script with an esteemed panel headed by Sundance Institute artistic director Philip Himberg. “We selected it because it seemed very fresh and to be pushing form,” said Ms. Tommy. “Also because of what Qui outlined on his to do list - what was not yet written. It seemed like Sundance could really give Qui and Shane time and space to further develop something wonderful.”
Her first impression of Qui's script? “I found it hilarious, politically subversive, and hyper theatrical. And I'd never encountered a musical where the choreography during music was meant to be fights.” Mr. Rettig’s music combined pop, hip hop and R&B, “and not cheesy musical theatre versions of those things.”
Moreover she wanted to be part of Mr. Nguyen’s satire of war ideology. Ms. Tommy is herself an immigrant from South Africa. “I really related to Qui's passion for telling this story,” she said, “Qui talked about being from a family of Vietnamese immigrants coming to the USA in the 70's and his perspective on war, fleeing war, reasons for war. I knew he had a fascinating POV.”
Lizzie Simon writes about the arts for The Wall Street Journal.
Jan 14, 2014
It's just a few days before director Cazimir Liske's showing, yet there's very, very little on stage, and conversations between actor and director still have the meditative calm of a spiritual retreat. Liske is running the ending of Illusions, his translation of the Ivan Viripaev drama at Baryshnikov Arts Center, and somehow urgency could not seem more distant. The lack of hustle-bustle is a kind of triumph of Liske's control—at an early design meeting there was talk of moving screens, of costumes that somehow illustrated time itself.
Yet while a few explosions of theatricality do pepper Liske's staging (small tricks with a microphone, a bank of hot lights that blind the audience) the room seems to drift in grey limbo, a Zen state of no-mind. Even in front of an audience, that sensation of introspection and deep quiet will remain.
Liske's journey with Illusions has been long and long. A Dartmouth student studying Italian literature, he took a sudden interest in theater, then enrolled in an English-language summer program created by the O'Neill Center and the Moscow Art Theater after Chekhov (MXAT). What was meant to be a brief adventure turned into a life's pursuit: Once in Moscow, Liske began studying with the actor Konstantin Raikin, took a degree from the MXAT Acting School, and began a busy career in Moscow as an actor and now teacher and director. Virapaev, one of the thrilling young talents in the burgeoning Russian playwrighting scene, is a friend. After performing in Illusions, first in Moscow and then at the Royal Court in London, Liske still hadn't had enough of this strange, nearly silent work, so he retranslated it and took it on as a directing project.
In some ways, despite his training, Liske works against the Russian grain. “My process,” he says, “depends much more on the author than on the director. What I've been interested in in the last year is theater that connects the audience with theauthor—rather than with the director, or even the actors.” The result is something that looks like documentary theater (direct address, simplicity, a sense of an ongoing conversation), yet is actually asking eternal questions rather than dealing with current events.
Illusions tells the intertwining tale of two octogenarian couples, Sandra and Denny and Albert and Margaret. Four actors—variously trustworthy—approach a microphone to narrate the couples' stories confidingly to the audience. Stephanie Hayes, exquisitely precise, welcomes the watchers with a 'hello,' but she measures out her affections carefully. In rehearsal she asks whether she should work in “the smiles” more. “I just happen to have the most serious bits in the piece,” worries Hayes, “Should I be smiling?”
Considering that Hayes has just described the death of one character, a woman tortured by considerable heartbreak, you can see why she might be concerned.Yet despite the story's constant emphasis on death, Liske directs his actors to attain a constant state of upward tending joyfulness. Actress Annie Purcell describes it in rehearsal as “this euphoric, ecstatic thing” —or, another time, “an unfurling feeling of love.”
Love is all over Illusions. There's no stylish irony here; the characters' central concern is whether “true” love must be requited love, a point the story's subjects return to as they ponder the fidelity of their spouses. All four characters will die preoccupied by this issue; lifelong friendships are torn apart. Viripaev's hypnotic text, particularly as translated by Liske, worries over this emotional point for almost its entire length, returning obsessively to it, striking it as the favorite chord. Sentimental melodrama is presented as minimalism, so the fact that the speakers refuse to “perform” enlarges the question about love—these non-pretending narrations make us feel as though the actor-audience relationship is on a strange new footing. Our desire for escapism and pretense and illusion is, tellingly, unrequited.
In rehearsal, the examination goes deeply inward. Conversation turns to the James Turrell exhibit at the Guggenheim (the light artist who can make a glowing light source seem like a door into the infinite) and to each performer's understanding of death. The goal for Liske, though, is that these conversations penetrate into the audience. “The thing that I find at the center of Viripaev's piece is that death is a great teacher. It teaches us that love is the path in life. There is, it turns out, a path that can bring you to less suffering. And it has nothing to do with religion, with metaphysics. It's just practical! But this is the important stuff; these are the things we ought to talk about. I mean, is there any other question we should be asking?”
Helen Shaw currently writes about theater for Time Out New York magazine and teaches theater studies and theater theory at NYUTisch. Previously, she was senior theater critic for the NewYork Sun and has contributed to the Village Voice, Performing Arts Journal, Playbill, TheatreForum, the Jewish Daily Forward, and the forward for Mac Wellman’s anthology of plays, The Difficulty of Crossing a Field. She curated the Prelude festival in 2011 and 2012, and coordinated programs at the Martin E. Segal Theater Center for approximately the same period. She also works as a dramaturg, and has assisted Martha Clarke, Lear deBessonet, and Simon McBurney. She has an MFA in dramaturgy from the American Repertory Theater Institute at Harvard University and a BA in Anthropology from Harvard.
Jan 13, 2014
During a recent rehearsal at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, Helen Simoneau worked quietly with a few dancers on the development of a complex duet. She watched the performers execute a passage of movement: one dancer leaned back, falling plank-like toward the floor only to have his momentum unexpectedly diverted by his partner. Suddenly the two bodies where intertwined, reclining gently into each other on the ground.
Deep lunging steps, improbable twisting lifts, elegant extensions emerging out of bodies tipped off their centers - these movements followed, weaving a partnership between two articulate, sensitive bodies. Helen offered suggestions and corrections - guiding the movement toward ease and consistency but also encouraging the dancers to see the space around them, to be attentive not just to their own bodies and to their partner, but also to their environment. I watched as the dancers' bodies softened into a fluid and easy performance of this difficult movement, rich in connection to self, partner and space. Around the room, two other small groups of dancers worked on their own. Another duet rehearsed a delicate lift where one dancer appeared to glide effortlessly over the back of her partner, while in the center of the room a group of women danced through a unison phrase of arcing, spiraling movements. The tone of the room was serious, focused, quiet - almost like a library; each study group moving with gentle determination to become both more expert at and sensitive to the given task.
Perception matters: how we create meaning out of a constant stream of sensory stimulus determines the scope and depth of our experience of being alive. Over time, we come to rely on perceptual habits to help us quickly identify what it is we are confronting. These habits enable us to predict what will please or harm us and help our bodies prepare accordingly. But, our ready-made perceptual habits can also limit our engagement with the world. We need to be reminded to expand our interpretations of the feelings, objects and events around us. In order to continue to evolve, we need to learn how to see and feel more and differently than what our habits allow.
Dance - both as a practice and as an art form meant to be experienced (felt/viewed) - has the power to render the human body and its expressive, communicative movement continuously unfamiliar. Dance can remind us to seek new ways of being in the world, guiding us to un-frame our previous assumptions about what it means to be a moving body.
Helen Simoneau's work lives decidedly in the realm of dance that seeks to open new spaces of possibility as to how bodies might move through the world. Helen brings viewers and performers toward an un-framing of rigid, habitual physicality by first creating spaces of quietude and calmness within both the dancers' bodies and the performance space. It is from this gentle attentiveness that a wealth of movement emerges - movement that quietly, but firmly insists on being seen and felt as inventive and unexpected. Helen's choreography reveals that our choices to create action in this world multiply when we treat our bodies and the spaces they inhabit with expansive, un-anxious, and generous curiosity. In a world full of hyperbolic extroversion, Helen's calm determination to look more deeply at the possibilities of human movement is a refreshing and necessary addition. So many choreographers and performers in today's over-saturated culture feel the need to loudly and forcefully make a claim for the body's capacity to be and do more in this world, forgetting that possibility comes not just from explosive force but also from quiet permission.
Helen's work is firm but unforced, energetically vital but never frantic. Helen's invitation to her dancers to locate a physical tone of calmness and hyper-awareness (to every edge of the body) allows for a rich mining of possibility from within available joints and muscles. Helen takes pleasure in working with excellently trained dancers: artists who understand how to expressively shape movement in service of an always-fresh communicative gesture, not as the reiteration of a list of pre-determined movement objects.
Watching Helen's newest works, I find my whole body calming down; the anxious noise of my mind abates and my focus is guided toward the action unfolding before me. Articulate, generous, precise, virtuosic movement meets my gaze. The performance space contracts and expands as movement pours, glides and pauses throughout the open terrain. I am drawn, not to narrative relationships, but toward relationships between time, space, and effort. I sense how it is possible to quiet the demanding push of time - to give one's body the time it needs to feel itself in action. I see how space can be opened, not dominated, by movement. The dancers move through and with space, treating it as a living surface and environment to engage with as a collaborative partner.
Helen's work leaves generous and expansive "room for interpretation" - truly revitalizing the meaning of this phrase. To experience Helen Simoneau's work is to feel the body, time and space yield and reveal new opportunities for seeing, feeling, moving - being.
Jesse Zaritt has performed his solo work in Russia, Korea, Germany, New York, Japan, Mexico and Israel. He was a 2012-2013 resident artist in the Studio Series Program at New York Lives Arts, working on a duet created in collaborative partnership with choreographer/performer Jumatatu Poe. Jesse's solo ‘Binding’ is the recipient of three 2010 New York Innovative Theater Awards: Outstanding Choreography, Outstanding Solo Performance, and Outstanding Performance Art Production. He has recently taught at the University of the Arts, Bard College, the American Dance Festival, Hollins University, and Pomona College, as well as at festivals in Japan, Korea, and Russia. Jesse was a member of the Shen Wei Dance Arts Company (2001-2006), and the Inbal Pinto Dance Company (2008). From 2009-2013 he performed in the work of Faye Driscoll and Netta Yerushalmy.