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.
Jun 18, 2018
What does it mean for dance to be a site where “thingliness” is worked through, where the oscillation of the (black) body between thing, nothingness, and something else is bravely worked out as a kind of practice? Ligia Lewis has completed two pieces of her BLUE, RED, WHITE trilogy, with Sorrow Swag (2014) and minor matter (2016) as the first two pieces of that trilogy. The Spring 2018 BAC residency is one of the first assemblies of a team of collaborators and the beginning of a rehearsal process for the third piece of the trilogy, Water Will (in Melody).
This rehearsal process includes Lewis, Berlin-based performer Makgosi Kgabi, and composer-performer Colin Self. As the final part of a trilogy, one might expect the process to have a sense of finality, perfect summation, or closure, but the creation process in the studio is dynamic, vibrant with many ideas, and with no sense of bringing thinking and action to a close.
At the work-in-progress showing in the John Cage and Merce Cunningham Studio, Lewis introduces the German fable of “the willful child” and the role that storytelling plays in the creation of this piece. She describes how these culturally familiar fables inform her process, how she tries to find deviancy within the text themselves and test the borders of language. The performers are on the floor, breathing audibly. Their movement is slow and sustained. The floor is treated as support, but the movers also pay attention to its characteristics, its texture, color, temperature, and scent. This is a practice that, during rehearsal, Lewis describes as experimenting with the senses through “emptying out subjectivity” and not giving primacy to “the body” as it is traditionally understood in dance. This practice stages what it means to access the risks and possibilities of sitting with nothingness, and exploring touch in the (impossible) community of things. This dance raises awareness of how material dance bodies relate to things, the ground, and the land.
Lewis’ practice of staying in the hold of nothingness, where blackness has often been relegated, runs the risk of reifying exactly what it challenges. Lewis takes up this risk and doesn’t run away from it, since, as performance theorist Fred Moten has argued in A Poetics of the Undercommons: “You think you have to say ‘No, I am not a thing.’ It’s a horrible experience to find that one is an object among other objects, a thing among other things...but the maneuver that requires you to claim humanness is horrible as well precisely because it may well replicate and entrench the disaster.” In that respect, Water Will challenges us to ask: how can what is deemed nothing be with nothing in dance? How does touch operate in that space, and how do we resist reducing touch to romance and subjectivity?
Water Will’s movement vocabulary is watery; gesture flows like waves, both gentle and turbulent. The successive and sequential undulations have no discernible initiation points; they do not end and they do not begin. However, the intended porousness of the theater landscape and the wavy flow of the choreographic vocabulary are not reducible to mere representations of how water moves. In other words, Lewis is not making the move championed by French ballet master Jean-Georges Noverre in his 18th Century dance treatises of creating sublime movement that mimics/simulates water. She is also not attached to a metaphorical or symbolic engagement with water. The question of water is fleshed out beyond our cultural associations with water (cleansing/catharsis). She is interested in water’s materiality in performance as it pertains to the water in us, which flows and pours out when we bleed, or cry, or make love.
The sounds created electronically by Colin Self merge with the vocal sounds made by Kgabi and Lewis, building to create a cacophonous sonic environment. Kgabi circles the stage, takes purposeful big steps. Her storytelling and operatic singing style is superimposed with Lewis’ speech that plays with alliteration. Speech breaks/brakes and the operatic turns into chesty growls, whistling, and unintelligible whispers. Self’s recorded sound summons Romantic German music’s utopianism. For Self, this is a process of calling up that tradition while trying to move away from some of its characteristics. The music in Water Will accentuates and names (il)legible the melodramatic form. During the post-showing conversation, Lewis articulates that these choices of experimentation with a variety of sonic arrangements occasion the breakdown of language, and open up ways to “other” the theater space itself, exposing its representational logics that mobilize the senses to titillate, in ways that further problematic racial fantasies. At a time where the “given” nature of ideas such as “the self,” “being,” “personhood,” and “the body” are under constant questioning and revision, there is much to be gleaned from this provocative practice of inhabiting nothingness, the void, and non-representationalism.
Mlondi Zondi is a PhD candidate in Performance Studies at Northwestern University with research interests in contemporary Black movement experiments, Black visual art, dramaturgy, and curatorial practice. Mlondi also makes performances and also co-edits an independent journal called Propter Nos. Prior to pursuing PhD study, Mlondi received an MFA in Dance from the University of California, Irvine and a BA (Hons) in Cultural Studies and Performance Studies from the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal. Mlondi has presented and participated in performance work by other art-makers at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, the Durban Art Gallery, the Jomba Contemporary Dance Experience (in South Africa), the Laguna Beach Museum, Gibney in New York, San Francisco MoMA, High Concept Labs in Chicago, and Joe Goode Annex in San Francisco. Recently, Mlondi served as production consultant for Victory Gardens Theater's production of Mies Julie in Chicago.
Jun 14, 2018
“Things Are Happening… but not as they appear… this is messy. Messy is necessary.”
The above quote is taken from my rehearsal notes from David Neumann/Advanced Beginner Group’s residency at BAC. David and his collaborators workshopped three seemingly separate ideas – on intergeneration and women (with performances by Sarah Rudner, Jodi Melnick, and Victoria Roberts-Wierztbowski), cosmology, and race and American identity.
In the time since the performance, I have come to realize how they are related – through the gravity of movement and politics, the science of race, the colonization of downtown New York dance, the search for concrete solutions in infinite space. These themes are messy. I love messy because by dealing with the mess we have to confront that which is dirty, chaotic, jumbled, often created by us. It is unpleasant and difficult because mess insists. It is no less tangible when we close the door to it. The muck and mire sits, waiting for us to return to that too-full closet, the one with the rotted floorboards and the rodent infestation… and that forgotten fragile heirloom from your mother’s great aunt. Be it through fate or circumstance, eventually, someone will have to clean that closet.
This is a most messy moment for America. Less a time of civil unrest, more so of civil insomnia. It is in this mess, a uniquely American one, that the seeds of David’s new work are being sewn. Spurred by a reaction to police violence, systemic racism, and white supremacy; inspired by Octavia Butler and Charlie Rose, by 23andMe, Charlottesville and The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond; examining tribalism and humanism by way of the family narrative. All themes are in dialogue with media, narratives, and movement vocabularies. The collection of ideas, sounds, and visuals are woven together, sometimes curvilinear, mostly at odd angles, to create the whole. There is no optimal. Instead, it is through the patchwork fiction and fact that we find truth.
I first met David Neumann in 2015 while he was touring his Bessie Award-winning work, I Understand Everything Better. On this piece, I wrote, “Neumann seeks balance along the continuum between existing and happening.” Three years later, I find that statement to be a bit too opaque for writing about a work that made me openly weep, but, while sitting in rehearsals during his BAC residency, I am once again struck by the way David activates liminal space in his process. The in-betweens have great resonance. Awkward pauses and shifts in perspective provide as much information as anything identified as an “event.” His work is a collection of moments, sometimes humorous, sometimes heartbreaking, but always fine-tuned. Still too opaque? Perhaps, but this new work is in what I call the “Something’s Coming” space. It is one of the most exciting periods because all things are possible, and his seed material is rich.
Q: What does it mean to hold yourself accountable as an American citizen? How do you unpack your privilege, as a cis white man, without engaging in polemics, proselytizing, or more privilege?
A: Among other things, collaborate with Marcella Murray. She is of African American southern roots and an East Coast liberal arts education. Use personal narratives, hers and yours. Your stories about family and race are your primary sources. Discuss isolation and integration. Be challenged by her questions. Decentralize your voice. Have a conversation.
Q: Devalue fearlessness. This is not a question, by the way.
A: Yes. Make this work because you are wary, frightened, uncertain. Allow your “interest to remain high, while your comprehension falls away.” Change perspectives, visually and audibly. This will be a key theme in the work: Chris (sets), Tei (sound), and Hyung Seok (video), will be essential in this regard. Things are happening, but not as they appear. As Marcella says, “get at the big and small by looking at it all.” It will be uncomfortable. America is experiencing extreme discomfort. It is disingenuous to ignore that.
Q: Who gets to define your work?
A: A lot of white men in Ted Talks. Let’s unpack that more. This is not a joke, by the way.
Final Thoughts (for now):
Not knowing what this work will become, I sense that it is turning a corner in how white artists, American artists, cis male artists interrogate their role in artmaking, and the repercussions of that work on the field and the world. It would be far easier for David Neumann/Advanced Beginner Group to make a work about any of number of interesting, less timely ideas. It is far more urgent to confront whiteness, and the policing, literally and figuratively, of blackness. It is incumbent on white artists to tackle these themes. There is no blackness without whiteness. Doing the work is a shared responsibility. During the BAC residency, I expected to encounter a rich process where each of the collaborators has a voice and the content is engaging. What has me invested is the desire to amplify the voices of black women and the willingness to make a work that tackles the responsibilities and burdens of being a citizen of the field and the world, in spite of the fear of getting it wrong. It is messy. It is necessary.
Melanie George is the Dramaturg and Audience Educator for Lumberyard Contemporary Performing Arts. As a dramaturg and performance coach, she has contributed to projects by Susan Marshall & Company, Raja Feather Kelly, Morgan Thorson, Alice Sheppard, and Caleb Teicher, among others. Prior to joining Lumberyard, she was the Dance Program Director at American University in Washington DC. As the founder of Jazz Is… Dance Project she has presented her research on jazz dance improvisation and pedagogy through the U.S., Canada, and Scotland. Her jazz choreography is regularly commissioned by colleges throughout the United States. Publications include Jazz Dance, Pop Culture, and the Music Video Era in Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches (University Press of Florida) and Imbed/In Bed: Two Perspectives on Dance and Collaboration for Working Together in Qualitative Research (Sense Publishers).
May 31, 2018
Watching Jimena Paz in performance drives me to tears.
As I walk into the studio where the showing of her work-in-progress is taking place, I sit in my seat by Vicky Shick and Colleen Thomas and chat about life and dance and life in dance and about Jimena and how we’re “waiting” for the performance to begin while she is already onstage exposed in her nervous anticipation to begin performing “for us” and I suddenly realize that I’m already in it with her and that there is so much about what this work is doing that is being proposed right in this very charged moment of the intersection between what Jimena has been going through, in this very same room up until now, and the moment that we come to be let in as witnesses to her process.
It all seems very matter-of-fact yet it takes on a profound meaning and metaphor since we are coming into a room where the artist is simply being with us seemingly as she has been on her own during the process. In other words, there is no artifice, no representation of anything, just Jimena in a latent state of readying herself with an open and vulnerable presence, with eyes that do not look away but that reveal to us the risk and the fear and the courage of the performative act. This energy, this realness, these unassuming transparent choices make my heart feel more open, my eyes less in search of meaning, but opening into a peripheral seeing that senses and feels rather than just seeing the image in front.
This work asks for an empathetic viewing. Jimena is doing nothing more than taking us by the hand through the practices that she has been putting herself through during the process, a research of unearthing, hearing, seeing, understanding, and perhaps even reckoning with the memories in her body, her training, her culture, her dancing living body’s history. Living and dancing and learning in Argentina many years ago and then abruptly leaving all that behind, and from then on forever being a foreigner, an Other, going through Europe and then staying in New York.
Ver a Jimena en escena me hace llorar. No tiene que hacer nada más que estar ahí parada frente a nosotros, dejándose ser mirada mientras que se escucha una hermosa canción. Su cara tiene la mirada de alguien que está sintiendo mucho y me hace sentir case como que no debería estar mirándola, como que es demasiado íntimo este momento para ella y que nosotros como público deberíamos mirar para otro lado, pero sin embargo nos produce una especie de fascinación mirarla porque no hace nada más que estar ahí sintiendo algo que nosotros no podemos saber exactamente qué es, nos deja ahí mirándola sentir con total incertidumbre y a la vez con total certeza de que hay un mundo interno al ser humano al cual nunca tendremos acceso. Que siempre seremos extranjeros en la tierra del cuero del otro. Y sin embargo, me siento a la vez fuera de su mundo, de su cuerpo, y muy cerca porque hay también en ella una íntima invitación a vivir con ella su experiencia. Siento la distancia entre lo que ella está sintiendo y viviendo en escena y yo aquí desde el público tan desarraigado, desconectado de lo que viven los bailarines o actores en escena. El público somos como los extranjeros en el mundo de Jimena Paz…. Pero la canción me hace sentir a mí también y mucho! Reconozca el tipo de música, la voz de la cantante, me hace acordar de quién soy yo, de donde vengo. Quién es? Es Mercedes Sosa? Puede Ser… creo que reconozco la voz aunque no conozco la letra:
“Más allá de cualquier zona prohibida
hay un espejo para nuestra propia transparencia.” *
Lágrimas y lágrimas y muchas… ya no puedo seguir tomando apuntes de lo que voy a decir cuando tenga que escribir sobre este momento, sobre “la obra”; ya no puedo seguir mirando desde la cabeza, ahora es mi corazón latinoamericano el que mira con mis ojos de coreógrafa neoyorquina… Ya me siento más cercana a Jimena, más cercana a ella que al público, ya son ellos los extranjeros y ella y yo las del Sur.
As I cry and feel so much empathy for her standing there feeling her foreignness as this song in Spanish is playing I wonder if the audience feels anything at all. I wonder if they feel touched by her in a universal human way even though they might not understand and get the cultural reference, even though it doesn’t make them cry…? I wonder if they just engage in it in an intellectual way, thinking about what this might mean, and what it means to be sitting watching someone feel something onstage, especially a dancer who is not yet moving. I wonder if this makes them feel like foreigners in their own land. I wonder why so much fear and discomfort comes from not understanding another language, another way of feeling and being.
All of a sudden, the repetitive song is no longer playing and Jimena has moved towards the corner of the space with her arms open as she turns with a ritualistic, meditative quality that is clearing, cleansing, healing after all that crying and feeling and nostalgic remembering of a distant land and peoples. Her turning washes the tears from my face and opens my eyes to a wider seeing. Now I can see her feet and feel the reality of this moment passing and her feet feeling this ground that we’re all sharing and not that ground where they came from; but those feet are performing a very specific pattern, technique that they learned from one of her influential teachers in Argentina (this I know from conversations during her process), a practice that she was deeply invested in learning and that got abruptly interrupted by her leaving the country but that still remains in her body. She’s been coming back to this practice of turning during her process and she’s sharing it with us now and it grounds us in this moment, reminding us of the ephemeral nature of life passing by moment to moment, turn after turn. It is fleeting but also very grounding as we feel her feet turning and feeling the ground as we feel this ground. And with this act Jimena connects us with the time when her feet learned this practice years ago in Argentina. And then her fingers, still outstretched, begin to slightly brush up against each wall and it’s so satisfying… her fingers feel like the antennas of her body keeping her safe from collision, from getting too close, and at the same time kind of plugging her into the corner grounding her whole body and movement not only to the floor but to the walls as well.
No pares, quiero estar acá para siempre, viéndote girar, sintiendo la calma y lo sanador que se siente compartir esto contigo. La posibilidad de suspender el tiempo, suspender el cuerpo en giro, la posibilidad de colapsar aquellos giros de hiciste en Argentina y estos que estás haciendo acá. Y me pregunto si este proceso, este “ejercicio” de volver a las prácticas y a la historia de/en tu cuerpo no tiene en sí un deseo de conectar, unir, sanar las distancia geográfica, temporal, cultural y por lo tanto emocional de todos los giros y pasos y saltos y danzas de allá y de acá. De cocer, tejer, unir, curar de algún modo esa constante sensación en el cuerpo de vivir desarraigado, de ser un “inmigrante”, un cuerpo inmigrante que vivió un exilio de sus danzas allá a otras danzas acá.
Pero no es para siempre, todo cambia (como dice la canción de Mercedes Sosa), y Jimena ya no puede girar más. El cuerpo se cansa y envejece y no aguanta más, es una simple y necesaria realidad pero me da tristeza. Algo en la honestidad de Jimena en escena, en como cambia de una acción a la otra da mucha ternura, debe ser su vulnerabilidad. Su cuerpo es fuerte, hay una fuerza interna y una capacidad y maestría, años de experiencia, de sofisticación, técnica y acceso al cuerpo que se nota en los pequeños detalles de su movimiento, incluso en la claridad de sus transiciones.
Vuelve la música y esta vez es una Murga y esa fuerza interior que se intuía en ella se vuelve externa y una vez más siento en ella una necesidad de volver, de entender, de tocar, de sentir su tierra, sus músicas, sus danzas para deshacer esa distancia, ese desarraigo que tanto nos parte el corazón a los inmigrantes. De repente la vemos Bailar con mayúscula, saltando, moviendo las caderas, disfrutando y trabajando duro a la misma vez; el trabajo del bailarín, el trabajo de la liberación y del empoderamiento. El agotamiento. Y ahora no veo tanto a Jimena bailando su Murga Argentina sino que veo un manifiesto feminista, una mujer latina bailando su manifiesto. Y otra vez las lágrimas…
Now the music is off again and Jimena, exhausted, lies face down and begins to speak into the ground in Spanish. She speaks about a memory with her grandma. Again I wonder how the others feel, how they feel about her speaking Spanish. Once again I feel like an accomplice to her Latinidad, her Otherness, and I wonder how the non-Spanish speaking audience members feel. I know she wanted this written partly in Spanish or translated into Spanish, so I know that there is a political intention of claiming our language in this imperialist xenophobic first world country, but it feels like there’s more to it; perhaps simply letting herself be vulnerable and transparent enough to be the body from which Spanish flows out of instinct, the body with memories in Spanish.
I ask Vicky and Colleen after it ends if they felt alienated by not understanding and they say that they didn’t, they felt the feeling that emanated from her speaking and they “listened” as they “see or listen” to a dance. Perhaps that is what feels most feminist and feminine to me about Jimena’s work and performative body and presence; that she calls for a different kind of understanding, a heart-body understanding, a peripheral-seeing understanding, a felt understanding, an understanding of our feet in the ground and a desire to connect all of the grounds, especially those from which we have been uprooted.
*Excerpt from Arbol de Diana by Alejandra Pizarnik, Argentine poet whose poems are known for their stifling sense of exile and rootlessness.
luciana achugar is a Brooklyn-based choreographer from Uruguay who grew as an artist in close dialogue with the NY and Uruguayan contemporary dance communities. She has been making work in NYC and Uruguay independently and collaboratively since 1999. Her work is concerned with the post-colonial world, searching for an undoing of current power structures from the inside out. She is a two-time Bessie Award recipient and was nominated for a 2016 Outstanding Production Bessie for her work An Epilogue for OTRO TEATRO: True Love. Other accolades include a Guggenheim Fellowship, Creative Capital Grant, Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grant, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council President’s Award, and the 2017 Alpert Award. In 2015, OTRO TEATRO was named “Best Touring Work” by Austin’s Critics Circle. She is currently a 2017-18 Brooklyn Arts Exchange Artist in Residency and will continue on for a second year developing her current project: Brujx.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
Apr 8, 2016
“We’re going to start with something that makes no sense.”
This is Mark DeChiazza advertising the work he is about to show. Not to apologize, I realize later; rather, to articulate that the world this work inhabits will not wholly reveal itself in the little bit of movement I’ll soon see.
And yet it does. Navarra Novy-Williams rolls across the stage, out of her unbuttoned white shirt, under which there is a blue shirt, and then rolls out of the blue shirt, under which there is another white shirt. Denisa Musilova tracks her movements, close by, perhaps even initiating them, her steps and Navarra’s rolling hard-synched, while upstage, Sara Gurevich tracks them both, more frenetically. The process of disrobing and tracking iterates, until Navarra has rolled everything off except her own clothes.
A body adorned with costumes--these colors signify characters--becomes a body that is uniquely itself. We strip the character out of the player and then the playing stops. Mark reminds us that this work is made of real people with real stories; that myth, narrative, opera, all targets for his grinding up and subsequent reassembly, are themselves the fixed forms into which we pour our own ideas, not the other way around.
Orpheus Unsung is a work about words from which all words have been excised. Based on and composed from a text, moving across physical space in the ways that language moves, it derives its power from work that words are tasked with performing but that movement, costume, image, and sound are challenged to do, charged with doing, representing and signifying in a spider’s web, inhabiting an idea but never fully containing it. This is what the music does, Steven Mackey’s extraordinary counterpoint and color built out of looping, alternate tuning, and an orchestral approach to the guitar, and Jason Treuting’s physiological lock into these complex rhythmic strata ranging from whisper to roar.
This is what white and blue shirts, purchased earlier from the Salvation Army store, are doing. Eurydice is white and Orpheus is blue, that much we know, but when three dancers share two garments, one of each color, in the wedding scene, what are we seeing? As they move each others’ bodies, folded together, entangled, who is doing the positioning and who is being positioned? Which body? Or which character, or which human being standing in the Baryshnikov Arts Center on a particular evening in March, taking direction?
This work meditates on the failings of words by asking mute languages to speak. We can read Ovid’s “thin story,” as Mark describes its length, but also perhaps the quality of its veiling, and understand the operations. Orpheus Unsung offers us those operations but takes up their subsequent embodiment, in culture, as a living text, a co-author. Then it radically dismantles this text, subverts every co-author who has ever played Orpheus one-to-one: a character, a costume, an actor linked to particular deeds, particular words. Here Eurydice and Orpheus are free radicals, energies that sound and bodies conjure but never ground.
This lightness is palpable in the room, a real space inhabited by real bodies but brought into weightlessness by the building of collaborative community, the “innocent place” Mark describes, “where everyone is your friend.”
“Everyone,” he continues, “needs to feel like they’re in a space that honors them.” In honoring these bodies we honor the story, in a sense, but also the process of making a story, a vessel into which we might discard our costumes, becoming free to inhabit our given space in our own clothes.
Andrea Mazzariello is a composer, performer, writer, and teacher. His work borrows from both popular and art music approaches, and obsesses over technological intervention, instrumental technique, and the power of language. So Percussion, NOW Ensemble, Newspeak, and many others have performed his concert music. He’s played shows at venues like the Knitting Factory, the Princeton Record Exchange, Galapagos, and Cakeshop. The Queens New Music Festival, Make Music New York, and the Wassaic Festival have presented his songs and spoken word. Active as an educator, he’s taught at Princeton University, Ramapo College of New Jersey, and the So Percussion Summer Institute. He’s currently Visiting Professor of Music at Carleton College, where he teaches composition, music technology, and music fundamentals.
April 7, 2016
In Tow is about what we carry, but it also is very much a portrait of what Jennifer Monson brings with her into the studio and how she arrives there—her past, her friends, people with whom she shares creative affinities.
Here is a list of all the people invited into this expansive project who also bring themselves, things, ideas, baggage, and skills in tow: Susan Becker, DD Dorvillier, Niall Jones, Rose Kaczmarowski, Alice MacDonald, Jennifer Monson, Valerie Oliveiro, Zeena Parkins, Angela Pittman, Nibia Pastrana Santiago, David Zambrano. Despite the varied artistic backgrounds of these individuals, all roles are shared and traversed. All the scores are dancing scores, musical scores, and designing scores. Everyone is assumed to be a novice and an expert in any and every role, position, and point of view. Research initiates and continues throughout this process; whoever comes into the room destabilizes what was there before and then what appears there then, now, next. These artists fortify and destabilize each other.
Extending creative intimacies from various moments of artistic practice into a methodology of choreographic thought is a deeply personal project. We watch these artists grapple with the questions of horizon lines, the limits of space, the exchange of one system into another, the sensations and sentiments of resonance and vibration. In this span of creative intimates and the tasks organizing their activities, how much of Monson's autobiography is a means to read what transpires in front of us—both in terms of methodology employed as well as the identities of the people in the room doing these activities? Monson does not indicate why such and such persons are present together—maybe we speculate who each of these people are and who they are in relation to Jennifer Monson. Maybe it's about comfort. Maybe it's about the dreamscape of a community. Maybe it’s about a hopeful wish for extraordinary collaboration—in self-organizing modes of proposing and expressing with others, maybe we can shift the world. They are just there together, trying to work without a predetermined aesthetic or product.
The means of production, at once personal and structural, remind us that the personal is political. In this scenario of gathering and examining, Monson attempts to make power transparent. It's not a faux democracy. She brings these collaborators in tow, and they bring themselves and what they carry. Without a common language and without aiming to arrive at something, they are simply agreeing to BE together. Whatever is established temporarily requires listening, patience and action. There is a stated attempt to dismantle hierarchy into methods of sharing. A generative and generous notion of creativity as a mode of exchange and decision-making guides this methodology of destabilization.
Improvisation-based systems and environmental systems manifest themselves as choreography. Monson maintains and disrupts her deeply embodied practice of years of work—encapsulated in her acclaimed solo, Live Dancing Archive (that premiered at the Kitchen in February 2013), as she proposed a form of retrospective, choreographed in each and every instant, from her decades of dancing and improvising. She also brings philosophies of ILAND—Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Art Nature and Dance that she founded in 2007. Her removal from the explicit context of nature and environment facilitates a return to the dance studio and the conventional stage as such—as a site for display and the imaginary. These methodologies are integrated into a form of inquiry within the social field in an effort to hold abstract time and space.
Etymologically, utopia means no place. What unfolds here? Is it dystopic utopic? In her own way, Monson is constructing and acknowledging a practice out of the social ecosystem of the dance community. This choreographic container is constructed to be porous and open, despite the fact that she has invited the artists working and thereby the identities, personalities, and materials that will build this container. Not knowing and moving towards problems without solving them is at the core of this pursuit. It's not form, rather a method. The modes of creativity, intimacy, trust, and power sharing are articulated through such frames as indeterminacy, synch of synch, larger cultural context, climate change, and improvisational strategies. Jennifer Monson continues with the emboldened attitude and courage to engage in the experimental—as defined by John Cage—setting up a series of conditions from which we cannot know the result. These structures delve into processes to excavate modes of activity and enactment. Monson speaks about how she is trying not to base anything on an aesthetic, but rather working to base this practice on something nimble enough for radical shifts.
In this forward thinking and hopeful quest, Monson now confronts: what is the relation to the public? What space are we in as people watching; what space are they in and where are its limits? Four women move in the room—this is not the entire cast. Their gender is apparent. They are more human, creaturely, and mature than some social construction of the feminine in the West. Sounds, humming, bells, fabric, the limits of a room. They share weight, share surface textures of themselves, liberated bodies, sad bodies, lost bodies, female bodies. I have to watch and keep watching to comprehend what these bodies are doing and why they do it. Despite a striking presence of gender, these bodies cease to represent. Perhaps they cease to represent concretely because they are so much in the process. They constantly learn to exist together in this space and they constantly learn to release whatever is established.
The horizon line recedes infinitely. A constant devolution of structure and rules; tasks emerge again and again. What is the ecosystem of these exchanges? We may wonder about the internal / external relations of these performers with each other and ourselves to them. Without any answers yet an appreciation, the form and the object of attention is inquiry. Inquiry is the form as well as a step or an action. Each decision each performer makes impacts the multidimensional space we occupy in In Tow. What is the chance of choice and all its indeterminacy? When there is no transparent law governing their behaviors, when sharing is attempted…bodies distribute themselves. Are they lost? Are we lost watching them? We are bodies trying to understand and relentlessly express.
Moriah Evans’ choreographic work has been presented at Issue Project Room, Danspace Project, the Kitchen, MoMA/PS1, Judson Church, AUNTS, American Realness, BAX, New York Live Arts, The New Museum, The Chocolate Factory, Dixon Place, CalIT2, Kampnagel and Theatre de l’Usine. She is the Editor-in-Chief of the Performance Journal and has been involved with the publication since 2009. During her 2011-2013 residency at Movement Research, she initiated The Bureau for the Future of Choreography. She was a 2014 Artist in Residence at Issue Project Room. In recent years, she has had the pleasure to work with Trajal Harrell, INPEX, Tino Sehgal, Sarah Michelson, Jerome Bel and Xavier Le Roy. Her 2015 piece, Social Dance 1-8: Index was nominated for a Bessie award for the category Emerging Choreographer.
Jun 1, 2015
It’s day seven of Robyn Mineko Williams’ ten-day residency at BAC and the long narrow blackout blinds of studio 6A roll upwards. Bright boxes of sunlight stream across the floor and Williams squints in the glare. After days of experimenting with projected imagery in theatrical darkness, she looks happy to see the sun. She asks dancers Adrienne Lipson and Isaac Spencer to repeat a section.
Choreographed in tandem with a dramatic play of projections, now it is simply two bodies working together with the weighted fluidity of molten metal. A lunge to the side is lengthened. A subtle shoulder shrug is shortened. The movement is precise; sometimes intricate, other times expansive, but always muscular.
Williams watches, then turns to her brother and collaborator, graphic designer Jay T Williams. He smiles and shrugs from a table littered with idle laptops and a projector rendered useless by the sunlight. He seems perfectly fine with his light design being temporarily nixed.
“I don’t think there’s any reason we can’t do both things,” she says, and rehearsal continues with the blinds open.
This calm acceptance of multiple possibilities seems typical for the soft-spoken 37-year-old Mineko Williams. A former dancer with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC), she is a self-professed introvert who didn’t plan on being a choreographer.
“As a dancer I wasn’t one to speak up a lot. It wasn’t my way,” she says, “I guess that’s why it surprised me to be in the front of the room and enjoying it.”
But there was never ambivalence about dancing. “Legend goes that I was bullying my mom for dance lessons when I was three,” she says, “but she made me wait until I was five.” She trained for 11 years with her mother’s teacher, Yvonne Brown Collodi at the Hinsdale Dance Academy in Illinois. After two years on scholarship at the Lou Conte Dance Studio she joined the River North Chicago Dance Company and eventually moved on to HSDC where she danced for 12 years before retiring in 2012.
In 2010 she collaborated with Terence Marling on Harold and the Purple Crayon: A Dance Adventure for Hubbard Street 2. Creating movement at first felt like a “science experiment,” she says, but after making the full length Recall for HSDC in 2012 she embraced the challenge. She has since choreographed several works for HSDC and Hubbard Street 2 and is often referred to as a rising talent in the Chicago dance scene. In 2013 she was awarded a Princess Grace Foundation-USA Choreographic Fellowship, and the following year a Princess Grace Foundation-USA Works-in-Progress Residency at BAC for the spring 2015 season.
“Movement is probably the most natural way for me to communicate,” she says. “Making dance is an extension of all that.”
The BAC residency is Mineko Williams’ first opportunity to create something that is hers alone. She hopes it will be a full-length piece or collection of related pieces, but admits everything hinges on working with people with whom she feels an unspoken connection.
“I like the rehearsal space to be a fun place,” she says, “I think that’s when magic can happen.”
So she has chosen her residency collaborators carefully. Dancer Isaac Spencer is a dear friend and a fellow former member of Hubbard Street. He now lives in Germany so Mineko Williams was thrilled that he was available. Adrienne Lipson was part of a Hubbard Street 2 workshop and Mineko Williams took an immediate shine to her ready-for-anything attitude. As for composer Robert Haynes, he and Mineko Williams have created several pieces together and both feel a real synergy with one another.
But Mineko Williams’ primary collaborator for her BAC residency is her brother Jay T whom she describes in an email as her “go to guy for inspiration” and “the one person who gets me…my aesthetic and my vision probably the most naturally and clearly.”
“He said he’d never seen me do anything that represented me,” she says, “it turned a light on in me to do more, to explore more.”
Mineko Williams says her brother’s job with the marketing firm Fision doesn’t allow him time to experiment and make what he describes as “real art.” That meant a learning curve for both of them. “He was quick to scrap ideas,” she says, “whereas in our process, finding, sculpting and discovering what works as we keep delving into the process is more the norm.”
By day ten the blinds are back down. Invited guests stand and watch a time-lapse video of the rehearsal process as it flickers by on the front of Jay T’s shirt. Haynes’ brooding pulsating score fills the room and the dancers insinuate themselves amongst the onlookers. They move in a fluid duet echoed by ghostly projections. A grainy home movie of Lipson as a baby fills the back wall. Spencer and the grown Lipson mimic with a floppy, real time duet. Then it is just Lipson. She is still, captured like a reluctant specimen under a beam of refracted light. Her movements are small and subtle, but bursts with carefully restrained vigor. The showing ends as casually as it began, but Mineko Williams and her brother look relaxed and happy. The segments are ideas – sparks of ideas – that Mineko Williams will take back to Chicago and blow into the full flame of her first independent effort.
Lisa Rinehart is a former dancer with American Ballet Theatre. She is a freelance writer and video journalist covering the arts, culture and social issues for a wide range of online and print publications.
Apr 9, 2015
Caroline Gravel talks with her hands, her body, her hair. I don’t speak French but when she speaks to me in French I have the illusion of understanding—so convincing is her sense of gesture. When I first saw Gravel’s work (in an evening at Danspace Project curated by Jenn Joy and Noémie Solomon in 2013) I was struck by that sense of conviction in her solo Ma mère est un mâle alpha. The title immediately grabbed its audience with an assertion that needs no translation and Gravel didn’t let that attention go for one moment.
In Gravel’s newest work, Bains Publics, she wants to engage differently with her audience. Her starting point—the concept of a public bath—provides a model for a shared experience without a clearly defined spectator. I was surprised to realize that the aggressive hold Gravel exerted over her audience in Ma mère est un mâle alpha is the very sense of control that she is currently questioning.
We discussed this shift in a recent studio visit and Gravel pointed out that part of this new point of inquiry is around the notion of constraint. Gravel’s movement vocabulary often employs a physical manifestation of constraint: there is a sense of pressure exerted from within her body that must contend with the space outside. In her research for Bains Publics, Gravel told me that she is interested in contending with the constraints of a theater: “How can the public feel free?” she wondered aloud to me.
For a recent studio showing in Studio 4B, Gravel positioned the audience in single chairs scattered throughout the studio with different facings. I was aware of my focus shifting between Gravel and her fellow performer, Laurence Dufour. My other choice as an audience member was to gaze at the mirrored wall where I could see both of the performers, my fellow audience, and myself. I had other choices available to me, of course, that I didn’t take: I could have scooted my chair around, for instance, or walked to a new chair, or left the studio altogether. I began to wonder if what Gravel is most interested in is the choices that we don’t make—the invisible constraints constantly acting on all of us.
One of the first things Gravel told me when I visited her studio was that she looks for authenticity in a dancer’s body. Or, as she explained to me, she doesn’t want to see a dancer moving excitedly, she wants to see excitement. Perhaps in Bains Publics, Gravel is demanding the same standards of her audience. She doesn’t want her audience to perform being present, she wants her audience to be present.
The question is how do you exact that presence from an audience? In a public bath, the heat of the sauna causes the core body temperature to rise, dilating the blood vessels and increasing blood flow to the skin’s surface. I’m not sure what the equivalent experience looks like for an audience but I have no doubt that Gravel will find out.
Lydia Bell is a cultural producer and arts administrator. She is currently Director of Programming at Artis in New York where she oversees artist commissions, public programs, exhibitions, and the Artis Grant Program. Prior to joining Artis in 2014, Lydia was Development and Curatorial Associate at Danspace Project. Lydia has also worked on projects with Eiko & Koma, Sam Miller/OAM Company, and Movement Research and spoken on national and international panels on the subject of interdisciplinary performance. She is a graduate of the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance at Wesleyan University.
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.