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.
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.
Jan 13, 2014
During a recent rehearsal at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, Helen Simoneau worked quietly with a few dancers on the development of a complex duet. She watched the performers execute a passage of movement: one dancer leaned back, falling plank-like toward the floor only to have his momentum unexpectedly diverted by his partner. Suddenly the two bodies where intertwined, reclining gently into each other on the ground.
Deep lunging steps, improbable twisting lifts, elegant extensions emerging out of bodies tipped off their centers - these movements followed, weaving a partnership between two articulate, sensitive bodies. Helen offered suggestions and corrections - guiding the movement toward ease and consistency but also encouraging the dancers to see the space around them, to be attentive not just to their own bodies and to their partner, but also to their environment. I watched as the dancers' bodies softened into a fluid and easy performance of this difficult movement, rich in connection to self, partner and space. Around the room, two other small groups of dancers worked on their own. Another duet rehearsed a delicate lift where one dancer appeared to glide effortlessly over the back of her partner, while in the center of the room a group of women danced through a unison phrase of arcing, spiraling movements. The tone of the room was serious, focused, quiet - almost like a library; each study group moving with gentle determination to become both more expert at and sensitive to the given task.
Perception matters: how we create meaning out of a constant stream of sensory stimulus determines the scope and depth of our experience of being alive. Over time, we come to rely on perceptual habits to help us quickly identify what it is we are confronting. These habits enable us to predict what will please or harm us and help our bodies prepare accordingly. But, our ready-made perceptual habits can also limit our engagement with the world. We need to be reminded to expand our interpretations of the feelings, objects and events around us. In order to continue to evolve, we need to learn how to see and feel more and differently than what our habits allow.
Dance - both as a practice and as an art form meant to be experienced (felt/viewed) - has the power to render the human body and its expressive, communicative movement continuously unfamiliar. Dance can remind us to seek new ways of being in the world, guiding us to un-frame our previous assumptions about what it means to be a moving body.
Helen Simoneau's work lives decidedly in the realm of dance that seeks to open new spaces of possibility as to how bodies might move through the world. Helen brings viewers and performers toward an un-framing of rigid, habitual physicality by first creating spaces of quietude and calmness within both the dancers' bodies and the performance space. It is from this gentle attentiveness that a wealth of movement emerges - movement that quietly, but firmly insists on being seen and felt as inventive and unexpected. Helen's choreography reveals that our choices to create action in this world multiply when we treat our bodies and the spaces they inhabit with expansive, un-anxious, and generous curiosity. In a world full of hyperbolic extroversion, Helen's calm determination to look more deeply at the possibilities of human movement is a refreshing and necessary addition. So many choreographers and performers in today's over-saturated culture feel the need to loudly and forcefully make a claim for the body's capacity to be and do more in this world, forgetting that possibility comes not just from explosive force but also from quiet permission.
Helen's work is firm but unforced, energetically vital but never frantic. Helen's invitation to her dancers to locate a physical tone of calmness and hyper-awareness (to every edge of the body) allows for a rich mining of possibility from within available joints and muscles. Helen takes pleasure in working with excellently trained dancers: artists who understand how to expressively shape movement in service of an always-fresh communicative gesture, not as the reiteration of a list of pre-determined movement objects.
Watching Helen's newest works, I find my whole body calming down; the anxious noise of my mind abates and my focus is guided toward the action unfolding before me. Articulate, generous, precise, virtuosic movement meets my gaze. The performance space contracts and expands as movement pours, glides and pauses throughout the open terrain. I am drawn, not to narrative relationships, but toward relationships between time, space, and effort. I sense how it is possible to quiet the demanding push of time - to give one's body the time it needs to feel itself in action. I see how space can be opened, not dominated, by movement. The dancers move through and with space, treating it as a living surface and environment to engage with as a collaborative partner.
Helen's work leaves generous and expansive "room for interpretation" - truly revitalizing the meaning of this phrase. To experience Helen Simoneau's work is to feel the body, time and space yield and reveal new opportunities for seeing, feeling, moving - being.
Jesse Zaritt has performed his solo work in Russia, Korea, Germany, New York, Japan, Mexico and Israel. He was a 2012-2013 resident artist in the Studio Series Program at New York Lives Arts, working on a duet created in collaborative partnership with choreographer/performer Jumatatu Poe. Jesse's solo ‘Binding’ is the recipient of three 2010 New York Innovative Theater Awards: Outstanding Choreography, Outstanding Solo Performance, and Outstanding Performance Art Production. He has recently taught at the University of the Arts, Bard College, the American Dance Festival, Hollins University, and Pomona College, as well as at festivals in Japan, Korea, and Russia. Jesse was a member of the Shen Wei Dance Arts Company (2001-2006), and the Inbal Pinto Dance Company (2008). From 2009-2013 he performed in the work of Faye Driscoll and Netta Yerushalmy.
Dec 15, 2013
2013 New York Dance and Performance (“Bessie”) Award winning choreographer Joanna Kotze is no stranger to the proverb “necessity is the mother of invention.” When she began working on her newest piece, Find Yourself Here: Trio B, rather than seeing the precarity of her performers’ schedules as a limitation, and in order to take full advantage of the residency opportunities she had lined up, she chose to diverge from her standard creative practice, instead making the work in a way that acknowledges and even tries to utilize the very real circumstance she was facing: absence.
Find Yourself Here: Trio B is the second in a series of three trios, each consisting of two dancers and one visual artist, each built to relate specifically to the spaces in which they are seen. Kotze herself dances in the first and third: Trio A, with Netta Yerushalmy and artist Jonathan Allen was shown at the Lu Magnus gallery in September and Trio C will be shown in February at SHOWROOM Gowanus with Silas Riener and artist Asuka Goto. The purpose of Kotze’s residency time at BAC was to continue work on Trio B, with dancers Molly Lieber and Stuart Singer, and visual artist Zachary Fabri. (Kotze is married to Jonathan Allen, and she met the other two collaborating artists when they and Allen all had Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Workspace residencies at Governor’s Island). When I visited the studio, Fabri, Kotze, Lieber and Singer were all meeting together for the first time. Kotze had just spent almost a month as a resident artist at Djerassi in California, but was only able to bring one performer with her at a time, so she spent a week separately with each dancer developing solos. Her three weeks at BAC were meant to explore what it would be to have these two solos in the same space at the same time, together with the new element of Fabri, who works with digital media and superimposition, filming himself setting up a space and photographing himself, placing himself into pre-existing frameworks, building his work digitally as well as in real time as live performance.
Throughout the development of Trio B, Kotze has allowed the realities of her experience to feed into her creative process, and to inform the choreographic structure. While at Bogliasco, Italy on a solo residency, she began exploring the notion of presence and absence, of being both in a studio and allowing herself to see what lay outside the room, the landscape that surrounded her. As she continued her solo explorations in California, immersed in quietude, thinking about what was beyond the room, the dualities of pristine/urban and calm/wild began to take shape, and what energy hums underneath/beneath these various states. In exchange with Fabri, they began discussing ideas of visual landscape and framing, darkness, using a slide projector for the sound of the shutter and the capture of motion like a video still. Initially, she developed a nearly forty minute solo in these residencies that she then used to generate the material for Lieber’s and Singer’s bodies, exploring an additional duality of “mine/not-mine”. She continues to maintain a separate solo practice with the material, and in fact recently adapted it further into a new duet with Jonathan Allen for Danspace Project’s Performing the Precarious event at Industry City.
The night I visited BAC, the sun had set in studio 6A, and Kotze had asked the three performers to engage in a show-and-tell. Lieber and Singer danced for each other, seeing the other’s movement for the first time. The space felt like a beautiful cathedral of silence and attention. Lieber went first, with long sweeping shapes, the pat-pat-pat of her feet running in a delightfully strange, huge circle with her arms twisted and extended over her head. I was reminded of Joanna’s own pacing circle that opened it happened it had happened it is happening it will happen. The geometries in her work always remind me of her architectural background. What imagery do these mysterious, often humorous shapes emerge from? Molly was doing a knee crawl on the floor, initiated by a big thrusting arm. Lieber’s and Singer’s solos contained different explorations of similar themes. Gaze--looking out, seeing out, Molly watching her feet, her hair cascading down over her head, her face disappearing, but still so deeply intent. Stuart walking so far downstage, to the very limit of the space. Looking, seeing beyond. The hardness and softness, the percussive walking, pacing. Stuart watched his feet too. There are heel pounds, feet slaps. I thought about the differences between Molly’s and Stuart’s bodies, male and female, their height, their very arresting dancing presences. This is the first time I am not seeing Joanna perform her own work (another absence). The repetition of things. They dance to the very edges of the room in a way that makes me so aware of the walls, of confinement, and feeling them wanting to burst out, exploding the container, not in a violent way, but because they are so full of this vital, vibrational energy.
When they’ve had a chance to see each other, there are a few notes, and the dancers each teach Fabri some moves from their solos. Then Kotze just charges ahead with the big question: can these two dances occur simultaneously in space and time, and what will happen? Zachary does his solo first. His shadow looms large in darkness lit intermittently with a slide projector, its shutter like a mesmerizing blinking of the eyes. He’s a prologue to the dance, maybe like a Greek chorus, with such a different relationship to the body and training, introducing us to everything we are about to see, but in a deeply enigmatic way. I think of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. I then watch in rapt awe as Lieber and Singer dance for another half hour, shocked at how much I’m seeing for the first time, though I’ve just focused so intently on them alone. Somehow, dancing together puts each of them in such stark relief against and with the other. The foreground and background begin to shift back and forth, there is a new dimensionality to the room, and the way the two are in constant relation and awareness of the other but with such an internal, studied focus is so exciting, at times dangerous. At some point Lieber lets out a yelp, nearly crashing into Singer as she launches into a blind run with head down. They both keep dancing. Moments of silence, of stillness, shock with power. When they finish, I am speechless.
It’s day one.
Aaron Mattocks is a Pennsylvania native, Sarah Lawrence College alumnus, and 2013 New York Dance and Performance (Bessie) Award nominee for Outstanding Performer. He is an associate artist with Big Dance Theater under the direction of Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar (Supernatural Wife, Comme Toujours Here I Stand (revival), Man in a Case, Alan Smithee Directed This Play) and is currently creating new works with Doug Elkins and Courtney Krantz. He is a 2013-2014 Context Notes Writer for New York Live Arts, after recently completing a year as guest editor for Movement Research’s Critical Correspondence. His writing has been published by The Performance Club, Culturebot, Hyperallergic, Critical Correspondence, The Brooklyn Rail, Hartford Stage and the BAM 2013 Next Wave Festival.
Jul 1, 2013
If you went into Baryshnikov Arts Center’s Studio 6A today, you would find a small house. Upon further inspection, you might think of it more as a variation on a house. It has four walls, yes. It offers sanctuary, intimacy, and an ordering of space. But its primary purpose is as a container for dance.
Rachel Tess is the artist behind the container—she is a choreographer who splits her time between Portland, Oregon and Stockholm, Sweden, and a dancer trained in ballet who has worked with major ballet companies and contemporary European choreographers. She started to work site-specifically in Portland starting in 2007, making and producing works in large forgotten urban spaces under the auspices of Rumpus Room Dance. The experience of working in warehouses and other large-scale environments, she told me when I visited her at BAC recently, drove her to crave intimacy in the performance environment. How does the audience read architecture and texture? How does the audience experience the vibrations of the dancing body? These are the questions driving Tess’ newest project.
Souvenir, what I’m calling a container for dance, is “designed for mobility,” Tess wrote to me recently. It’s also “modular,” so that the pieces of the structure can be reconfigured in a multitude of ways. It was constructed in Sweden, with the help of a two carpenter uncles and Swedish/Chilean designer Gian Monti, and then shipped to New York for Tess’ month-long residency. It took almost three days to erect in the BAC studio, during which time Tess taught the dancers she is working with—Anna Pehrsson and Luis Rodriguez—how to put it together. The intimacy between Tess, the dancers, and the structure is palpable. The walls of the structure Tess lovingly refers to as “skin.” The frame of the house contains cubbies for sitting in and a ledge for perching on. Eventually each cubby will have hooks, for audiences to arrange their belongings on, and a “survival kit,” of some kind, perhaps a blanket, Tess told me.
In a recent run-through, several test audience members were encouraged to walk around the structure and then choose a cubby to inhabit. In my walk around the structure I felt my gaze drawn in many different directions—to the skyline, the buildings outside, to the studio door. Once inside, my gaze became more focused. I no longer had a sense of the space as portable. Instead, the hard edges and clean lines of the structure seemed permanent, as if they had always been there, and watching the dancers negotiate the harshness of raw wood was both stimulating and strangely exhausting. Toward the end of the run through, both dancers left the structure, running their hands along the outside walls and emitting a low, meditative hum. The container seemed to vibrate with possibility and I found myself imagining it in a grassy meadow, as a respite from the sun, perhaps after a long hike. What are the ideal conditions for dance? Souvenir forces us to confront this question—and offers a space in which to imagine the possibilities.
Lydia Bell is a dance researcher, curator and administrator based in New York City. She is Development and Curatorial Associate at Danspace Project, where she serves as Managing Editor of the PLATFORM catalogue series. Lydia has contributed to publications such as Judson Now (Danspace Project, 2012), Museum and Curatorial Studies Review (University of California, Santa Cruz), and Movement Research Performance Journal. Lydia is a graduate of Wesleyan University and the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance (ICPP).
May 22, 2013
Confronting the Cult of the Engendered Body
“The EXPERIENCES I accept now must question my own presumptions and help me rethink people’s assumptions.” - Octavio Campos
Having worked in various creative and educational arenas with a career spanning over 30 years, Octavio Antonio Campos is a matured, fearless artist. For his three-week residency at Baryshnikov Arts Center, the Cuban-American, Miami based performer has found himself in a place of self-reflection.
Continuously motivated by an overarching need to question and reexamine the fabric of the current socio-political climate, Campos, now in his 45th year, has started a process of reaching back into his past to reveal, perhaps, a new artistic truth about his present relationship to live performance.
Born to refugees of the Cuban Revolution, his parents were imprisoned for not falling into accordance to Fidel Castro’s leadership. Upon release, they fled to Miami, FL in the early 1960’s. In his newest creative venture entitled Triple Quince, Campos is bravely opening his memory bank to this experience among many others.
But memory is only one of the building blocks Campos is using to create this new work. Another concept that he admits has consumed him for the past few years is the idea of ‘hatred,’ which was also a theme in his 2009 work 1000 Homosexuals -- a play written by Michael Yawney. About his new work, Campos says:
"I’m always trying to transform [hate]. Look at it from another angle. Using the energy that hatred evokes, I’m attempting to defuse it, and use it to... power New York City someday, because there’s a lot of energy being expelled towards the other, all the time. I’ve been fascinated by the energy that’s behind it. I think it’s interesting to use this as a springboard to create the new work."
Age 15, Campos remembers, was a turbulent year. In Latin culture, when an adolescent turns 15, it represents a rite of passage, and while girls are thrown an extravagant party or Quinceanera, boys are thrown into a motel with a prostitute twice their age. For the teenage Campos, who had already self-identified as gay, this was quite a traumatizing experience.
Structured as three distinct chapters (each marked by a 15 years division), the new episodic performance will recount Campos’s early memories as a teen as well as his artistic occurrences at age 30 when he found himself performing tanz theatre in Berlin. He recalls the glory of the 90's after physically helping to destroy the Wall in 1989. He remembers the freedom of extacy, falling in love with Pina Bausch, love parades, and wild German performance art escapades.
Now, after having lived such a fulfilled life, he's asking himself "Who am I now?" Today, Campos enjoys the simple pleasures of kayaking, swimming, and sunbathing. Apart from his international commissions and residencies, he currently resources his work and maintains creative stability as an Artist-in-Residence at Miami Theater Center where he works as a choreographer, producer, and educator. He receives a full-time salary, benefits, and artistic support for his own creative musings. The position also allows him the freedom to travel and work remotely via satellite.
Proclaiming himself a buffon trapped in a dance-theater bodysuit; a political, gender torchbearer overtly confronting gay issues, Campos’s work addresses the current cultural moment with a performance art aesthetic and infectious comedic sensibility -- the result of years of German training in deep conversation with the complexities of his Cuban roots. Campos doesn’t aim to follow known methods of creation, so much as to subvert them and, in the process, share with his viewer what he values most about being a creator of live performance.
Whether performing a duet with a demolition truck (as seen in his 2006 work Developmentus Interruptus) or describing the 50th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Cuba's Bay of Pigs (as in 2011’s The Pig Show), Octavio Campos wants to give us very specific ideas to ponder while watching him. He provides an experience that not only demystifies his own personal questions and creative obsessions, but also reveals an emotional truth inside his audience as well.
Jaamil Olawale Kosoko is a producer, curator, poet, choreographer, and performance artist. He is a 2012 Live Arts Brewery Fellow as a part of the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, a 2011 Fellow as a part of the DeVos Institute of Art Management at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and an inaugural graduate member of the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance (ICPP) at Wesleyan University. With his creative partner Kate Watson-Wallace, he co-directs anonymous bodies || art collective, a visual performance company that presents work nationally specializing in site base performance and community building art practices.
Mar 29, 2013
The dances that Sam Kim makes aren’t pretty, and if you ask her, she’ll tell you, “I don’t make stories.” The works are non-linear, with no-set sequence, meant to evoke the state of dreaming. The movement is raw at times—the dance of zombies—but her choreography and subversion of technique places her performers into strange but familiar worlds. We recognize our own otherness in her dances; they scratch at surfaces.
Material she developed during her residency at BAC was shown at the end of March. A trio for three women with the working title "Sister to a Fiend,” this piece is overtly ritualistic. Two matching cups are repeatedly held aloft as if in offering, or a means of channeling, and they are also hurled to the ground, as if in anger or pain. Spiritual symbolism abounds, but the body is central to the proceeding. There is molestation. Energetic transfer. And what Kim refers to as “the table top human body, and they are taking what they need.” All three women appear to be in trance states, but not all the same kind—some are supplicant, some ecstatic, another desperate. Ultimately, through repeated and varied interactions, the three connect through a physical mutual dependence.
Before the showing, Kim answered a few questions about her work and process.
BMcC: For those who may not be familiar with you or your work, how would you describe what you do?
Dance is so weird. Really, truly strange. On some level I find it completely vulgar that anyone would put people on a stage just to watch them move around. Really? WHY? It can be so presentational, so precious with itself, and I find that repulsive as an aesthetic value. But, I think that's fundamentally why I'm driven to make dances, and why I remain curious--I'm trying to better understand the form myself, and I'm convinced that there's so much more to it. Historically speaking, dance is still in an incredibly incipient stage. Now we're in somewhat of a thaw after the fixation on and tyranny of beauty. For lack of a better word, my work is experimental. I'm interested in what's beyond beauty and how dance can be the platform to express a wild range of truth and experience. Fundamentally, I am an outsider working in an outsider's form, playing at the edges and seeing what that yields--I'm involved in a personal game of brinkmanship. Everything I know about making dances came from making dances. Yes, I am a dancer, but I discovered dancing and choreographing almost simultaneously back in my late teens. My love of composition (choreography) is separate from my love of dancing.
I do subvert the form a lot. There are red herrings in my work--some people are often unable to see past them. I'll use overexposed pop music, have people move like zombies, act like stroke victims, but I'm not being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian--all of these elements were necessary content or counterpoints to the tone I wanted to create. Part of the challenge and interest for me is to deliver the content functionally and rigorously, no matter what it is.
I've always taken heart in what David Lynch said about making "Blue Velvet: "it started with red lips, a white picket fence, and a severed ear.” That's all he knew, and that was enough. I feel the same about every dance I've ever made. I might know one or two things about it, but really, I have to take a leap of faith and make it to understand it.
This latest work springs from a work I made in 2007 called "Cult." A lot of "Cult" was built through improvised "incantations." I've brought back this score and have used it to start a lot of my rehearsals. It allows the performers to drop in to the right tone of this work, they literally thicken the air around them (I can feel it), while they simultaneously practice being seen. The thrust of this work is about the strange relationships between women, especially powerful women. They're not quite human, but they are definitely female, and they have secret rites, which I expose through the dance. The ultimate experience of this work is getting to see this.
BMcC: This new work combines symbolically loaded gestures, with some radical sensuality and a healthy dose of subversion. What art, ideas, rituals, imagery, etc are you drawing from for the construction/performance of this work?
SK: I wanted to extend everyone's arms and I also wanted to work with objects that had potency, potential talismans, so I brought in a set of vintage '70s cocktail cups. They're clear for the most part with a little bit of red and yellow, and they're also an unusual rectilinear shape with a curve thrown in. They've been very generative as objects to respond to--to give energy to, and to get energy from--they've served as a direct line of transmission to forces greater than ourselves.
I started this work, in the studio, during a residency I had at MacDowell back in the fall. There I danced with real, glass stemless wineglasses. I wasn't afraid of getting cut, but I did shatter one...so for practical reasons I'm still working with the plastic cups for the group, but we'll see. Glass has more power than plastic.
Films are always very important to me as inspiration, and I think there's something intrinsically filmic about my work. A LOT of my favorite films are about weird relationships between women: "3 Women," "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant," Breillat's "Bluebeard," "Mulholland Drive," etc. I've told the performers to have a gander at these films.
BMcC: How has the residency at BAC influenced your capacity to explore your artistic process?
SK: By providing a real choreographic home for 3 weeks, for providing 5 hours of rehearsal time every day without financial constraint. It allowed me to breathe easier, relax into the process. By the end of it, a 5-hour rehearsal really seemed the norm, not an infinite period of time. To inhabit this psychic framework of "yeah, this is my job--this is really how I spend my day," was incredibly liberating. The content just seemed to tumble out fast while in this state of mind. The studio I was in was also incredibly beautiful--light-filled with a dramatic view of the cityscape. This all helped set a mood, and I felt deeply supported by the city itself.
Jan 9, 2013
How about choreographic inspiration from Stephen Sondheim musicals, unhappy endings, and the busy sex life of Bonobo apes? Unlikely? Not to Sally Silvers.
Silvers, a veteran choreographer known for her smart, collage-like dances, used her BAC residency to develop Bonobo Milkshake, a dance premiered in November 2012 at Roulette in Brooklyn and described by New York Times dance critic Claudia LaRocco as one the “happiest sightings” of 2012.That’s welcome acknowledgement for a choreographer who’s been making eclectically influenced (some say radical) work for several decades, but who described herself in a 2009 New York Times interview as “old-fashionedly interested in movement.”
A native of Tennessee, Silvers is soft spoken and articulate. During an interview at the East Village apartment studio where she lives and works, Silvers explained her unexpected exposure to dance while a student at Antioch University in the early 1970’s. She’d signed up for modern classes as exercise, but was soon performing in the works of an artist friend. “People started noticing my performance and I felt like I’d gained a new source of power,” she said. After graduating, she moved to New York, fell under the spell of the cross-disciplinary Judson Dance Theater, and started auditioning for dance gigs.
“I was looking for something radical in dance and I wasn’t finding it,” she said. “I was finding kind of smoothed out, lyrical, contact-improvy based stuff…and so I think I just put together my first concert and said, OK, I’m going to do this myself.”
Influenced by, among others, the work of Simone Forti and Yoshiko Chuma, Silvers eventually started piecing together text, movement, voice, and music into crazy-quilt dances underpinned by big themes such as gender and race, but rooted in Silvers’s love of the human body in motion.
Bonobo Milkshake is no exception. According to Silvers, the dance isn’t directly about apes or musicals, but about the intricacies of human behavior, particularly as explored by Sondheim in his dark, irreverent lyrics and inherently un-danceable scores.
Sondheim “represents a real change in looking at society with more realism,” says Silvers. “He tackles things like aging, melancholy, things that don’t work out.”
But during the choreographer’s rehearsal time at BAC, gloominess was refreshingly absent. There was laughter and a free exchange of comments and suggestions as Silvers carefully edited and embellished small chunks of movement with the dancers.
One afternoon she had dancers Dylan Crossman, Elisa Osborne, Miriam Parker, Veraalba Santa, and Christopher Williams cluster front and center. She asked them for a titillating show of leg like they were old school chorines trying to impress a director. The dancers suggestively pulled at their sweatpants and Spandex, but the result was more aggressive than Silvers wanted. She directed them to soften everything. Less movement and more intent, she suggested. “You kind of have to believe in it,” she said.
There’s a sense that this is how Silvers works – the intellectual framework of the dance is pulled from wildly divergent sources and fastened together gestalt-like in her head. The piece is then built in rehearsal as the dancers experiment and layer movement onto that framework. Silvers appears fearless when it comes to marrying disparate ideas, and the dancers follow her lead with the willingness of converts.
During her residency Silvers pushed this approach even further. Bonobo Milkshake is a multi-layered mash-up with choreographed movement for six dancers (the five listed above plus Jeremy Pheiffer), structured improvisation for three more performers (Carolyn Hall, Jonathan Kinzel, and Edisa Weeks), semi-improvised duets for Silvers and Rebekah Windmiller, and monologues and movement solos for actor David Greenspan. Michael Schumacher composed and performed the music with original text and sound design by Bruce Andrews.
“I think the scale of this piece was made more possible by the BAC residency for sure,” says Silvers. “I was able to think bigger.”
In performance at Roulette, Silvers reversed the usual seating arrangement so that the audience, elevated on the stage, looked down at the dancers, and up to the balcony area where Hall, Kinzel, and Weeks periodically slunk through the seats in a sort of mating ritual. The effect was intriguing, but the space between floor and balcony made it hard to absorb everything all at once. And Silvers’ choreography is compelling enough that it was easy to lose track of the improvised bits even when they happened down at dance floor level.
In our interview before the premier she spoke of the challenges of overlapping choreography with improvisation. “Improvisation you really have to dive in and get involved with what you’re doing,” she said. “It’s hard to coordinate because [the improvisers] can’t be there as much as they would normally need in order to get something actually worked…They’ve got to be aware that that’s their time and that they have to be off the stage or they’re going to get run over by the next section.” In an email after the opening she said that if she presents Bonobo Milkshake elsewhere she’ll intertwine the two elements even more.
Silvers has an internal presence, call it confident calmness, that somehow makes the simple act of standing and tilting her head a potent comment on life’s absurdities. When asked about the dance’s title, she said, “My dance is not about Bonobos, it’s more about the spirit of the Bonobo…Bonobo Milkshake just sounded to me like a title that meant something hopefully exciting was going to happen.”
And her response when asked what Sondheim might say if he saw Bonobo Milkshake?
“I would be very curious what he had to say about what he saw,” she says with a slight smile. “I don’t know that he would see any relationship.”
Aug 26, 2012
Rashaun Mitchell, an eight-year veteran of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, isn’t afraid of getting lost. Literally. To prepare for his BAC residency, he and a few other dancers set out into the woods of southeastern Connecticut for a hike into unfamiliar territory. Without speaking, one dancer was expected to lead until another felt compelled to take their place.
It wasn’t pretty.
They were quickly lost, and when they finally made it back to the studio, everyone was intensely emotional. Mitchell recalls it as being, “really weird,” but he knew he’d hit choreographic pay dirt. He set up a camera and told his dancers, “OK, let’s dance…let’s see what comes out of our bodies.” Those filmed improvisations became the core material for Interface, an exploration of visceral and emotional reactions that Mitchell expects to be more of a multi-media piece than a dance.
It’s fair to say that this comfort with creative meandering is unusual for a seasoned Cunningham dancer. Although Cunningham often relied on chance operations for how a dance would look in performance (meaning the movement, sound and visuals are independent of one another and order is determined by a roll of the dice), the actual steps, and how they should be executed, were, as in classical ballet, imposed on the dancers by the choreographer. So Mitchell’s willingness to let his dancers’ movements dictate the look and feel of a new work is a certain kind of daring.
“I really like to work with people who have minds of their own,” he says. Mitchell encourages feedback from his dancers while sifting through their improvised movement, discovering the emotional intent behind it, then trying to separate one from the other and recombine them in novel ways – something he describes as a layering process.
In Interface, Mitchell plans to add even more layers including an original electronic score by Thomas Arsenault and design elements by artists Nicholas O’Brien and Fraser Taylor. Factor in the expertise of the dancers working with Mitchell during his time at BAC (Cori Kresge, Melissa Toogood and Silas Riener) and you have a passel of talent converging on virgin territory.
As if that isn’t intrepid enough, Mitchell and Riener will be co-creating an improvisational duet to be performed at Anatoly Bekkerman’s ABA Gallery as part of BAC’s fall gala evening. The challenges for such an event are many and Mitchell admits that it’s scary. Although he’s used to performing in unorthodox spaces from his years with the Cunningham company, Mitchell says a gala event is a little different. “It’s always sort of strange to figure out where people are going to be and whether we’re going to interrupt the socializing.”
Dangerous? Perhaps. Frightening? Yes, but most creative efforts are. Mitchell, however, appears to be willing to pull his collaborators close and step carefully, and bravely, into the unknown.