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.
Jan 23, 2018
Slot machines make noise. Emit light. They can also wreck lives on a slower simmer than opiates, speed, or cards. The cheap trance they offer is both throwback and harbinger.
In Cold Enough To Levitate, Christina Masciotti—herself both American language wrangler in a long humanist tradition and forward-looking manipulator of material elements towards a naturalism of reverberation—brings her sniper-like attention to the effects of this cheap trance on Frankie, a war veteran, cop, and accused embezzler, as a window onto a vast societal ping pong of malady and self-medication.
At the beginning of her BAC residency process, Masciotti and her director Mallory Catlett, along with their light and sound designers, were experimenting with deconstructing the slot machine’s functions as a means of washing play and audience in its staccato rhythms as mood stabilizer and saboteur. By the time I visited the rehearsal room in mid November, a few days before their showings, her focus had shifted to Frankie—constructing in the sharpest of detail the human being in front of the machine, the man at the center of the play.
Walking into the rehearsal room mid-scene, I found Frankie facing a machine that would be made manifest in light and sound, talking to himself, through himself, his lawyer George behind him, shuttling between George’s questions and the machine’s lull.
One quick, quiet beat after the scene breaks Masciotti looks to the actor playing Frankie, and says simply “guiltish.” He nods, understanding. I am confused.
They work through a few scenes again. “I’d feel less guiltyish if it didn’t affect them so much,” Frankie says of his parents in response to a question from George. Suddenly I understand too. The actor had accidentally changed Masciotti’s phrasing with a “y” that belonged to the word in the wider world, but not in the vocabulary of the man who had presented himself in her mind as protagonist.
Again the scene breaks. A beat. Again Masciotti says “guiltish.” The actor takes a moment, nods. The next time through he gets it right.
What differentiates Masciotti from the majority of language-attuned American playwrights is that fundamentalist precision, underpinned by an unabashed attentiveness to particularity of place; what differentiates her from almost every playwright attentive to particularity of place is that she is most often focused on places (in this case her native Reading, Pennsylvania) that don’t frequently command art’s attention; what differentiates her from the few living playwrights sharing both of these attentions is that her attention to individuality is equally sharp. She writes people, not functions in plot, but discreet individual human beings shaped not only by the sounds of place, but by their own idiosyncratic circumstances, genetics, fascinations, and tics. Thick, textured American people who do boring, shitty, regular things. Masciotti’s characters don’t live in Brooklyn or Portland, or any of the vaguely interchangeable revitalized industrial districts or exurban clumps of capital threaded between them.
Roughly a century ago, in 1921, Luigi Pirandello had this audacious formalist idea to put six characters in search of an author onstage, to make the major conceit of an evening at the theater the suggestion that the characters themselves had lives, that all they really needed was a medium, a channeling ringmaster with an eye towards coherence to arrange them into circumstance. Pirandello raised the curtain on the playwright’s mind; in so doing he also exposed the confessional booth in which character and playwright had been communing secretly at least since Ibsen and Chekhov began attempting to put life as they saw it on stage.
Playwrights have been figuring out how to negotiate the demands of their characters and the awareness of their audiences ever since. In contemporary American theater, from the most radical formal experimentation to the tightest Broadway cause and effect dramas, we are for the most part awash in authors ignoring characters. For some, it is a point of pride; for others there is simply little recognition that characters are people too.
And then we have Christina Masciotti.
When I see her work I have the sense that she waits with ceaseless patience in bus stations and doctor’s offices and anterooms of bureaucracy for anyone with a sharp, particular voice, a small story not being told, a pay grade lower than the typical theatergoer, and too many mounting concerns to recognize their place in a larger system.
The way Frankie drew her back from sound and light is not surprising. It separates Masciotti as much from Pirandello as from her peers. Without full people along for the ride, audience has little to take away from formalist adventure. If the particular is the pathway to the universal, Christina Masciotti is the medium of which the contemporary American character is most in need.
Ben Gassman is a playwright from Queens. Sam's Tea Shack, a piece he co-created with Sam Soghor and Meghan Finn, was presented this past fall by The Tank in NYC and by Barker Room Rep in Los Angeles. Gassman, along with director Brandon Woolf, is a 2018 Artist-In-Residence at the Performance Project of University Settlement, where they will be launching their new collaborative endeavor, Culinary Theater. bengassman.com.
Dec 20, 2017
Prumsodun Ok is a contemporary Cambodian-American artist who works primarily in dance, theater, and film. He was born in Long Beach, California to parents who were refugees from Cambodia. Two years ago, he moved to Cambodia to continue his dance career and to create the first Cambodian gay dance company.
This article is based on an interview with Prum while he was in residence at Baryshnikov Arts Center. He is an extraordinary dancer who began studying Cambodian classical dance when he was 16.
Rachel Cooper: How did you get started in Cambodian dance?
Prumsodun Ok: I have always loved dance. When I was 4 years old in Long Beach, California, I’d imitate dance from the local TV. The dancers were from the local Cambodian temple, not professional dancers; in fact they were pretty bad. They wore tinsel instead of flower garlands and cardboard crowns with sequins sewn on. Still there is something about art when the spirit is strong, even when it’s not done well. At four years old I felt that spirit of Cambodian dance in me. It wasn’t until I was 16 that I found a teacher. After having watched my sister’s classes, I finally asked if I could learn too, and I became quite serious about dance throughout high school.
RC: How did your family react to your decision to go into the arts as a profession?
PO: My parents were from the countryside and survived the genocide, the refugee camps, and now they live in inner city Long Beach. For them, life was a culture of survival and they were afraid to see me going into art. They even threatened to disown me, but I stayed with it. However, when I started my career in the arts it was not for dance. I went to San Francisco to study experimental filmmaking. The way we were taught Cambodian dance in the United States was not as an art form but as a way of learning your culture, and culture is associated with ethnic identity as opposed to philosophy or your approach to life. One day in 2008 I was editing in a tiny dark basement. It was 6:00 am, I hadn’t slept, and I thought: people are waking up, or making love, or getting their kids ready for school and I am here alone in a basement trying to find light. It was lonely and I missed the physicality of dance where I don’t need anything to make dance other than my body. I decided that was what I would do and returned to Los Angeles and from then on it was making dance, making dance, making dance. I am an interdisciplinary artist: I write, I design sound, I work with video. But really, the art form that informs me the most and gives spirit to my soul is classical Cambodian dance.
RC: Do you see your work as traditional or experimental? How do you think these terms apply to you?
PO: I have had the opportunity to perform on various experimental dance stages that my peers trained in classical and experimental dance have never had. The words that inspire me are from the French surreal poet René Daumal, using a term that I continue to contemplate: “the avant-garde in antiquity.” I’ve contemplated that term for a long time. I’m so over this idea of “new for new sake.” For me, it’s something I got from my filmmaking experience where my professor said, “experimental is not a product, experimental is an approach.” I can perform the oldest Cambodian classical dance and find a way to make it fresh, or bend and break within it, as long as the intention is clear.
For me there are three principles I try to follow. Something is experimental when: 1) it pushes you 2) it pushes the art form 3) it pushes society. I strive to hit all three in my work, no matter what I make. Whether it’s making a dance that uses traditional music, costuming, or dance that depicts gay love or marriage, as long as I’m pushing myself in these three ways I know I’m being true to myself and to my art. I actually don’t care what people call me, traditional or contemporary, as long as they see the value of what I do. I’m able to speak both languages.
RC: How does ethnic identity play into your understanding of yourself and your work?
PO: When I was young, being Cambodian-American was a struggle: you are never Cambodian enough nor American enough, you are pulled left and right at the same time. Now I feel being Cambodian-American is being a center, able to pool approaches, histories, mediums, and cultures, all unto myself. That richness is a source of strength and possibility that others don’t have.
RC: Is your work considered contemporary now that you are based in Cambodia?
PO: Living in Asia I sometimes feel there is a neocolonial reign that some of the cool contemporary curators think they have. For me, contemporary just means “of this time.” Time is layered: it is past, present, and future, all layered into now. I have my qualms with people who enforce what things should mean instead of being open to the spirit of the artist. When you start to label work as contemporary or traditional too narrowly, you shut things down and it can take on an oppressive nature.
RC: Can you say more about how these ideas of traditional and contemporary co-exist?
PO: This idea of the “avant-garde of antiquity” intrigues me. It's the idea of edge. Even if you are dancing a very old dance, how do you add the edge? The reason these dance forms are alive and passed on from one generation to the next is that they have a core; each generation must find the edge to sharpen, refine, push, and transform it. As someone who carries that tradition, I need to maintain that core, that spirit, that philosophy, that essence which is embodied in the form, but then push it out, sharpen an edge.
RC: Why did you decide to move to Cambodia?
PO: I initially went to Cambodia to develop my project called Beloved. I thought I would just be there one year. I asked my friend to help me find young gay men who wanted to learn classical dance and were open to trying new things. I thought he would find me probably one or two but when we had the auditions there were twelve who showed up, between the ages of 17 and 30. After a month and a half of training these young men in my living room, I looked at them and thought this looks like a real dance company; Cambodia’s first gay dance company just formed in my living room. It’s been a journey ever since. After my TED Talk the online comments in Cambodian were very interesting. One stated, “I don’t think there should be third or fourth genders, but I can see that Prum is sharing our culture with the world and this is an effort where we should all support each other in solidarity.” It’s touching this real world. When I was performing in Los Angeles in experimental spaces it was too safe, it left up the walls of an elitist space. I feel very thankful that I see my work now as touching society; I think it is the role of artists to transform society. Over half of Cambodia is under 35 years old. People are looking for things that are new, that are original.
RC: What has the reception been to your work in Cambodia?
PO: Our company had its debut in Cambodia a year ago. We opened the theater an hour before the concert was to start and within minutes it was totally packed. The makeup of the audience really mirrored the population of Phnom Penh. Lots of young people, students, artists, dancers, non-artists, 18-25 year olds, expats, older Cambodians, and parents of my dancers. The parents were seeing their kids on stage for the first time. Since this is a gay dance company it makes a point. I’m speaking to real people - grandma, grandpa, parents, kids - everyone is there. In Los Angeles, it was just artists’ friends and other artists. I was recently featured in a broadcast video as part of an anti-rape campaign in Cambodia. I was with major popular celebrities from film and music. I’m a dancer and that line between the popular sphere and the fine arts context was blurred, which I think is good. Now after my TED Talk my landlord has a new respect for me. He said, “Wow, I saw your TED Talk and I turned on the TV and I saw you on the news today.” This, from an elderly Cambodian person. I feel my art helps to reach and transform society broadly and it is exactly what I want to do.
Visit Prum's Residency Page
Rachel Cooper has extensive experience in the presentation of traditional and contemporary Asian and Asian-American performing arts and the development of interdisciplinary programs. She has presented over 500 performances at the Asia Society and venues across the U.S. She has worked with Cambodian artists since 1995 and co-organized Dance the Spirit of Cambodia. She serves on the Board of Cambodian Living Arts. Cooper was awarded a Best Practices Award for Cultural Diplomacy, Manhattan Borough Award for excellence in preserving the diversity of New York, Dawson Award for Sustained Achievement in Performing Arts Programmatic Excellence from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP), and an Isadora Duncan Award for the Festival of Indonesia. She did her graduate work in Dance Ethnology at UCLA. Ms. Cooper is the co-founder and former director of the San Francisco-based Balinese music and dance company, Gamelan Sekar Jaya, which has been presenting the arts of Bali in the United States since 1979.
Aug 3, 2017
“I am here to remind you… I am here to remind yoooou,” sings Dorothée Munyaneza as she balances the entire weight of her body on her heels before stumbling onto the floor with the microphone stand.
There on the floor, through heavy breaths, she sings again, “I am here to remind you…” What Munyaneza wants to remind us of are the narratives of children born from rape during episodes of war and genocide, in areas of the world experiencing extreme bouts of violence, including in her home country of Rwanda. In Unwanted, Dorothée explores rape used during war and conflict as a “weapon of mass destruction” that not only mutilates women’s bodies, but creates generational damage as women struggle with both disease and children who come to know that they are the children of rape, but do not know their fathers.
Dorothée Munyaneza, originally from Rwanda and now based in Marseilles, France, is an internationally-acclaimed singer, dancer, percussionist, and actress whose practice explores social integration through dance. While her primary work explores her experience during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the nuance of her practice emphasizes that she is not only interested in retelling the trauma, but in interrogating what trauma we retell, how, and by whom. Holland Andrews, an invited collaborator, is a Portland-based performer who blends live looped operatic vocals and clarinet to weave layered sonic experiences that skirt neat categorization. I met both artists when we were all residents at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art’s Collaborative Exchange Lab in the Fall of 2016. I sensed an immediate synergy between their work. While there are clear differences in their practices, both women are united conceptually by their engagement with approximation, or the challenges of articulating that which evades the parameters of language, easy legibility, and public speakability.
As Munyaneza describes her motivation for Unwanted, she shares a growing archive: newspaper clippings, photographs of rape survivors in Rwanda, printed articles, books, and film clips. While Unwanted erupts from Munyaneza’s growing archive, the collaborative performance is itself an archive of sorts, but not an archive in how we may traditionally imagine it as manilla folders with orderly materials that present a concise history. Rather, the archive produced through Unwanted is the one that reminds us of the very failures of archives. In Sadiya Hartman’s essay “Venus in Two Acts,” she asks, “How does one listen for the groans and cries, the undecipherable songs, the crackle of fire in the cane fields, the laments for the dead, and the shouts of victory, and then assign words to all of it? Is it possible to construct a story from ‘the locus of impossible speech’ or resurrect lives from the ruins?” In many ways, Unwanted asks similar questions of how we represent the undecipherable.
In the rehearsal, Munyaneza and her collaborator Andrews did not seek a full articulation of this history but were instead, it seems, interested in how to translate moments of speech disfluency such as stutters and stammers, or the sometimes indecipherable into the movement and sonic experience of Unwanted. In Susan Howe’s 1990 Talisman Interview with Edward Foster, Howe mentions something she read where poet Charles Olson commented that in Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, “the stutter is the plot.” Howe goes on to say that she is interested in the stutter because it is the “sounding of uncertainty.” This uncertainty which creates a refusal and illegibility invites us away from the comforts of neat narratives that lead to romantic resolutions.
Deep operatic bellows erupt from the corner of the dimly lit corner. It is Andrews sonically creeping into the space. Her words are unclear, but the mood is unmistakable: there is a foreboding of sorts, something is about to happen. However, before the expected something happens, the singing ends abruptly, and Andrews leaves her dimly lit corner to begin a circle path that hugs the perimeter of the room. Soon after beginning, she stops to look slightly above the audience as if to peer out of a window as she prunes. She continues to walk, then stumbles, but maintains just enough balance to keep walking. After a few more moments of walking, she stumbles again, yet this time she almost loses all balance. Up again she continues to walk and travels back to her corner where she was once singing.
The live operatic loop begins, and Munyaneza emerges from the opposite side of the room with a green and red patterned fabric cradled in her hands like a small child. Andrews winds up her vocals and ejects a series of mounting screams, then a shriek before this shriek unfolds into a series of unintelligible sentences. As I glance toward Andrews, my attention is dually focused on Andrews and Munyaneza who is now on the floor, then up again at which point she swings the fabric over her head before draping it over her shoulder, then finally weaves it into her white cropped tank top. She crawls across, creeping toward the audience.
She stands up to grip the microphone stand and begins to sing. Three lines are repeated: "I am here to remind you."; "Papa, papa, papa!"; and "because of you, Da-ddy, they call me Yuda!" Between these repeated mantras, she breaks into a singing of George Michael's, "I Will Be Your Father Figure" as well as Stromae's "Papaoutai." "Où t'es, papa," she asks. As she sings, she grips the mic and arches her body backward as if she might fall backward, but does not. Her balance seems to be a feat of its own. She does stumble and fall once, taking the microphone stand with her, but she continues to sing as she regains full footing. The incantation continues, picking up pace, and the sharp transitions between voices and phrases and songs remind me of a radio tuner, one which I have no control over. Or possibly even an exorcism. These stories trapped inside of her throat, her belly, fight for an opportunity to escape, and in the process they trip over themselves, folding and collapsing into one another. It is much like the sensation of stuttering. Again, as Susan Howe reminds us, the stutter is the plot. The moments when Munyaneza appears to have several stories erupting from one mouth simultaneously is a reminder of the many stories of rape during war and genocide that have such few pathways for articulation. It is a reminder of the public speakability of these traumas. It is a reminder that no one neat sentence or dance movement will suffice. It is a reminder that there are parts of this trauma that language and movement may never be able to express.
Munyaneza ends the showing calling out the names of countries where rape was used as a war tactic: Syria, Congo, Ukraine, Rwanda, and the United States of America.
Instead of giving us one neat story with triumphant endings or clear plot points, Munyaneza holds us accountable to telling complex stories; ones fraught with absences, silences, and missing bits. As a visual artist and writer, I am keen to compare this work to mediums I am most familiar with: the erasure poems, concrete poems, Oulipo-based work, and the extensive histories of Black experimental writers. The rehearsal performance reminded me of my favorite kind of poetry, what Lyn Hejinian calls "open texts" in her essay "The Rejection of Closure" (1985). Here she writes, "each moment stands under an enormous vertical and horizontal pressure of information, potent with ambiguity, meaning-full, unfixed, and certainly incomplete." An open text embraces the challenge. An open text does not yearn for linearity. An open text she writes is one where any reading of work is an improvisational act itself as "one moves through the work not in straight lines but in curves, swirls, and across intersections." Open texts take a form that is less of a container and more of a "force" or "velocity." Andrews and Munyaneza’s improvisational form that integrated strategic stumbles and stutters created a velocity that led the audience to cross through various visual and cognitive terrains.
Andrews closes out the performances with a soft twinkle before Munyaneza leaves the stage. The twinkle is a clever invitation: we can re-enter our post-performance worlds to be lulled by the illusions of the immaculate resolution, or we could linger a bit more in the world created by the performance: a world of stutters, stammers, and stumbles.
Kameelah Janan Rasheed is a Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary artist, former high school public school teacher, and writer working in installation, photography, printmaking, publications, and performance. She has exhibited her work at Jack Shainman Gallery, Studio Museum in Harlem, Bronx Museum, Queens Museum, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 2017 Venice Biennial, among others. Learn more about her at www.kameelahr.com
June 22, 2017
Tóraigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne; or The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne
Love and Death: A Song Cycle in Three Parts
We’ve given ourselves over to maps, though not just any maps. We’ve turned ourselves over to the particular maps that live in our devices. They direct us, in large and small ways, to points in the world that align with what global positioning satellites see on the grid of latitudes and longitudes that delineate the globe.
Coordinate geometry delivers our takeout and our cruise missiles, gets us to work or to dinner on time. But what you come away with after experiencing the collaboration of composer Dana Lyn and poet Louis de Paor, in “Love and Death,” their multimedia telling of the story of Diarmuid and Gráinne, is another kind of mapping altogether, a navigational experience that adds layers and meanings to a ten-thousand-year-old story -- a redrawing of an often-recounted love triangle that you know going in is doomed.
It’s probably safer to say this love story is ten thousand years old at the very least. We see it in Irish writing from the tenth century but it’s a good bet that at that point somebody was at last writing down a story that worked, or had frequently gone over well, or was memorable and thus of interest to the people in the landscape that we today refer to as Ireland. It is sometimes cited as an ancestor of Tristan and Iseult, as well as the story of Guinevere and Lancelot’s betrayal of King Arthur. In the Irish epics, The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne comes at the death-end of an elopement. Gráinne is the daughter of Cormac Mac Art, the high king of Ireland. She is to marry Fionn Mac Cumhail, the great warrior and leader of the Fianna. Fionn’s own wife has died, and he has grieved for seven years. “He is undone, un-manned by grief,” Louis de Paor’s narrator announces. Fionn’s sons arrange the king’s marriage to Gráinne, the most beautiful woman in Ireland, to cheer the old man. Gráinne herself does not protest until the night before the wedding, at which point she flirts with Diarmuid, young and handsome
Diarmuid, a faithful comrade to Fionn, resists, but Gráinne casts something like a spell, making her impossible to disobey. At this point, they flee into Ireland. Diarmuid is still reluctant, but then a river is crossed, no return. Eventually, a truce happens, an armistice in which Diarmuid and Gráinne have children, there is an uneasy peace between the old warrior and the soldier who has taken his young wife-to-be away. Diarmuid and Gráinne make a family, awaiting the day, foreseen by all parties, when Diarmuid will be killed by his own hound.
In Lyn and de Paor’s multimedia telling, a storm opens the piece, and the sound of Lyn’s soundtable, a difficult-to-describe wooden sound-maker, lays down drone-like intonement of deep bass oscillations that might be crying or moaning, that might be an amplified movement of the world, the world collapsing, bending, coming apart, all at the same time. The narrator speaks, bringing us into the night when Diarmuid will die. And then Diarmuid himself, as sung by Mick McAuley, speaks:
I never saw or heard before
The likes of this icy storm.
Even the raven will not find
Refuge in a cave or island cove.
The rock-clinging mood builds, until Diarmud hears the hound barking, knowing he must leave Gráinne’s bed. Gráinne (Yoon Sun Choi) protests, to no avail:
Listen to me! It is foolish
For you to leave this room
When ice shackles every ford
And outside is deathly cold
Diarmuid ponders leaving, and his slow shift from lover to warrior is described in terms of climate change, the warmth of Gráinne and her bed leaving the man’s body: “Desire for blood / Is coursing his chest. / Ice has stitched his lips.”
Flute (Michel Gentile), violin (Orlando Wells), and cello (Alex Waterman) lead us anxiously through Diarmuid’s decision to depart, as Gráinne’s insists to the contrary, notes the cold, the ice, the rain. “Do not follow a cur howling in the darkness,” she says. A collage of abstract images (drawn by Lyn) allude to Diarmuid's departure, his change-to-ice. Mick McAuley sings again the description of the storm over a deep low drone from Lyn’s sound table. Yoon Sun Choi moves Gráinne’s mood change slowly, as Gráinne inches from mourning to resolve. “Rise and make ready for war,” Gráinne says at last.
In the three-part piece, the music of the second section, tonally speaking, makes tactical arrangements for the new relationships – new relationships that are dictated by end of the relationship of Gráinne and Diarmuid. Gráinne seems to review old ground; the melodies are vaguely romantic. Sharp snare drum (Vinnie Sperrazza) marks Diarmuid’s forward looks, his reconnaissance, the mapping of a way that is ultimately backwards — to heed the oath-call of his old leader, Fionn. And then Gráinne changes tempo, herself gearing for a counteroffensive against Fionn, who has broken their common-law truce.
The cello walks us slowly into the third part. There are more images: lovers, a hound, men clenched in battle. Gráinne, who has been waiting for Diarmuid’s return, knowing he won’t return, laments. Accompanied by piano, Gráinne sings of the three things that are, she says, futile to resist: “an old man’s jealousy; the persistence of rain; relentless love of a woman careless of death, who’d tear a world asunder, abandon her children and home for him.” The third thing is of course self-referential. At last, the end we know is coming, with Gráinne’s explicit call for harsh vengeance: “Punish all the world . . .“
Old texts speak to us. This one does, posing questions: When do the oaths of men take precedence beyond the connections of hearts and flesh? Where do laws trump bodies? To whom is duty due? Is there such a thing as worldly shelter from the intricacies of honors, from the complications of pride? And who is more fickle, the woman who decides to love a man she loves, who attends to a trans-traditional call of her body and his, or the rule-fixated old man whose “honor and cold, cold pride” do not allow him peace, or rest. Is honor and pride worth a lifetime of paranoia and surveillance, minding the night for death?
Old texts also work in counterpoint, as this collaboration shows in various ways. Louis de Paor’s English translation alongside Lyn’s orchestration opens the very space that the story describes, and, in the end, the multimedia work makes the coordinate mapping that we are used to seem poor and trivial. With “Love and Death,” the participant’s mind’s eye sees this landscape, of love and death – of the two at once, ultimately. The poem itself is un-translated, as I experienced it, mapped out in rich colors and sounds, and the counterpoints make resonances that mark out some of the ground that covers all the things that go between a woman and a man, between lovers in a world that is ruled by the opposite of love. I left the performance with a sound like wind still in my ears, or somewhere inside me, resonating, and somewhere on the way home I recalled that gaoithe, the Irish noun meaning wind, is feminine.
Robert Sullivan is the author of numerous books, including The Meadowlands, My American Revolution, A Whale Hunt and Rats. A contributing editor at A Public Space and Vogue, he also teaches science at Hunter College in New York City, and writing at the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College in Vermont. His writing has appeared in many magazines, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, and New York. He lives in New York City.
June 8, 2017
Kyoung H. Park had some new costumes for his actors: bright neon green tights, which he hands to actors Daniel K. Isaac and Raja Feather Kelly, both dressed in pajamas. “Why are we going now from pajamas to tights?” asked Isaac. Park paused before shrugging, “I don’t know yet.” It’s a rainy Tuesday and the three are developing a new work, PILLOWTALK, at the studio at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, as part of a three-week residency.
Pajamas to tights...it’s part of a larger question that the team is grappling with during this residency: how to best integrate the realism of the bedroom drama, with the surrealism of the dance sequences. “This process informed how we should actually choreograph the show when we premiere,” Park told me later, at the end of the residency.
Pillowtalk is a play for two men, about an interracial gay couple, navigating the ups and downs of marriage. It was inspired by Park’s own marriage, and the fight for marriage equality. During that time, Park was “really wondering what marriage meant and what would happen to the queer movement after the legalization of gay marriage.” And crucially, what do such institutions mean to queer communities of color, whose struggles go beyond that? Those musings became PILLOWTALK, what Park calls a “gay bedroom drama,” though the piece isn’t completely naturalistic; it also incorporates dance sequences modeled on a traditional pas de deux.
Like marriage, the pas de deux is a form that is traditionally between a man and a woman. In turning that form into a dance for two men, PILLOWTALK is also making a commentary on modern marriage itself. “Marriage has changed; what is that change and how can we theatricalize that?” Park explained.
For the PILLOWTALK team, the BAC Residency has been a time to learn the rules of a pas de deux, and then break it. “The male and female dancer tropes are so codified,” said Park. “The female version is always very helpless and always looking graceful...and male dancers always have to combat this idea that male dancers are gay or feminine, by doing various athletic, powerful movement.” So, having two men do a pas de deux becomes a way to “play around with those gender norms and gender roles,” he explained. “When you've got two men, and asking men to butch it up or femme it up or be more dommy or be more subby, it's kind of playful if we're intentional about.”
By the end of the BAC residency, the PILLOWTALK team created two different pas de deux: “one of it was adhering to the classical and iconic balletic movements,” recalled Park, “and then a second version that was a little more pedestrian and gestural, sort of anchored more into a body vernacular of the ordinary person.” Both were presented to an invited audience on the last day of the residency. Afterwards, the consensus was that the second version was more powerful (one person even said the traditional version made them “cringe”). This was bolstering for Park, who is currently doing one-more rewrite of PILLOWTALK before the piece world premieres in January.
“Classical ballet is kind of an oppressive sort of cultural paradigm, why would you want to replicate it if you are anti-oppression?” he posited. “So, I think that was one of those things where it was like, ‘okay we need to learn it to know what it is and then we need to undo it.’ It was twice the work, but it’s important work.”
Diep Tran is currently the associate editor of American Theatre magazine. She has a monthly column with the magazine focused on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. She is also the founder and producer of American Theatre’s biweekly Offscript podcast. In 2014, Diep led the creation and launch of AmericanTheatre.org, the first official website for the magazine. Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times, Playbill, Time Out New York, TDF Stages, Backstage, and Salon, among other publications. Her Twitter handle is @DiepThought.
Jan 13, 2017
Before the first stumble-through of her work-in-progress, Manuela Infante pulls a chair to the center of the room, and asks actress Marcela Salinas and lighting designer Rocío Hernández to join her.
The three women and their producer Carmina Infante have been in residency here in the BAC’s Studio 4B for two weeks, and were six days away from their final showing. Sitting aside, I watch Infante calmly recite to her collaborators the piece’s order of events, adding reminders about particular blocking or transitions. Salinas, sitting on a table, follows along in her script, nodding as Infante talks and interrupting with occasional questions. Hernández interjects every now and then from her seat on the floor. I notice that the dark green of Salinas’s sweatshirt perfectly matches the green color of the large plant next to which she sits. Only after seeing the piece did I wonder if the plant had been a part of the meeting, too.
While it is perhaps extreme to suspect greenery of artistic collaboration, Aparato Radical [Radical Apparatus] indeed encourages us to consider a theater—and world—in which plants have as much agency as humans. It is Infante’s most recent work to challenge anthropocentrism, which has been her prime artistic interest since 2010. Although she initially became known for writing and staging bold re-interpretations of historical figures and narratives, Infante works in phases, investigating a central topic or concern over the course of several productions before moving to another. In her last four plays, Infante and her company Teatro de Chile have in various ways questioned modern man’s superiority and autonomy. Now, she imagines a scenario in which plants decide to reclaim their kingdom.
If you’re interested in contemporary philosophy, these ideas may ring a bell. Such source material has always motivated Infante’s theater—for Aparato Radical, she and her collaborators drew heavily on the work of plant philosophers Michael Marder and Stefano Mancuso. Infante has often declared that she uses theater in service of philosophical inquiry: in order to build fictions, she dissects the construction of reality itself. While Chilean theater has a long, ongoing history of directly political theater, Infante’s theater is better described as ontological. Moreover, as her career has gone on, her work reveals growing investment in what she calls the “contemplative dimension” of theater. She celebrates art’s resistance to utility or consumption; rather than clarifying what is unclear, she says, it should make mysterious what is mundane.
The rehearsal I visited, however, had no air of enigma or high scholarship. Everyone wore loungewear; no one wore shoes. The group had an air of comfortable familiarity: Infante has worked on recent shows with both Salinas and Hernández, and longtime producer Carmina, also present, is her younger sister and Teatro de Chile’s archivist. Infante tends to collaborate over long periods: Teatro de Chile, which just disbanded recently, had been together since 2001. Her extended creative processes for each show, which involve intense group research and devising, also necessarily bring her fellow artists close.
Aparato Radical is no different in its long development process. Before the run-through, Infante tells me that the group had already done much work on Aparato Radical in Chile and have planned for three other work-in-progress showings before the June 2017 premiere. While they had already created the show’s characters before coming to BAC, here they co-wrote the texts and integrated a looper pedal into the staging, in order to live record and replay sound onstage. (Infante, a musician, also designs and operates the sound for her shows.) They also worked on the interaction between Salinas and the lighting, and Infante has been grateful for the excellent tech equipment BAC has provided, given the importance of sound and light to the piece. For Infante, an artist whose process is rigorous and lengthy, the opportunity to concentrate fully on the project, with excellent staff support, has been invaluable. The cultural offerings of New York City itself, she notes, have also been a constant source of inspiration.
The stumble-through begins. Salinas takes off her green sweatshirt, as if distinguishing herself from several plants in the room. Yet in the opening sequence, as “Only Fools Rush In” plays, Salinas seems to become a flower, following with her body and gaze the moving wash of light as if seeking out the sun. Over the course of the one-woman show, she would transform many times, into various characters somehow connected to a teenager’s motorcycle crash against a huge tree. The dramaturgy itself is arboreal: the individuals’ stories branch out from the central “trunk” that is the accident and then from one tale to another. Even within each character, Salinas, thanks to the looper pedal, can have multiple voices, mirroring the philosophical concept that a single plant contains multitudes. Despite the non-anthropomorphic theme, the actress’s performance nonetheless confirms the power of human presence.
But Aparato Radical is not just about whether humans or plants matter more. Since we are humans, we are naturally anthropocentric. Yet Infante suggests that we still might benefit from better understanding plants: “If we accept that plants have other ways of thinking, feeling, communicating, defending themselves, other ways of being intelligent, other forms of consciousness and survival, maybe we can see how to transform our own notions of what it is to think, to feel, to communicate, and to be conscious.” This may sound like a daunting task, but Infante has always been able to translate such weighty, intricate ideas into accessible, visceral theater experiences that reveal the world anew. You don’t need to be able to talk to your Christmas tree, but you may now look at it as something other than seasonal decor—maybe even something you can learn from.
Alexandra Ripp is a DFA candidate in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism at the Yale School of Drama, where she is completing her dissertation on contemporary Chilean theater and politics. She has published writing in Performing Arts Journal, Theater Journal, and Theater, in which her translation of and introduction to Manuela Infante’s Zoo is forthcoming. She has translated plays by Chilean theater artists Guillermo Calderón, Trinidad González, and Teatrocinema to subtitle their U.S. tours. She is the former Ideas Program Manager at the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, CT.
Jan 9, 2017
Though she admits, “What fascinates me is people,” for this work, she will go it alone, at least on stage. In recent works, the French-Cambodian choreographer, Emmanuele “Manou” Phuon, who splits her dance life between Belgium and New York, used other bodies to shape her ideas.
For Khmeropédies I (2009) and Khmeropédies II (2011), she used female dancers dedicated to classical Cambodian vocabulary meant to entertain the Gods and steeped in the devotional relationship between Master and disciple. Then, in Khmeropédies III (2013) and Brodal Serei (Freestyle Boxing/2015), she used male dancers to continue her movement discussion on classical Cambodian monkey training and Khmer boxing, respectively. In all four works, there was always a twist; she pushed the norm and, admittedly, took heat for questioning traditional Cambodian dance forms. Often labeled documentary-performances, about Khmeropédies I & II one writer wrote, “she has shocked conservative audiences with her modern take on the ancient Asian art form,” and for Brodal Serei, another wrote, “Phuon tests the audience by feeding small pockets of information on Khmer boxing.” Though her drive remains a questioning of contemporary dance, Cambodian bodies, and reinvention of traditional form, she says “adding to traditional…doesn’t make sense anymore.” Her reasons are many, but topmost on her list is that funding and governmental support for dance in Cambodia is “in a terrible state” after a good run of support 10 years ago. Concerned about not being able to support dancers financially, and not having the space and time to really work, for now, she resigned to making a solo. “I know when I’m available,” she said. “I’m not fantastic or well-known,” she adds shyly, but I’m a dancer, “...this piece will actually prove that. [Laughs]"
The new work, autobiographical in a way, titled A Work for One Dancer and Many Sounds, is set to a sound score by the soft-spoken Zai Tang Mcintosh with whom Manou collaborated on Brodal Serei. Continuing to turn things upside down, Manou invited others from her dance life to make work on her. Her goal for this creative process "was to gather as much material, related to conversations: “about dancing in general as well as my own, in the context of my experience and understanding of what dance is, [and] with people who are my friends and peers.”
In the mix are Elisa Monte, Mikhail “Misha” Baryshnikov, David Thomson, Patricia Hoffbauer, Yvonne Rainer, and Vincent Dunoyer. The plan was that each choreographer would be part of the final piece because of their long-standing relationship. In-between, a good deal of time is spent with the Zai and seeing Manou (shy) and Zai (shyer) work together, is very special. “These first three weeks were meant to be messy, all over the place, and free. This allows me to go back with elements that I can choose to develop, or use as is, or discard all together,” Manou insisted. She also gave herself the option of cementing all this later after working with a dramaturge, and possibly integrating some of her husband’s art. That was the plan. So what happened after three weeks?
As promised, in lieu of a showing for invited audiences at the end of the three-week residency, Manou left her door open and I was invited to watch rehearsals with Zai, and later with Patricia.
The Plan: Manou worked with Monte 25 years ago “when [she] was in shape, [laughs]," so they were thinking about that time together. Some thoughts were: “What to do with me now”? "Maybe we will use a video from that time and I will dance in front of it”
The Takeaway: Monte created a pretty long series of phrases and also recorded her story of auditioning for Martha Graham’s company during their time together. Manou and Zai were working on blending the two.
The Plan: Manou danced for Baryshnikov’s company, White Oak Dance Project, and said “if he’s in the building [BAC] maybe he won’t choreograph a new work, but maybe revive a piece from their White Oak days.”
The Takeaway: “I didn’t catch Misha, who was too busy.” she said, but I have a feeling there may be more to this.
The Plan: Manou said she “will work with David because I love the guy. We don’t know what we will do yet, but the last question he asked me was, ‘why do you dance?’ I may want to turn that question back and ask, ‘how do I keep doing it?’ He’s the only one who didn’t ask me to do “dance-y” things.”
The Takeaway: “David’s work attempts to answer the question about trying to find who you are on stage when you are not doing ‘other people’s movement.’ [His] work could be worked on more.”
The Plan: Manou dances with Patricia in Yvonne Rainer’s works as one of the “Raindeers.” Patricia has “a very strange idea." [Manou said she wants to] "investigate everything Asian.”
The Takeaway: “Pat’s work is related to a conversation we had about European dancers who do not train like we do and are not interested in the lines and technique American dancers have, and how dated (as in old fashioned) I feel as a dancer. Pat’s work is not ‘finished’ yet.”
The Plan: “She will probably just interview me and I will probably jog [laughs]. I plan to interview her on technique and her fascination with ballet.”
The Takeaway: Yvonne will do something later (the film “Trio A” messed up the schedule!)
The Plan: the only French choreographer on the list told Manou that he was “going to wait and see what the others do... [then] maybe [his] work will be the in-between.” “He may also collaborate with a sound designer,” she said.
The Takeaway: He wasn’t in New York, so they will work when she is back in Belgium.
Manou is lovely dancer and an agreeable subject whose intention it is to bring to life each choreographer’s work vis-à-vis their symbiotic bond. There is more to come, but for now, she says, “all of this comes about because I perform in the US, I choreograph and ‘innovate’ in Cambodia, using tradition as a point of departure, and live in Belgium where the sensibility about movement and dance is completely different from the US.”
Dec 15, 2016
I had not seen Dianne McIntyre in more than 20 years. I often raved about her to my dance history students, who sometimes stared back at me with young, vacuous eyes. They have grown used to my enthusiasm, but remain somewhat amazed that I actually know some of the people I teach about in a history class.
So, I was thrilled when I got the message that Dianne McIntyre had called and wanted to speak with me about her residency at BAC. When I walked into the BAC studio and hugged her, the years melted away. I was back in the studio, an eager young student, waiting to learn more from this awesome young choreographer with the wiry but powerful body, the intense eyes, and the mystical connection with music. I was back in New York, where I began my career as a dancer and writer, enthralled by the work of this pioneering artist whose work Takeoff From a Forced Landing (1984) chronicled the experiences of her mother, a pioneering black female aviator: a female choreographer whose work was admired by musicians, visual artists, and writers alike whose work – like hers – was on the cutting edge and unlike anything we had ever seen before; artists who were redefining arts and culture on their own terms.
Watching McIntyre in rehearsal for her new work-in-progress, Speaking in the Same Tongue, I saw her put her young dancers through their paces: a jump reminded me of birds taking flight, upper body curved over and bent low; I was drawn by a leap with the legs flying like scissors beneath the body while the live music built up a series of jazz riffs and Nehemiah Spenser, the lone male dancer, navigated across the floor on his back. Even without music, the dynamic energy of the movement phrases was palpable.
At age 70, McIntyre remains a live wire: electric energy emanating from a taut body, her hair now a soft creamy color wrapped neatly atop flawless skin, her voice a contrast in gentleness. When directing, she seems to suggest, rather than decree, pausing from time to time, with her chin in her left hand to contemplate and adjust the vision that only she can see.
For sixteen years she directed a company called Sounds in Motion, and, although the company is no longer active, the title is still applicable to what she does with her kinetic recipes concocted of spoken word, poetry, live music, and movement. From her earliest days as a choreographic artist, McIntyre worked with musicians, learned to improvise from them. “I never count,” she says, but rather relies on pulse, on feel. The musicians are not accompaniment, she explains; “We are all part of the same band.”
During a break, when all the dancers have finally arrived for the final rehearsal before the BAC showcase, McIntyre forms a circle for prayer, giving thanks, offering a sacrifice of excellence. In her work, as in her life, she acknowledges the spiritual basis of creativity. Before the final run-through, there is a short improvisation with the dancers and musicians. Each dancer is called upon to “talk back” with the musicians, to make a connection. “You can relate to the musicians,” she advises, “but never be cute.” In another exercise to seal the connection, she had four dancers cross the floor on a diagonal, stretching their boundaries. She is not averse to stopping and asking the dancers or the band to execute a “do-over.” For a section of the work called “Scream” she had the dancers practice individual and collective wails, vocalizing with and without the musicians.
Most of these dancers had never worked together before, meeting for the first time for this brief residency. It was imperative for McIntyre’s work that they become a family. Just prior to the final rehearsal and showing, the dancers circled together one final time, making an offering to the creator and the ancestors. “You are divine beings,” McIntyre told them quietly.
Three weeks in the making, Speaking in the Same Tongue is the beginning of an evening length work of new movement and new music. The five sections created at BAC include “Totem,” a reverent and ritualistic work that incorporates spoken word. Dancer Theara J. Ward’s voice was at times too soft, but her full-out energy was exponentially more effective than what she showed during rehearsals. A “Silent Duet” composed of repetitive motifs increasing in speed is accompanied by footsteps and breathing as the dancers seek, search, and question. “Scream,” a trio, begins with a plaintive wail that is echoed by the saxophone player. For part of the trio the dancers sit with their backs to the audience, and when they fall back or to the side, it appears as if they are fighting unseen demons. Here is where the dancers are encouraged to let the silences speak. In “What?” the dancers ask, “What about? But What? I don’t know. . . maybe,” as they cluster, disperse, and regroup, going through phases of frustration and opposition. The work ends with “Freedom Speech,” a quartet with words and music that pairs each soloist with a different instrument. Somewhere in the middle, McIntyre herself magically appears from out of nowhere, pulling each of the dancers back in, one by one. Speaking in the Same Tongue is the start of a journey that strips away familiar language to reveal the music that resides inside each of us.
For Dianne McIntyre, the music and the movement seem to be drawn from a bottomless well that is watering a whole new generation. *Ase.
*Ase (or às̩e̩ or ashe) is a spiritual and philosophical concept of the Yoruba people of Nigeria which speaks of the power to make things happen and produce change. It applies to everything - gods, ancestors, spirits, humans, animals, plants, rocks, rivers, and voiced words such as songs, prayers, praises, curses, or even everyday conversation. Existence, according to Yoruba thinking, is dependent upon it.
Julinda D. Lewis grew up in Brooklyn, New York and studied dance with George Faison, Fred Benjamin, Eleo Pomare, Maurice Hines, Ella Moore, and Pepsi Bethel (to name just a few of her favorite teachers) and at Dance Theatre of Harlem and Clark Center for the Performing Arts. Lewis is Artistic Director of Sarah’s Sisters, a worship arts ministry for women aged 50+; a founding member of the Women of One Accord community dance ministry; Senior Director of the Ayinde2 Children and co-founder of the Ayinde (adult) Liturgical Dancers at Saint Paul’s Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia. Lewis earned her Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in Dance and Dance Education from New York University and a Master of Science in Early Childhood Education from Brooklyn College, and has been a dance and theater critic for more than 30 years. She is the author of a young reader’s biography, Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance, and editor of Black Choreographers Moving Towards the 21st Century. Recently published teachings Dancing in the Bible and The Tabernacle Teaching are available on Amazon.com (look for updates soon). Lewis completed course work for a PhD in Educational Leadership at VCU then studied liturgical dance at Calvary Bible Institute and Seminary (Martinez, GA) where she was ordained in 2009, and with TEN (The Eagles Network) and EITI (Eagles International Training Institute – School of Dance) from which she was licensed in Word and Technique in 2012. She is currently completing her doctorate in Educational Leadership at Regent University. Lewis completed the Sons of Zadok training program under Pastor Sabrina McKenzie/International Dance Commission in 2011 and Year 1 of the Eagles International Intercessory Prayer Institute Prayer School in 2013, and went on her first mission trip to Kenya in October 2013, returning in 2014 and 2015. She also went on an EITI mission to Haiti in 2015. She is currently active in spreading the gospel through dance as the East Region Coordinator for the International Dance Commission and the Richmond Metropolitan Area Leader for TEN under Eagle Co-Pastor Tamara Nichols. Lewis recently retired from the Richmond City Public Schools Programs for the Gifted and is active in the Richmond dance and theater community as Dance and Theatre Reviewer for The Richmond Times-Dispatch, and as a voting member of the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle (RTCC). She is enjoying retirement as an Adjunct Instructor for the Department of Dance and Choreography at Virginia Commonwealth University, an editor for Christian writers, and teaching BeMoved ® dance classes at Dogtown Dance Theatre and Rigby’s Jig Dance Studio in Richmond, VA. Her most daring accomplishments to date have been acquiring a motorcycle license and completing a 12-mile rafting trip with the Girl Scouts in Northeastern Oklahoma. She is mother to three amazing adult children: Jamila, Soleil, and Amandla; and “YaYa” to five adorable and talented grandchildren: Kingston Marley Holmes, Emmitt Christian Holmes, Jasmyne Makayla Ferguson, Ralph Jordan Ferguson, and Kylie Sarai Ferguson.
Dec 9, 2016
There’s an exigency to Sibyl Kempson’s very weird, very wild work that makes me hesitant to describe her as an experimentalist (except maybe insofar as experimentation and trial are continuous conditions of life).
Like many powerful thinkers, Sibyl has no time for the existing valuations of what is high or low in our culture, and a real love of intelligent abundance wherever it occurs. My sense is that her interests are not formally experimental (in the sense of staking out a critical space external to the normative in order to speak to the normative) but rather tend toward the deep-time values of theater: getting in the room, experiencing collective energy as an act of repair. I once asked Sibyl about her approach to singing and she told me her job was “to put the song in the people.” It struck me as a figure for a blood transfusion, apposite in that somehow what I get when I experience the sheer performative force of Sibyl’s plays is counterpart to iron, to potassium, to the basic fact of immunity – something that allows our bodies to act on their own behalf, but is also a record and recollection of a communal, social-physical gift inheritance.
That sense of mission to be a spelunker of our various forms of inherited knowledge about how to live is evident in Sibyl’s new, in-progress play with songs, The Securely Conferred Vouchsafed Keepsakes of Maery S. Sibyl’s plays have always engaged with excess and often with the gleeful ventriloquism of existing forms of dramatic literature (the semi-unintelligible old English curse, the expressionistic Bergman film, the collected Springsteen ballads), but Maery S., like another recent play, Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag, possesses an anti-(non?- skew?)-chronological sense of direction I’m still trying to wrap my head around. It seems to move in multiple, simultaneous pathways along its timelines as well as its latitudinal ones. This has something to do with a perception of confluence and transmission that flows across minor literatures and commonly dismissed forms of speech (like, say, a comment stream on a Bigfoot site). Merging the life of Mary Shelley, Shelley’s Frankenstein, years of Bigfoot research, stages of the Gothic, the figure of Doris Duke, river landscapes of Germany and America (with their campingplatzes and rest stops), the play asks, “Why shouldn’t I write of monsters?” (And what kind of truck stop ballad would the monster sing, after finding some hinge of redirection?)
In past workshops on the piece, Sibyl was focused on expanding the text and the songs (written with Austin-based composer Graham Reynolds). At BAC, Sibyl spent her weeks in residence asking questions about how to get the play onto its feet – not just a question of where to be in space but more urgently of the right set of ways of being in the body that both kept the humor and music alive but also made room for something monstrous to be present, both in Maery and in the monster. When I asked her about what she felt herself drawing on in approaching staging, Sibyl unspooled a wide-ranging set of sources, all of which in some way forms that face terror as both an internal and external form of confrontation: “The psychothriller of the 1970’s… the idea of the empty house… something is in the house, and you don’t know what… films like Klute, Don’t Look Now, The Sentinel, The Wicker Man, The Changeling, and particularly The Driver’s Seat, based on Muriel Spark’s late-career short story… Television shows I was vaguely remembering from when I was growing up and watching a lot of weird TV in the late 70’s that basically scared the living crap out of me, permanently… The prologue to James Whale’s film The Bride of Frankenstein from 1935… a LOT of YouTube video footage of Bigfoot sightings, and other YouTube videos of guys analyzing those sightings, as well as more fully-produced documentaries on the subject… Tours that you get to go on sometimes of old homes that have been taxidermied and turned into stuffy museums. The LBJ library in Austin. The Crook House in Omaha. Edwin Booth’s room at the Players Club. Graceland! Stroud Mansion. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Duke Farms! Southfork Ranch! Places where I’ve hiked and camped in the Rheinsteig region of Germany. The style is in the topography there, gentle and severe at the same time, long-civilized but it hasn’t forgotten its pre-Christian wildness and still honors it by what has been preserved through time.”
The byproduct of these things is like Shelley’s monster: it’s stitched-together, but it’s alive, and it holds a surprisingly large mandate to tell us something about what humans do and are and think. Another thing that happened at BAC was an originally unintended doubling of Maery, played at first in alternating rehearsals and then in tandem by Amelia Workman and Zenzi Williams. “Both are in high demand at the moment and it had been a solution for their complicated schedules,” said Sibyl. “But I loved there being a multiplicity expressed as a multiplied physical embodiment. I was already positing several versions of Maery (one for each definition of the word “Gothic”), and both Amelia and Zenzi brought something very special and variously elemental to the table which worked together beautifully. We could suddenly cover way more narrative ground, and the inhabitation of the idea of Mary Shelley took on more force and immediacy. They became Hecate! There were only two of them, but I kept seeing the threefold Goddess of the Underworld. A trebled face, a populace.”
Karinne Keithley Syers is a multidisciplinary artist and writer who has been making performance in New York since 1997, next up at The Chocolate Factory, where her radio play and paper corridor installation of A Tunnel Year will take place this December. She won a New York Dance and Performance "Bessie" Award for Outstanding Production for her 2010 operetta and museum Montgomery Park, or Opulence. She is a member of New Dramatists, the founding editor of 53rd State Press, and for one glorious year cohosted a show on WFMU, the jewel of freeform radio. She currently teaches playwriting at Eugene Lang/The New School. Find streamable and downloadable treasures at fancystitchmachine.org.
Dec 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.
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
I arrive in the middle of Dave Malloy’s third-to-last rehearsal in the John Cage & Merce Cunningham Studio. Eight shoeless performers flip through new scripts, lean over each other to point out lines, pass pens and pages back and forth. “Gelsey, can you take on Ishmael?” Malloy asks.
Today’s rehearsal is the first with director Rachel Chavkin, and the day’s agenda is described as “a sharing of what everyone’s learned.” The read-through is freewheeling and rough and energized. The text is familiar. “I’m just a big literature buff,” says Malloy when asked about his continued interest in adapting the canon. Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, opening on Broadway in the fall, is based on Book 8 of War & Peace, and Malloy’s resume also includes adaptations of Shakespeare, Beowulf, Shubert, and The Bible. “Especially giant epic novels I have a real affinity for. I love that amazing sense of reading something that was written two or three hundred years ago and thinking, ‘that’s a thought I had yesterday!’ Seeing how humanity doesn’t change that much. I am looking at these classics through a very contemporary lens with the hope of rescuing them from their bad reputations.” At first listen, the script is dense and Melville-forward, but seems to resist heaviness by not dwelling on the finer narrative points: “My challenge is to adapt the novel on its own terms rather than extracting story. The novel is a very bizarre beast of a thing; it has all of these tangents and digressions, a bunch of different forms, and I wanted to embrace all of that.”
Malloy plays one-handed piano, someone shakes a tambourine, electropop backtracks are started and stopped, everyone dances in their chairs. The lone upright bass sounds more like a whale than I expect it to; more eerie than on-the-nose. The group seems amused by the grandeur of the language and the energy of the music. “Dance like whirling dervishes, dance like sun-kissed Brazilians,” they sing, alongside offhand contemporary references (“She works for a thinktank,” something about Capri Sun). Tahiti, Nantucket, India, Africa, and Russia are mentioned; size and scale and scope are subjects in themselves and are referred to directly: “the ocean is so vast and history is endless.” The script does not apologize for its largeness.
Whiteness as a condition or idea seems to function as a vein from Melville’s original document to Malloy’s contemporary priorities. “One of the beautiful things about Moby Dick is that Melville paints the whaleship as this utopian democracy where all of the communities and people of earth have bonded together. He talks a lot about where everyone comes from; it’s a diverse world. That said, it is 1851 so there is of course some problematic language, all the main characters are white, only the harpooners are people of color. The book itself contains some pretty interesting stuff about race; Ahab is white and has a weird relationship with Pip, a young man of color, and there is an amazing chapter called The Whiteness of The Whale which is about how whiteness is terrifying. We have lots of actors of color and we have women playing Ahab and the three mates. What would a diverse all-inclusive whaleship look like today? All of that is bubbling up in a really exciting way.”
Malloy is building a “large-form communal music theater event” as opposed to an opera, but the generic boundary is inconsequential: “My intention is to have the majority happen as song. I’m really drawn to the sung-through form; the few things that are spoken can resonate all the more. Spoken text is good for language that we want to really pop and for cumbersome exposition. Sometimes we just need people to say the lines so we can get to the song.” Rather than storytelling and dramaturgy (which will be fore-fronted in future residencies), rehearsals at BAC were devoted to music. “I am leading it more as a band leader and less as an Actors Equity-style 29 hour workshop. We purposefully didn't hire a musical director or stage manager. I love that collaborative breaking down of barriers.”
Due to sheer volume of the source material and his commitment to attend to all of it, Malloy’s Moby Dick welcomes unwieldiness. “My experience of seeing really long theater pieces is that you end up having a communal experience. You take breaks together, you feel like you’re in a process together. We’ll have a lunch break, a dinner break, lots of beer and rum. That’s what the whaling ship was like; they were stuck in a communal experience for three years; we want the audience to feel like they’re there on the ship, experiencing this giant epic thing.”
Lydia Mokdessi is a Brooklyn-based dance artist and writer from Chicago, Illinois. She has worked with choreographers Anthony Gongora, Heather McArdle, Alexandra Pinel, Emie Hughes, Stormy Budwig, Buck Wanner, and Maida Withers, and her work has been presented by Gibney Dance, Movement Research, Triskelion Arts, Fourth Arts Block, Dixon Place, and Brooklyn Arts Exchange. She currently works with choreographers Stormy Budwig and Buck Wanner and makes duets with performer/musician Benjamin Wagner. She is editor of Culturebot and her writing has appeared in New York Live Arts Context Notes, American Realness Reading, and Movement Research Critical Correspondence. She is a 2016 Guest Curator for the CURRENT SESSIONS and co-organizer of Community of Practice, an initiative for early-career artists and writers supported by University Settlement.
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.
Mar 28, 2014
By the end of their residency at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, the musical comedy team Qui Nguyen and Shane Rettig had written more songs in a week than they had for six months. “It’s really hard to get together and make it happen,” said Mr. Rettig. “Here you write something. You hear something. You learn.”
He was speaking from the BAC’s 6th floor studio where, in partnership with the Sundance Theatre Institute, he and Mr. Nguyen had been plugging away on their musical-in-progress, “War is F**king Awesome,” with director Liesl Tommy and a stellar group of performers including Rebecca Naomi Jones, Sharone Sayegh and William Jackson Harper.
Studio 6A has a kind of understated urban elegance: concrete walls with large windows that look out onto city views. Inside, music stands, chairs and fold up tables, a piano, scripts, pencils, water bottles, coffee and snacks from the building’s first floor café. It was their last day of rehearsal, and in a few hours, they’d be presenting a semi-staged reading for an invited audience of fifty friends and colleagues.
“War” is a musical satire about a young woman killed in the American Revolution who is offered immunity if she’ll agree to fight in every American conflict in perpetuity. The humor is political, sometimes irreverent, sometimes piercing, sometimes raunchy---it’s a bombastic comedy, with a comic book feel. But at the core, said Mr. Nguyen, the musical is about his relationship to the war narratives he heard as an adolescent in the States. “In school the Vietnam War was always referred to as a mistake, but in my household Vietnam was necessary. I heard a different response inside and outside.”
The residency at BAC came at a critical time in the show’s development. Given simple, but essential, resources, the creative team was able to move the work-in-progress dramatically in the direction of completion. He and Mr. Rettig’s first residency for the show was last summer at the Sundance Institute in Utah. There Mrrs. Nguyen and Rettig were first paired with director Liesl Tommy, who had selected the script with an esteemed panel headed by Sundance Institute artistic director Philip Himberg. “We selected it because it seemed very fresh and to be pushing form,” said Ms. Tommy. “Also because of what Qui outlined on his to do list - what was not yet written. It seemed like Sundance could really give Qui and Shane time and space to further develop something wonderful.”
Her first impression of Qui's script? “I found it hilarious, politically subversive, and hyper theatrical. And I'd never encountered a musical where the choreography during music was meant to be fights.” Mr. Rettig’s music combined pop, hip hop and R&B, “and not cheesy musical theatre versions of those things.”
Moreover she wanted to be part of Mr. Nguyen’s satire of war ideology. Ms. Tommy is herself an immigrant from South Africa. “I really related to Qui's passion for telling this story,” she said, “Qui talked about being from a family of Vietnamese immigrants coming to the USA in the 70's and his perspective on war, fleeing war, reasons for war. I knew he had a fascinating POV.”
Lizzie Simon writes about the arts for The Wall Street Journal.
Jan 14, 2014
It's just a few days before director Cazimir Liske's showing, yet there's very, very little on stage, and conversations between actor and director still have the meditative calm of a spiritual retreat. Liske is running the ending of Illusions, his translation of the Ivan Viripaev drama at Baryshnikov Arts Center, and somehow urgency could not seem more distant. The lack of hustle-bustle is a kind of triumph of Liske's control—at an early design meeting there was talk of moving screens, of costumes that somehow illustrated time itself.
Yet while a few explosions of theatricality do pepper Liske's staging (small tricks with a microphone, a bank of hot lights that blind the audience) the room seems to drift in grey limbo, a Zen state of no-mind. Even in front of an audience, that sensation of introspection and deep quiet will remain.
Liske's journey with Illusions has been long and long. A Dartmouth student studying Italian literature, he took a sudden interest in theater, then enrolled in an English-language summer program created by the O'Neill Center and the Moscow Art Theater after Chekhov (MXAT). What was meant to be a brief adventure turned into a life's pursuit: Once in Moscow, Liske began studying with the actor Konstantin Raikin, took a degree from the MXAT Acting School, and began a busy career in Moscow as an actor and now teacher and director. Virapaev, one of the thrilling young talents in the burgeoning Russian playwrighting scene, is a friend. After performing in Illusions, first in Moscow and then at the Royal Court in London, Liske still hadn't had enough of this strange, nearly silent work, so he retranslated it and took it on as a directing project.
In some ways, despite his training, Liske works against the Russian grain. “My process,” he says, “depends much more on the author than on the director. What I've been interested in in the last year is theater that connects the audience with theauthor—rather than with the director, or even the actors.” The result is something that looks like documentary theater (direct address, simplicity, a sense of an ongoing conversation), yet is actually asking eternal questions rather than dealing with current events.
Illusions tells the intertwining tale of two octogenarian couples, Sandra and Denny and Albert and Margaret. Four actors—variously trustworthy—approach a microphone to narrate the couples' stories confidingly to the audience. Stephanie Hayes, exquisitely precise, welcomes the watchers with a 'hello,' but she measures out her affections carefully. In rehearsal she asks whether she should work in “the smiles” more. “I just happen to have the most serious bits in the piece,” worries Hayes, “Should I be smiling?”
Considering that Hayes has just described the death of one character, a woman tortured by considerable heartbreak, you can see why she might be concerned.Yet despite the story's constant emphasis on death, Liske directs his actors to attain a constant state of upward tending joyfulness. Actress Annie Purcell describes it in rehearsal as “this euphoric, ecstatic thing” —or, another time, “an unfurling feeling of love.”
Love is all over Illusions. There's no stylish irony here; the characters' central concern is whether “true” love must be requited love, a point the story's subjects return to as they ponder the fidelity of their spouses. All four characters will die preoccupied by this issue; lifelong friendships are torn apart. Viripaev's hypnotic text, particularly as translated by Liske, worries over this emotional point for almost its entire length, returning obsessively to it, striking it as the favorite chord. Sentimental melodrama is presented as minimalism, so the fact that the speakers refuse to “perform” enlarges the question about love—these non-pretending narrations make us feel as though the actor-audience relationship is on a strange new footing. Our desire for escapism and pretense and illusion is, tellingly, unrequited.
In rehearsal, the examination goes deeply inward. Conversation turns to the James Turrell exhibit at the Guggenheim (the light artist who can make a glowing light source seem like a door into the infinite) and to each performer's understanding of death. The goal for Liske, though, is that these conversations penetrate into the audience. “The thing that I find at the center of Viripaev's piece is that death is a great teacher. It teaches us that love is the path in life. There is, it turns out, a path that can bring you to less suffering. And it has nothing to do with religion, with metaphysics. It's just practical! But this is the important stuff; these are the things we ought to talk about. I mean, is there any other question we should be asking?”
Helen Shaw currently writes about theater for Time Out New York magazine and teaches theater studies and theater theory at NYUTisch. Previously, she was senior theater critic for the NewYork Sun and has contributed to the Village Voice, Performing Arts Journal, Playbill, TheatreForum, the Jewish Daily Forward, and the forward for Mac Wellman’s anthology of plays, The Difficulty of Crossing a Field. She curated the Prelude festival in 2011 and 2012, and coordinated programs at the Martin E. Segal Theater Center for approximately the same period. She also works as a dramaturg, and has assisted Martha Clarke, Lear deBessonet, and Simon McBurney. She has an MFA in dramaturgy from the American Repertory Theater Institute at Harvard University and a BA in Anthropology from Harvard.
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.
Dec 13, 2013
If you didn't know that Elijah Green, Andrew Ondrejcak's in-development movement-theater piece, is based on Strindberg's A Dream Play, you'd never guess it. Ondrejcak's own relationship to the “source” of his dream-logic exploration is playful, elliptical, tenuous. “I haven't read it!” he confesses. “I've read the Wikipedia page! And my dramaturg has made me a beat-by-beat breakdown...I'm thinking of letting that notion go entirely.”
He looks mischievously about, and drops his voice. But there's no shame here, since somehow deep themes of Strindberg—the divine visitor, the sense of humanity ignorant of its own loveliness—have managed to weave themselves tightly into the work.
Writer-director-designer Ondrejcak has more than a hint in his process of a crucial mentor—Robert Wilson. That same glancing contact with a story characterizes some Wilson processes, it releases a maker from “faithfulness” and lets only the deepest resonances vibrate their way onstage. In rehearsal,Elijah Green was made in this same spirit of the inspired accident. Actor-dancers ask for feedback, and Ondrejcak laughs, “I don't know! Do something else.”
In response his performers sing snatches of song, look fixedly at ping-pong balls, invent wandering monologues on the spot. They generate constant impulses; he grazes among them like a cow in clover. “I use what's in the room, whatever object, whatever person,” he says. His attention span seems, at some moments, to be quicksilver changeable—then he'll lapse into a reverie watching something profoundly simple and still.
In Dream Play, the daughter of the god Indra comes to earth to try to understand human suffering. In Elijah Green, actor-dancer Yuki Kawahisa plays this role, or, rather, the echo of it, moving among the other performers with an expression of gentle, puzzled calm. Ondrejcak—who can seem somewhat eldritch himself—places her into strange scenarios: first a kind of gentle, sliding, seated ritual on top of a giant fiberglas rock, then an abrupt leap onto its surface, then a slow drifting into the others' arms for a sequence the group calls the Middle School Dance.
Ondrejcak is not himself a choreographer. The dance-maker Rebecca Warner (“Into Glittering Asphalt”) works with him, generating physical vocabularies for rehearsal, and making dance-sequences which Ondrejcak then tugs apart and refashions. In an early iteration of one of Ondrejcak's other works, Feast, performers stayed almost completely stock still, nattering to each other down an exaggerated banquet table. Now we can see his composer's eye for the still image working its way through movement as well. It's unleashed an excitement about sequences: one actor cuts tape into the shape of a grave, and, almost inevitably, staunch Ryan David O'Byrne must carry the giant rock around in a circle like a mild-mannered Sisyphus.
The Baryshnikov Arts Center residency has deeply affected the work. During its earlier gestation at a summertime retreat on Governor's Island, there were broad jokes—like the giant poo suit Carlos Soto wore in one improvisation. But the studios, set high up in the shining landscape of building-tops and the Hudson, have embedded the project in a kind of permanent, mystical aura. In this incarnation, “I think I'm figuring out the tone, the mood—it's white and neutral and pastel,” says Ondrejcak, whose academic training is in fine arts. One of his inspiration pieces is “a Japanese print, very clean, of monsters—which creates a very flat space. Looking around him at the studio, he muses, “I'm inspired by the light in this room, this very grey, foggy room.”
The next step after the residency involves text—right now actors do read long, strange monologues, but Ondrejcak thinks of them as placeholder text. Essentially, “I'm sort of freaked out by narrative...because it can turn the stage-scene into illustration. I'm always simply using text as another texture.” He goes on, “In the rehearsal room, I'm just working on the formal things—color, rhythm, line. When I'm in the writing process, it's very diary...most of it sounds like it comes from my voice. It's incredibly liberating: I can have my overt expressions about life, and then I can assign a character to say it and suddenly I lose ownership of it!” It's a kind of magic, one only a visitor to our world could make.
Helen Shaw currently writes about theater for Time Out New York magazine and teaches theater studies and theater theory at NYUTisch. Previously, she was senior theater critic for the NewYork Sun and has contributed to the Village Voice, Performing Arts Journal, Playbill, TheatreForum, the Jewish Daily Forward, and the forward for Mac Wellman’s anthology of plays, The Difficulty of Crossing a Field. She curated the Prelude festival in 2011 and 2012, and coordinated programs at the Martin E. Segal Theater Center for approximately the same period. She also works as a dramaturg, and has assisted Martha Clarke, Lear deBessonet, and Simon McBurney. She has an MFA in dramaturgy from the American Repertory Theater Institute at Harvard University and a BA in Anthropology from Harvard.
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.
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.