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.
July 13, 2017
With her Paramodernities project, Netta Yerushalmy has landed on an intriguing and challenging experiment worthy of her wide-ranging, even promiscuous intelligences, which are clearly many.
She’s working on a series of investigations that juxtapose landmark dance works by canonic, paradigm-changing choreographers: Nijinsky, Graham, Balanchine, Cunningham, Ailey and Fosse (also, I’m told, a wild-card artist as yet undetermined) – with contributions by writers and scholars, appearing in the flesh. Her overarching subject: the project of modernity.
If this sounds overly academic or dry, I can report that the three rehearsals I attended recently at BAC were anything but. I left each invigorated, alive in new ways to the clanging dissonances of new building construction (or was it deconstruction?) on 37th Street and beyond, prepared by the mashups I had witnessed in the studio six floors above.
In a studio with photos of Merce Cunningham and John Cage as the only adornment, Netta works on an arrangement of excerpts of Cunningham choreography spanning five decades, rehearsing with dancers Brittany Engel Adams and Marc Crousillat. Netta tells me that for this installment she’s exerting her will on the material, working against the grain of Cunningham’s Zen-related objective to let go of his own will, or at least some of it, through the practice of subjecting many compositional decisions to chance operations. Neither Brittany nor Marc is much trained in Cunningham Technique, yet their dancing belies this. To my eye, both could have performed in the Cunningham company.
Mikhail (Misha) Baryshnikov joins me, an unexpected treat, and together we watch a run-through of today’s iteration of this experiment. The movement, at least at the onset, is immediately recognizable to both of us as unadulterated Cunningham. Too, much of what is danced looks like it could be an arrangement Cunningham himself made. But soon little disruptions poke through this surface. How is it both dancers are now playing with weight and gravity in a most un-Cunningham way? In partnering, Brittany always provides support to Marc, never the other way around, an understated challenge to Cunningham’s more traditional presentation of gender roles. But when the dancers begin to speak aloud, relaying their personal histories and markers of identity, and when they begin to dance with, and then to, Ethiopian pop music, I know I’m not in Kansas anymore.
Netta has told us she’s in no way trying to replicate or restage any of Cunningham’s works. This is clear to both Misha and me. “What he wouldn’t have done,” observes Misha. Yet why is it I feel as if I’ve seen something about the Cunningham movement that has somehow remained otherwise obscured? A section in which Netta has organized movements by types – e.g., pivots on one leg, movement with arches, running moves, triplets, jumps – is particularly revealing. A running phrase from a 1950’s work bumps up against running phrases from dances from subsequent decades. I see the movement and the dancers’ labor anew through this novel, utterly un-Cunningham organization. Too, the transgressions to Cunningham’s choreographic practices, like hearing the dancers speak, makes the more unalloyed sections appear in vivid relief. The movement emerges crisp and fresh (dare I say pure?).
Misha points out that talking while dancing is a trope unto itself, even a cliché, “like in The Turning Point.” It takes a moment for Netta and me to recall the rehearsal scenes of dancers gossiping and flirting while they’re dancing in the now-classic dance film in which Misha starred. Point taken.
Today I see a real mashup – Ailey, Cunningham and Nijinsky walk into a room (sounds like the start of a joke, right?) and are met with a contemporary scholar, David Kishik, reading from an academic essay, “The Work of Dance in the Age of Sacred Lives.” This is my first encounter with the juxtaposition of textual and choreographic language that Netta places as vital to her project. Ailey’s choreography is danced by Stanley Gambucci, Nijinsky’s by Netta, and Cunningham’s by Brittany again. At one point Netta directs the dancers to “turn the volume down” on their dancing during a particular section of David’s text, to avoid “putting pressure on what he’s saying.” I take this as an important clue to the relationship of word to movement – both have agency, even autonomy, here.
Each dancer traverses an independent trajectory alongside that of the essay and essayist, with connections both clearly drawn and accidental. Ah, I think, Netta is employing some of Cunningham’s practices of indeterminacy here, which she avoided in the more overtly Cunningham construction. I catch fragments of David’s text – a meeting twixt Christina, queen of Sweden and Descartes resulting in the libretto for a ballet… Mallarmé’s assertion that the body of a dancer writes a poem… Agamben’s countering that the dancer does not so much write with movement, but instead “reads what was never written” – while I simultaneously turn my attention to the emblematic moves of the dancers. I watch Netta assiduously execute the inner-rotation of her legs that is immediately recognizable as 100% Nijinsky, from his choreography for Le Sacre du Printemps. Soon after David begins relating how Nijinsky worked against the idea of the dancer as a machine for manufacturing beauty, the rupture evident, for example, in the awkwardly inverted legs of the dancers: “like Netta’s,” David points out.
All the while another dancer, Sarah Lifson, studies video of Fosse choreography on a laptop in a corner of the room, periodically bursting forth with shoulder rolls and jazz hands. She’s learning material for another section within Paramodernities, but my eye puts everything in the room together. I’m seeing yet another mashup, with Bob joining Alvin, Merce and Vaslav (another joke waiting for a punchline).
The materials today are more clearly cut from the same cloth, a Graham-inflected tapestry. Netta and Taryn Griggs are working with movement they’ve learned, I’m told, only from the recording of Night Journey in “A Dancer’s World,” the iconic 1957 film of Graham and her dancers that culminates with Graham abruptly exiting her dressing room as if to take the stage to perform the role of Jocasta. Carol Ockman, a professor of art history from Williams College, is reading from her essay "Trauma, Interdiction, and Agency in ‘The House of Pelvic Truth.’" Heady stuff indeed! I hear John Berger and Julia Kristeva invoked, the male gaze and feminine power. I find myself studying Netta and Taryn as they plug away at the demanding Graham movement with all its intended passions, wondering about authenticity: are their contractions real? Soon my query is answered by Ockman, who asks aloud what it means for these dancers to be wrestling with vocabulary for which they’ve not been trained.
I later learn that Netta too has asked this and other questions in her writing about Paramodernities: “Can I be faithful to Graham’s tormented Jocasta as I simultaneously dance the role of Oedipus her son? Is this mere mimicry?” “Is a legacy public?” She asks too about “unavoidable failures,” curious if there might be something generative to be found there.
At one point in the rehearsal Netta inquires if I’ve ever studied Graham. I have. She asks, “Did anyone ever say anything about the vagina?” Dang if I can recall any such reference, except in jest.
It’s clear that Netta is truly experimenting with this project, and not just paying lip service to the idea. She’s stated that Paramodernities project is fueled by reverence and violence. In these rehearsals, I found more of the former than the latter. Parts homage, critique, and update; parts performance and symposium. The results thus far are provocative, timely and, as unlikely as it may seem, utterly lively
Neil Greenberg is a choreographer, dancer and educator who, relevant to this BAC Story, danced with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1979-1986 and later created two works for Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project. He is currently a Professor of Choreography at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts, The New School and served as dance curator at The Kitchen from 1995-1999. His most recent project, This, continues his quixotic search for an experience of the performance moment in and of itself.
June 22, 2017
Tóraigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne; or The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne
Love and Death: A Song Cycle in Three Parts
We’ve given ourselves over to maps, though not just any maps. We’ve turned ourselves over to the particular maps that live in our devices. They direct us, in large and small ways, to points in the world that align with what global positioning satellites see on the grid of latitudes and longitudes that delineate the globe.
Coordinate geometry delivers our takeout and our cruise missiles, gets us to work or to dinner on time. But what you come away with after experiencing the collaboration of composer Dana Lyn and poet Louis de Paor, in “Love and Death,” their multimedia telling of the story of Diarmuid and Gráinne, is another kind of mapping altogether, a navigational experience that adds layers and meanings to a ten-thousand-year-old story -- a redrawing of an often-recounted love triangle that you know going in is doomed.
It’s probably safer to say this love story is ten thousand years old at the very least. We see it in Irish writing from the tenth century but it’s a good bet that at that point somebody was at last writing down a story that worked, or had frequently gone over well, or was memorable and thus of interest to the people in the landscape that we today refer to as Ireland. It is sometimes cited as an ancestor of Tristan and Iseult, as well as the story of Guinevere and Lancelot’s betrayal of King Arthur. In the Irish epics, The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne comes at the death-end of an elopement. Gráinne is the daughter of Cormac Mac Art, the high king of Ireland. She is to marry Fionn Mac Cumhail, the great warrior and leader of the Fianna. Fionn’s own wife has died, and he has grieved for seven years. “He is undone, un-manned by grief,” Louis de Paor’s narrator announces. Fionn’s sons arrange the king’s marriage to Gráinne, the most beautiful woman in Ireland, to cheer the old man. Gráinne herself does not protest until the night before the wedding, at which point she flirts with Diarmuid, young and handsome
Diarmuid, a faithful comrade to Fionn, resists, but Gráinne casts something like a spell, making her impossible to disobey. At this point, they flee into Ireland. Diarmuid is still reluctant, but then a river is crossed, no return. Eventually, a truce happens, an armistice in which Diarmuid and Gráinne have children, there is an uneasy peace between the old warrior and the soldier who has taken his young wife-to-be away. Diarmuid and Gráinne make a family, awaiting the day, foreseen by all parties, when Diarmuid will be killed by his own hound.
In Lyn and de Paor’s multimedia telling, a storm opens the piece, and the sound of Lyn’s soundtable, a difficult-to-describe wooden sound-maker, lays down drone-like intonement of deep bass oscillations that might be crying or moaning, that might be an amplified movement of the world, the world collapsing, bending, coming apart, all at the same time. The narrator speaks, bringing us into the night when Diarmuid will die. And then Diarmuid himself, as sung by Mick McAuley, speaks:
I never saw or heard before
The likes of this icy storm.
Even the raven will not find
Refuge in a cave or island cove.
The rock-clinging mood builds, until Diarmud hears the hound barking, knowing he must leave Gráinne’s bed. Gráinne (Yoon Sun Choi) protests, to no avail:
Listen to me! It is foolish
For you to leave this room
When ice shackles every ford
And outside is deathly cold
Diarmuid ponders leaving, and his slow shift from lover to warrior is described in terms of climate change, the warmth of Gráinne and her bed leaving the man’s body: “Desire for blood / Is coursing his chest. / Ice has stitched his lips.”
Flute (Michel Gentile), violin (Orlando Wells), and cello (Alex Waterman) lead us anxiously through Diarmuid’s decision to depart, as Gráinne’s insists to the contrary, notes the cold, the ice, the rain. “Do not follow a cur howling in the darkness,” she says. A collage of abstract images (drawn by Lyn) allude to Diarmuid's departure, his change-to-ice. Mick McAuley sings again the description of the storm over a deep low drone from Lyn’s sound table. Yoon Sun Choi moves Gráinne’s mood change slowly, as Gráinne inches from mourning to resolve. “Rise and make ready for war,” Gráinne says at last.
In the three-part piece, the music of the second section, tonally speaking, makes tactical arrangements for the new relationships – new relationships that are dictated by end of the relationship of Gráinne and Diarmuid. Gráinne seems to review old ground; the melodies are vaguely romantic. Sharp snare drum (Vinnie Sperrazza) marks Diarmuid’s forward looks, his reconnaissance, the mapping of a way that is ultimately backwards — to heed the oath-call of his old leader, Fionn. And then Gráinne changes tempo, herself gearing for a counteroffensive against Fionn, who has broken their common-law truce.
The cello walks us slowly into the third part. There are more images: lovers, a hound, men clenched in battle. Gráinne, who has been waiting for Diarmuid’s return, knowing he won’t return, laments. Accompanied by piano, Gráinne sings of the three things that are, she says, futile to resist: “an old man’s jealousy; the persistence of rain; relentless love of a woman careless of death, who’d tear a world asunder, abandon her children and home for him.” The third thing is of course self-referential. At last, the end we know is coming, with Gráinne’s explicit call for harsh vengeance: “Punish all the world . . .“
Old texts speak to us. This one does, posing questions: When do the oaths of men take precedence beyond the connections of hearts and flesh? Where do laws trump bodies? To whom is duty due? Is there such a thing as worldly shelter from the intricacies of honors, from the complications of pride? And who is more fickle, the woman who decides to love a man she loves, who attends to a trans-traditional call of her body and his, or the rule-fixated old man whose “honor and cold, cold pride” do not allow him peace, or rest. Is honor and pride worth a lifetime of paranoia and surveillance, minding the night for death?
Old texts also work in counterpoint, as this collaboration shows in various ways. Louis de Paor’s English translation alongside Lyn’s orchestration opens the very space that the story describes, and, in the end, the multimedia work makes the coordinate mapping that we are used to seem poor and trivial. With “Love and Death,” the participant’s mind’s eye sees this landscape, of love and death – of the two at once, ultimately. The poem itself is un-translated, as I experienced it, mapped out in rich colors and sounds, and the counterpoints make resonances that mark out some of the ground that covers all the things that go between a woman and a man, between lovers in a world that is ruled by the opposite of love. I left the performance with a sound like wind still in my ears, or somewhere inside me, resonating, and somewhere on the way home I recalled that gaoithe, the Irish noun meaning wind, is feminine.
Robert Sullivan is the author of numerous books, including The Meadowlands, My American Revolution, A Whale Hunt and Rats. A contributing editor at A Public Space and Vogue, he also teaches science at Hunter College in New York City, and writing at the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College in Vermont. His writing has appeared in many magazines, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, and New York. He lives in New York City.
June 15, 2017
How do we know what is true, and why does it matter? In her new work in progress, It’s All True / Grandfather Muna Tseng is exploring these questions as she pieces together the remarkable life of her grandfather Toy Dong, a Chinese American merchant and the prodigious patriarch of a family that included 3 wives and 19 surviving children, and spanned an ocean and two centuries.
But rather than attempting straightforward biography, Tseng is crafting a wry commentary on “authoritative” accounts of Chinese migration, a reverie on (personal and ancestral) memory, and a meditation on loss. There is the “official” version as recounted by Bill Moyers (including the legacies of 19th-century Chinese exclusion and anti-miscegenation laws); the “official” archival documentation including birth certificate, tax returns, property deeds; the personal relics (photographs, forgotten objects and hand-me-downs) that bear traces of the lives that once animated them; the meticulously numbered account of the births of sons and daughters; and the stories recounted by those wives and offspring, translated and reinterpreted across time, space, and generations. And more: Tseng asks, how do these personal stories take shape against an unremitting backdrop of racist yellow-face images of scheming, sadistic villains and lazy coolies that have fueled the popular imaginary of what a “Chinaman” is or does? She explores the entanglement of these histories in the reconstruction of Toy Dong’s life.
With the help of collaborators Chanterelle Ribes (who portrays beautifully the fungible “ingénue” New Wife du jour) and Perry Yung (whose haunted, haunting shakuhachi pierces the layers of distanced historical accounts with a sonic “now” that can be jarring and affecting), the three performers improvise their way backward in time, toward the constantly receding figures of the globe-trotting entrepreneur Dong and his wives.
“Isn’t that hilarious?!” Tseng giggles mischievously as we listen to a snippet of faux-oriental pop music, played under projections of equally kitschy images of “Chinese-ness” gleaned from the internet: glamorous Shanghai cigarette girls from ‘30s advertisements, cartoon drawings of chubby Chinese babies, textbook illustrations of neoclassical English gardens, Pipo Nguyen-duy’s ironic self-portraits (Confederate soldier, rough-riding Teddy Roosevelt, etc.). Almost all the images and sounds Tseng chooses are “fake” — popular imagery hijacked here to tell a personal story. An established dancer-choreographer, Tseng is striking out on a new path, combining movement and visual elements with scripted text and narrative. Throughout the piece, she steps in and out of the role of director/choreographer, narrator/interpreter, and character. The movement, she says, gives her a sense of freedom and playfulness. After all, given the futility of trying to recover a definitive account of Dong’s life, what else is there to do but assemble one?
Tseng’s “playing” in the BAC studio is precisely that labor of assemblage: popular, fictional, personal, speculative, and somatic ways of “knowing” combine to create a portrait of this 19th-century Chinese American “modern man” but also of Tseng herself: the one who longs to know the mysterious grandfather who is unknowable and intimately present in/as her embodied self. “That’s history for you,” she notes near the end of the piece, followed by an exasperated (or is it irreverent?) “Ha!” She throws up her hands and dances it out, as the blinds of the Cage Cunningham Studio open and bring us (back) to the world of the living.
Karen Shimakawa is the Chair of Performance Studies at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and an instructor in the NYU School of Law. Her research and teaching focuses on Asian American performance and critical race theory. She is the author of National Abjection: The Asian American Body Onstage and her current research focuses on the ethics and aesthetics of discomfort in performance.
June 8, 2017
Kyoung H. Park had some new costumes for his actors: bright neon green tights, which he hands to actors Daniel K. Isaac and Raja Feather Kelly, both dressed in pajamas. “Why are we going now from pajamas to tights?” asked Isaac. Park paused before shrugging, “I don’t know yet.” It’s a rainy Tuesday and the three are developing a new work, PILLOWTALK, at the studio at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, as part of a three-week residency.
Pajamas to tights...it’s part of a larger question that the team is grappling with during this residency: how to best integrate the realism of the bedroom drama, with the surrealism of the dance sequences. “This process informed how we should actually choreograph the show when we premiere,” Park told me later, at the end of the residency.
Pillowtalk is a play for two men, about an interracial gay couple, navigating the ups and downs of marriage. It was inspired by Park’s own marriage, and the fight for marriage equality. During that time, Park was “really wondering what marriage meant and what would happen to the queer movement after the legalization of gay marriage.” And crucially, what do such institutions mean to queer communities of color, whose struggles go beyond that? Those musings became PILLOWTALK, what Park calls a “gay bedroom drama,” though the piece isn’t completely naturalistic; it also incorporates dance sequences modeled on a traditional pas de deux.
Like marriage, the pas de deux is a form that is traditionally between a man and a woman. In turning that form into a dance for two men, PILLOWTALK is also making a commentary on modern marriage itself. “Marriage has changed; what is that change and how can we theatricalize that?” Park explained.
For the PILLOWTALK team, the BAC Residency has been a time to learn the rules of a pas de deux, and then break it. “The male and female dancer tropes are so codified,” said Park. “The female version is always very helpless and always looking graceful...and male dancers always have to combat this idea that male dancers are gay or feminine, by doing various athletic, powerful movement.” So, having two men do a pas de deux becomes a way to “play around with those gender norms and gender roles,” he explained. “When you've got two men, and asking men to butch it up or femme it up or be more dommy or be more subby, it's kind of playful if we're intentional about.”
By the end of the BAC residency, the PILLOWTALK team created two different pas de deux: “one of it was adhering to the classical and iconic balletic movements,” recalled Park, “and then a second version that was a little more pedestrian and gestural, sort of anchored more into a body vernacular of the ordinary person.” Both were presented to an invited audience on the last day of the residency. Afterwards, the consensus was that the second version was more powerful (one person even said the traditional version made them “cringe”). This was bolstering for Park, who is currently doing one-more rewrite of PILLOWTALK before the piece world premieres in January.
“Classical ballet is kind of an oppressive sort of cultural paradigm, why would you want to replicate it if you are anti-oppression?” he posited. “So, I think that was one of those things where it was like, ‘okay we need to learn it to know what it is and then we need to undo it.’ It was twice the work, but it’s important work.”
Diep Tran is currently the associate editor of American Theatre magazine. She has a monthly column with the magazine focused on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. She is also the founder and producer of American Theatre’s biweekly Offscript podcast. In 2014, Diep led the creation and launch of AmericanTheatre.org, the first official website for the magazine. Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times, Playbill, Time Out New York, TDF Stages, Backstage, and Salon, among other publications. Her Twitter handle is @DiepThought.
May 12, 2017
A world that as a teenager, I could only imagine through queer memoir reminiscences, my mother’s secretly stashed pulp fan fiction, and my thumbed-through copy of Faggots by Larry Kramer -- all that was available to an Ohio boy’s searching. Ain’s first hand coming of age nostalgia is at once inviting and unfamiliar. I understand the period, the questioning, the wonderment, but the land is foreign.
Through the process of developing Radicals in Miniature, what I have connected with most is the “I was there” fascination with an era, a period, a first person anthropological romp. Ain as “Childe Harold” witness creates an homage to downtown sensationalism, fleeting celebrity, desperation, an insider’s guide to kitsch, hype, camp and everything in-between, where faux celebrity lives, a teenager’s hormonal night dream.
What was most significant about the first BAC residency in 2015 was that Ain, the king of minimal, was able to design the environment from the basic elements in the studio -- tables, monitors, sound equipment, Josh [Quillen]’s eclectic instrumentation, etc... The story was the thing, the tech trappings were there for mere amplification. The elements were immediate, subtle and simple -- a set of keys, a tax return, a pen, carried profound meaning as they were connected and reconnected to a time, a date, a memory. Thanks to BAC, the indelible stamp was discovered early, the environment never changed, it was only enhanced from residency to residency to premiere.
It is the way in which Ain navigates emotion that fascinates me the most. In the early workshops at BAC, he was carefully attentive to the dramaturgical impact of the emotional “reveal,” we discussed the aspect of when and where. Too soon and the entire journey becomes an emotional deluge, too late and the reverence is imbalanced. The key is to understand the depths and challenges of emotion and memory in public, the danger of the reveal. Memory is a tricky thing. Evoking memories in public is a trickier thing. Much of the time is spent mining an endless list of potential story-tellings…which ones to keep, which ones to let go? By the time we reach the end of the first residency, we have begun to experience the ritual, the ghosts join us. Even without lights and all the tech accoutrement, the ritual has arrived, we transcend the technology. There is an immediacy in the room, the dead will have their due.
After one of the first runs in the BAC studio there is a surprise, an unexpected flood of emotion in an unexpected place, it is a brilliant gem that Ain has been reserving. We laugh because almost any moment along the way could be an emotional slipstream for Ain, he must make choices about how he is navigating his feelings, just how revealing does he want to be? Lost in the sense of loss, the wave of nostalgia, the vulnerability…the bittersweet resonance of dashed dreams, memories of the ones who leave too soon, the ones who live long past longing. This is a reoccurrence at every residency along the way, the ghosts travel with us.
Through the experience of Radicals in Miniature we are invited to witness a special time and place and can fill in our own personal radicals. Through the navigation of one life, one street corner, one happenstance, one confluence of events, we remember multiple corners in multiple places, we make a history together.
Emotions creep in, memory is a bitch.
Feelings are not for the weak hearted.
Sentimentality be damned.
Along the way, I make my own discoveries. I add my names to the list. I summon my personal radicals as I watch and witness...the dead will have their due.
Talvin Wilks is the dramaturg for Radicals in Miniature, which was developed during a Spring 2015 BAC Space residency, and premieres at BAC May 16-24, 2017. Wilks is a director, playwright, and collaborative dramaturg based in both New York City and Minneapolis, where he is a professor of theater at the University of Minnesota. His work blurs the lines of many disciplines forming a unique composite of performative expression. This summer will find him in process with four grand choreographic divas - Camille A. Brown, Bebe Miller, Marlies Yearby, and Jawole Zollar/UBW. Look for his new play Jimmy and Lorraine at the Ko Festival in July 2017.