Each season, BAC invites writers into the studio to interview our Resident Artists. The resulting BAC Story essays offer an intimate behind-the-scenes look at the creative process.
Amanda Szeglowski and her company, cakeface, was in residence at BAC June 6 - July 2, 2022, rehearsing a new-and-yet-untitled work exploring the realm of the supernatural. This virtual interview between Amanda and myself took place during this time.
Ivan Talijancic: I’d like to start by asking you about your artistic lineage. I have been following your work for some time now and always felt that you occupy a deeply idiosyncratic place in the sphere of American contemporary performance in the US, making work that truly is unlike any other. I feel like being a “writer/director” or a “performer/choreographer” are all-too-familiar tropes, but I think of you as a writer/choreographer, where both dimensions have equal potency, which is a rare find. What was your path to finding this unique approach?
Amanda Szeglowski: I've been drawn to storytelling since childhood. I started begging for dance class when I was three and at eleven I wrote my first play. I cast all of the neighborhood kids and scheduled rehearsals in the garage, but I never actually produced it. I was having too much fun rewriting the script day after day. (Ironically that's still a big part of my process). I chose to center my education on dance, but writing always remained part of my practice. At my arts high school, I learned about the possibilities that arise when I combine the two, and that fascinated me. When I got to NYC, I worked with choreographers extensively. Though non-verbal, much of the work was using narrative in a way that I hadn't really seen before and it impacted me greatly. Then when I launched cakeface in 2008, my personal style began to crystallize.
IT: Much of the work coming out of the New York “downtown” scene takes a rather irreverent, DIY approach. Personally, one of the things that really stands out in your work is just how meticulously crafted your pieces are, which gives them a sort of a European flair. Any thoughts you could share about where this artistic rigor and discipline derive from?
AS: I've always been a detail-oriented person, but the seed, in a creative respect, was probably planted during my earliest days as a dancer. For most of my childhood I trained at a Cuban dance studio in Florida, where every costume was incredibly ornate; every detail was considered. That definitely made an impression on me. Much later, when I began making my own work in NYC, I would strategize ways in which I could pull off something that appeared to have a high production value despite a virtually nonexistent budget. I've always cared not only about the work itself, but also how it is presented. What is the world that the piece lives in, and how can I manifest it? And I try to eliminate distractions in my work as much as possible, so the message is central. This is where rigor and discipline come in. If I am hoping to make some sort of a statement, I am generally trying to do it in a subtle or exploratory manner, so the path for that kind of messaging has to be clear. My goal with everything I make is for it to be relatable. My discipline and craft work to reduce, and hopefully eliminate, any noise that might get in the way of that.
IT: You have a knack for tapping into highly idiosyncratic subject matter. The project that you are developing here at BAC delves into a mysterious, even metaphysical territory. What drew you to this material?
AS: I’m all too familiar with existential angst. It's just my personality to always be asking impossible questions and obsessing over/dreading the unknowns. The pandemic, of course, magnified things exponentially and went right for the jugular - forcing us to face the reality of our own mortality. Personally, I've found that I combat my constant fear of death and destruction by consuming media related to psychic mediums, paranormal encounters, near death experiences, children who recall past lives, etc. The more anxious and stressed out I get, the further down the Reddit rabbithole I go. It's wonderful down there.
So the inception of the project was a combination of this moment in time, with all of these anxious feelings top of mind, my "paranormal therapy" if you will, and then a spark of nostalgia, which is the foundation for all of my work. In the 70s and 80s there was a friend of the family who had "the gift" and would read my family members. She died before I was able to get to know her, but as a creative kid, I'd hear the stories and always had grand images of her in my mind. She never really left me. Then there was this perfect storm and all of the disparate pieces just came together. That happens a lot. I always have several ideas just percolating in the recesses of my mind for years and then new components reveal themselves bit by bit and suddenly the path is clear and the piece needs to be made, now.
IT: Marvelous! Having tackled this material head-on during BAC residency, what do you feel you have been able to accomplish during this time? What are some new discoveries that have emerged, and are you already thinking about what’s next for this new work?
AS: The BAC residency has been truly invaluable; the generosity of time and space has allowed me to really be "in" the work. In the best scenarios, I follow my instincts and then let the piece lead me. And I was able to do that here. Specifically, I managed to get a handle on the performers' relationships to one another, establish the embodiment of Roxy (the inspirational psychic that I mentioned earlier) as a voiceover, perhaps eventually a hologram, and I laid the foundation for the tone and flow of the piece. As for new discoveries, I had a breakthrough idea for the scenic landscape that unlocked a lot of possibilities for me. Setting the "world" in which the piece lives is always a critical step in my creative process, and being able to determine that element while at BAC was a huge leap forward.
The composer that I am working with for this project, Christina Campanella, was simultaneously in another residency developing an opera, so my focus at BAC has been writing and choreography. The next step for this work is another intensive developmental period where we can start to integrate Christina's music. Sound design will be a key component of this piece, as there will be live songs, text, and music throughout.
I enjoy when work takes me on a journey of highs and lows and this project at the moment is heavy on the high side. Dark humor is a signature quality of my work and while this piece fully embraces that vibe, I also plan to add some more poignant moments, and a sliver of hope. So expanding the emotional range is something I look forward to working on in the next stage as well. Also hearing more stories. After our showing several people shared their own paranormal experiences and I’m loving that, bring it on!
Ivan Talijancic is a time-based artist and cultural producer, working at the intersection of theater, dance, film, installation art, new media, journalism, curatorial work and education in New York and around the globe. As a co-founder of the multidisciplinary art group WaxFactory, his work has been presented at numerous venues and festivals worldwide. Ivan is currently a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s John Wells Directing Program, the artistic director of CPP/Contemporary Performance Practice summer intensive in Croatia, and a member of The Bessies selection committee. He holds an MFA from Columbia University School of the Arts.
I’m imagining you four months or so from now, in winter 2023.
You’ll be thawing off from the New York City cold,
looking at a plexiglass and wood enclosure,
waiting for HotHouse,
Baye & Asa’s
newest work, to begin.
But we’re not there yet. It’s still summer, and Baye & Asa
just finished a month-long BAC Open Residency at Baryshnikov Arts Center.
While in residence, they developed HotHouse, premiering at Pioneer Works in January.
Amadi ‘Baye’ Washington and Sam ‘Asa’ Pratt
this company creates physically voracious, raging, tender, ferociously political
movement arts projects.
And to be clear, these are my words:
my reading of their upcoming evening-length work and my take on
the American violence
they are interrogating, exhuming, laying bare
in their larger body of work.
I’m Amy Shoshana Blumberg, a white woman in her thirties. I danced and now I make theater.
The structure will be imposing,
with wooden studs every eight feet,
a lighting truss above,
a small doorway.
You will be on the outside looking in,
milling about, looking at it from all sides,
and maybe you’ll wonder about the people who, just minutes from now, are going to be
within it, and maybe your brain will associate that box with…
This set, which is not in the room with us at BAC,
is the first thing we discuss when I join Sam and Amadi
in another largely glass enclosure: the airy John Cage and Merce Cunningham Studio.
Sam shouts across the room to Amadi.
Amadi begins a solo.
Something outside this box
is here and looming and alive
And this character knows it
even if he cannot see it.
He sharply tugs his pants up.
He feels for it on the back of his neck.
He wrenches some
from his own face
even as it
He throws the scales of justice
or is it that they throw him?
He is watching and at the ready and he knows
outside the edges of this box,
(and maybe already seeping in at the seams)
wish him well.
You will see a Black man and a white man
breathing the same
They both see a threat:
But drenched in the air outside the box,
maybe you’re wondering if you…
This dance that Amadi and Sam are making is of the now:
this, the third year of global disease,
the four hundred and third year since the beginning of American slavery.
So it is, of course, also a dance of
the past three years.
The past four hundred and three years.
Four months from now
you will see a white man seeing a Black man.
You will see the white man see the Black man seeing him.
The white man will throw his arms into a T, square his shoulders to the front, and twist his body to the diagonal,
as if on a cross.
You will see a white man who
tried and failed to find the fullness of his own extremities
under the gaze of a Black man
A performance of…
“You know what’s the biggest proof that astrology is all bullshit? The two of us. We are so different from one another, but people look at him and say: classic Leo. And then they look at me and say: classic Leo!”
“But we’re both outgoing. Isn’t that the biggest Leo quality?”
It started in the first grade.
They were six.
It is now the twenty fourth year of Sam and Amadi’s friendship.
I lilt at this news.
Audiences and fans
will always lilt at this news.
How could we not?
In high school, Amadi and Sam could choose
instead of P.E., and they did.
They studied Hip Hop and African dance languages.
I learn in their artist statement, and by watching their choreography, that
are the foundation of Baye & Asa’s technique.
The rhythms of these techniques, which they first learned
shape their approach to choreography,
to creating contemporary dance theater.
And throughout the dancing and the years passing
Sam and Amadi
entrusted themselves to one another in a way that
You will see them almost meet in the middle,
but they pinball away
suddenly occupying the other man’s side of the box.
And you’ll know that when they do
it will be…
From here on out, I will let you imagine who is doing what to whom.
They will run together, one man engulfing the crown of the other man’s head with his chin.
One man will sit on the other’s knee.
It will be almost parental
for a second, but then…
Eventually they will hurry forwards in a single file line,
the man in back cupping the other’s neck with his palm.
The one in front will look behind to see if the other is still there.
He’ll still be there, yes.
They will repeat the neck-holding-walk. The man in front will fall back.
They will propel one another until
one man sitting on his shins, holding the other in his lap, face up.
They will look at one another.
continue throwing each other with a violence that is
They entered breathing the same
but only one of them sees the staleness for what it is.
One man will lie on the ground face up
the other will be standing above him.
They will be holding hands.
The standing man will place his foot on the recumbent man’s thigh,
then move it towards his groin.
They’ll still be holding hands.
I wonder how it will end.
They will continue, catapulting
immediately pulling the other in,
heaving the other towards the ground
they will be in the same shape as before.
one man sitting on his shins, holding the other in his lap, face up.
They will look at one another.
"I like you doing that in the center. It deifies the middle a little.”
You’ll realize you haven’t inhaled or blinked
in what feels like minutes,
because it will just keep going
defying the laws of gravity and human tolerance
for almost everything.
But suddenly you’ll find breath in your lungs again because
one man sitting on his shins, holding the other in his lap, face up.
They will look at one another.
But this third time
the roles will be reversed.
And this time the man holding the other in his lap
will grab the other’s shirt, pin it over his face, and throw both himself and the other on the ground.
They will lie there,
one man exposing the other’s body to the sky.
This isn’t how it ends. They haven’t made it yet.
But it all feels incredibly generous to me, this mirror that Amadi and Sam are holding up
for us to look at ourselves,
for me to look at myself,
with their bodies as the frame.
Maybe you’ll be talking about how Baye & Asa
are setting works on world famous companies
or about how
they deserve to earn some staggeringly large source of funding.
And you’ll be talking about
and the men who made it.
The love they have for each other,
the relationship they forged before they had the language -
dance or otherwise -
to talk about white supremacy.
“I don’t know if our do si do is stupid”
“It is objectively stupid”
“Maybe we just release one of the arms”
“Part of the problem is that I’m just fucking standing here”
“No. It’s just a bad move. We teach it to second graders”
“Is there a reason I’m ducking?”
“Oh, see, I can’t see you ducking”
“It’s an embellishment. I just don’t know if it feels like a useful embellishment”
“Well…an embellishment can certainly be useful.”
They dance again.
Amy Shoshana Blumberg is a theater director, playwright, and dramaturg based in Brooklyn, NY. She is co-founder and co-producing artistic director of the after-image, with whom she creates devised dance-theater works including, most recently, HOUSE OF AMERICAN ACTIVITIES. Her other collaborations include directing interactive theater for IKantKoan Games / Jessica Creane and serving as dramaturg for works by GREYZONE, ChristinaNoel & The Creature, and MeenMoves. Amy is also a teaching artist for The Moth. She earned a B.A. in Africana Studies and Dance from Barnard College and a M.F.A. in Theater Directing from Temple University.
Sorry John Henry the song has no end
mace dent johnson
I'm not typically one for a Q&A or a talkback. I briefly worked for a director who turned to me after opening night of their show, moments before the talkback, and said “Shall we go?” Apparently, they rarely went to talkbacks or Q&As, not even for their own shows—and I took that permission gratefully.
Still, I was immensely grateful for the more-of-a-comment-than-a-question from Imani Uzuri, acclaimed genre-pushing contemporary vocalist and composer, who was in both the audience and the chorus of Sorry John Henry the song has no end. They said, and I paraphrase, “This was very avant,” and encouraged us to lean into the avant-garde-ness of the project. They said blackness is an avant-garde lived experience and that our performance expressed that, moved through it.
The term “avant-garde” came into vogue in artistic contexts during the first World War. The phrase became popular among a largely white populace of European artists who felt newly confronted by mortality, political immorality, the racial other, and hyper-industrialization. Modern artists sought out new ways to make art that more adequately reflected unprecedented times. “Avant-garde,” which translates to “advance guard,” had its pre-Modernism origins in the context of the battlefield as early as the 15th century. Broad swaths of artists across the political-ideological continuum found meaning in this repurposed military term. They felt their art was pushing up against a real danger, was right on the edge of something destructive, potent, entirely new. These artists felt that it could all come crashing down at any moment—"it” being many things, a construction of pure whiteness, the literal physical world, the state, a rain of missiles. At what felt like the end, artists became, somewhat paradoxically, obsessed with newness.
Uzuri’s comment rang true—we had, in a literal way, created something new, and we were drawing upon shared lived experiences of living through and against impossibilities to do so. But throughout the process of developing Sorry John Henry the song has no end, Ian Askew, the creator of the project and primary artist in residence at BAC, reminded us that we were actually doing something quite old. The project is thinking through, collaging from, and responding to John Henry, the 1940 Broadway musical based on a 1931 novel of the same name by Roark Bradford. Once a first lieutenant in the Coast Artillery during World War I, and later a Trainer in the Navy Reserves during World War II, Bradford was also a white writer who made a living writing stories in convoluted dialect about Black people in the American Southeast.
The Broadway adaptation of John Henry features Bradford’s bizarre, imagined “black” dialect alongside virtuosic performances by Paul Robeson (as John Henry), Ruby Elzy, Josh White, and Bayard Rustin, among others. For the most part, Bradford’s John Henry is a pretty typical John Henry story—perhaps with a bit more latent depression, body horror, and obligatory substance abuse. John Henry is a hard working roustabout, who brazenly goes up against a steam winch, loses, and dies trying. The story backstage was a bit less typical—the Broadway run ended abruptly, just five days after opening, due financial mismanagement and labor exploitation. Despite owing him wages for previous performances and travel, the show’s producers expected Robeson to continue working. Robeson, of course, left the show. This was right at the beginning of Robeson’s journey as a labor organizer, which would eventually land him on federal communism watchlists.
Sorry John Henry the song has no end opens and speaks back to this strange time capsule. At the start of each day at BAC, three of the project’s musicians (Dyani Douze, Eden Girma, and Khari Lucas,) set up their many devices at the center of the room—a sort of altar/machine that grew and adapted over our time in residence and will continue to grow as we build out the project. They plugged in laptops, microphones, and MIDI controllers, and, together with Jasmine Wilson and Joshuah Campbell, warmed up on an impressive assortment of instruments, like mbira, bass, electric guitar, clarinet, saxophone, and an eclectic mix of percussion.
Then, under the direction of Ian Askew, with musical direction from Joshuah Campbell, visits from dancer and choreographer Kiara Benn, and writing and dramaturgical consultation from me, we set out to make music, to sing stories, to find resonances across the long story of John Henry. Ian would say, “Can you take as much time as you need to electronically render a moving steamboat?” and soon we’d be underwater, caught in the work and the waves. From an archive of images, songs, spaces, and figures (collected by Ian in digital and physical archives, like the Harvard University and New York Public Library Theater Collections,) we made a living collage through homage and interrogation of John Henry and John Henry, and the black folks in orbit of both of those stories.
We took an archival-musical approach, working with songs the stars of John Henry were known for performing, like Robeson’s rendition of “Ol’ Man River” and Ruby Elzy’s rendition of “My Man’s Gone Now.” The latter came right at the end of the BAC showing of Sorry John Henry. Vocalist Jasmine Wilson sang the song as two sampled versions of Elzy’s voice, mixed by Khari Lucas and Dyani Douze, echoed in the background. We also took a textual-archival approach. My initial and primary role on the show was the creation of erasure poems from the text of the stage directions of the Broadway musical. These erasure poems became a performance score and a script for monologue, dialogue, and lyrics. We took the words Bradford had written to direct (see: control) black actors on stage, and made something else—something more appropriately absurd, abstract, haunting, haunted.
Everyone on the team, all from different lineages and backgrounds, grew up with John Henry, the American folk hero (and steel driving fool) at the center of stories traced back to the early 20th century in Black America. Maybe there was a flesh and blood John Henry, and maybe there wasn’t, but black people (and others, eventually, of course) have been telling stories about him for a hundred years regardless. The stories have taken countless forms—a cautionary story about overworking, a valiant story about overworking, a story about the body’s limits, a story about the mighty mighty union, a story about union busting, a story about the collective, a story about the individual. A patriotic Disney movie, an episode of SpongeBob Squarepants where SpongeBob, as John Henry, actually wins. Bradford’s tale of jive-talking, adulterating, coke-sniffing black life and work. And now us. As Black Americans, especially those descended from enslaved Africans, how do we make sense of our relationship to work in this country? How do we sing about work in our songs? How do we sing when singing is work, how do we make our work sound like song?
Our howling, lilting, laughing rendition of this story that’s been being told for so long. As I sat on our strange and inverted stage, doing way more singing and performing than I thought I would be doing, (I’m just a writer, I insisted all month, How do I even plug in this mic?,) I crooked my neck to see the audience sitting behind me. They looked, as far as I could tell, pretty unsettled and confused.
During the post-showing Q&A, folks in the audience asked questions about the Broadway musical, struggling to understand how all that could have happened if they had never heard of it. Others wondered about the musical machine we had built in the center of the room before them. What’s with all the chords? Are we supposed to sing too? Bubbling beneath the questions, I sensed a more latent uncertainty—what was that? What is it that I am feeling right now? And I get it—as with much of what is avant-garde, the usual frameworks for engaging with, relating to, and making sense of a thing fall short. It is an uncomfortable feeling.
Many in the room were right there with us, finding their place in or near the thing, finding a way to listen and respond. Others found themselves closer, still, to the story: Early on, Ian had the idea to invite friends, acquaintances, and mentors, to meet with us a bit before the showing and learn some of our call and response songs so that they could sing with us, a revised version of the chorus from Bradford’s text. Members of the chorus spoke of the meditative, immersive, salve-like quality of the thing, washing over them like steam.
We set out to make a thing about John Henry and about John Henry and about work. In appropriately avant-garde fashion, what we made together was also about alienation—the alienation of work, the alienation of the stage, of audience. The alienation of being the subject of a capsized empire, of being already always away from home. This collaboration was a way for us to translate and transform our fears, anxieties, and ecstasies around life and social death, selling labor and making love, being black and making art, and to trace our threads backward alongside autonomous black thought that has been happening forever.
The work-in-progress showing of Sorry John Henry the song has no end was created and performed by Ian Askew, mace dent johnson, Joshuah Brian Campbell, Dyani Douze, Eden Girma, Khari Lucas, and Jasmine Wilson, with additional material from Kiara Benn and Davóne Tines. Developed in collaboration with Morgan Johnson, Gabby Preston, and Lauren Nicholson, and with ongoing support from Wake Forest University.
mace dent johnson is a queer and trans black writer from the south. They grew up in Columbus, Georgia and currently live in St. Louis, Missouri. mace received their MFA in poetry from Washington University in St. Louis in 2021, where they currently serve as the Senior Poet in Residence, teaching poetry to undergraduates. They are a Cave Canem and Watering Hole fellow. mace writes about precious objects, heartbreak, blackness, and the natural world. They also work in collage, essay, and theater.
Writer, teacher, and “performance enabler” Aaron Landsman is currently curious about a particular set of hours: 2:50-5:10. While he attaches no modifier to these numbers in his performance text Night Keeper, audience members in attendance at his recent showing of the work in the Rudolf Nureyev Studio at Baryshnikov Arts Center quickly understood his preoccupation with the after-midnight as actor Jehan Young brought down the shades in the large studio. Two women fanning themselves to ward off the late-June heat seemed particularly grateful for this respite from the day’s sun. Situated in near-darkness, illuminated only by a clip light throwing brightness against a cool stone wall, Jehan began to read Landsman’s text to a crowd assembled against a long wall while some viewers chose to sit in chairs arranged in pairs throughout the massive room:
“Maybe you’re 9 years old? Maybe 8. Maybe 10. You can’t fall asleep.”
From this position the 9 or 8 or 10 year old is privy to their parents’ television set playing a late-night talk show. From this position, more acutely, the 9 or 8 or 10 year old learns how to use restlessness as an opportunity for oblique communion. It’s an inciting moment: the discovery of a very foundational intimacy with the self mediated by the comings-and-goings of close creatures who become mysterious by virtue of their present, yet hidden activities.
Over the course of the monologue, accompanied by guitarist Norm Westberg’s exquisite live loops—built through improvisation in the rehearsal room with a few pre-mixed samples at the ready—a child’s first brush with restlessness becomes an adult’s quiet battle with insomnia, heroically reclaimed as “night keeping.” And in the in-between space of this journey, the restless child and sleepless adult/parent become conversational companions (the dialogue performed with light characterization by Jehan) as the piece toggles between observations made between the aforementioned space of 2:50-5:10 by the lone adult and more playful episodes initiated by the precocious kid.
“What was it like when you were as young as me?”
“That’s actually a really long time ago.”
“It used to be that when we wanted to reach someone we had to be in the house, attached to a wall by an umbilical contraption called the telephone.”
Sleeplessness opens the floodgates of memories temporally near and far, often blurring the distinction. For anyone who has ever been haunted by a particularly searing experience, something that happened ten or twenty years ago can feel, as they say, like yesterday. But Aaron is not so interested in recounting traumas as he is in marveling at the changes he has witnessed in himself and the world. His memories live in the lovely banal, so plain they invite audience members to recall the nights they have spent in foreign beds, been kept awake by the sounds of garbage trucks, and tracked the revolving doors of their overpopulated apartment buildings. In that way, the piece is a love letter to the city dweller. And I am that.
In Aaron’s project those memories become sites on a map, replacing chronology with association. In Night Keeper, he physically realizes this idea by creating a movement score in collaboration with Jehan that travels through the audience. During the showing that I’ve been describing, I served as Jehan’s assistant—a fellow night keeper, albeit a quiet, lurking one— bringing her chairs and striking a light to build and collapse Aaron’s short scenes. The performance ended with a short commiserating exchange between the two of us—man, this job, am I right?—preceded by a dance of smartphones constructed by choreographer Hilary Clark with the assistance of David Guzman, who taught me and Jehan the sequence the day before the work was presented to the public.
I performed this text myself in 2020 at the Chocolate Factory in an earlier work-in-progress showing, so I am familiar with Aaron’s thinking and writing. But the better verb might be whittling, as Aaron continues to sculpt the text in small fits of subtraction, generating bursts of text to be cut, cut, cut as he listens to their resonance in the room. At the top of my script, I made a little note, eavesdropping on Aaron in conversation with Norm as they discussed a contrapuntal relationship that had begun to emerge between Jehan’s delivery and the musician’s guitar. I heard Aaron say: “It brings out a sentimental quality that I think is kinda scary-good.” In the dimmed lights of the Nureyev, designed by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, I liked contemplating what makes sentimentality scary and good. In the final moments of Night Keeper, opening her gaze out to a rapt crowd of fellow night keepers (spoiler: we all keep the night), Jehan reports in tones even and poignant: “We sag with moisture. Our arms are hoops. Regrets lullaby us.” I cannot say I understand the steps of her logic, but there are traces of tears and shapes of holes in her prosaic musings. And no one’s pillow is a stranger to those marks.
Choreographed and Directed by Nami Yamamoto
Collaborators/Dancers/Puppeteers: Takemi Kitamura, Leah Ogawa, Anna Vomacka, and Nami Yamamoto.
June 4, 2022
Rehearsal Report: “If it becomes no longer in my hand and starts to take off, that’s great.”
On a summer day in June, I walked into rehearsal to find Choreographer and Director Nami Yamamoto and collaborator Takemi Kitamura warming up. I made my way to a chair, watching and observing as Nami and Takemi chatted quietly. Their deep exhales filled the spacious room with their backs on the floor and their legs on the wall. After a few minutes, fellow collaborators Leah Ogawa and Anna Vomacka entered the space and began to work through different elements of the piece. Finally, Nami stands up and walks over to me with arms outstretched for a big hug. Her shirt reads "The Future"... I smile.
Illuminated by sunlight coming through the large windows, the space is full of puppets made of clay-colored paper. There is a gigantic beach ball-sized plastic breast and several softball-sized plastic breasts off to the side; I've seen plastic breasts in a previous iteration of the work, so I jot down a note to ask Nami about this later. The puppets are showing signs of wear, and the white tape around their tiny bodies is reminiscent of an emergency room scene from a movie. Or perhaps a graveyard for the recently departed? With the number of objects in the room, my excitement started to build; I couldn't wait to see this unfold.
"It feels good to be here, to be with the dancers, finally," Nami tells me. It's been a long time coming, and after 18 months of virtual and solo practice, she is ready to be at the stage when Trooper's Brother is no longer solely hers; that point when it takes off, and she can let things go. I admire how each dancer interacts with the materials, responding to the texture, caring for them, and understanding them. Throughout the rehearsal, they take turns watching each other and offering observations, with Nami moving seamlessly between the roles of director and collaborator. Nami makes her way over to Leah as she gently places both of the puppet's paper feet between her first and second toes, holding the torso between her knees. She then picks up two small plastic breasts in the equally small hands of the puppet. Leah has been working on dribbling two balls at once, and after a few attempts, she finds her rhythm.
Trooper's Brother will be performed at Brooklyn's Roulette Intermedium in June, and Nami feels good about the headway that week. "The performance space will have three levels and be deeper than what we've been working on within the studio," Nami stated as the dancers took their places for the top of the piece. What follows are tender moments of duets, solos, and group sections that are, all at once, funny, absurd, and heartbreaking. Sounds of crushed paper and plastic balls hitting the floor punctuate the silence, and some badass rock moments of resilience. The classical interpretation of Metallica's "Enter Sandman" provides the setting for an epic duet between Takemi and Nami, moving with fast-paced synchronized chugs, giant leaps to the floor, and marching defiantly forward with intense commitment and handheld plastic boobs. The music fades out, and we get a moment of repose as Takemi ponders what to do with the two grapefruit-sized plastic breasts she is holding. Finally, she looks forward, places them on her upper torso, and slowly bashes them together. The pat-pat-pat-pat of the plastic starts subtly and builds with intensity.
At one poignant part, Anna gently places a paper puppet down on the floor and lowers herself beside it. Watching her gazing at the paper doll, careful and unsure but full of support, stayed with me. She reaches into her pocket and reveals two disc-shaped plastic boobs, the perfect size for the puppet, and places them on its torso. There is a matter-of-factness in how she does this and these intimate moments of care (perhaps the doctor-patient relationship?) are easy to pick up on. I was surprised that the work tapped into a pretty deep and mysterious place for me. This shared sorrow, best illustrated in the section with the passing of the gigantic beach ball-shaped breast between the dancers, permeates throughout. Leah takes it on first, noting the softness and lightness of the ball as she tosses it into the air. The dancers pause to watch and move closer to take turns with it. They find a rhythm, shuffling on their knees in a circle, careful not to let the ball drop.
Within this work, Nami explores the universal theme of trauma with absurdity, humor, and some heartbreak. How do we reckon with what’s been lost? We begin by acknowledging these new parts/extensions of ourselves and discover what it teaches us about resilience, our power, and our capacity. The consequences of what happened to the body and the mind push the work onward. However, things that were lost remained cared for and remembered.
Later, in the program notes for the Roulette performance, Nami shares, "If the first half of the piece is about what happened in our body, the second half is about what happened in our minds. The objects that we were manipulating begin to haunt us. The puppet becomes dissected into a piece of bundled-up paper. We obsessed about pieces of puppet parts that have no shape, no life, or no meaning anymore. The shape of our body changes with time and age. But, we are still living, breathing, surviving, and celebrating our lives."
Nami begins to run in a circle, repeatedly, arms outstretched, perhaps ready for salvation. Watching her, I remember that yes, we can do this. "We are the champions, my friends. And we'll keep on fighting till the end."
Remi Harris is a performer, choreographer, curator, and arts programmer. First trained as a dance artist, she has developed an approach that combines a cross-disciplinary perspective with an intuitive sensibility and deep love for developing art-based relationships. Remi was born in Barbados and raised in Brooklyn, and remains closely connected to and curious about her own roots.
By a Waterfall: Children of Immigrants Chart a Path to the Sacred
In 1842 there was a massive earthquake in Haiti, and legend has it that the quake created a large waterfall, called Le Saut. The area surrounding it, called Saut-d’Eau (French for waterfall), or Sodo in Haitian Creole, has become a destination for pilgrims, both Catholics and practitioners of vodou, who visit the site during the festival of Our Lady of Carmel, in mid-July.
Fifty years earlier, in the late 18th century, Haitians had mounted the only successful slave revolt in history, establishing the first independent black state in the Americas. The Catholic Church tried for years to suppress the effects of this rebellion, and French banks have strangled the nation’s economy for decades as a result of it; these tensions played out in Saut-d’Eau, where manifestations of miracles—like an apparition of the Virgin Mary in a tree—were suppressed by French priests concerned about superstitious practices. The priests promptly died, the Haitians took this as a kind of sacred vengeance, and the Catholic clergy have come to accept the pilgrimage, with its associated syncretic festivities, as a fact of Haitian life. A primary devotional activity is bathing in the waterfall.
Phyllis Galembo, a longtime observer of Haitian art and life, visited the site more than 20 years ago during the mid-summer festival, and photographed pilgrims cleansing their bodies and souls in the water. Her 2021 book, Sodo, inspired choreographer Gaspard Louis, whose BAC Open residency began in early June.
Gaspard, raised in Port-Au-Prince until his early teens, was transplanted to New Jersey by his Protestant mother, but he also went to his father’s Catholic church. “In fact,” he tells me, “I enjoyed it more than the Protestant church, because it was more fun and shorter. I didn't care much for the long hours of Sunday school. However, we were not allowed to appreciate the vodou religion, which I came to find out is the heartbeat of Haiti.”
His parents’ plans for him included safe and lucrative professions: law, medicine, or business. He always wanted to be an actor, but faced a language barrier; French and Creole were his first languages, and he came to English late. While a student at Montclair State, practicing martial arts, he was lured into performing in a dance show. The rest is history: after touring with ALLNATIONS Dance Company, based at New York’s International House, he made it into Pilobolus and spent 10 years there, finding along the way a wife, spending a few years in the business career his parents sought for him, and finally working his way back to the dance world.
He is fifty now and a father of two; he was born in the same year as Pilobolus, the company he joined as a fledgling dancer that supported him well for a decade. Now he’s director of Gaspard & Dancers and the choreographer of Sodo, the brand-new, beautiful duet he built in June in the Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine Kaye Studio at BAC, collaborating with performers Kevin Boateng and Marsha Guirlande Pierre, who dance the roles of a young couple visiting the falls to sanctify their relationship. Mahalia Stines, a Brooklyn-based Haitian Jew who practices vodou, is designing sets and costumes; he brought to her attention Galembo’s book of photographs. Daniel Bernard Roumain’s piano-and-violin score for the 17-minute piece incorporates Stines’ recitation in Haitian Creole of a text from the book, a poem by Jean Leopold Dominique.
This information does not begin to reveal the experience of witnessing the piece itself, and the process by which Gaspard fine-tunes the choreography and the performances by this dream team of dancers. Working five hours a day for 12 days, the three of them build the dance collaboratively, approaching it as a mutual responsibility rather than a top-down delivery of steps. Their movement creates a breeze in the room. I arrive in the middle of the process, on day seven, in time to watch and listen to Stines as she hovers in the studio with bags of material, feeling out the necessary textiles and props. On one edge of the performance space lies a circle of cloth on which rests an enamel bowl full of water, herbs, and berries; a simple mug; and a candle. Alongside this tableau is a little wooden chair with a cane seat. Stines sets out a dozen small battery-powered votives that are crucial to the final moments of the work.
“Let me just go make a fool of myself,” Gaspard mutters as he heads onto the dance floor to demonstrate, full out, what he wants the dancers to try. And then, as he clambers back up onto his feet, “Oh, Elizabeth, never get old.” I have 27 years on him, actually, so I know where he’s coming from; though the plastic chairs in the studio are among the best I’ve ever encountered, my body still seizes up after hours of sitting on one.
The two dancers are rarely still, taking the initiative to rehearse the complex choreography even when Gaspard is busy elsewhere. Fearless and independent, they slide, they somersault. She’s his protector, he her cavalier. They give each other space. They spiral around each other, their spines in constant, sinuous motion. She jumps onto his back; he sits on her knee. The pair direct themselves as Gaspard watches; it appears to be a joyous process.
Marsha, 25, is a compact, lively dancer, born in Trenton, New Jersey and raised primarily on the east coast of the U.S. by Haitian parents; her father insisted she learn Creole. Three years out of Montclair State, and experienced as a modern dancer with Limon and Carolyn Dorfman, she now lives in the Bronx and works as a yoga teacher and social media editor for a church. Kevin, 30, speaks Twe; his parents are from Ghana, and he lives in Dallas, commuting to rehearse with Gaspard, mostly in New York. He’s ballet-trained; his “dance mom,” he says, is Kihyoung Choi, a former member of the Korean National Ballet who now teaches in neighboring Fort Worth.
The work they are doing together is, I must confess, breathtaking. It’s clear that Gaspard chose them for who they are as people as well as for their technical prowess. “I entered into this project with a level of care and sensitivity,” says Kevin. “I wanted to be respectful of the culture and the creative process. The African and Caribbean cultures are so similar—traditions, food, how we wash our hands, our clothes….”
“My mom would put herbs in water—ferns and eucalyptus—and wash me with it,” adds Marsha. “Eucalyptus is good for your energy.” The bowl on the studio floor is, it turns out, full of ferns and eucalyptus.
During a break one afternoon, I ask all three about their history with swing dancing, with the Lindy. They look at me blankly. “I’m an immigrant,” Gaspard reminds me. But there is something about the way he has built this duet, the way Marsha and Kevin perform it, that seems, though made on exquisitely trained dancers comfortable with the intimacy of contact improvisation, at once casual and serious and social, channeling the very soul of African style
Gaspard and his dancers return to the studio in August, preparing for a tour that will take them and Sodo to Duke University in Durham, North Carolina; to Wilmington, North Carolina; and on to the Dominican Republic, and Croatia. Turning a still visual artifact—in this case a suite of photographs of a sacred site—into choreography is a process fraught with danger, but Gaspard has managed it well, and the world awaits the chance to view the finished piece.
Elizabeth Zimmer has written about dance, theater, and books for many publications including Dance Magazine and The Village Voice. She offers writing workshops for students and professionals across the country, and edits manuscripts of all kinds. She contributed to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Halifax and Vancouver from 1971-1978, covered ballet for the Philadelphia Inquirer (1997 – 2005), edited the dance section of The Village Voice (1992 -2006), and has served as a critic there and elsewhere since 1981. She taught in the Hollins University MFA dance program (2011-2019), where she met Gaspard Louis, and has studied many forms of dance.
I arrive and the structure is already in motion. This is a drill. The dancers sway and march and try to keep a beat between them. Exactness hovers like a promise, electrifying the space, galvanizing four individuals towards a common goal. Bodies, separate, become one body, together. They pause, rest, recalibrate. Today, Martita Abril (CORPS cast) winds a hip and shimmies both shoulders. Dorothy Dubrule (CORPS cast) puts both hands on her head, then on her hips, walks in a circle.
Ayano Elson (CORPS cast) sits down. Annabella Vidrio (UMS intern and guest dancer) records something on a laptop and rejoins the group. Other bodies filled the formation on other days: Josie Bettman (guest dancer/artist) was here, and Tara Sheena (guest dancer/artist). Milka, with notebook in hand, dictates the day’s tasks in a voice halfway between drill sergeant and dance captain.
The day’s tasks: four dancers are practicing togetherness, creating a precise complexity, preparing a hivemind of distinct intelligences. Language, literal and embodied, emerges between and around them. They know some things I don’t. On the projection screen at one end of the studio are the words they’re echoing in syncopated canon.
SOMETIMES WORDS ARE THE WORST
SOMETIMES WORDS ARE JUST
SOMETIMES WORDS ARE THE COURAGE
TO THINK THE COURAGE
TOO MUCH TOO MUCH
repeat after me:
point point counterpoint
mark time, go.
(step right, left, etc.)
a clicking sound
piling up piling up piling up (counting thrice on fingers)
far off place
movements ancillary to movement
to hold one’s place to hold the rhythm
“I got off.”
like pins in fabric, rank-markers, bright bars
codified lines lines lines insignia
or ropes to pull on so the flag flails back towards
you and catches the wind again
catches the rhythm
syn co pay shun
fatigued edge, the beat, the pace
the strain and shear of one too many
where the choreography of mentally marking thin and thick
how do you count up to catch it? downbeat—
how do you march and bend your knees?
number accent math iambic stress
“Where do you guys take your breaths?”
“It’s all triplets, except for certain ones.”
Pain is temporary- push through
“I’m gonna call some things.
From grid— go—”
“If i’m throwing you in, I’m thinking—”
“I thought you said half-left,
The gas is on
You look scared
“Freeze or hold? Would the gas is on
still go? That’s good—”
“Crispy? Yeah. Golden brown.”
“Maybe I’ll try some face stuff?”
“I wonder if it’s a record scratch—”
“Let’s try a round of marking time.”
drill-calling fatigue: leaders forgetting possibilities
the choices given are smaller when those in power
when the steps are fewer
mark time go
the group is tired
yes head go. blah!
left face go
what can they do?
thinking hard, I see it in their faces
left face go
left face go
but push through. endurance, stress of world-making,
what practice prepares us for
what structure, implied or concrete, constructed
who are you while you
go mark time
left face go
who are you together, a body
gah! watch you burn
you look scared
synchronous-asynchronous corpse corps
new kind of virtuosity, or oldest in the book
recognizable language, then—
let it change
what happens, when?
variables, beats, lines: together
apart— a part of a whole
rhythmic impulse to same
to same to same
hard things that look hard
hard things that look easy
easy things that look hard
start again from the beginning
CORPS is shorthand for a delicate balance of regiment and agency. CORPS looks like disparate bodies deployed as a synchronous unit, constituting a provisional togetherness. CORPS sounds like a surreal cheerleading practice or an ROTC sergeant’s lucid dream. The structure, directed at first by the choreographer’s outside eye, grows and shifts, moving as a differentiated body of bodies.
After the dancers leave, Milka and I discuss the performance. Theoretically, Milka doesn’t sit on the outside and call the maneuvers as she did in rehearsal; the dancers, manifesting and questioning the choreography, will make the movement calls themselves. The structure will become self-perpetuating. There’s something here about how community functions and the stakes of joining in: beyond the surrender to stepping in time lies the promise of emergent agreements and organic decision-making. Individuals will materialize, asserting themselves between the lines marched in unison.
Dot Armstrong is Minnesota-born and Brooklyn-based. Dot currently explores the limits of performance with/for ChristinaNoel and the Creature, Spacejunk Dance, and Thea Little. Dot is a founding member of Futile Gestures, a performance collective/nonsense repository. Their choreographic work has appeared at The Dance Collective, Artefix NYC, Green Space, and HATCH Performance Series. Dot contributes to Culturebot as a performance reviewer/archivist/observer. They trained at the American Dance Festival, Movement Research, the Martha Graham School, and Joffrey Ballet Chicago and graduated summa cum laude from the University of Iowa with degrees in Dance Performance (BFA) and English (BA).
Lori Belilove and her company of dancers worked together in the BAC studios for eight hours a day of class and rehearsals for her new work Wild Beauty. Their two-week residency began just after the CDC allowed vaccinated folks to gather unmasked. “The first day we went around the room and went ‘A FACE! AHA!’ while looking at each other. We animated our faces as a start.” Because of the pandemic, many dancers hadn’t been training in the way that they were accustomed to, so they started slow.
“We didn’t know how much jump was left, how much fluidity was left, how much technique was left inside of us, so I nurtured and explored that as an opportunity to renew.”
In Wild Beauty, Belilove is working to “beg, borrow and steal from my dear Isadora, and throw her to the winds, gather myself, and bring in the power that I feel. [Isadora] has a Victorian sweetness within her repertoire. It has a cathartic niceness, and I wanted to disturb that. My new work is called Wild Beauty because Duncan did her dances in her time and there is an internal feminine power that I think can be evoked further.” She calls her work “Belilove’s Isadora,” and finds herself often returning to the Duncan repertory as source material. “We all come from somewhere. Isadora came from somewhere, too, so I’m just carrying on.”
In writing about Wild Beauty, Belilove referred Duncan’s “iconic feminist aesthetic.” I asked her how Duncan’s work embodies feminism as she sees it: “I think we should just go back to the Greeks. That is where she figured something out about the power of the female archetypes within mythology. The Greek sculptures embody such a rich beauty of the female body. If you look at an Aphrodite, or an Athena, it doesn’t look anything like the model Victorian body that she must have grown up with—the cinched waist, the parasol, the boots—all of that body shaping. She says that she evoked the Statue of Liberty, and in your wildest imagination you can’t imagine that statue in a tutu. Isadora was making herself mammothly large from an internal place because of her breath. When the corsets took away the breath from women, feminism was going down. So, breathing is a huge part of understanding Ducna’s technique and the iconic feminist aesthetic.”
I first encountered Belilove while attending the retirement performance gala for dance historian Dr. Lynn M. Brooks at Franklin & Marshall College. Belilove paid homage to Brooks, a mutual friend and board member for Belilove’s Isadora Duncan Dance Company, by dancing an excerpt of her solo The Art of Isadora. That evening, F&M students ardently performed Duncan’s Dance of the Furies, restaged by Belilove. Throughout her career, Belilove has worked on countless reconstructions of Duncan’s work. In her residency at BAC, however, she worked on what she terms a “deconstruction” or a “dismantling” of the interior material of Duncan’s signature pieces. “There is a phrase within the dance Death and a Maiden, choreographed by Isadora, and it is a minute and a half of frenzy: huge points, big swooping skips and crashes, and turns and twists. In my new work, we dismantled that phrase, reconfigured it, and added more points, more repetition, and more twists and turns, as an idea of how to make even more of a frenzy. It became kind of like wild horses at that point.” There is a sense of growing intensity even as Belilove speaks about her process of reinforcing the ideas within a phrase, making it more concentrated and true to its own feeling state.
The group worked with ten different pieces of music before Belilove settled on The Moldau by Smetana, an homage to the Volta river in Czechoslovakia, and a piece that she has been wanting to mine more deeply. “If I read further [into the music], there was flooding that would happen, and the folk would be displaced. I’m interested in water, in the delicate balance of our natural resources, and making a statement about it and invoking it in our bodies in the power and preciousness that it is. I learned from Isadora some tricks for how to handle symphonic music: sometimes when it’s at the top of the range, she does nothing, and other times she stays way within it and moves off of the melodic line.”
“When I coach dances, I talk to the dancers, sometimes in technical terms, or I shoot out little notes while they’re dancing. I have one extraordinary dancer, Nicole, who has been doing the Death and the Maiden dance for some time now, and evoking some really spiritual depths.” At the end of the residency, the new work was being filmed and “there she was in her full costume. She did the whole dance, and she was way beyond technical coaching, so I began to speak the poetry of the dance. I said: And when she began she had nothing, and now she can’t take anymore, and now she can’t stand, no don’t take my life, I’m not ready yet. We were crying at the end. Don’t take me yet, that’s really the name of the dance.” This was a magical moment for Belilove within the residency. “I’d been afraid to have my voice in performance and this is the breakthrough into it. The residency broke me open to the idea that my voice could be used. I’m stimulated artistically again—it’s all bubbling.”
Note: Though the premiere of Wild Beauty is tentatively planned for Fall 2021 with rotating casts of dancers, Belilove and dancers were able to perform a portion of the finished work just one week after their BAC residency, on June 11th at Global Water dances in Riverside Park.
Originally from the Midwest, Ellie Goudie-Averill is a dance artist and educator who works with dancers of all ages on technique and performance. Since graduating with her MFA in Dance Performance from the University of Iowa in 2007, she has served as a professor at Temple University, Bucknell University, and Franklin & Marshall College. She currently teaches Ballet at Connecticut College, where she recently created a new work outdoors for ConnColl students. Ellie has danced professionally for Susan Rethorst, Lucinda Childs, Bronwen MacArthur, Group Motion, and Stone Depot, which she co-directs with Beau Hancock. She is a regular collaborator and dancer with Tori Lawrence + Co. in dance films and site-specific works.
In February 2020, I was approached with the opportunity to write two BAC Stories – one on Justin Hicks, and one on Yin Mei. The threat of COVID-19 already looming, it didn’t yet seem as though we were headed towards the shutdown that ultimately took place – however by mid-March, Baryshnikov Arts Center, along with the rest of the world as I knew it, had announced indefinite closure (“at least through March 31,” they said…).
As a writer, I had largely been a performance reviewer leading up to this opportunity. Always more interested in unpacking than assessing, the notion of chronicling a process versus evaluating a product was so deeply tantalizing, such a move forward, and, as such, all the more profound a loss for me.
Throughout the pandemic, BAC was quick to find a rhythm with its digital programming, which included a virtual commission from Hicks, which, oddly enough, I was assigned to review for Eye on Dance and the Arts. It wasn’t until April 2021 that I received word of BAC resuming its residencies, with Yin Mei scheduled for May 17-28. I jumped at the opportunity to resume work that had yet to be, and set aside as many times as I could to get the fullest possible impression of Yin Mei’s process.
Only available for a few hours of four days within Yin Mei’s two weeks, I knew off the bat I had to fight my completionist instincts. It was all the more fitting that Yin Mei’s residency took place in the John Cage & Merce Cunningham Studio, the spirits of whose namesakes I felt granting me permission to see and respond to whatever I happened to chance upon. Little did I know at the time that this was the only way to really understand what Yin Mei was up to.
Wednesday, May 19, 2021, 4pm
I walk into what feels like a construction site. Floor and walls are covered in printer’s paper, which, in turn, is covered, to various degrees, in paint, ink, and charcoal. In addition to the space’s surfaces, individual rolls of paper hang from the rig above. Five crowd where I enter like a forest, while one hangs on its lonesome across the way, caught between the studio’s massive windows in the afternoon light.
I come in during lunch. The first person I see is Taylor Myers. Taylor and I both went to NYU Tisch – he in Drama, I in Dance. We sang tenor in a school chorus together, after which we lost touch but remained mutual admirers. I shriek and call him Tyler by mistake. His arms and legs are smattered with gray and black pigment. He is improvising gently and freely to recorded music as cinematographer Yao Wei captures his every move from within a steadycam rig.
Isabella Bower is mixing gray acrylic paint with water. A student of Yin Mei’s in the Dance Department at Queens College, she is serving as a versatile hand on deck for whatever task Yin Mei may dream up. She tells me of what has happened before – how we got here. The process of laying down the paper…what markings happened when and how…
Not here today is another performer, Erick Montes. I’ll catch him next time.
When the work resumes, Yin Mei begins to ask Taylor if his feet can fit in a paint tray. Taylor has a way of asking Yin Mei questions that help guide her towards a clearer idea of what she’s looking for. The tray is filled with gray paint, and, both feet planted inside, Taylor swings his arms to scoot himself forward in space like a giant trying a human sled. Paint flings out and back from his forward thrusts, leaving a deceptive trail. Yin Mei laments to Yao Wei – “You weren’t filming?”
I would have lamented, too; it looked really cool. I myself was about to film the bit on my phone, but was so taken by the moment there was no time to think about anything other than the moment itself.
Yao Wei is there to capture everything. His camera is always rolling, from 1-6pm for two weeks. It’s a lot.
They try another variation – Taylor directs his spacing into more of a loop than a line. After, Yin Mei holds his hand like a ballroom dancing partner, helping Taylor to take sharper turns and maintain more precarious balances to Chet Baker’s “I Get Along with You Very Well.”
They use silk screen spreaders to further spread the residue of Taylor’s activities into the paper on the floor.
Switching gears, Yin Mei and Taylor each take a piece of charcoal to the back wall, commencing a contact improvisation with each other as well as the wall, leaving traces of their motions via the charcoal in their hands against the paper on the wall. The physicalities are varied – regular drawing, dancing which initiates the arm to leave marks, and more extreme reaches and jumps that leave more particular marks.
Seeing Taylor and Yin Mei move together is a great character study. Yin Mei is slow, methodical, intuitive, and elegant. As choreographer and performer, she steps out and observes, often enjoying what she is facilitating. Taylor is strong but gentle, save when he is overcome with boyish impulses, such as throwing his piece of charcoal aggressively against the wall, leaving an accordingly explosive trace.
The exploration feels honest, yet meandering, until Yin Mei is compelled to take white paint to begin highlighting the marks that have been made, bringing out a post-hoc intentionality to free impulses. As soon as this image is given more structure, Yin Mei goes over the composition with blotches of red and black, using the silk screen spreader.
So engrossed in their work, they barely have enough time to clean up.
Thursday, May 20, 2021 4pm
Erick is back, lying with Taylor on the floor in a heap of markings. Yao Wei keeps track of them at a distance, while Susan Mei, who, at the time, was serving as an extra cameraperson but is now editing the results of the residency, captures them up close.
There are new panels of paper on what yesterday was a bare wall.
Yin Mei had come to like a section of the floor so much yesterday that she covered it over with another layer of paper so that the image would remain intact while they continued their work.
As a trio, Erick, Taylor and Yin Mei take turns soloing with charcoal on a bare stretch of wall. They each have different characters to using friction and weight.
Erick and Yin Mei find themselves in a mirroring duet while Taylor continues to draw alone.
Taylor joins, partnering Erick, leaving Yin Mei as the odd one out.
Remembering yesterday’s exploration, she grabs a bucket of watered-down ink and nestles her feet inside.
Without having to be told, Erick and Taylor each take an arm, and help Yin Mei fling herself through space, off kilter.
A pattern begins to emerge of stepping back and admiring the visual traces of their physical improvisations, as though an audience to their own art show – the difference being that most, if not all of the visual component is purely accidental and vestigial – a comparatively permanent, though haphazard, result of more intentional, however ephemeral, movement.
It turns out that they are able to take showers at the space.
Wednesday, May 26, 4pm
I enter to thunderous sounds of paper flapping.
Just before I came, Mikhail Baryshnikov himself had graced the studio, which Yin Mei reported had “given the group a tremendous boost of energy.” The aforementioned sound was that of vigorous strokes of pigment, fueled by the very person who facilitated their existence.
Before my arrival, the group had been exploring a structure in which, after putting up a new section of paper on an unexplored wall, Yin Mei gave Taylor and Erick three seconds to run to the paper, make any mark they could, and leave, in a calligraphic relay race.
Taylor and Erick are duly exhausted.
As I get settled, I see Yin Mei, deep in a circular study with the charcoal against a panel. She is relentlessly retracing the same circle, using the bend of her knees to pump more energy through the spine to reinvigorate the circle, leaving markings of different intensities, all piled on top of each other.
Erick intervenes, smudging several sections of this charcoal hurricane, which rests above a deep red splotch of paint from the day before.
The two step back, asking, “Who did that?,” pleased with the result of their collective effort.
In front of me is a makeshift contraption – a sponge taped to the end of several cardboard paper rolls. It must have been used to make the markings I am now noticing are impossibly high up.
The section of floor that was covered up with fresh paper yesterday is now covered in thin, small, focused blots of black and red ink.
To a string quartet, Erick, Taylor, and Yin Mei simultaneously draw, exploring the relationship between different physical textures as well as different visual textures, and what of the former is needed to produce the latter. Gold becomes a new contender in what has been largely a palette of black, gray, white, and red.
Whereas before, improvisations focused on long stretches with one quality, we now have, to the sounds of string quartet counterpoint, strong vectors interweaving with smudges and soft curves. Against Yin Mei’s diligence is a steadfast rubbing from Erick, punctuated with Taylor’s acute irreverence. Over time, physical artistry gives way to doing whatever is physically required to continue drawing in the dynamics they have fallen into.
Again, they step back and look in admiration and appreciation of one another.
But Taylor isn’t done – he approaches the figure and slashes violently to make shadows and highlights. Yin Mei is amused. The figure begins to resemble a rooster.
Elsewhere, an orb begins to resemble the Death Star. Abstractions are gradually becoming figurative and referential.
Erick plays with moving more elaborately to create single marks, jumping and falling in order to give his arm the right force to make a particular kind of scrape over and over again.
Meanwhile, Yin Mei becomes fixated on the sun shining through the window. She asks everyone to trace the edges of the sunlight in the room, which, as soon as they get going, shifts ever so slightly as afternoon heads into evening, leaving behind a mess of aggregate cleanliness.
After often improvising to the sounds of other artists, it is here that Yin Mei plays the music of her project’s composer, Huang Ruo, entitled Ashes in Time.
For the first time, Yin Mei is being more direct, giving Erick and Taylor specific tasks within what have been free improvisations. She asks for more color. They ask where. She clarifies, “Anywhere!”
Yao Wei’s filming is constant – moments of planning, working, and resting. No one feels the need to perform for his lens. Its constant presence renders performativity too exhausting a prospect.
Yin Mei has folded up long pieces of paper accordion style into large fans. She asks Taylor to dance with one, which quickly resembles a bird’s mating dance. Yin Mei is then reminded that she has metal sheets, which the dancers try to maintain vertically above their heads, running in the direction of their inevitable falling, creating thunder claps that fit perfectly with the epic Alice Coltrane track playing over the speakers.
I shamelessly intervene, taking a video of the Death Star orb, beginning microscopically close and gradually zooming out to the entire structure.
The in-betweens are divine.
Thursday, May 27, 4pm
I arrive during lunch. Taylor and Yin Mei discuss their families. It is the last day to really work before Friday’s final clean up, and it shows in how everyone is exploring with much more urgency as well as invention.
There is no time to explore, only to do.
The folded-up paper fans have since been dressed with paint and ink. Any material or tool that has yet to be used is in full swing.
All this culminating activity ends up revealing attachments that have been slowly and unwittingly forming to what have been ostensibly left completely to chance. Even having protected sections of paper with designs deemed worth preserving, Yin Mei mourns favorite figures, which, in various improvisational frenzies, have become splotched just beyond their original recognition.
She saves the panels she doesn’t want to see further changed, and goes on to use the rest of the red ink, making sharp spatters by flicking the bristles of a paint brush.
They continue rolling up panels of paper they feel are done.
Erick returns to a more dance-centered approach, struggling to maintain his balance in a puddle of ink.
Taylor plays with a paint roller like a fidget spinner.
Yin Mei and I compare our respective times in the Tisch Dance Department, over twenty years apart.
Taylor and Erick are affectionate with one another, leaning into each other like a slow dance, basking in the melancholy of the impending close of this chapter.
Talking between improvisations, Yin Mei noted how, once the paint and ink have been used, their life continues in how they interact with the paper and change in the drying process. “When you come back the next day, it looks entirely different, nothing like what I had originally put down.” Before the pandemic, she was working towards creating a new performance work, but has since changed her focus to a more process-oriented intention, looking towards the chemical wisdom of her mixed visual media as guidance.
Yin Mei’s theories have developed in tandem with the residency. Film was not originally intended to be so integral to the project. Yao Wei, who was a dance student-turned-film major, happened to be in the US and offered to work on the project. In this way, as Yin Mei sees the paintings as recordings of the choreography that made them, the footage documenting this process are, just as well, cinematic recordings of Yao Wei’s movements behind the camera.
There may be sixty paintings, and fifty hours of footage, but all they really do is chronicle the movement required to produce them.
Yin Mei is interested in time. Using visual media, she measures movement, which she maintains is “always happening in the space, just waiting to be embodied.” By having every hour of every day of the residency filmed by Yao Wei, she is aware of her presence and how it is changing when she knows she is on display.
“There is so much invisible that I want to make visible – that’s why I use film.” In one respect, film spoils the elusive ephemerality of embodied performance; on the other hand, it indiscriminately shows all that goes into a process. It is, at once, the best and worst thing for chance-based work.
The most salient bit of chance that has come from this process is the very date range of May 17-28 (the date span of her BAC Residency). Yin Mei has been going through her diaries, looking at what happened in her life during this stretch of time in two particular periods of her life, triangulated with the present period of her Residency.
The first draws from her experience of the Cultural Revolution in China at roughly ten years of age, from 1966-1973, additionally incorporating letters received and written between 1969 and 1979.
Next involves Yin Mei, approaching her third decade of life, becoming transfixed by the very namesakes of her residency’s studio – encountering the work of Merce Cunningham and John Cage in 1981 when she was a principal dancer with the Hong Kong Dance Company. Soon after this epiphany, she came to the US by way of the American Dance Festival in 1985, going on to pursue and complete her graduate degree in Dance at NYU in 1989.
As such, Yin Mei calls this project a “re-representation,” as well as a “revolution simulacrum,” placing these experiences, bound by the same range of dates, in direct conversation with each other in a space which is not objective or physical, but is generated by the creative process itself, in a nonlinear, multidimensional understanding of time.
Speaking specifically about her improvisations, I found it all too timely when she ultimately said, “The fact that anything is there is cause for celebration.”
Jonathan Matthews-Guzmán is a Memphis-born / New York-based performer, creator, curator, writer, and educator of Irish and Puerto Rican descent. They hold a BFA from NYU Tisch Dance, where they currently accompany technique classes, mentor the students of Future Dancers and Dancemakers Workshop on musical collaboration, and direct the Tisch Dance Alumni Choreographic Mentorship. Their work and studies have taken them abroad to Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance, Springboard Danse Montréal, the International Theatre Festival of Kerala, and Toscana Dance HUB (now WADE). They dance with Darrah Carr Dance, Indah Walsh Dance Company, and Valerie Green / Dance Entropy, and, with Holly Sass, co-founded and co-direct BREAKTIME. Jonathan sings tenor with the Cecilia Chorus of New York, music directs for Queens Shakespeare Inc./What Dreams May Co., has composed for Giada Ferrone, Patrick Corbin, Gaspard Louis, and Rashaun Mitchell, and teaches lower school chorus at The Calhoun School. They additionally accompany Ballez classes at Gibney Dance and youth classes at Mark Morris Dance Center. Jonathan was an inaugural Curatorial Fellow in Dance through SMUSH Gallery. They review regularly for Eye on Dance and the Arts, and have additionally contributed to The Dance Enthusiast, Dance Magazine, Dance Teacher Magazine, Time Out NY, Dancegeist, and The Journal of Dance Education.
December 26, 2020
KF: “The work feels like activism to me.”
Kayla Farrish is vibrant and active when she speaks.
We’re on Zoom (where else?), the green velvet couch in her Brooklyn apartment matching the cactus that frames me outside my studio in Oakland, CA. Movement spills, pops, and shifts in gesture, expression, and posture—she fills up the screen as we talk. I spoke to Kayla just after her Baryshnikov Arts Center residency ended in late November, and she was energized about her time in the studio, her cast, and how to continue her work in a sustainable way in this incalculable and constantly restructuring New Year. She was supposed to show her new work, Martyr’s Fiction, at Gibney in March of 2020 and continue working on the piece, which she had begun a couple of months earlier, at BAC directly after the show. As with most pre-COVID plans during that time, her performance was cancelled and her BAC residency was, thankfully, postponed. For her current piece, Kayla’s initial ideas centered on surrealism as a concept. Our conversation got me thinking about conversations around race and abstraction, and the conversation around race and surrealism felt intertwined, but also different to me, re-framing the question of who is allowed to make abstract work, and shifting that into the question: “Who is allowed to dream?”
KF: “Surrealism, what is that? I was curious because I love that word and the concept and felt, why do I feel so distant from what that is? I don’t really think that people in my community or family have access to surrealism. I’m thinking about the lights outside behind me, the cops that are patrolling people. When you’re thinking about survival, you might fantasize, but it’s likely in your head and it’s with a lot of barriers. When do we get to dream about pink elephants? What I grew up on is, I can only dream so far. Even when I’m making things, I’ll have this crazy vision, but will I have the resources to support that? Will people understand me? What is surrealism from my perspective-- the perspective from an African American dreamer? I feel, in my experience in blackness [and dance] that I have to be demonstrative, that I have to make sure I’m very clear... People need to understand the context and know where I am coming from. There is surrealism in imagination, but there is also surrealism in real life, like when you’re talking to someone and they say ‘racism doesn’t exist.’ And I think, ‘am I a myth?’”
Kayla grew up in North Carolina, in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area, which was home to one of the largest plantations in the US. Before our Zoom session, along with many images and videos of the work-in-progress, she shared a folder with me called “Plantation/Farm'' that contained images from her research. There were beautiful barns, and the building plans of barns and houses built by slaves to live and work in, built with pegs instead of nails and still standing strong. Her father’s side of the family were sharecroppers, working in tobacco and tending the land that they still farm today. Kayla’s family came to own the land because her great-grandfather was an only child who inherited the land and passed it down to her grandmother. We spoke about the night terrors that her father had throughout her childhood. This brought up the idea of watching someone else dream, and how rare that experience is. In her process, Kayla began working on recounting dreams with her cast through movement and language and exploring personal history.
KF: “There are shopping centers in NC called ‘Plantation Shopping Center,’ neighborhoods called ‘Wakefield Plantation.’ These places are turned into more money, and more erasure out in the open. What are we worth if we can just vanish? It’s as if it was nothing. It’s enraging, it’s offensive. There is a surreal nature to that erasure, and to current violence. My father is the oldest of seven from his sharecropping family. In his night terrors, he would scream, he would have really physical responses. He shouted my name. He never remembered what the dream was, but it always felt so real. It was so animated and intense. I got really into nightmares and exploring horror. I wanted to explore questions with my collaborators: 'What are you confronting and what are you running from? Can we edge up on these boundaries? What is escapism? What is surrealism to you?’ It was also interesting to see where my collaborators allowed fantasy in their lives. Some people are very sci-fi, intergalactic and so far away, and some people’s dreams felt so real, like an embodiment of their stories. I’d played a role in Sleep No More, the maid Danvers, who appears in and out of the shadows, who had so much restraint, but also this incredible fantasy life that was the flip of that restraint. I really related to that.”
Martyr’s Fiction is now going to become a full-length film, featuring Kayla and her collaborators Nik Owens, Jamal Abrams, Rebecca Margolick, and Alexander Diaz, with cinematography by Kermie Konur and music by Melike Konur. Kayla had one order in mind for the live work, and now a new order is emerging for the film as things have changed through COVID. Most of her movement material is set, with some scores that are left a little more open. One scene, called “sites,” explores sites of erasure, like the plantations of NC. There is also a scene exploring contemporary escapism called “wine night.” Characters shift and change throughout the work. Production week for the film will be in the late summer or fall and then the film will premiere at the end of 2021.
KF: “At the end of my residency, I had the option of doing a live stream, but I didn’t want flat documentation. I've now been thinking of the piece more in a cinematic way. I see cinematic landscapes as a way to see into these characters. My longtime collaborator Kerime’s input and feedback adds to and challenges me in a lovely way, especially when I’m performing in the work. What’s been so remarkable about the whole process is asking ourselves: ‘Is [this work] indulgent? Is this changing anything?’ We’ve been working on a section called “three black men,” and my collaborators were not happy with me at first. We first played with horror, and it was fun, it was fantasy, and then it went into trying on stereotypes that we’ve seen growing up, becoming the monsters that people think we are. My collaborators said, “I’m a black queer man, and you’re talking about spaces I’m not allowed to exist in when I walk out the door.” We pushed it in a really safe way. I want to feel monstrous, I don’t want to feel invisible any more. It’s liberating when you take the work in the studio out into the world. Your imagination can affect the collective and I never knew that was achievable, because dreaming is supposed to be so personal. I’m excited for how the whole work will unfold. Is this a loop, is this a dream?”
Originally from the Midwest, Eleanor Goudie-Averill is a dance artist and educator who works with dancers of all ages on technique and performance. Since graduating with her MFA in Dance Performance from the University of Iowa in 2007, she has served as a professor at Temple University, Bucknell University, and Franklin & Marshall College. She currently teaches at Connecticut College, where she created a new outdoor work for ConnColl students this Fall. Ellie has danced professionally for Susan Rethorst, Lucinda Childs, Bronwen MacArthur, and Group Motion. She is a regular collaborator and dancer with Tori Lawrence + Co. in dance films and site-specific works. Ellie is also a dance writer, frequently publishing dance and book reviews on the Philadelphia-based thINKingDANCE website.
It is very special to enter into the studio of a working artist, especially at an early stage of a project in process. Generosity and courage are both on display when seeing work without sets and sound systems, in rehearsal clothes, before all or any big decisions have been made. If I’m honest, it is probably my favorite way to experience performance. Without formality, with immediacy.
This was certainly all true when I sat among a small audience in Ella Rothschild’s studio as she presented excerpts and ideas from a forthcoming work. The hour unfolded in four parts with little explanation and plenty of room for revelation.
The activity on stage is already underway as the audience enters. A table, a chair, two women. Their eyes are locked on one another. Our eyes are locked on them. They look up, turn away, repeat. Their movements are quick, swift, definitive. Rothschild and Ariel Freedman are the dancers. Rothschild, also the choreographer, is dressed in all black. Freedman is in lighter colored clothing. Both have long hair pulled up into matching messy buns. It becomes clear that the movements are a sequence, pulling them around and around the table, getting faster as the audience gets settled.
Because I had spoken with Rothschild the week before, I wonder if they are really one woman represented by two bodies – one of them real, one of them the subconscious. One a shadow of the other. The space has the feeling of an interrogation room: sparse, with grey concrete walls, shiny black floor, and large windows covered with scrim, blurring out the city’s blocky buildings beyond. Interrogation room or not, from the start, we are clearly occupying a psychological space, in addition to being in a physical one.
Rothschild is a choreographer and dancer from Israel with an International practice. Like many choreographers, she must travel around the globe to support and realize her work. The piece she is currently developing interrogates the space between the physical world and the subconscious mind, and manifests as individual and collective characters gathering around the multi-sensory site of a dinner table. The project has or will take her to Lucerne, Vancouver, Israel, and New York, and maybe/hopefully beyond. She is working with 14 professional dancers in Lucerne (a commissioned work for the dance company of Lucerne Theater), with a handful of professional dancers in Israel, and intimately one-on-one with Freedman here in New York. I just met her, but in this way, she seems exceedingly agile and omnivorous.
The scene shifts and now only Freedman is in the space with one table and one chair. A new element: elongated, prosthetic arms with stiff, unyielding hands extend from Freedman’s own pliable and knowing arms. There is accompanying sound like electronic punctuation marks or like animals at night. An owl’s hoot, an interstellar communication, or a keystroke.
It is impossible to look at anything but the arms – as she slouches and lurches they slide, lifeless, across and over the sides of the table, reaching the floor, far away from her center. They are simultaneously fully in her control and also dictate every movement. Her proportions distorted, they are elegant because she is so precise and awkward because they are bereft of any suppleness. She moves slowly, intentionally.
Prompted by the arms and Freedman’s prowess with them, I think about how we think about bodies and self, body dysmorphia, differently abled bodies, the body in our mind, the body others perceive, the parts of the body we can control and the parts we can’t.
Then, snapping up my attention, she sits and begins to speak in a disembodied, monotone voice about being taken to a new place, a newly regimented life (in an asylum or something like it), away from a husband to a roommate, away from cooking and following recipes on her own to eating “square meals” on “round plates” prepared by a chef.
She’s up again. She (seductively?) shrugs off the arms, revealing her own. Then, illusion dispelled, her back turned to us, she picks up the arms again but this time wraps them around herself. One body has become two. Or, one mind imagines two bodies. Still in her control, she dances with the arms for one last moment then casually rests them, in their button-down shirt armature, on the back of the chair and walks away. Like none of it ever happened.
When we met, Rothschild talked about loneliness, and it permeates the performance space thus far. Whether there are one or two performers on stage, whether there is silence or sound. There is both a visceral drudgery and forcefulness about the movement that stems from a rift, one she is mining, between body and mind.
I don’t remember at exactly what point I notice it, but gradually or all of a sudden strips of the setting sunlight slice through the space, across furniture and bodies, through the stage and into the audience; no longer contained by the slim window coverings.
Rothschild joins Freedman again on the stage, the second chair returns, and there is a glass of red wine set on the table. Rothschild briefly describes that Freedman is in the room with another being, though it is not clear if this being is real or an extension of the subconscious.
Two women, two chairs, one table, and a glass of red wine.
Freedman releases her hair and lets it hang messily in front of, and therefore obscure, her face.
Strings and horns play ominously throughout the duet.
Freedman slides down onto the floor as if drawn to and along it by a magnetic force. She struggles her way to a chair, onto which she eventually, excruciatingly pulls herself up so her torso and arms rest on and entangle with the seat. With her weight heaped over it, she pushes and pulls as the chair moves heavily with her body, creaking around the stage.
Rothschild stands still for this entire sequence until Freedman pulls herself fully up. Rothschild takes a first sip of the wine. They hold hands. They pass this precarious wine glass back and forth, sipping, manipulating, caressing, holding, pulling, turning. At one climactic point, Rothschild holds Freedman by the neck for an amount of time that feels just uncomfortably long.
Rothschild starts speaking quickly and in a high-pitched voice, then in a lower pitch, a somewhat nonsense dialogue about a relationship with a “bitter and awful man.” A vague story emerges about relationships, perceptions, and what other people think. Then, the man himself, one register lower in Rothschild’s voice, enters the conversation catching the dialogue in progress. And then, all at once, the scene ends.
Continuing to tease out Freedman’s character, Rothschild introduces the final section as an exercise in how two beings occupy space with movement. The furniture has been struck and now the only thing shaping the playing space is the contrast of light and shadow streaming in from the partially scrimmed windows.
Horns, strings, and a fast-beating drum comprise the soundtrack.
The two women make big, determined gestures. Slow and then fast. In unison and then isolated. They appear to be exorcising demons from their bodies or letting themselves be occupied completely. The music shifts and becomes a little more melodic though still with a pulsing beat. The light creates haloes around their messy buns. They contract, bent over. Their stances widen, they open their arms. A tug of war ensues, each pulling the other’s arm as they turn to and from, back and forth and back and forth, until the sound quiets and it is just Rothschild, ever the shadow, pulling Freedman to her as she tries to pull away. Freedman’s movements become smaller and then stop.
We live in a time where the lines between reality and fantasy, fact and fake, are redrawn and redrawn again to suit particular needs and narratives. The liminal space of Rothschild’s studio where real bodies and minds portray the internal and external struggle, the push and pull, to distinguish between and play along a spectrum of real and imagined, physical and felt, is like an alchemical antidote.
Throughout the afternoon, it is clear to me that Rothschild is conveying something personal and universal, of our time and timeless: deeply embodied loneliness, a fear and desire to know oneself, in body and mind, in reality and in consciousness, and to know and convene with others, on a stage or around a dinner table or around a dinner table on a stage.
Melissa Levin is an arts administrator and curator committed to innovative, inclusive, and comprehensive approaches to supporting artists and initiating programs. She is currently the VP of Artists, Estates and Foundations at Art Agency Partners, where she advises artists and their families on legacy planning. Previously, Levin worked at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council for more than 12 years, where as VP of Cultural Programs she led the program design and artistic direction of LMCC's Artist Residency programs, the Arts Center at Governors Island, and the River To River Festival. Together with Alex Fialho, Levin has curated multiple, critically-acclaimed exhibitions dedicated to the late Michael Richards’s art, life, and legacy. Levin proudly serves on the boards of the Alliance of Artists Communities and Danspace Project. She received a B.A. with honors in Visual Art and Art History from Barnard College.
Molly Won’t Stop Singing, Eleanor Won’t Stop Talking, And I Don’t Know Why
As I was writing this, my dear friend (and fellow BAC Story writer) Benedict Nguyen sent one of their brilliant missives, tracing their own process of writing towards this assignment. They ask (or plead, or muse, quietly, to themselves), “...is writing about art (or maybe anything), some weird exercise in confirmation bias [?]
I not only see what I want to see but I get to reconfirm my perception by having (some of) the words I write be shared ‘in a public record’.”
I state this here not as a way for me to inch away from owning up to my own subjectivity or absolve myself from all of the cluttered biases I carry, if such a thing is possible. I wish to frame what I am about to say with the necessary knowledge that it is born of my own highly personal opinion. And, I do so with the hope of public affirmation and skepticism in equal measure.
Molly and Eleanor don’t need my disclaimers, though. They are so in the depths of how they work and make and perform that, frankly, they are waiting for us all to catch the fuck up. They know that what they are doing is misunderstood by many and needed by many more (myself included). They know they don’t have much control over certain narratives (of the vulnerability of the naked female body; of the pervasive, creeping male gaze) that may orbit their work. Dispelling any myths about what they do is not the best use of their time. They are busy doing the work.
Allow me to be slightly reductive for a minute:
I met with Molly and Eleanor during the second week of their BAC Space Residency, and, at a certain point in our conversation, I was curious about the choice they have made in recent years to use their voices. Literally, use them, in their work. I know it may seem crass or trivial, but this question has lingered since a certain watershed moment from Basketball (2017, Baryshnikov Arts Center), when Eleanor told us (admitted? admonished?), through clenched teeth, about a past sexual assault. But, did she really tell us? It seemed to offer a crack in the surface of what had been the work of and for two mostly nude, female bodies up until that point: intense, intertwined, sculptural, steadfast. Though their practice has always been rooted in the body, we could no longer ignore the very specific instances of harm and assault involved with these bodies. We couldn’t stay living in our enamoredness of their abstracted physicality. But, let’s be clear: they did the work to make us see what was there all along.
If that moment in Basketball was the watershed, Body Comes Apart (2019, New York Live Arts) ushered in the deluge. A collage of personas — hot group fitness leader, proper Southern lady, wholesome middle school teacher — swirled in a maelstrom that recounted to us many more instances of possible (probable) sexual trauma and suffering. And, clothing. Lots of clothing — girly underwear, loose tanks that slip a subtle sideboob, pinks and purples and lace and florals abound — continuously coming on and off their bodies, shifting and shaping how we notice their bodies.
That space — the maelstrom, the same clothing mess — is where we come back to (or start from) in STAMINA (2020), the work they developed during their recent BAC Space Residency.
STAMINA (2020), in some ways, is the pot in which this soup stews. In our conversation, they speak of fully inhabiting the performance before they quite know the recipe. From the first day in the space, they perform it, which may take hours or a few minutes. They know enough to know they have stories: Eleanor has her impressions, Molly has a bad rendition of Time After Time, they have all the clothes (yes, all of them), and a series of mirrored panels that can be wheeled around the space, acting as both barrier and aperture. The ways they twist persona, narrative, and embodiment root themselves strongly in direct address. They tell us stories, continue to sing bad renditions of pop songs, admit to past transgressions… Eleanor even has an impeccable impression of Professor Minerva McGonagall waiting to strike at just the right moment.
They also feed into many perverse and questionable ways performers relate to their audiences. At times, boxed in by the mirrored walls they continuously wheel around, reflecting both their spectators and themselves, they give us whisperings of answers to questions no one poses, speaking from a post-show talkback that isn’t currently happening.
“Oh, thank you. I really like my work, too,” Eleanor says to no one in particular, with a raspy, smoker’s voice.
“You know, it comes naturally, of course,” Molly sweetly riffs later on.
I love these moments in their work: the power, the humor. It tells me that if they can get there first, if they can hold up all the weird assumptions about their dancing, if they can project all the perverted desires right back to us, then they can control the ways an audience’s perception serves to muffle or obfuscate who these women are permitted to be (onstage, outside, online, everywhere). In these moments, they are slippery — too slippery to ever be held down by a future projection. They get out ahead of it, again.
At a certain point in our conversation, I am trying to understand: why. Why use language to address what they’re doing? Do they not think dance is enough?
“There’s a responsibility to a culture of people who’ve been through sexual trauma; there is a responsibility to make sure it’s communicated and not ambiguous,” Molly says. It’s about legibility, sure, but it’s also about a wider cultural awareness that women, all over, are speaking out in highly public ways. Speaking out in their work comes along with the accountability they wish to enact beyond the boundaries of their creative partnership. “The abstraction craft can come in other forms of the work, but not in that one,” Eleanor adds. They are very deliberate about the ways this is rooted in their physical vocabulary first and foremost. Until the wider culture can value the communication strategies of a non-speaking body, until we can all agree to locate value in how a body contains knowledge and a logic unto itself, until we permanently shred the systems that harm and deceive, they will continue to use their voices. They have to.
In thinking about this writing, I remembered an article from literary journal Tin House by writer Claire Vaye Watkins titled “On Pandering.” I recall it gaining significant digital traction when it was published in 2015. It spoke to the abuses of patriarchy towards female creativity just before the onset of the #MeToo movement and, in that way, really began to harness that necessary energy, bubbling and ripe, before we all quite knew what to do with it. It is a searing indictment of the ways non-male artists navigate their creative careers by way of an invisible, insidious pandering to an ever-looming white man. She recounts many painful instances of this, self-indicting along the way, and cops to many of her efforts (including a well-received debut novel and fancy literary agent) as an extension of that constant pandering. She writes:
“I am trying to write something urgent, trying to be vulnerable and honest, trying to listen, trying to identify and articulate my innermost feelings, trying to make you feel them too, trying a kind of telepathy, all of which is really fucking hard in the first place and, in a culture wherein women are subject to infantilization and gaslighting… I sometimes wonder if it’s even possible.”
This notion, of pandering to a pervasive patriarchy, is something from which dance is not exempt. It is also something that is not always easy to name in our performance works, rooted in our very real bodies, containing real breasts, and ass cheeks, and liquids, and crevices, and fatigued muscles, and overstretched hamstrings. It determines the ways we show up, or don’t. It lives in the DNA of our work, because, how could it not? To be clear, I am not speaking of surface-level patriarchy, which determines the leadership structures of these institutions and their boards, still very white and very male. I am not speaking of where the money flows and from whom. I am not speaking of the male benefactors or the male dancers who were rightly fired from all the ballet companies, again, very white and very male.
These are all important facets to receive, but, no. I am speaking to something cellular and windy. Something that lives, unexamined and invisible, in all that we are, all that we create.
That something doesn’t seem to live in the work of Molly and Eleanor. Or, at least, I feel like they have cracked a code of sorts. Their work doesn’t pander, it doesn’t falsely promise, it doesn’t beg or bury or bend to fit a perception that you may need to hold in order to sleep better at night. I hate to say it, but: it’s so hard to explain. When they move through a space, you believe that they don’t need to try to dodge all the patriarchal traps we’ve bought into. The way they insist on being themselves might be enough, that it is possible. If that’s my own “exercise in confirmation bias,” as Benedict says, I can live with that. I have to.
By virtue of this realization, I also have to realize the pressure that puts on them, as artists, to enact some sort of untouchable feminism, wherein we have dissolved the wage gap, obliterated all harmful notions of gender or bias, and have never encountered the Trumps or Weinsteins or Cosbys of the world. I also have to realize that this acting outside of patriarchal trappings comes with the privilege of light skin and incredibly able bodies; the consequences for them may be less, or different, if this were otherwise. So, to be honest, this argument is very fraught, but I’ll stay clinging to it. That I feel I need them in ways that far transcend what they, or any artist, can provide, is ultimately unfair.
I hope, if anything, that my time with them — and recounting it here — can speak to their strength as artists who do the work, gathering embodied knowledge, and provoking a future path forward. They tread that path, encouraging us to attention. They glance our way from far ahead, seeing us over their shoulders, with love and assurance, transmitting a quiet, profound, beating urge: catch the fuck up.
Tara Sheena is a dancer and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. As a performer, she has collaborated on recent projects with Catherine Galasso, Ivy Baldwin. Gillian Walsh, Leyya Tawil, Nadia Tykulsker, Ursula Eagly, Lindsey Dietz Marchant, stormy budwig, and Faye Driscoll for the forthcoming film, Shirley. Her latest writing, Capital-D Dance, is a chapbook collaboration with artist Katie Dean, which you can purchase on Etsy! She was born in Detroit and graduated from the University of Michigan with a BFA in Dance and BA in English in 2011.