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.
June 24, 2018
Rehearsal Report: ”You can think of yourself as a collection”
In early April at a rehearsal for RoseAnne Spradlin’s latest piece, tentatively titled Y, eight dancers walk onto black marley from all directions of the room. They lightly settle into an insular posture of group repose, and then they set off.
The studio shades are drawn, the city peeks in, an industrial soundtrack made by collaborator Glen Fogel accompanies them. The ambience is composed of rehearsal recordings - footfalls and running. Spradlin tells me these percussions are cut with nature sounds “like birds and people walking over large rocks and gravel,” all aiding and abetting the effect of arrival. It’s a kind of inversion of alien visitation (how beautiful that humans may visit themselves) here in this pristine rehearsal room, for the common myth holds that extraterrestrials can best show themselves in the throes of nature. But in this case weirdness is a collection of purposeful bodies moving in a space arbitrarily demarcated for the purpose of art. Against a gritty and compressed churn, I find myself paying attention to the dancers’ shared agreement with the floor, how mysteriously anchored their limbs seem to the ground, and if one body takes off another will bring it back down just as quickly. It is hard to locate a romantic feeling in the hive, and maybe that’s because all the feeling has been turned inside out - it is not a vocabulary of coyness - or rather, returned to its original location: the surface of the skin. To be touched is not just a metaphor; contact creates response in sequences flowing, acute and unprecious.
Approximately 20 minutes in, the flock begins to lap the room clockwise while one dancer, Athena Malloy, stands against a barre observing the herd. It could be the emergence of an opinion or a personality as she slowly enters the current and slumps to the floor; the runners form elliptical orbits around her person that taper into a still tableau. (I later learn that my narrative imposition is a product of chance, Malloy nursing an injury that day.) Crunching sound gives way to birds as the dancers look up and out. Connor Voss, in a tye-dyed shirt and shorts that bag over his skinny legs, walks downstage, obscuring the group portrait, punching the air once, then twice, and walking away. The camera is tilted upwards to face the light grid, the movement complete for now.
This is only a teaser, Spradlin tells me - the four repetitions composing the structure of this material have since doubled to eight - but as a sketch it begins to hint at the surprise theatrics I have come to love in her dances, achieved through deeply roundabout yet highly incisive sensorial explorations. Looking at this footage, I think about visiting the studio a month prior, the company just beginning its work; a newly formed collective, many of the dancers are entering Spradlin’s process for the first time. Waiting for the choreographer, who has been delayed by an appointment, I sit against the wall and watch them warm up for a long time, each dancer absorbed in a wholly idiosyncratic dialogue with their own body. For some, stretching dissipates into collegial conversation, while others remain focused on what is physical and unobservable to my eye.
Spradlin enters and assembles the group. I turn on my tape recorder as she starts to talk with the company, beginning with the simple premise: “You can think of yourself as a collection of cells,” tracing along one dancer’s body the potential of a sideways consciousness. “You don’t have to make any of this happen, but this idea of lateral lines, like fish.” And they do seem to form a school, in their youth and mass, but there is nothing pedantic about Spradlin’s tone, which is more akin to invitation than dogma. As a witness to this methodology of finely grained haptics, I have the uncanny sensation of having been here before, reminded of watching Spradlin in technical rehearsal for g-h-o-s-t-c-r-o-w-n (working title) at New York Live Arts in 2014, where once again she was in close proximity to a performer’s body, using just the slightest amount of pressure from her hands to jump start a memory of what the performer already knew so that they could make a difficult turn. “You just have to feel it,” she said.
In correspondence, I ask Spradlin about the title of the piece and she writes: “Early on, I was calling the new work star child (moving over the ground). Around APAP time, I just decided to change the title to Y. My last piece was called X and so far it's been getting good reviews and feedback, but I haven't yet got any touring for it. I guess it feels less like I'm abandoning X if I call my next work Y …” I pay attention to the language here, the sense I am already getting of extraordinary creatures or changelings being embodied in Y, and how its seeds were planted in the precursor, a work for three bodies that premiered at the Joyce in 2016. X seemed to propose the dancer as hungry mole, eyes located in knees and backs and arms. Dislocated vision reinvented ballet barres as features of a survivalist gymnasium, everything made strange, wondrous, and more hypnotically rigorous by virtue of a world gone askew. I guess that world is always right here too, even as it eludes us outside the studio walls. Of course, I wonder what Spradlin is looking towards as the latest work’s gaze shifts into eerie distance... every work as odd as a newborn coming into ambulatory power, fierce and preternaturally wise, perhaps mostly so when sidewise.
Jess Barbagallo is a writer, director, performer, arts journalist, and teacher based in New York City. Playwriting credits include: Not for Resale (in collaboration with Lex Powell and the NYU Drama Therapy program); Melissa, So Far; My Old Man (and Other Stories); Sentence Fetish; Joe Ranono’s Yuletide Log and Other Fruitcakes; Karen Davis Does …; Good Year for Hunters; Room for Cream: A Live Lesbian Serial; Saturn Nights; and Grey-Eyed Dogs. He is currently acting in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Lyric Theatre.
Jun 21, 2018
Someone I once dated introduced “tabanca” into my lexicon. It is an affective state referenced in many soca songs, mourning the end of carnival time before it’s even begun—that lovesick feeling you get when you desire someone or something that has yet to be lost.
When I meet Sacha in her studio for the first time, she hands me a photography book about the Borscht Belt while recounting what she’s been able to patch together about Shirley, her maternal grandmother. It was the 1950s, and Shirley would throw off the thick blanket of New York City humidity and make her way up north to The Concord, one of the many Jewish-owned and operated resorts in the Catskills. The Borscht Belt was a repository of the American Dream for Jewish folks, a post-war survival strategy. The promise of security and affirmation of resilience could be found at the nightly kosher dinner buffet lit by a cluster of chandeliers.
In the mind’s eye of her granddaughter, Shirley was a housewife seeking a clarifying mountain breeze for a brain humming with McCarthy-era paranoia. She was also Cherie Dre, an elusive showgirl who spent her summers at The Concord’s Imperial Room entertaining dinner guests with sensual cabaret acts. According to secondhand accounts from family members, Shirley was likely living with undiagnosed bipolar disorder or paranoid schizophrenia, with Cherie Dre being her alter ego.
Sacha’s studio showing at BAC was the first time I met Shirley and Cherie Dre. With fine manipulations of the brow, slight shifts of weight in the feet, and carriage of the shoulders, Sacha is an embodied dimmer switch who fluidly oscillates between the physicalities and timbres of two women she knows so deeply yet incompletely. One moment, she is Shirley, who gives a glowing review of The Concord’s five-star amenities as if you’re sitting across from her at the dining room table. In the next instant, Cherie Dre trails in like a feather boa: “Come on in, meet the girls,” she announces in a husky, flirtatious drawl as she leans her back against an invisible vanity table.
Sacha, Shirley, and Cherie Dre are knitted together like fascia.
As I flip through the pages of the Borscht Belt book, I notice the stark contrasts in landscape documented by the photographs: A 1950’s advertisement, in its highly saturated optimism, features smiling tan people leisurely congregating by the poolside. A photograph taken in the 2000’s depicts that same pool abandoned and crumbling at its edges, covered in carpets of moss. Sacha wonders out loud what Shirley may have been up to during those luxurious summers at The Concord, as if placing a transparency of the ad over the image of contemporary decay. Together, we process the phenomenon of vacation as it relates to trauma, the false dichotomy between reality and delusion, past and present, grief and closure.
Sacha’s tetherdness to Shirley and Cherie Dre is tabanca as I understand it: the practice of learning to love through the prism of loss. It is a lesson passed down like a matrilineal heirloom. A hasty distillation of Cherie Dre could cast her existence as the manifestation of Shirley’s undiagnosed mental illness. I think a more tender interpretation can acknowledge this narrative while holding space for contradicting truths, more expansive interpretations of reality. After all, what is a delusion if it is someone you know by their first name?
As Director of Programming at Abrons Arts Center/Henry Street Settlement, Ali Rosa-Salas develops the Center’s live programming and exhibitions with Artistic Director Craig Peterson. As an independent curator, she has produced visual art exhibitions, performances, and public programs with AFROPUNK, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, Danspace Project, Knockdown Center, MoCADA, Weeksville Heritage Center, and more. She has also organized discursive events as an Alumnae Fellow at the Barnard Center for Research on Women and as the Associate Curator of the 2017 American Realness Festival. She graduated from Barnard with a B.A. in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, with interdisciplinary concentrations in Dance and Race/Ethnic Studies and has an M.A. from the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance at Wesleyan University. In addition to her role at Abrons, Ali supports electronic music DJs and producers through her work with Discwoman.
Jun 21, 2018
From inverting the keyboard keys to questioning the sound of a rectangle to combining poetry and numerology with jazz, Tarek Yamani maneuvers his creative process in many atypical ways.
As his life has unfolded in the war torn and unpredictable city of Beirut, his music has come to hold its share of surprises. It’s not unlikely for Tarek to create a composition today for a jazz trio, and tomorrow ornament it with an ensemble of Khaleeji (Arabian Gulf) percussion. As an artist, he has become as variable as his city of birth – a place that has equally embraced him and swept him aside.
If his fingers moved to the 88th key on his upright Belarus piano, he would be two inches from ringing a C note into his sleeping grandfather’s ear. If he swung in the opposite direction, he’d greet the neighbor through the entrance door. Such were the space limitations of Beirut during Tarek’s developing years. Within this compact site, Tarek found the elixir of creativity. The physical space became less of a factor in his process. He managed to turn his portable habitat into an autodidactic laboratory of experimentation where his extraordinary harmonic knowledge, rhythmic complexities, and Arabic heritage created a mélange that transcended the available resources.
Today, Tarek leaves his apartment in Harlem at 8:30am to take the train to 34th Street then walk his way to BAC on West 37th Street. He enters the 20,000 square foot complex, greets the receptionist, takes the elevator to the 4th floor. He sits to practice on a grand piano in Studio 4B, where the southern light strikes the unfamiliar 43 by 29 foot space through broad windows that reach the ceiling height of 17 feet 7 inches. On his right, the wall is at least 15 feet away. On his left, his reflection appears in the mirrors that span the eastern wall. In this space, Tarek is set to create a new work to be performed at the end of his four-week residency at BAC.
Jazz happens in small spaces that turn the audience into capsules of ecstasy that erupt after every solo. Some cats are fireflies, presenting the hope symbolized by a beam of light in deep darkness, while others are dragonflies, reflecting changes in perspective. It is a real-time improvised conversation that absorbs the space and molds sound to form unity. The sound waves reach the audience and instantly reflect back to the musicians, who react to that feedback. It is what they derive from to create.
In the first few days of his residency, Tarek asks for the heat to be turned up, but realizes it isn’t the room temperature that’s contributing to the cold in his bones: it’s his artistic nakedness. With every new work, the artist is new. The process feels unfamiliar, unaccomplished, unmotivated. In Studio 4B, he faces empty space to fill. It’s not a random algorithm that space can define a musician’s sound; the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright said, “when I see architecture that moves me, I hear music in my inner ear.” In this large space, Tarek married the firefly with the dragonfly to create one of his most intimate approaches to his music – a conversation for two. He is set to create a new duet to be performed with vibraphonist Sasha Berliner at the end of his four-week residency at BAC.
Darine Hotait is an American Lebanese fiction writer and film director. She has written and directed a number of narrative short films that have screened at numerous international film festivals, received multiple Best Fiction Film awards, and were broadcasted on Sundance TV, AMC Networks, BBC, and Shorts International. She is the recipient of the Literary Fellowship at New York Foundation for the Arts and the Arab Fund for Arts & Culture Cinema Grant. In 2016, she was nominated for the prestigious Goethe Award. Her short stories and stage plays have appeared in various publications in print and online as well as curated art exhibitions in Berlin, New York, Beirut, and London. She is the founder of Cinephilia Productions in New York, an incubator for the development of filmmakers from the MENA region. Her new film Like Salt will premiere in July 2018. She resides in New York City.
Jun 18, 2018
What does it mean for dance to be a site where “thingliness” is worked through, where the oscillation of the (black) body between thing, nothingness, and something else is bravely worked out as a kind of practice?
Ligia Lewis has completed two pieces of her BLUE, RED, WHITE trilogy, with Sorrow Swag (2014) and minor matter (2016) as the first two pieces of that trilogy. The Spring 2018 BAC residency is one of the first assemblies of a team of collaborators and the beginning of a rehearsal process for the third piece of the trilogy, Water Will (in Melody).
This rehearsal process includes Lewis, Berlin-based performer Makgosi Kgabi, and composer-performer Colin Self. As the final part of a trilogy, one might expect the process to have a sense of finality, perfect summation, or closure, but the creation process in the studio is dynamic, vibrant with many ideas, and with no sense of bringing thinking and action to a close.
At the work-in-progress showing in the John Cage and Merce Cunningham Studio, Lewis introduces the German fable of “the willful child” and the role that storytelling plays in the creation of this piece. She describes how these culturally familiar fables inform her process, how she tries to find deviancy within the text themselves and test the borders of language. The performers are on the floor, breathing audibly. Their movement is slow and sustained. The floor is treated as support, but the movers also pay attention to its characteristics, its texture, color, temperature, and scent. This is a practice that, during rehearsal, Lewis describes as experimenting with the senses through “emptying out subjectivity” and not giving primacy to “the body” as it is traditionally understood in dance. This practice stages what it means to access the risks and possibilities of sitting with nothingness, and exploring touch in the (impossible) community of things. This dance raises awareness of how material dance bodies relate to things, the ground, and the land.
Lewis’ practice of staying in the hold of nothingness, where blackness has often been relegated, runs the risk of reifying exactly what it challenges. Lewis takes up this risk and doesn’t run away from it, since, as performance theorist Fred Moten has argued in A Poetics of the Undercommons: “You think you have to say ‘No, I am not a thing.’ It’s a horrible experience to find that one is an object among other objects, a thing among other things...but the maneuver that requires you to claim humanness is horrible as well precisely because it may well replicate and entrench the disaster.” In that respect, Water Will challenges us to ask: how can what is deemed nothing be with nothing in dance? How does touch operate in that space, and how do we resist reducing touch to romance and subjectivity?
Water Will’s movement vocabulary is watery; gesture flows like waves, both gentle and turbulent. The successive and sequential undulations have no discernible initiation points; they do not end and they do not begin. However, the intended porousness of the theater landscape and the wavy flow of the choreographic vocabulary are not reducible to mere representations of how water moves. In other words, Lewis is not making the move championed by French ballet master Jean-Georges Noverre in his 18th Century dance treatises of creating sublime movement that mimics/simulates water. She is also not attached to a metaphorical or symbolic engagement with water. The question of water is fleshed out beyond our cultural associations with water (cleansing/catharsis). She is interested in water’s materiality in performance as it pertains to the water in us, which flows and pours out when we bleed, or cry, or make love.
The sounds created electronically by Colin Self merge with the vocal sounds made by Kgabi and Lewis, building to create a cacophonous sonic environment. Kgabi circles the stage, takes purposeful big steps. Her storytelling and operatic singing style is superimposed with Lewis’ speech that plays with alliteration. Speech breaks/brakes and the operatic turns into chesty growls, whistling, and unintelligible whispers. Self’s recorded sound summons Romantic German music’s utopianism. For Self, this is a process of calling up that tradition while trying to move away from some of its characteristics. The music in Water Will accentuates and names (il)legible the melodramatic form. During the post-showing conversation, Lewis articulates that these choices of experimentation with a variety of sonic arrangements occasion the breakdown of language, and open up ways to “other” the theater space itself, exposing its representational logics that mobilize the senses to titillate, in ways that further problematic racial fantasies. At a time where the “given” nature of ideas such as “the self,” “being,” “personhood,” and “the body” are under constant questioning and revision, there is much to be gleaned from this provocative practice of inhabiting nothingness, the void, and non-representationalism.
Mlondi Zondi is a PhD candidate in Performance Studies at Northwestern University with research interests in contemporary Black movement experiments, Black visual art, dramaturgy, and curatorial practice. Mlondi also makes performances and also co-edits an independent journal called Propter Nos. Prior to pursuing PhD study, Mlondi received an MFA in Dance from the University of California, Irvine and a BA (Hons) in Cultural Studies and Performance Studies from the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal. Mlondi has presented and participated in performance work by other art-makers at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, the Durban Art Gallery, the Jomba Contemporary Dance Experience (in South Africa), the Laguna Beach Museum, Gibney in New York, San Francisco MoMA, High Concept Labs in Chicago, and Joe Goode Annex in San Francisco. Recently, Mlondi served as production consultant for Victory Gardens Theater's production of Mies Julie in Chicago.
Jun 14, 2018
David and his collaborators workshopped three seemingly separate ideas – on intergeneration and women (with performances by Sarah Rudner, Jodi Melnick, and Victoria Roberts-Wierztbowski), cosmology, and race and American identity.
“Things Are Happening… but not as they appear… this is messy. Messy is necessary.”
The above quote is taken from my rehearsal notes from David Neumann/Advanced Beginner Group’s residency at BAC. David and his collaborators workshopped three seemingly separate ideas – on intergeneration and women (with performances by Sarah Rudner, Jodi Melnick, and Victoria Roberts-Wierztbowski), cosmology, and race and American identity.
In the time since the performance, I have come to realize how they are related – through the gravity of movement and politics, the science of race, the colonization of downtown New York dance, the search for concrete solutions in infinite space. These themes are messy. I love messy because by dealing with the mess we have to confront that which is dirty, chaotic, jumbled, often created by us. It is unpleasant and difficult because mess insists. It is no less tangible when we close the door to it. The muck and mire sits, waiting for us to return to that too-full closet, the one with the rotted floorboards and the rodent infestation… and that forgotten fragile heirloom from your mother’s great aunt. Be it through fate or circumstance, eventually, someone will have to clean that closet.
This is a most messy moment for America. Less a time of civil unrest, more so of civil insomnia. It is in this mess, a uniquely American one, that the seeds of David’s new work are being sewn. Spurred by a reaction to police violence, systemic racism, and white supremacy; inspired by Octavia Butler and Charlie Rose, by 23andMe, Charlottesville and The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond; examining tribalism and humanism by way of the family narrative. All themes are in dialogue with media, narratives, and movement vocabularies. The collection of ideas, sounds, and visuals are woven together, sometimes curvilinear, mostly at odd angles, to create the whole. There is no optimal. Instead, it is through the patchwork fiction and fact that we find truth.
I first met David Neumann in 2015 while he was touring his Bessie Award-winning work, I Understand Everything Better. On this piece, I wrote, “Neumann seeks balance along the continuum between existing and happening.” Three years later, I find that statement to be a bit too opaque for writing about a work that made me openly weep, but, while sitting in rehearsals during his BAC residency, I am once again struck by the way David activates liminal space in his process. The in-betweens have great resonance. Awkward pauses and shifts in perspective provide as much information as anything identified as an “event.” His work is a collection of moments, sometimes humorous, sometimes heartbreaking, but always fine-tuned. Still too opaque? Perhaps, but this new work is in what I call the “Something’s Coming” space. It is one of the most exciting periods because all things are possible, and his seed material is rich.
Q: What does it mean to hold yourself accountable as an American citizen? How do you unpack your privilege, as a cis white man, without engaging in polemics, proselytizing, or more privilege?
A: Among other things, collaborate with Marcella Murray. She is of African American southern roots and an East Coast liberal arts education. Use personal narratives, hers and yours. Your stories about family and race are your primary sources. Discuss isolation and integration. Be challenged by her questions. Decentralize your voice. Have a conversation.
Q: Devalue fearlessness. This is not a question, by the way.
A: Yes. Make this work because you are wary, frightened, uncertain. Allow your “interest to remain high, while your comprehension falls away.” Change perspectives, visually and audibly. This will be a key theme in the work: Chris (sets), Tei (sound), and Hyung Seok (video), will be essential in this regard. Things are happening, but not as they appear. As Marcella says, “get at the big and small by looking at it all.” It will be uncomfortable. America is experiencing extreme discomfort. It is disingenuous to ignore that.
Q: Who gets to define your work?
A: A lot of white men in Ted Talks. Let’s unpack that more. This is not a joke, by the way.
Final Thoughts (for now):
Not knowing what this work will become, I sense that it is turning a corner in how white artists, American artists, cis male artists interrogate their role in artmaking, and the repercussions of that work on the field and the world. It would be far easier for David Neumann/Advanced Beginner Group to make a work about any of number of interesting, less timely ideas. It is far more urgent to confront whiteness, and the policing, literally and figuratively, of blackness. It is incumbent on white artists to tackle these themes. There is no blackness without whiteness. Doing the work is a shared responsibility. During the BAC residency, I expected to encounter a rich process where each of the collaborators has a voice and the content is engaging. What has me invested is the desire to amplify the voices of black women and the willingness to make a work that tackles the responsibilities and burdens of being a citizen of the field and the world, in spite of the fear of getting it wrong. It is messy. It is necessary.
Melanie George is the Dramaturg and Audience Educator for Lumberyard Contemporary Performing Arts. As a dramaturg and performance coach, she has contributed to projects by Susan Marshall & Company, Raja Feather Kelly, Morgan Thorson, Alice Sheppard, and Caleb Teicher, among others. Prior to joining Lumberyard, she was the Dance Program Director at American University in Washington DC. As the founder of Jazz Is… Dance Project she has presented her research on jazz dance improvisation and pedagogy through the U.S., Canada, and Scotland. Her jazz choreography is regularly commissioned by colleges throughout the United States. Publications include Jazz Dance, Pop Culture, and the Music Video Era in Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches (University Press of Florida) and Imbed/In Bed: Two Perspectives on Dance and Collaboration for Working Together in Qualitative Research (Sense Publishers).
May 31, 2018
Watching Jimena Paz in performance drives me to tears. As I walk into the studio where the showing of her work-in-progress is taking place, I sit in my seat by Vicky Shick and Colleen Thomas and chat about life and dance and life in dance and about Jimena and how we’re “waiting” for the performance to begin...
while she is already onstage exposed in her nervous anticipation to begin performing “for us” and I suddenly realize that I’m already in it with her and that there is so much about what this work is doing that is being proposed right in this very charged moment of the intersection between what Jimena has been going through, in this very same room up until now, and the moment that we come to be let in as witnesses to her process.
It all seems very matter-of-fact yet it takes on a profound meaning and metaphor since we are coming into a room where the artist is simply being with us seemingly as she has been on her own during the process. In other words, there is no artifice, no representation of anything, just Jimena in a latent state of readying herself with an open and vulnerable presence, with eyes that do not look away but that reveal to us the risk and the fear and the courage of the performative act. This energy, this realness, these unassuming transparent choices make my heart feel more open, my eyes less in search of meaning, but opening into a peripheral seeing that senses and feels rather than just seeing the image in front.
This work asks for an empathetic viewing. Jimena is doing nothing more than taking us by the hand through the practices that she has been putting herself through during the process, a research of unearthing, hearing, seeing, understanding, and perhaps even reckoning with the memories in her body, her training, her culture, her dancing living body’s history. Living and dancing and learning in Argentina many years ago and then abruptly leaving all that behind, and from then on forever being a foreigner, an Other, going through Europe and then staying in New York.
Ver a Jimena en escena me hace llorar. No tiene que hacer nada más que estar ahí parada frente a nosotros, dejándose ser mirada mientras que se escucha una hermosa canción. Su cara tiene la mirada de alguien que está sintiendo mucho y me hace sentir case como que no debería estar mirándola, como que es demasiado íntimo este momento para ella y que nosotros como público deberíamos mirar para otro lado, pero sin embargo nos produce una especie de fascinación mirarla porque no hace nada más que estar ahí sintiendo algo que nosotros no podemos saber exactamente qué es, nos deja ahí mirándola sentir con total incertidumbre y a la vez con total certeza de que hay un mundo interno al ser humano al cual nunca tendremos acceso. Que siempre seremos extranjeros en la tierra del cuero del otro. Y sin embargo, me siento a la vez fuera de su mundo, de su cuerpo, y muy cerca porque hay también en ella una íntima invitación a vivir con ella su experiencia. Siento la distancia entre lo que ella está sintiendo y viviendo en escena y yo aquí desde el público tan desarraigado, desconectado de lo que viven los bailarines o actores en escena. El público somos como los extranjeros en el mundo de Jimena Paz…. Pero la canción me hace sentir a mí también y mucho! Reconozca el tipo de música, la voz de la cantante, me hace acordar de quién soy yo, de donde vengo. Quién es? Es Mercedes Sosa? Puede Ser… creo que reconozco la voz aunque no conozco la letra:
“Más allá de cualquier zona prohibida
hay un espejo para nuestra propia transparencia.” *
Lágrimas y lágrimas y muchas… ya no puedo seguir tomando apuntes de lo que voy a decir cuando tenga que escribir sobre este momento, sobre “la obra”; ya no puedo seguir mirando desde la cabeza, ahora es mi corazón latinoamericano el que mira con mis ojos de coreógrafa neoyorquina… Ya me siento más cercana a Jimena, más cercana a ella que al público, ya son ellos los extranjeros y ella y yo las del Sur.
As I cry and feel so much empathy for her standing there feeling her foreignness as this song in Spanish is playing I wonder if the audience feels anything at all. I wonder if they feel touched by her in a universal human way even though they might not understand and get the cultural reference, even though it doesn’t make them cry…? I wonder if they just engage in it in an intellectual way, thinking about what this might mean, and what it means to be sitting watching someone feel something onstage, especially a dancer who is not yet moving. I wonder if this makes them feel like foreigners in their own land. I wonder why so much fear and discomfort comes from not understanding another language, another way of feeling and being.
All of a sudden, the repetitive song is no longer playing and Jimena has moved towards the corner of the space with her arms open as she turns with a ritualistic, meditative quality that is clearing, cleansing, healing after all that crying and feeling and nostalgic remembering of a distant land and peoples. Her turning washes the tears from my face and opens my eyes to a wider seeing. Now I can see her feet and feel the reality of this moment passing and her feet feeling this ground that we’re all sharing and not that ground where they came from; but those feet are performing a very specific pattern, technique that they learned from one of her influential teachers in Argentina (this I know from conversations during her process), a practice that she was deeply invested in learning and that got abruptly interrupted by her leaving the country but that still remains in her body. She’s been coming back to this practice of turning during her process and she’s sharing it with us now and it grounds us in this moment, reminding us of the ephemeral nature of life passing by moment to moment, turn after turn. It is fleeting but also very grounding as we feel her feet turning and feeling the ground as we feel this ground. And with this act Jimena connects us with the time when her feet learned this practice years ago in Argentina. And then her fingers, still outstretched, begin to slightly brush up against each wall and it’s so satisfying… her fingers feel like the antennas of her body keeping her safe from collision, from getting too close, and at the same time kind of plugging her into the corner grounding her whole body and movement not only to the floor but to the walls as well.
No pares, quiero estar acá para siempre, viéndote girar, sintiendo la calma y lo sanador que se siente compartir esto contigo. La posibilidad de suspender el tiempo, suspender el cuerpo en giro, la posibilidad de colapsar aquellos giros de hiciste en Argentina y estos que estás haciendo acá. Y me pregunto si este proceso, este “ejercicio” de volver a las prácticas y a la historia de/en tu cuerpo no tiene en sí un deseo de conectar, unir, sanar las distancia geográfica, temporal, cultural y por lo tanto emocional de todos los giros y pasos y saltos y danzas de allá y de acá. De cocer, tejer, unir, curar de algún modo esa constante sensación en el cuerpo de vivir desarraigado, de ser un “inmigrante”, un cuerpo inmigrante que vivió un exilio de sus danzas allá a otras danzas acá.
Pero no es para siempre, todo cambia (como dice la canción de Mercedes Sosa), y Jimena ya no puede girar más. El cuerpo se cansa y envejece y no aguanta más, es una simple y necesaria realidad pero me da tristeza. Algo en la honestidad de Jimena en escena, en como cambia de una acción a la otra da mucha ternura, debe ser su vulnerabilidad. Su cuerpo es fuerte, hay una fuerza interna y una capacidad y maestría, años de experiencia, de sofisticación, técnica y acceso al cuerpo que se nota en los pequeños detalles de su movimiento, incluso en la claridad de sus transiciones.
Vuelve la música y esta vez es una Murga y esa fuerza interior que se intuía en ella se vuelve externa y una vez más siento en ella una necesidad de volver, de entender, de tocar, de sentir su tierra, sus músicas, sus danzas para deshacer esa distancia, ese desarraigo que tanto nos parte el corazón a los inmigrantes. De repente la vemos Bailar con mayúscula, saltando, moviendo las caderas, disfrutando y trabajando duro a la misma vez; el trabajo del bailarín, el trabajo de la liberación y del empoderamiento. El agotamiento. Y ahora no veo tanto a Jimena bailando su Murga Argentina sino que veo un manifiesto feminista, una mujer latina bailando su manifiesto. Y otra vez las lágrimas…
Now the music is off again and Jimena, exhausted, lies face down and begins to speak into the ground in Spanish. She speaks about a memory with her grandma. Again I wonder how the others feel, how they feel about her speaking Spanish. Once again I feel like an accomplice to her Latinidad, her Otherness, and I wonder how the non-Spanish speaking audience members feel. I know she wanted this written partly in Spanish or translated into Spanish, so I know that there is a political intention of claiming our language in this imperialist xenophobic first world country, but it feels like there’s more to it; perhaps simply letting herself be vulnerable and transparent enough to be the body from which Spanish flows out of instinct, the body with memories in Spanish.
I ask Vicky and Colleen after it ends if they felt alienated by not understanding and they say that they didn’t, they felt the feeling that emanated from her speaking and they “listened” as they “see or listen” to a dance. Perhaps that is what feels most feminist and feminine to me about Jimena’s work and performative body and presence; that she calls for a different kind of understanding, a heart-body understanding, a peripheral-seeing understanding, a felt understanding, an understanding of our feet in the ground and a desire to connect all of the grounds, especially those from which we have been uprooted.
*Excerpt from Arbol de Diana by Alejandra Pizarnik, Argentine poet whose poems are known for their stifling sense of exile and rootlessness.
luciana achugar is a Brooklyn-based choreographer from Uruguay who grew as an artist in close dialogue with the NY and Uruguayan contemporary dance communities. She has been making work in NYC and Uruguay independently and collaboratively since 1999. Her work is concerned with the post-colonial world, searching for an undoing of current power structures from the inside out. She is a two-time Bessie Award recipient and was nominated for a 2016 Outstanding Production Bessie for her work An Epilogue for OTRO TEATRO: True Love. Other accolades include a Guggenheim Fellowship, Creative Capital Grant, Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grant, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council President’s Award, and the 2017 Alpert Award. In 2015, OTRO TEATRO was named “Best Touring Work” by Austin’s Critics Circle. She is currently a 2017-18 Brooklyn Arts Exchange Artist in Residency and will continue on for a second year developing her current project: Brujx.
Mar 8, 2018
How do we live? How do we go through any given day, whether we are a brain surgeon scheduled to confront a confounding cerebellum, or a marine entering strange new territory, or an old woman waking, taking the first breath that she notices, breathing in, breathing out.
Is breathing a repetition or a continuation of something once begun? Is each step the same step again, or is walking always new, each step like no other before it? These are George Stamos’ questions, presented at the opening of a piece he calls Recurrent Measures, performed in November 2017 at Baryshnikov Arts Center. If his performance was an answer, then the answer offered by the dancers was less prescriptive than descriptive: the answer is in the question that you, the onlooker, feel arise in your own physical and emotional response.
An archeologist of the event might note Stamos’ mentorship under Sara Shelton Mann, the dancer and healer George met in Novia Scotia, his home as a boy. One might notice, too, that his mom taught him the dances of the 1950s and 60s as well, skills he took to the clubs in the 80s and 90s, skills that he never really lost, that, to cite his title, are recurrent in this piece, recurrent from Latin, meaning “running back;” there is a lot to do with currents and tides in the piece, or so it feels to me. When I spoke with him about his mentors, George acknowledged as well a great debt to Zab Maboungou, the Franco-Congolese pioneer of African dance in Canada, with whom he has studied and collaborated, and who, it feels important to note, is not only a dancer (and founder and director of Montreal-based Compagnie Danse Nyata Nyata) but a philosophy professor. Physical philosophizing, thinking with the mind-of-your-body, or whatever it is that allows the body to know and see and feel the world: this is where Stamos took us at BAC, to what the Black Mountain College professor Charles Olsen might have called an experiment in group proprioception, energy transferences within (in this case) a room.
It was a very personal performance, personal for Stamos, I would imagine, and perhaps similarly for his two primary collaborators, Stacy Désilier and Chi Long, both Montreal-based dancers. But what I mean is that I found it personal as well for the audience, and when I describe it (or attempt to) it is as if I am describing a dream, of bodies in motion, bodies creating a kind of gravity. The piece began with Stamos spinning. I should say that I had previously read about his experiments with spinning, but nothing prepared me for experiencing the spinning itself. He stands on a small round wooden platform, something like a lazy Susan that would serve food by spinning at the center of a dinner table, though sturdy, compact, flattened. Then, in a beautifully simple boiled-down motion, he spins, inertia coming from small slight moves in his posture, a kind of bodily inhale and exhale.
One spectacular aspect of this particular spinning is that there seems to be so much to say about it, but that, at the same time, the spinning itself sums all that up, makes description moot. Immediately you sense a force, a weight, a seriousness in what manages to stay light and open. Immediately you feel the rhythm. You fall into its tidal flow, a back and forth, rather than the one-way spin of, say, a pirouette. You are drawn to the spinning as if you were tides influenced by the moon.
Stamos spun for an introductory few minutes and then stopped abruptly and walked across the room to stand next to another of the four walls. He began spinning again, this time adjacent to another dancer, Archie Burnett, best known for his appearance in Paris is Burning. They spun, next to the wall, in unison — or a kind of unison, the right hands spinning them one way, the left another. Watching the two spin, you could consider the different ways energy is transmitted between people. How does one movement affect another?
Meanwhile, across the room, on another wall, Chi Long and Stacy Désilier stepped onto their revolving floor disks, and they too began to spin. Similarly, they used the wall to push off, to stop for a breath in between spinning one way and then the other. As they touched the wall — slapped at it, pushed off of it, or sometimes seemed to pull from it — questions arose about the boundaries of the performance, and boundaries in general. The wall in this case wasn’t a point of constriction but an object that powered the dancers, maybe less like a wall and more like a membrane that allowed interaction with a larger space outside. If you let yourself, you could begin to think about quantum physics and alternate nodes of gravities, but the dancing never allowed you to drift too far from the spinning at hand. George moved to the wall with Désilier and Long, where he continued to spin, where they seemed to synch in three parts — not by matching each other but physically harmonizing, small differences that brought them together, bodily counterpoints.
Suddenly, Burnett walked through the center of the room, Voguing: something he not only made famous but invented. Watching him was like watching an asteroid or a shooting star spin through the solar system powered by the other dancers; wondrous joy. He moved to the wall, stepped on a disk, and began to spin again.
By this time, we in the audience were relaxed enough to move toward the dancers, to experience them like living sculptures, and, in so doing, we experienced two more modes. Again, the rhythm shifted. We watched as Stamos, spinning alongside Long and Désilier, left his platform. He slowly moved past the two dancers who continued to spin off the wall, back and forth. As each dancer spun, he came between them and the wall. As he moved slowly past, carefully observing the surface of the wall, shading it, he managed to make it feel more permeable. In these moments, he became the wall, so that at times they pushed off of him. He was in the gears of their spinning, and in a way he was the gear, their hands pressing off of him, as well as the wall, their power source. As I thought about this for days afterward, I began to remember a trip I took years ago to the Grand Coulee Dam, in the Columbia River, on of the largest hydro electric dams in the world. An engineer took me down into the bottom of the dam, down to where the turbines were spinning, pushed by the tremendous force of the mountain-born river. The river’s power was deafening; we wore earplugs. The force of the river shook the room like a constant earthquake. I put my hand to the wall of the turbine chambers and felt the power of the river in my chest.
The playful denouement came when the dancers met in the center of the room, a spatial surprise for us observers who had spent so much time considering the walls. Long and Désilier spun adjacent, collaborated in spinning, entwined. Stamos joined in, and Burnett seemed to playfully scold, stomping his boot, the great interplanetary force. This little set scene was charged by the spinning that had happened before and that would continue as the performance came to an end, as Long and Désilier held still; as Stamos at last did too. You left with the spinning in your ears, with the pulse of the performance in your chest and heart. Maybe an answer to the questions that Stamos offered has to do with what rhythm is. The word comes from rhuthmos, a Greek term for flow. It would seem to have to do with the repetition of beats, but at its origin it is about movement and fluids. You can think of breathing as taking breaths, one at a time, or you can think of breathing as participating in the air, in the currents that make up the atmosphere, the skies and the oceans through which our bodies sail every day.
Robert Sullivan is the author of numerous books, including The Meadowlands, My American Revolution, A Whale Hunt and Rats. A contributing editor at A Public Space and Vogue, he also teaches science at Hunter College in New York City, and writing at the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College in Vermont. His writing has appeared in many magazines, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, and New York. He lives in New York City.
Mar 1, 2018
Since its formation in 2009, The Mad Ones has developed a rigorous, idiosyncratic process for conceiving, generating, and shaping its plays, one that blurs the rigid lines of definition between contributing artists and privileges collaboration and consensus over traditional notions of hierarchical work structures and individual authorship.
We are an ensemble of hybrid play-makers. Performer-writers Marc Bovino, Joe Curnutte, Michael Dalto, and Stephanie Wright Thompson and director-writer Lila Neugebauer collectively serve as co-artistic directors. The company also includes designers Ásta Bennie Hostetter (costumes), Mike Inwood (lights), Laura Jellinek (sets), and Stowe Nelson (sound), and me, the house dramaturg. Together, we create richly detailed, character-driven play-worlds that playfully appropriate and reinterpret genre, delight in moments of theatrical surprise, and examine and illuminate American nostalgia.
(As an aside, I often find myself toggling between pronoun-orientations when talking about the company and its work - we/us, they/them - and these reflections on the BAC residency will probably reflect that.)
The Mad Ones used their November BAC residency to do early conceptual development work on a new commission for Ars Nova. Prior to arriving at BAC, they had winnowed down a shortlist of potential play-kernels (among the discarded contenders: a forensic lab procedural, an emergency room blood farce, a backstage drama about the Booth brothers performing Hamlet) to identify the organizing principle for our latest play: a focus group. Marc, Joe, Michael, Stephanie, and Lila arrived at BAC with scores of questions. Some were essentially dramatic in nature: What is being studied, tested, or examined? Who commissioned and organized the focus group? Is this a slick, polished, professional operation, or more makeshift, shaggy, ragtag? Where and when and who might these characters be? Other questions engaged the realm of the theatrical: What shape, ultimately, might this play take? Will it unfold in a succession of scenes or seamlessly in real time? Will the set encompass a single location or many? What moments of surprising athleticism, magic, or theatrical disruption might the play contain? Others were more conceptual and thematic: what anxieties, preoccupations, values, or assumptions about American life might the focus group illuminate, engage, critique, subvert?
During my three visits with The Mad Ones during their residency, the core company and intern Regan Moro were gathered around tables engaged in conversation ranging from nostalgic to speculative and from playfully imaginative to critically analytic. Michael Dalto gave a lengthy presentation on the political and cultural trajectory of the 1990s. Joe Curnutte talked us through the idiosyncratic filming of a movie called Timecode (Google it). The ensemble prepared and shared written responses to assignments designed to generate possibilities and alternatingly widen and tighten the focus on our collective imaginings. These opened up into long, digressive conversations touching on, among other things, the violence of late-stage capitalism, confirmation bias, the mingling in marriage of sexual and financial intimacy, and whether and how anxieties about personal safety on a large scale (related to, say, national security or climate change) express themselves in our relationships to consumer products like dish soap.
One challenge of a communal approach to play-making can be the risk of diffusion of the work. But over time The Mad Ones have built a practice that allows them to maintain a collaborative process without sacrificing conceptual or aesthetic rigor. Perhaps even more remarkably, they’ve done so while defining a distinct, unified voice. By filtering the developing work through a multiplicity of perspectives, ideas are tempered, tested, and refined. Dramatic worlds and theatrical canvasses are brought into sharper focus. Characters and relationships are conjured into vivid life. Through this iterative conversation, the work accumulates the detail, texture, and multivalence that have become the company’s signature.
It is a process that sacrifices efficiency in favor of the richness and multiplicity that arises from communal effort. This kind of collaboration requires patience, commitment, accountability, and a foundation of deep mutual respect for one another and for the process. It pays off in the fullness and dimension of the completed work, but it’s slow in the making; perhaps more than anything, it requires time. Workshops like the BAC residency become exercises in practicing democracy. The Mad Ones finished the residency, just as they began it, with questions. But new questions, different questions, more refined, more specific. (For instance: Does the play take place in 1999, or 2020? How directly or elliptically will the subject of the focus group reveal itself to an audience?) They have isolated particular fields for inquiry and exploration and have charted an agenda for their next workshop, coming up in the spring.
Visit The Mad Ones' Residency Page
Sarah Lunnie is the literary director at Playwrights Horizons and the house dramaturg with The Mad Ones. Production dramaturgy: The Mad Ones’ Miles for Mary (The Bushwick Starr, Playwrights Horizons), The Essential Straight and Narrow (New Ohio) and Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War (The Brick/Ars Nova/New Ohio); Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House Part 2 (Broadway), The Christians (Humana Festival, Playwrights), nightnight and Death Tax (Humana); and Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me (Clubbed Thumb), among others. She was previously the literary manager at Actors Theatre of Louisville, where she was involved with curating and developing new work for the Humana Festival of New American Plays.
Jan 23, 2018
Slot machines make noise. Emit light. They can also wreck lives on a slower simmer than opiates, speed, or cards. The cheap trance they offer is both throwback and harbinger.
In Cold Enough To Levitate, Christina Masciotti—herself both American language wrangler in a long humanist tradition and forward-looking manipulator of material elements towards a naturalism of reverberation—brings her sniper-like attention to the effects of this cheap trance on Frankie, a war veteran, cop, and accused embezzler, as a window onto a vast societal ping pong of malady and self-medication.
At the beginning of her BAC residency process, Masciotti and her director Mallory Catlett, along with their light and sound designers, were experimenting with deconstructing the slot machine’s functions as a means of washing play and audience in its staccato rhythms as mood stabilizer and saboteur. By the time I visited the rehearsal room in mid November, a few days before their showings, her focus had shifted to Frankie—constructing in the sharpest of detail the human being in front of the machine, the man at the center of the play.
Walking into the rehearsal room mid-scene, I found Frankie facing a machine that would be made manifest in light and sound, talking to himself, through himself, his lawyer George behind him, shuttling between George’s questions and the machine’s lull.
One quick, quiet beat after the scene breaks Masciotti looks to the actor playing Frankie, and says simply “guiltish.” He nods, understanding. I am confused.
They work through a few scenes again. “I’d feel less guiltyish if it didn’t affect them so much,” Frankie says of his parents in response to a question from George. Suddenly I understand too. The actor had accidentally changed Masciotti’s phrasing with a “y” that belonged to the word in the wider world, but not in the vocabulary of the man who had presented himself in her mind as protagonist.
Again the scene breaks. A beat. Again Masciotti says “guiltish.” The actor takes a moment, nods. The next time through he gets it right.
What differentiates Masciotti from the majority of language-attuned American playwrights is that fundamentalist precision, underpinned by an unabashed attentiveness to particularity of place; what differentiates her from almost every playwright attentive to particularity of place is that she is most often focused on places (in this case her native Reading, Pennsylvania) that don’t frequently command art’s attention; what differentiates her from the few living playwrights sharing both of these attentions is that her attention to individuality is equally sharp. She writes people, not functions in plot, but discreet individual human beings shaped not only by the sounds of place, but by their own idiosyncratic circumstances, genetics, fascinations, and tics. Thick, textured American people who do boring, shitty, regular things. Masciotti’s characters don’t live in Brooklyn or Portland, or any of the vaguely interchangeable revitalized industrial districts or exurban clumps of capital threaded between them.
Roughly a century ago, in 1921, Luigi Pirandello had this audacious formalist idea to put six characters in search of an author onstage, to make the major conceit of an evening at the theater the suggestion that the characters themselves had lives, that all they really needed was a medium, a channeling ringmaster with an eye towards coherence to arrange them into circumstance. Pirandello raised the curtain on the playwright’s mind; in so doing he also exposed the confessional booth in which character and playwright had been communing secretly at least since Ibsen and Chekhov began attempting to put life as they saw it on stage.
Playwrights have been figuring out how to negotiate the demands of their characters and the awareness of their audiences ever since. In contemporary American theater, from the most radical formal experimentation to the tightest Broadway cause and effect dramas, we are for the most part awash in authors ignoring characters. For some, it is a point of pride; for others there is simply little recognition that characters are people too.
And then we have Christina Masciotti.
When I see her work I have the sense that she waits with ceaseless patience in bus stations and doctor’s offices and anterooms of bureaucracy for anyone with a sharp, particular voice, a small story not being told, a pay grade lower than the typical theatergoer, and too many mounting concerns to recognize their place in a larger system.
The way Frankie drew her back from sound and light is not surprising. It separates Masciotti as much from Pirandello as from her peers. Without full people along for the ride, audience has little to take away from formalist adventure. If the particular is the pathway to the universal, Christina Masciotti is the medium of which the contemporary American character is most in need.
Ben Gassman is a playwright from Queens. Sam's Tea Shack, a piece he co-created with Sam Soghor and Meghan Finn, was presented this past fall by The Tank in NYC and by Barker Room Rep in Los Angeles. Gassman, along with director Brandon Woolf, is a 2018 Artist-In-Residence at the Performance Project of University Settlement, where they will be launching their new collaborative endeavor, Culinary Theater. bengassman.com.
Dec 21, 2017
A conference room. Tables, chairs. People focused on their computers working in silence. One of them stares away from the table, the computer, the room, at an indefinite point. At the back of the stage, a projection: “What makes a human being? Dignity.”
To the spectator the answer is not only obvious, but reassuring. She recognizes herself in it. It is four hours until a group of coworkers give their presentation in the context of an international conference on human rights. While the characters struggle with nerves, personal situations, and surprising revelations, both characters and spectators become aware of practices with consequences that, inadvertently but blatantly, contradict what they think they believe.
The apparent simplicity of the theatricality on stage, like the apparent simplicity of the initial question, eases the spectator into sympathy with the characters who, involuntarily, trigger laughter. Laughter, skillfully used by Compañía Bonobo, wakes us up. With nothing changing on stage, the neutral space of a conference room emerges as a microcosm that condenses and confronts the spectator with all the layers of a central question: what is dignity?
In this piece, the members of Compañía Bonobo continue their inquiry into the complex phenomenon of violence and the difficulty of identifying it when it happens in a friendly environment where there is no apparent discrimination, injustice, or inequality. What is our role in the violence perpetrated upon another? And who is ‘the other’? How is ‘the other’ constructed? With these questions in the background (like the question that the spectator reads at the beginning of the play), Compañía Bonobo’s crew goes through a creative process in which improvisation plays a key role. What they do seems impossible: turning questions into actions, theory into practice. The bodies on stage enter a silent dialogue to explore relations that are beyond language: context, intentionality, and individual histories color human encounters that, once translated into a staged scene, appear to be simple daily situations. Making visible these invisible relations is Compañía Bonobo’s line of work.
By revealing the invisible in our daily interactions, Compañía Bonobo members explore the light and shadows of human beings and their communities. In the conference room where there is a sharp contrast between light and shadow, the coworkers move between the bright light of the projector and the dark, unilluminated areas of the room. We either see them clearly in bright light as they are, or we see only their silhouette in the shadows. Or is it the other way around? Do we see them as they are in the shadows, but only see their silhouettes when they present themselves in bright light? The question of who the characters are turns into the question of who we are, and who we would be in this situation. The just and fair one? The one with strong judgment? The one with a secret past? The good-hearted emotional one? There is no easy answer; the spectator refuses to identify with any of them and is simultaneously able to identify with all of them.
With simplicity, empathy, and fine humor, Compañía Bonobo turns our attention to the invisible meaningful details of our everyday lives that perpetuate violence. Perhaps, after all, laughter is the beginning to the end of violence.
Teresa Casas Hernández, originally from Manresa (Barcelona), is a New York based actress and PhD student in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research for which she was awarded the fellowship La Caixa and The Onassis Foundation Fellowship in Ancient Greek Studies. With the image of “the world is theater” she is working on the intersection between philosophy and theater with the aim to bring into philosophical discussion elements that have been banned from philosophy since Plato banned the poets from the idea city—vividness, evanescence, co-presence. As a performer, she has worked with Beth Moysés and Tatsumi Orimot.
Dec 20, 2017
Prumsodun Ok is a contemporary Cambodian-American artist who works primarily in dance, theater, and film. He was born in Long Beach, California to parents who were refugees from Cambodia. Two years ago, he moved to Cambodia to continue his dance career and to create the first Cambodian gay dance company.
This article is based on an interview with Prum while he was in residence at Baryshnikov Arts Center. He is an extraordinary dancer who began studying Cambodian classical dance when he was 16.
Rachel Cooper: How did you get started in Cambodian dance?
Prumsodun Ok: I have always loved dance. When I was 4 years old in Long Beach, California, I’d imitate dance from the local TV. The dancers were from the local Cambodian temple, not professional dancers; in fact they were pretty bad. They wore tinsel instead of flower garlands and cardboard crowns with sequins sewn on. Still there is something about art when the spirit is strong, even when it’s not done well. At four years old I felt that spirit of Cambodian dance in me. It wasn’t until I was 16 that I found a teacher. After having watched my sister’s classes, I finally asked if I could learn too, and I became quite serious about dance throughout high school.
RC: How did your family react to your decision to go into the arts as a profession?
PO: My parents were from the countryside and survived the genocide, the refugee camps, and now they live in inner city Long Beach. For them, life was a culture of survival and they were afraid to see me going into art. They even threatened to disown me, but I stayed with it. However, when I started my career in the arts it was not for dance. I went to San Francisco to study experimental filmmaking. The way we were taught Cambodian dance in the United States was not as an art form but as a way of learning your culture, and culture is associated with ethnic identity as opposed to philosophy or your approach to life. One day in 2008 I was editing in a tiny dark basement. It was 6:00 am, I hadn’t slept, and I thought: people are waking up, or making love, or getting their kids ready for school and I am here alone in a basement trying to find light. It was lonely and I missed the physicality of dance where I don’t need anything to make dance other than my body. I decided that was what I would do and returned to Los Angeles and from then on it was making dance, making dance, making dance. I am an interdisciplinary artist: I write, I design sound, I work with video. But really, the art form that informs me the most and gives spirit to my soul is classical Cambodian dance.
RC: Do you see your work as traditional or experimental? How do you think these terms apply to you?
PO: I have had the opportunity to perform on various experimental dance stages that my peers trained in classical and experimental dance have never had. The words that inspire me are from the French surreal poet René Daumal, using a term that I continue to contemplate: “the avant-garde in antiquity.” I’ve contemplated that term for a long time. I’m so over this idea of “new for new sake.” For me, it’s something I got from my filmmaking experience where my professor said, “experimental is not a product, experimental is an approach.” I can perform the oldest Cambodian classical dance and find a way to make it fresh, or bend and break within it, as long as the intention is clear.
For me there are three principles I try to follow. Something is experimental when: 1) it pushes you 2) it pushes the art form 3) it pushes society. I strive to hit all three in my work, no matter what I make. Whether it’s making a dance that uses traditional music, costuming, or dance that depicts gay love or marriage, as long as I’m pushing myself in these three ways I know I’m being true to myself and to my art. I actually don’t care what people call me, traditional or contemporary, as long as they see the value of what I do. I’m able to speak both languages.
RC: How does ethnic identity play into your understanding of yourself and your work?
PO: When I was young, being Cambodian-American was a struggle: you are never Cambodian enough nor American enough, you are pulled left and right at the same time. Now I feel being Cambodian-American is being a center, able to pool approaches, histories, mediums, and cultures, all unto myself. That richness is a source of strength and possibility that others don’t have.
RC: Is your work considered contemporary now that you are based in Cambodia?
PO: Living in Asia I sometimes feel there is a neocolonial reign that some of the cool contemporary curators think they have. For me, contemporary just means “of this time.” Time is layered: it is past, present, and future, all layered into now. I have my qualms with people who enforce what things should mean instead of being open to the spirit of the artist. When you start to label work as contemporary or traditional too narrowly, you shut things down and it can take on an oppressive nature.
RC: Can you say more about how these ideas of traditional and contemporary co-exist?
PO: This idea of the “avant-garde of antiquity” intrigues me. It's the idea of edge. Even if you are dancing a very old dance, how do you add the edge? The reason these dance forms are alive and passed on from one generation to the next is that they have a core; each generation must find the edge to sharpen, refine, push, and transform it. As someone who carries that tradition, I need to maintain that core, that spirit, that philosophy, that essence which is embodied in the form, but then push it out, sharpen an edge.
RC: Why did you decide to move to Cambodia?
PO: I initially went to Cambodia to develop my project called Beloved. I thought I would just be there one year. I asked my friend to help me find young gay men who wanted to learn classical dance and were open to trying new things. I thought he would find me probably one or two but when we had the auditions there were twelve who showed up, between the ages of 17 and 30. After a month and a half of training these young men in my living room, I looked at them and thought this looks like a real dance company; Cambodia’s first gay dance company just formed in my living room. It’s been a journey ever since. After my TED Talk the online comments in Cambodian were very interesting. One stated, “I don’t think there should be third or fourth genders, but I can see that Prum is sharing our culture with the world and this is an effort where we should all support each other in solidarity.” It’s touching this real world. When I was performing in Los Angeles in experimental spaces it was too safe, it left up the walls of an elitist space. I feel very thankful that I see my work now as touching society; I think it is the role of artists to transform society. Over half of Cambodia is under 35 years old. People are looking for things that are new, that are original.
RC: What has the reception been to your work in Cambodia?
PO: Our company had its debut in Cambodia a year ago. We opened the theater an hour before the concert was to start and within minutes it was totally packed. The makeup of the audience really mirrored the population of Phnom Penh. Lots of young people, students, artists, dancers, non-artists, 18-25 year olds, expats, older Cambodians, and parents of my dancers. The parents were seeing their kids on stage for the first time. Since this is a gay dance company it makes a point. I’m speaking to real people - grandma, grandpa, parents, kids - everyone is there. In Los Angeles, it was just artists’ friends and other artists. I was recently featured in a broadcast video as part of an anti-rape campaign in Cambodia. I was with major popular celebrities from film and music. I’m a dancer and that line between the popular sphere and the fine arts context was blurred, which I think is good. Now after my TED Talk my landlord has a new respect for me. He said, “Wow, I saw your TED Talk and I turned on the TV and I saw you on the news today.” This, from an elderly Cambodian person. I feel my art helps to reach and transform society broadly and it is exactly what I want to do.
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Rachel Cooper has extensive experience in the presentation of traditional and contemporary Asian and Asian-American performing arts and the development of interdisciplinary programs. She has presented over 500 performances at the Asia Society and venues across the U.S. She has worked with Cambodian artists since 1995 and co-organized Dance the Spirit of Cambodia. She serves on the Board of Cambodian Living Arts. Cooper was awarded a Best Practices Award for Cultural Diplomacy, Manhattan Borough Award for excellence in preserving the diversity of New York, Dawson Award for Sustained Achievement in Performing Arts Programmatic Excellence from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP), and an Isadora Duncan Award for the Festival of Indonesia. She did her graduate work in Dance Ethnology at UCLA. Ms. Cooper is the co-founder and former director of the San Francisco-based Balinese music and dance company, Gamelan Sekar Jaya, which has been presenting the arts of Bali in the United States since 1979.
Aug 3, 2017
“I am here to remind you… I am here to remind yoooou,” sings Dorothée Munyaneza as she balances the entire weight of her body on her heels before stumbling onto the floor with the microphone stand.
There on the floor, through heavy breaths, she sings again, “I am here to remind you…” What Munyaneza wants to remind us of are the narratives of children born from rape during episodes of war and genocide, in areas of the world experiencing extreme bouts of violence, including in her home country of Rwanda. In Unwanted, Dorothée explores rape used during war and conflict as a “weapon of mass destruction” that not only mutilates women’s bodies, but creates generational damage as women struggle with both disease and children who come to know that they are the children of rape, but do not know their fathers.
Dorothée Munyaneza, originally from Rwanda and now based in Marseilles, France, is an internationally-acclaimed singer, dancer, percussionist, and actress whose practice explores social integration through dance. While her primary work explores her experience during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the nuance of her practice emphasizes that she is not only interested in retelling the trauma, but in interrogating what trauma we retell, how, and by whom. Holland Andrews, an invited collaborator, is a Portland-based performer who blends live looped operatic vocals and clarinet to weave layered sonic experiences that skirt neat categorization. I met both artists when we were all residents at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art’s Collaborative Exchange Lab in the Fall of 2016. I sensed an immediate synergy between their work. While there are clear differences in their practices, both women are united conceptually by their engagement with approximation, or the challenges of articulating that which evades the parameters of language, easy legibility, and public speakability.
As Munyaneza describes her motivation for Unwanted, she shares a growing archive: newspaper clippings, photographs of rape survivors in Rwanda, printed articles, books, and film clips. While Unwanted erupts from Munyaneza’s growing archive, the collaborative performance is itself an archive of sorts, but not an archive in how we may traditionally imagine it as manilla folders with orderly materials that present a concise history. Rather, the archive produced through Unwanted is the one that reminds us of the very failures of archives. In Sadiya Hartman’s essay “Venus in Two Acts,” she asks, “How does one listen for the groans and cries, the undecipherable songs, the crackle of fire in the cane fields, the laments for the dead, and the shouts of victory, and then assign words to all of it? Is it possible to construct a story from ‘the locus of impossible speech’ or resurrect lives from the ruins?” In many ways, Unwanted asks similar questions of how we represent the undecipherable.
In the rehearsal, Munyaneza and her collaborator Andrews did not seek a full articulation of this history but were instead, it seems, interested in how to translate moments of speech disfluency such as stutters and stammers, or the sometimes indecipherable into the movement and sonic experience of Unwanted. Stutters, as poet Susan Howe has written, “are the plot.” Illegibility invites us away from the comforts of neat narratives that lead to romantic resolutions.
Deep operatic bellows erupt from the corner of the dimly lit corner. It is Andrews sonically creeping into the space. Her words are unclear, but the mood is unmistakable: there is a foreboding of sorts, something is about to happen. However, before the expected something happens, the singing ends abruptly, and Andrews leaves her dimly lit corner to begin a circle path that hugs the perimeter of the room. Soon after beginning, she stops to look slightly above the audience as if to peer out of a window as she prunes. She continues to walk, then stumbles, but maintains just enough balance to keep walking. After a few more moments of walking, she stumbles again, yet this time she almost loses all balance. Up again she continues to walk and travels back to her corner where she was once singing.
The live operatic loop begins, and Munyaneza emerges from the opposite side of the room with a green and red patterned fabric cradled in her hands like a small child. Andrews winds up her vocals and ejects a series of mounting screams, then a shriek before this shriek unfolds into a series of unintelligible sentences. As I glance toward Andrews, my attention is dually focused on Andrews and Munyaneza who is now on the floor, then up again at which point she swings the fabric over her head before draping it over her shoulder, then finally weaves it into her white cropped tank top. She crawls across, creeping toward the audience.
She stands up to grip the microphone stand and begins to sing. Three lines are repeated: "I am here to remind you."; "Papa, papa, papa!"; and "because of you, Da-ddy, they call me Yuda!" Between these repeated mantras, she breaks into a singing of George Michael's, "I Will Be Your Father Figure" as well as Stromae's "Papaoutai." "Où t'es, papa," she asks. As she sings, she grips the mic and arches her body backward as if she might fall backward, but does not. Her balance seems to be a feat of its own. She does stumble and fall once, taking the microphone stand with her, but she continues to sing as she regains full footing. The incantation continues, picking up pace, and the sharp transitions between voices and phrases and songs remind me of a radio tuner, one which I have no control over. Or possibly even an exorcism. These stories trapped inside of her throat, her belly, fight for an opportunity to escape, and in the process they trip over themselves, folding and collapsing into one another. It is much like the sensation of stuttering. Again, as Susan Howe reminds us, the stutter is the plot. The moments when Munyaneza appears to have several stories erupting from one mouth simultaneously is a reminder of the many stories of rape during war and genocide that have such few pathways for articulation. It is a reminder of the public speakability of these traumas. It is a reminder that no one neat sentence or dance movement will suffice. It is a reminder that there are parts of this trauma that language and movement may never be able to express.
Munyaneza ends the showing calling out the names of countries where rape was used as a war tactic: Syria, Congo, Ukraine, Rwanda, and the United States of America.
Instead of giving us one neat story with triumphant endings or clear plot points, Munyaneza holds us accountable to telling complex stories; ones fraught with absences, silences, and missing bits. As a visual artist and writer, I am keen to compare this work to mediums I am most familiar with: the erasure poems, concrete poems, Oulipo-based work, and the extensive histories of Black experimental writers. The rehearsal performance reminded me of my favorite kind of poetry, what Lyn Hejinian calls "open texts" in her essay "The Rejection of Closure" (1985). Here she writes, "each moment stands under an enormous vertical and horizontal pressure of information, potent with ambiguity, meaning-full, unfixed, and certainly incomplete." An open text embraces the challenge. An open text does not yearn for linearity. An open text she writes is one where any reading of work is an improvisational act itself as "one moves through the work not in straight lines but in curves, swirls, and across intersections." Open texts take a form that is less of a container and more of a "force" or "velocity." Andrews and Munyaneza’s improvisational form that integrated strategic stumbles and stutters created a velocity that led the audience to cross through various visual and cognitive terrains.
Andrews closes out the performances with a soft twinkle before Munyaneza leaves the stage. The twinkle is a clever invitation: we can re-enter our post-performance worlds to be lulled by the illusions of the immaculate resolution, or we could linger a bit more in the world created by the performance: a world of stutters, stammers, and stumbles.
Kameelah Janan Rasheed is a Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary artist, former high school public school teacher, and writer working in installation, photography, printmaking, publications, and performance. She has exhibited her work at Jack Shainman Gallery, Studio Museum in Harlem, Bronx Museum, Queens Museum, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 2017 Venice Biennial, among others. Learn more about her at www.kameelahr.com