Baryshnikov Arts Center

BAC Stories

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.


Molly Lieber + Eleanor Smith
BAC Story by Tara Sheena

Molly Lieber + Eleanor Smith

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.

Visit Residency Page

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.

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Peter Mills Weiss + Julia Mounsey
BAC Story by Tara Sheena

Peter Mills Weiss + Julia Mounsey

In the Space, On Its Feet

I was a little scared of meeting Peter and Julia. Or, uneasy. Or, something. It turns out, if you choose to meet someone through the mainstream media portrayal of them, you may find yourself confused or, at least, apprehensive. I formed this unfounded fear after reading the coverage of their previous show, [50/50] old school animation.

Julia, especially, is portrayed as a sociopathic, unfeeling millennial, who deadpans ominous stories about harming close friends.

Of course, that’s a performance. This is real life. But, if I’ve learned anything about Peter and Julia in our short time together, it’s that those modes steep together in ways that are hilarious and biting, in the same breath. They tread steadily along a path, shaken by nature, that’s been blurred and blundered by autobiography and theatricality. They keep circling the cul-de-sac of houses situated between reality and hyperbole. They don’t necessarily meet in the middle or towards any point: they keep circling.

I think a different kind of writer would use this as the moment to dispel the frank mythologies and monolithic understandings of them and their work: Playwrights! They have feelings, too! But, I am not interested in upholding any single image of them or treating my peek into their process as fully able to magnify their unique prism. Part of that is because they have been working on this new piece, while you were partying, for two years and, in some ways, have barely cracked the surface. Part of that is because — though they gave me a glimpse into their rehearsal process, sent me videos, and a script to read — I don’t know if it’s a worthy exercise to attempt to synthesize it here. Perhaps, (I think) it’s beyond synthesis. Part of that is because it’s so boring and unoriginal to reduce artists, these artists, to the sum of their parts. I won’t do it.

At a certain point in our initial conversation, Peter remarks that the best version of Hamlet he could ever see would be someone who has lived Hamlet’s exact life: a melancholy prince with an unsparing, violent uncle who is visited by ghosts in Elsinore and is plagued by his own inability to act. Well, literalness aside, it works better as conceptual conceit: we have to believe that the nature and nurture and happenstance of life make a difference. Not to say that other versions can’t be as compelling or magical, but there is something underlying there that would feed the work beyond the premise of talent or practice or the politics of representation, which, we agree, are important, too. Maybe, he suggests, another example is the recent performance of actor Emily Davis in Half Straddle’s Is This A Room (which, I brag to them, I’ve seen twice). For the record, Emily is an incredible actor, but: “Did you know Emily grew up near where Reality [Winner, the real-life whistleblower the play is based on] grew up?,” Peter says. “It feeds it. It has to.”

while you were partying is a stinging, disarming series of dialogues and monologues. It is structured, essentially, as a table read. This is due, in part, to the fact that Peter and Julia don’t really fuck with sets, props, or costumes too much. There is enough to deal with in the language and movement; they don’t really need a lighting change. In fact, anything more here carries the danger of distracting (or allowing an audience a respite) from this enclosed world, situated at a table, that feels both real and outlandish.

In addition to Julia (“Julia”) and Peter (“Mom”), they are joined by Brian (“Brian”) and Brett (“Todd”). Brian and Brett both come from comedy backgrounds, in real life, and Julia and Peter met them both by going to stand up open mics around the city. They tell me that Brian sometimes has his mom Skype into his sets to effects both hilarious and uncomfortable. Brett used to host a public access television show which he was very devoted to and, in their telling, seemed like if Nathan For You came to the community center. It feeds it, it has to.

There’s already a “self-creation aspect" to their work, Peter says, that helps them devise in the room instead of pander to any prompts or scripts. In fact, they never usually enter the room with a script. The process becomes a layering of improvising, questioning, scripting, memorizing, improvising, forgetting, remembering, re-memorizing, doing it all, throwing it all away, and starting over, not necessarily in that order. They share a version of this during their final residency showing; three discrete sections that were once nearly memorized but, one day, in a hungover-weekend-rehearsal-haze, they rebelled against that instinct and enacted the entire work from memory. The result is this performance — right here, right now — which carries the knowledge that it could warp significantly the next time and the next time.

The centerpiece of this showing is an extended scene between Mom and Todd, wherein Todd comes to audition for the role of “Wizard” under Mom’s cold, perturbed direction: “Face front, Todd. Look at the audience, Todd.” Todd is committed and humiliated, all at once, a sensation that weighs on the room more and more as he goes. What starts out as a triumphant imitation of the kookiest Harry Potter World wizard you could imagine sees Todd shrinking more and more, tracing from an ebullient British accent to a slow, quiet, dude-drawl.

This is… really funny. Seeing the ways this man —  a cis, white man named Todd —  is totally betrayed by his own abilities is entirely satisfying. In some ways, this illustrates closely the questions around toxic aggression and violence that emerge in this work. Todd’s own self-betrayal is the ultimate antagonist, rendering a confident performance to shreds through a slow process that mimics a public shaming of sorts. We could name the underlying ruse something akin to toxic masculinity, though, Julia is quick to point out, anger is usually masculinized whether we like it or not. Toxic masculinity, the concept (or buzzword) as we know it, “doesn’t really need me to engage with it, because it’s been diagnosed,” she adds.

Where Todd is bumbling and dorky, Brian is sullen and stoic. He is before us as an agent of Julia’s body in death. In fact, he is brought before us to tell us the story of Julia’s body. He listens to lines fed to him from his iPhone headphones — a literal act of transmission from the afterlife — and informs us of her past trauma, involving a tight pelvis and her inability to enjoy sexual intercourse because of how much pain it causes her. So much so that she has to go to physical therapy but then has to stop going because her insurance runs out. She tells us of the drugs she needs to remain clear-headed, the ways she’s been shamed by men, confused as to why his penis doesn’t easily fit into her tight, unwelcome vagina. But, he/she tells us: “I am not interested in confession, I am interested in healing.”

Julia comes back as Julia towards the end of this sharing. She comes back to tell us things Brian couldn’t. She comes back to tell us that she is a “dangerous soul” and if we see her in real life we should kill her (“...if you can”). For some reason, we need to hear it directly from her, the source. It harkens back to the same, sociopathic Julia I was convinced of in [50/50] old school animation. It reminds me of the ways self-harm centers itself in this work and, with all the acknowledgement of masculinized aggression, it is Julia who is calling the shots, leading the construction, an imploding orbit placing her as its central planet. We are led to believe that, if she didn’t orchestrate everything, at least she is involved in determining its fate.

“While you were preparing to die, I was preparing to fight,” she says, riffing off the meme for which this work gets its title. Though the language is caustic, I have to believe her experiences are baked into the cake I am tasting here. I have to believe that this stems from a shred of truth, somewhere, somehow, circling the cul-de-sac over and over. I have to believe what she is telling me, because it’s too real not to be real. I have to believe that it makes a difference… It feeds it, it has to.

Visit Residency Page

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.

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Ella Rothschild
BAC Story by Melissa Levin

Ella Rothschild

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.

Part 1

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.

Part 2

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.

Part 3

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.

Part 4

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.

View Residency Page

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. 

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Mallory Catlett and Aaron Siegel
BAC Story by Melissa Levin

Mallory Catlett and Aaron Siegel

Certain stories demand to be told as operas. Their drama or tragedy is so poignant as to be inherently operatic. Such is the case with Janet Frame’s 1968 novel Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room, which director Mallory Catlett and composer Aaron Siegel are adapting for the stage as an opera called Rainbird, taking its title from the lead family’s poetic last name.

I spoke with Catlett and Siegel towards the end of their BAC Space Residency. They are rigorous and thoughtful artists who are telling, according to them, a story that starts out dark and gets darker. And yet, the iterative process of collaboration they describe appears to maintain spaciousness.

Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room is a story of life and death (mostly death), trauma, anxieties, erasure, and difference. A man, Godfrey Rainbird, is pronounced dead from an accident, and then comes alive three days later in the morgue. This indigestible rewind infects his family, a wife and two children; his place of business, a tourism agency; and society at large by way of the media. No one in his life is able to process his death experience. It forces everyone to confront their own mortality, which pushes their psyches and behavior to the edge. Godfrey becomes a liability and a pariah. His difference is intolerable.

Sharing her deep familiarity with and affinity for Frame, Catlett articulates exactly why this novel begs to be an opera: these characters are mundane, but this is a mythic experience; how we deal with life and death is how we are connected to the gods.

Catlett came to Frame in graduate school; Siegel came to Frame through Catlett. Award-winning, reclusive, and prolific, she has a cult following for her poetic approach to prose and her unabashed writing on mental illness and death, some stemming from her own experiences coming of age in New Zealand. Catlett and Siegel have collaborated once before, with Catlett directing an opera Siegel had composed and written. For Rainbird, they wanted to develop something together from the beginning. Siegel is still composing and Catlett directing, but they are writing, or as they say more accurately, assembling, the libretto together, heavily inspired by the novel. It is also Frame’s agility with language that lends her text to song.

As for the music, a self-professed romantic, Siegel described finding ways to juxtapose sound to the tone or mood of a scene. He talked about creating additional meaning through sound, having the most impact on the storytelling at that moment, commenting on, and creating from, the language at the same time.

With three instrumentalists and four vocalists, Catlett and Siegel shared a searing excerpt from the opera in progress in November at the residency’s culmination. For the two years they have been developing Rainbird, they have integrally included the instrumentalists and vocalists in the process. Atypical for opera, these fellow collaborators have participated in creative decision-making, rendering ideas musically, and improvising; they therefore know the text and music intimately. As Siegel promised it would, the music aptly, viscerally echoed the narrative’s anxieties with moaning violin and plinking toy piano. The singers’ voices were achingly ethereal and transporting. The excerpt took us through Godfrey’s death and resurrection, his wife Beatrice’s confusion, his sister’s futile attempt to aim her towards religion as a salve, and his boss’ letting him go with a (paltry) “tidy sum” as recompense. It was heartbreaking.

On display was exactly what Catlett had described in Frame’s work: the characters’ (humanity’s) paralyzing inability to deal with the unknown–foremost death–and the related tendency to destroy those things we cannot explain. Also on display was Catlett and Siegel’s sonic, visual, and emotional capacity for operatic storytelling and their powerful ability to shine light on the darkness.

View Residency Page

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. 

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Amir ElSaffar
BAC Story by Melissa Levin

Amir ElSaffar

It is hard not to extrapolate the poetry and aspirational metaphor from the 17-piece ensemble Rivers of Sound Orchestra, the vision and charge of multi-hyphenate musician and composer Amir ElSaffar. Orchestra members come together from different parts of the country and from around the world to play an innovative fusion of Middle Eastern music, Iraqi maqam in particular, and American jazz.

I had seen the group perform once before when, in my role as VP of Cultural Programs at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC), we presented the launch of their second album Not Two at the River To River Festival in 2017. (Of course we were charmed by the uncanny synchronicity of the festival, group, and album names: Rivers of Sound launch Not Two at the River To River Festival.) Outdoors on a plaza on a June evening, in a canyon of buildings in Lower Manhattan, the performance was nothing short of triumphant. Through threatening weather, the 17 musicians and their more than 17 instruments crammed onto a small stage and transported the audience with sounds they may not have even known they were hearing.

I am not a trained musician or listener, but even to my ear, complexity, warmth, connection, and depth permeate the music of this stellar group.

When I met ElSaffar to prepare to write this piece, I could hear him playing the trumpet, his primary instrument, from outside the doors of his cavernous studio. I paused to listen to a few bars before walking in. Then, we talked: about his initial discovery of music (he loved the Beatles, the Stones, and finally Hendrix, who led him inadvertently to Miles Davis); about his formal musical training; had a lesson in microtones; and then he veered me back to the group, the reason we were in the studio to begin with.

He described Rivers of Sound Orchestra’s coming together as serendipity, a result of two coincidental U.S. commissions. Though in many ways, even if unbeknownst to him, it sounded to me like he had been laying the groundwork for such serendipity to occur over the preceding years. He lived and studied all over the world, first in the U.S., in Chicago, Boston, and New York from youth to college, and then throughout the middle east, in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq, and throughout Europe, in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, and England, in part at least following a diaspora of musicians trained in Iraqi maqam or other ancient and traditional forms – a diasporic practice for our diasporic times.

ElSaffar leads the group and composes all of their arrangements. He describes a generous and generative style of leadership, relying on each individual’s virtuosic knowledge, skill, and creativity with their own instrument, to fully realize the harmonies, microtonalities, and polyphonies he writes.

Among other terms unfamiliar to me, ElSaffar had to define microtonal music, a central structure for Rivers of Sound, and he did so using the visual idea of pixels: Western music, built around western instruments such as the piano, most commonly expresses itself as what is called 12-tone equal temperament–12 parts of an octave all equal, is like a 500-pixel image. Whereas microtonal music (such as Iraqi maqam and other ancient Greek and Middle Eastern forms utilizing instruments without frets, for example) expresses additional intervals, variations, and in-betweens, more like a 1000-pixel image. Or, as he further described, relative to the other where equal temperament “approximates,” microtonal music revels in “the different shades of intonation.”

About half of the group members live in New York, and the other half are scattered across the country and around the world. Their collective expertise ranges from western classical music to experimental American jazz to Iraqi maqam, and instruments include trumpet, saxophone, violin, cello, oud, buzuk, santur, and an unconventionally tuned piano. They converge, they disperse: like the notes and rhythms in each simultaneously precise and yet free-wheeling composition. I picture them like stars in the sky, dotting the globe with individual light and lights coming together to form a constellation, a new and meaningful shape.

Many times, he refers to Rivers of Sound as a family. Indeed, his sister and brother-in-law play in the orchestra. Another musician in the group has been a friend of his since high school. Other members he has met along the way, kindred spirits, mentors, masters, technicians, and improvisers all. Their musicianship (though certainly a requirement) is second to their humanity. And, ElSaffar says that the deep friendship he has with each individual musician extends to their relationships with one another as well. He even describes electrical chemistry in the sounds certain of them create together, like “lightning bolts.”

This resonates when you see and hear Rivers of Sound perform and play music together. The music pings, vibrates, oscillates, elongates, conflates, conversates, electrifies, and lulls. A global ensemble, Rivers of Sound excavates ancient forms and pioneers wholly new ones, creating music never heard before in a universal yet secret language of microtones. 1000 pixels. You can let it wash over you, you can listen closely, and you can aspire to its example.

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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. 

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7 Names: Everett Saunders + Marjani Forté-Saunders
BAC Story by Benedict Nguyen

7 Names: Everett Saunders + Marjani Forté-Saunders

As I watch Kayla Farrish and Roobi Starla Gaskins warm up and rehearse (if it existed, the line between them floated beyond my perception), Marjani walks up to me and invites me to think about God. Roobi swings deep and shuffles light from left hip to right, she considers something in that middle space with eyes down, focus clear and soft.

Kayla swings her arms to herself, stomps, and steps to a deep crouch before swirling against where gravity would’ve taken her. As I watch these dancers watch something, shape a swath of air between their eyes and their arms, I wonder about the space they fling away from and find again, again.

Before the door to the studio is fully open, the music is louder than anything. The steady bass drum in The Chosen Gospel’s Singers’ “Prayer For The Doomed” treads on for most of my visit. Marjani Forté-Saunders’ and Everett Saunders’ son Everett Nkosi Zaire Saunders tours the studio, stopping to consider the dancers before continuing on, giving me a thumbs up as he passes.

Before offering me this prompt, Marjani speaks to Kayla and Roobi individually, who return to notebooks, records or mirrors of something they’re building towards. From a recent history of primarily choreographing works for one performer, Marjani expresses excitement about composing a work with these first-time collaborators. With Kayla and Roobi, Marjani offers guidance not just through words, but through her own dancing as well. As she watches them take these questions into their own bodies, she keeps dancing, keeps speaking. “Yes!” she exclaims.

For something worked on and studied to translate, even if just for this one witness this one day, is an easily satisfying feeling. As an artist, I get to trust process again. They get it, they see something. As a viewer, I can follow the thread. The artists are leading me places and we can go there, even with me in the seat of a plastic chair.

A week later, Everett asks the audience at the BAC Space Studio Showing, “How do you recognize an Emcee?” In a monologue that cites artists from Raekwon to Pharoahe Monch, Everett jabs at the air with pointed fingers to show the different textures emblematic of these figures’ rhythms. Embodiment, he tells us, is everything.

Beside him, Marjani wears on her head a sculpture from Memoirs of a... Unicorn (2017). The wooden horn sprawls more than the length of Marjani’s body as she makes the same gestures. When she stands, the horn waves from the crown of her head towards the ceiling, its weight changing how she could direct our sight through the studio, how her hands had scrawled on the studio just before.

This articulation finds still new dimension at the border of Roobi’s hands when she takes center stage. Marjani and Kayla take turns circling in short solos, idiosyncratic but not isolated. Everett raps, his voice fading and amplifying as he loops with them. Having pushed in one direction, Marjani whips her torso around to face another. Kayla floats, evoking vapor elusive but dense.

Marjani, Kayla, and Roobi prop up three plastic tables to reflect back Meena Murugesan’s projections, images of people spliced across imperfect surfaces. The floor’s spike marks had to be moved each time, Meena tells me after the show, each rehearsal a revision of catching photons in space at the angle they want us to see it. I won’t call it the right angle.

We’re asked to consider one’s natural response when approached with opposition or aggression. Even when dancing in unison, Marjani, Kayla, and Roobi don’t arrive at a singular right answer. A jump that propels the leg around the hips to turn the body unfurls together but creates three flashes of limb through space. Marjani tumbled through this move when they were marking through the material with audiences still entering. Laughing, she said, “I can’t do it.”

Of course she could. She did the move. “When teaching one to heal, you must also teach them how to fight,” Everett tells us.

To be able to see the work at this stage, after just a couple weeks of working all together, makes me wonder how this connection between them, the fluency in speaking and moving together, might evolve as the work grows.

For now, Everett picks up another monologue, germinated from last week’s rehearsal. Everett had worked to recapture the spirit of the original story he had once told Marjani. The details, the motifs, the gradual revelation of a spine, an unknown history of a place holding the heart of a community of Emcees/Lyricists, is revealed to us with smooth suspense. “We found God on that cold winter block” in North Philadelphia, Everett tells us.

What is a natural response? What is authentic storytelling told for a stage, rehearsed again and again? How can a private conversation keep its unceremoniousness in the ceremony of a performance scheduled for public engagement? What does it mean when white people are witnessing this work, when I, a Vietnamese-American writer, am writing about this work?

I don’t task the artists with answering these questions but they cross my mind as a viewer and as a writer.

Last week, in Roobi’s entrance following Everett’s section, Marjani asked Roobi to keep experimenting with the dynamics of her procession down the diagonal of the studio. To the opening notes of "Prayer for the Doomed," Roobi’s head could appear to be shaking, wondering or wandering somewhere we can’t know, each gaze switched nearly before being sent. Marjani had said to keep the motion in the body nice and small. Focus on the thing that keeps eluding you rather than any distraction, growing not on a linear progression but through another path.

And in the showing, this movement grows in the space outside Roobi’s skin as she turns around the place on her forehead where a unicorn horn would be. To have whipped the horn at Roobi’s velocity would have whipped it off.

But the way she was moving differently, echoing back to the horn on Marjani’s head, illuminated spaces between what I could see and what I could imagine, what I know and what I don’t. But beyond these vague invocations of the unknown, there is specificity. There’s texture to the movement of Emcees/Lyricists, history to the stories of Emcees/Lyricists, sounds richer than this text alone can convey.

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Benedict Nguyen is a dancer, writer, and curator based in the South Bronx, NY. Benedict has recently performed in the works of José Rivera Jr., Sally Silvers, and Monstah Black. Their writing has appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Culturebot, Dance Magazine, and Shondaland, among others. As the 2019 Suzanne Fiol Curatorial Fellow at ISSUE Project Room, they developed a multidisciplinary platform soft bodies in hard places. They're sometimes online @xbennyboo and compile essay-memes for their newsletter, first quarter moon slush.

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Bobbi Jene Smith
BAC Story by Benedict Nguyen

Bobbi Jene Smith

In a rehearsal the previous weekend, Keir tried swiping his torso around the corner of his shoulder with more force than before, resulting in a buttery scratch of his violin. Was it a feeling of refusal or insistence? And was it those feelings and/or the velocity of a wooden chassis hurtling to an abrupt stop that produced that particular sound?

This line of questioning might sound in company with Bobbi Jene Smith’s A Study on Effort (“58: what does it mean for the bow to make sound with air?”) but within Lost Mountain, the line becomes a world and the impetus becomes a fraught relationship between people playing their bodies, playing instruments.

Keir GoGwilt plays Chaconne, the last movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Violin Partita Nº2 in D Minor. Partitas are instrumental solos structured after Baroque court dances from the 17th and 18th centuries. Of course, court dances are a European synonym for social dances, though one movement is called Sarabande, a triple-meter form with potential origins from Central America.

I include this light music and dance history interlude to suggest, perhaps too literally, how this somber piece of music carries with it the ghosts of music and dance forms unseen or heard by us, echoing its melancholy into this rootless mountain in which we find ourselves. This piece of music appeared in Keir and Bobbi’s previous collaboration With Care, and again, the putative premise of the work has altered its meaning.

At four corners of a rectangle, Ariel Freedman, Keir, Yiannis Logothetis, and Bobbi trace the edges of something at the center. To whom or for what do they dance? What drives the urgency of the solos they take in the floor’s center? Bobbi rushes to the edge of a harsh feeling only to seep into a serenity behind her eyes. Yiannis too searches for something behind himself, turning over himself in stillness as he covers his eyes with his palms. Ariel propels into a crawl, raises and drops each of her shoulders and hips in clockwise succession, the motion an excision or coagulation of something she was holding. In all the ways to describe what and how they express themselves, for themselves alone or to each other, this section evinces a determined order.

Something frenetic breathes through the intricate precision of the performers’ movements, an urgency in each twitch and circle rippling through the smaller swaths of their bodies.

Rehearsing a partnering section last week, Marla Phelan covers Evan Copeland’s eyes with her hands, the shifting forces of gravity applied to each other’s skulls readily discernible as they dart into the fleeting negative between them.

Some of the implied questions of narrative were addressed in a first-time collaboration with novelist Nicole Krauss, brought on since Lost Mountain’s May 2019 premiere at La Mama. In the showing, we’re not given any explicit outcomes from this collaboration. A monologue delivered by cellist Coleman Itzkoff remains, for now, as it was in May. In a thin, pinched voice, he tells us of an imminent cold front bringing ice and reduced visibility.

In last week’s rehearsal Nicole had asked the collaborators about surface level characteristics that Ravid Kahalani might know about Lost Mountain, revealing what he’d get wrong from not living there. Other collaborators brainstormed the story, the texture of the room, and the field they’d inhabit with a specificity they knew could never be fully revealed but would still be felt.

For Bobbi, one of the goals of this residency was to shape the work’s text as an entry point into the work. A new collaborator to the project, Ravid’s throaty vocalizations blended over dry synths sound like a wail cut through like a knife, serrated and ultimately smooth. I wonder how the history of his voice and the context of his music fold in at this stage of the work’s development?

I describe these sections out of the sequence they were performed but in the sequence of a discussion of Ravid’s character, the keeper of this mountain we’ve somehow returned to; time doesn’t seem to move in a linear fashion anyway.

Before the partita, before the weather report, before Ravid sang, the other performers had entered one by one: Ariel with a bouquet of purple flowers, Evan with a wooden board upon which he would tap dance. They stood at right angles to each other before Marta Miller entered from a corner on the audience side, regarding them all, regal.

In the concluding excerpt for this day, Jesse Kovarsky scales the barre running the perimeter of the room, ascends the edge where the studio’s two walls meld with vigorous aplomb. Evan dons the tap shoes and adds to the raucous tunes of Coleman and Ravid. They’re chasing something, maybe each other, maybe something not there. They confront and recede and even smile as the geometries of their flight paths veer and lightly collide. Marta considers them again, softly imperious. Finally, Marla, resigned, crawls to a wired still, the surface of her back collating something of this place in the ligaments beneath.

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Benedict Nguyen is a dancer, writer, and curator based in the South Bronx, NY. Benedict has recently performed in the works of José Rivera Jr., Sally Silvers, and Monstah Black. Their writing has appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Culturebot, Dance Magazine, and Shondaland, among others. As the 2019 Suzanne Fiol Curatorial Fellow at ISSUE Project Room, they developed a multidisciplinary platform soft bodies in hard places. They're sometimes online @xbennyboo and compile essay-memes for their newsletter, first quarter moon slush.

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Schoen Movement Company
BAC Story by Elena Hecht

Schoen Movement Company

Jun 4, 2019

With spring sunlight filtering through the large warehouse-style windows of Baryshnikov Arts Center’s John Cage & Merce Cunningham Studio, Emily Schoen watches her six dancers as they work through an ensemble section of her newest piece, See Me In Your Eye.​​​​​​

The dancers, in two lines of three, walk, rock, twirl, and hop forward and backward, the lines slowly exchanging and then re-exchanging places like the ebbing and flowing of a tide.

“I’m interested in those moments when people change their mind in life. Because I think even in this age, in this space where we live, it’s harder and harder for people to soften to new information,” Schoen tells me later.

The dancers lean against and away from each other, heads supported by hands, a leg grasped as a dancer tilts to break free. They mirror each other in couples before splitting the space as two groups of three, a brief distance between them before they magnetically reconvene as a single unit in the corner.

The piece brings together dancers from the U.S. and Tunisia, where Schoen traveled twice in 2017 — first with Larry Keigwin and then a few months later to create her own work, Here We Are, a 30-minute piece that serves as the foundation — or as Schoen describes it, the “putty” — for See Me In Your Eye.

The soundtrack of the piece is composed largely by Curtis Macdonald with additional music by Simon Broucke, a Tunisian hip hop song by KATYB, and stories recorded by each of the dancers sprinkled throughout. This means that even as the dancers’ movements cohesively entwine, the piece toggles between cultures and languages, at once a reminder of both the cross-cultural exchange happening on stage and of the dancers’ individuality and humanity.

“The goal of this is for us to be ourselves, and for people to see us as ourselves and to get us as this unit of international diversity,” Schoen says. “Basically just presenting a full human experience.”

As I watch the dancers, I find myself wondering: if I did not know who was Tunisian and who was American from the outset, would I be able tell? And to what extent do these signifiers even matter? Further, what is it to be defined as being “from” somewhere? When speaking to Schoen’s Tunisian dancers, the fluidity of borders is clear — one dancer is originally from Algeria; one spent 9 months living in Houston; one studied in Paris and briefly danced in Finland.

Schoen is “not trying to make a political statement,” and yet when pushed further she adds, “maybe the political statement is that it’s not political. We can exist together, we can live together, without it being some message or some signpost in the sand, some marker of who you are…. We can have our culture, we can accept other peoples’ cultures, we can live together, right? So, yeah, maybe it’s political because it’s not.”

In the studio, the dancers spend time problem-solving a lift. They work on small phrases built from another ensemble piece and then they take time to learn each other’s phrases, the studio echoing with intermittent laughter.

“The beauty of this piece is quite simple: very different people coming together and giving of themselves and being open to people who are different from them through dance,” Schoen says. “It’s simple and I think it’s inherently beautiful in the physicality and the vulnerability that comes out of that.”

Visit Schoen Movement Company's Residency Page

Elena Hecht is currently finishing an M.F.A. in creative writing at Columbia's School of the Arts. She has attended the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and her writing has appeared in Dance Magazine, Columbia College Today, and The New York Times. She is currently working on a novel loosely based on her grandparents’ lives during WW2 as well as a book centered around an art project she created in her sister’s memory. When not writing, Elena can probably be found dancing and has performed the work of David Neumann, Gabriel Forestieri, Zoe Scofield, Rami Be'er, Daniel Gwirtzman, Stephanie Liapis, and Ming Wong.

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Ellen Cornfield
BAC Story by Brian McCormick

Ellen Cornfield

Jun 6, 2019

Portal begins with an eruption — male, upward thrusting — a percussive, rolling rat-a-tat-tat of drums explodes out of the movement. Andreas Brade’s music, composed for the dance, responds to the action, from minimal and soothing to cacophonous, as needed.

The seven strong, blithe dancers of Cornfield Dance devour the space in the John Cage & Merce Cunningham Studio, fully committed to the athletic demands of the choreography, powered by their vigorous joy for the craft. It’s the kind of imprimatur that signals a master at work, and Ellen Cornfield’s reputation precedes her.

The choreographer, who danced for Merce Cunningham from 1974-1982 and taught at Cunningham Studio for 30 years, may fit diagonally on some dance genealogy tree, but she has also made her own distinct mark. There is a brand identity to the technique that is unmistakable. However, fresh eyes, like those of the students in the BAC After School program, see it on its own merits. In a visit with Cornfield during her residency, the teens watched her company rehearse. They saw, “formalism with flair, and flights of fancy. Quirky, rhythmic, gestural phrases woven into broadly abstract works with exciting choreography. Cute moments that hint at a story.”

Cornfield developed Portal, her latest work, during her BAC Space residency this spring at BAC, while also working on spacing and refinements for two other works (Close Up and Pas de Detour) for the company’s performances at the Harkness Dance Festival. In the second part of her residency, Cornfield worked with collaborators Glen Fogel, Mark Brady, and Jordan Strafer to create a video version of Portal, featuring the architecture and spaces of the BAC building. The costumes for Portal, by Karen Young, visually reflect the space and the surrounding cityscape through their patchwork design of angular shapes in a narrow range of gray shades. Cornfield described the natural light streaming down in shafts through the closed shades of the studio on bright afternoons as “magical.”

A new version of Close-Up (2017), presented at Cornfield’s BAC Space showing and reworked during her residency, was inspired by her company’s performance at the Yale Center for British Art in 2018, where the company performed the dance in five separate gallery rooms simultaneously. “Experiences have taught me to embrace the unexpected,” Cornfield said. This new version, performed in decades-old unitards, is her homage to Merce’s “Events,” which were made up of bits of material from different works put together for a unique performance. At BAC, she and her dancers rearranged the original stage work into a condensed version, presented side by side at the same time.

Cornfield said she saw her dancers perform “deeper into the work and more confidently with their own gifts and abilities,” at their BAC studio showing — a result of “the supportive physical environment and the level of saturation in the work that was made possible through the residency.”

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Brian McCormick is part-time Assistant Professor at The New School teaching graduate courses in Media Studies, and an adjunct lecturer at CUNY Lehman College teaching Theater. He is contributing editor at Gay City News, and has written for The New York Times, The Advocate, Dance Magazine, Dance Studio Life, and BAMbill. Since 2003, he has taught for Arts Connection’s Teen Reviewers and Critics (TRaC) program, and in 2019 received the Linda LeRoy Janklow Teaching Artist award. He leads the BAC After School program, established in 2012. Brian served on the New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Awards selection committee from 2002-2012, and is currently on the Board of Directors of Pentacle/Dance Works, Inc.

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Terrence O'Brien
BAC Story by Dan O'Neil

Terrence O'Brien

May 31, 2019

My first visit finds Terrence O’Brien – Terry, in the room – and a group of actors around a table, deep in discussion. There are collisions between unexpected pieces. One actor questions the direction of the conversation of the work, saying, “I’ll just put my bias on the table.” What is the impact of the work? “Let’s turn over the rock and see what’s under there.” Terry says.

Nail on the head versus opening the question. Unpacking materials without fully unpacking. Examining the difference between killing and fucking. Free range conversations veer across politics. Is it an exchange? Is it a space to advocate for a point of view? Are we just going to be animals, or are we going to evolve?

 “What I like…” Terrence posits from the point of view that there are certain things in the text that he likes and wants to maintain. “I don’t want to ‘sort of.’ That’s me, though.”

Actors attempt to paraphrase the intention of characters. One performer feels strongly about adding certain ideas (such as evolution). Solutions versus not solving but still moving forward.

Of this time and particular place – how do the female voices in the work exist within the context of the current moment and modality? Is the future better than the present?

You can have two people looking at one thing with two completely different points of view, so, as Terry asks, “How do we make that work?” Upon suggestion, the men attempt to share a speaking role using Organic Intuitive Consensus.

My second visit: the table is now in the middle of the room, chairs on either side. The crew is a bit larger, a few new faces amid the recognizable ones. Terry, from the table in the corner, leans towards the action, stops it, stands up and joins the actors at the table for a few adjustments and comments, and returns to his table. There is general experimentation coupled with fine tuning. “If it doesn’t work, you’ll probably know right away,” Terry says.

There are women in masks. Some of the masks are wrong. They use them anyway to get used to the added element. Back and forth staging – incremental pieces put in place, then solidified. “That seemed a little cluttered. Let’s try it again.” The complexity of five men standing and escorting three women to sit with them at a table.

Means by which to interject a directorial voice: “Maybe – I’m wondering if – Let’s try – See what that does – Any thoughts about this? – Let’s get some other opinions on this.”

Tell, don't tell.

After a break, they lie in a circle and play storytelling games. Ways to create a shared thought environment, to listen, to participate fully in something while thinking on one’s feet (or back, as it were). The assignment: you’re the pirate. A preacher has told you that you’re behaving obscenely. One sentence per person. Sentence by sentence, the actors, using variations on pirate voices (one seems Irish), end up telling a surprisingly coherent tale as the pirate recruits the preacher to join the ship’s crew. “I’ve got quite a few positions other than missionary that you can fill.”

The work continues, now with an intermingling of gender, the three women taking over male roles at times, other times standing outside of the action. It’s somewhat of a challenge to understand what is an interjection and what is source text. “Okay, okay, let’s back up a bit.” Solving for source versus interjection – “Try addressing it to someone specific when you’re one of the supernaturals.” General versus particular. “On the other hand, it’s going really well. Let’s go back.”

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Dan O’Neil is an NYC-based writer who grew up on a farm in northwestern Minnesota, where he learned to drive a tractor, use a chainsaw, and identify various star constellations. Notable recent projects include: Librettist on The House of Influence, an experimental opera composed by Alec Hall and performed in a parking garage in Harlem in 2018, Oblivion Falls, an in-process dance with text composition with Designated Movement Co., and Bear Slayer, developed through a 2016 Project Residency by Ars Nova and also presented as part of ANT Fest 2015. Leadership roles include Theater Editor of Culturebot and co-artistic director for Designated Movement Co. Education: B.A. in performance from the University of Minnesota and an M.F.A in dramatic writing from Carnegie Mellon University.

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Joseph Keckler
BAC Story by Ariana Reines

Joseph Keckler

Jun 3, 2019

A conversation between Spring 2019 BAC Space Resident Artist Jospeh Keckler and poet, playwright, and performing artist Ariana Reines.

Conversation begins late.

Ariana Reines: That gave me time to eat some lamb off the bone. I don’t eat meat generally but…

Joseph Keckler: Only off the bone when you do? Good policy.

AR: Only off the bone, marinated for six hours in Malbec by a former veterinarian, in a country where meat is a kind of religion. You can see it’s affecting me neurologically. I do have some questions prepared though! I’ve always wanted to ask you this, and it is the most clichéd question that gets asked of artists, but I mean it in the most expansive way possible: how did you discover your voice?

JK: It was more gradual, not a singular moment. I decided to cover a Cab Calloway song for the 4th grade talent show. My parents were recently recalling that I started to practice it and sounded very off-tune and — the implication — talentless. But then something clicked and I suddenly was hitting the notes, and sort of “channeling” Cab Calloway, is how they put it — their only explanation for my sudden ability to sing on pitch. As a teenager I started taking voice lessons because I would sing various dirges at the piano very aggressively and become hoarse after only one song, so I needed to learn technique. My voice teacher at that time, Fay Smith, who just passed away this year at 90, wanted me to have an opera career, and when I was a child I was really into Mel Blanc, the Warner Brothers voice actor, and always doing all this vocal shapeshifting stuff. My facility for that was apparent before the facility for singing.

AR: That’s fascinating. For whatever reason I prefer thinking of your art in terms of mediumship than mimetic camp.

JK: Yes, I don’t think of it in those terms. Then again, how do you define camp these days? What’s a contemporary example? To me there's an overlap between absurdity and divinity that might be present in a camp performance but not summed up by it.

AR: That’s very well said. I agree, camp is an antiquarian term. I’ve noticed that in my life when absurdity is present I trust that divinity is too. Without some kind of sick joke or a kind of impossible hilarity present, I don't trust reality. So yes, camp feels like an antiquated thing, but I do feel that as a performer you acknowledge that tradition mildly, without making a thing about it. Pardon my double use of "thing." I am high off pork (pork followed the lamb). So how long is Let Me Die?

JK: I think it’s a cool 75. I originally envisioned it as an austere museum piece, durational. I realized that has its own aura of cliché and is not really what I do. Rather than being a solo, there will be three very enchanting singers performing much of the piece. I will be a sort of master of ceremonies.

AR: And how did you run into “Arianna’s Lament?”

JK: Right, Let Me Die is titled after Monteverdi's “Lasciatemi Morire,” also known as “The Lament of Arianna.” It was among the first arias I sang when I started to study voice. It's a longing for death, an appeal to the gods, after she (Arianna, or Ariadne) has been abandoned on the island of Naxos. And it's the only part of the opera that has survived. So, I like the way in which she is doubly stranded, the way this is a singing fragment. I also like that this is one of the first pieces you learn in classical voice, implying that to learn to sing is to learn to die. It was only after I asked you to have this conversation that I realized the subconscious connection I'd already made between Arianna, and you, Ariana. And you said you actually sang that aria too?

AR: I did, when I was a beginner singer. I used to have more of a voice but I became too sad to use it except for extreme circumstances. I grew up in a house that had lots of music in it. My mom studied piano with a student of Liszt and I began playing very young, by ear. I'm a lazy person by nature and I was a very happy little dancer composer. When my parents split up and my mom became schizophrenic, I suppose you could say my life became more "operatic."

JK: Does your mother still play?

AR: No, she no longer plays. She is a homeless person now. She plays my heartstrings.

I think you're right that learning to sing is like learning to die, and it's what is so sacred about great singers. The great singers, with their mouths wide open—I think a lot of darkness can fly in. I'm thinking about what killed Whitney Houston, Billie Holiday, Amy Winehouse, Chet Baker, etc. Maybe Kurt Cobain. Obviously it can be argued that drugs killed these people. But I feel there is something else going on, connected to the heart, and the sorrow in people, which they inhaled for us, and returned to us with such overwhelming sensitivity. There are other singers who died of our darkness, and of course there are the great singers who manage to survive the sorrow of their audience.

JK: “They inhaled for us" — that is interesting to me also and something I’m thinking about in this project: opera’s origins in tragedy and tragedy’s origins in sacrifice. There is a sacrificial aspect of performing.

AR: It is something beyond mere technique. And the dangerous, "mediumistic" part of the art, it seems to me.

JK: It is the Sonnet to Orpheus: “real singing is a nothing breath, a god blowing…”

AR: Yes! It sounds to me as though you have a clearheaded understanding of the danger in what you do, and also its power, what it gives to people. What I love about the way you combine talking and singing in your performances is that your voice is literally an instrument of shock. People don't listen to this kind of music that much these days, and we're not used to hearing voices like yours. There's a genial kind of, I don't know, Brechtian disruption going on when you hurl that sound at people. They just lose their shit and do not know what to do with themselves. It is somehow a punk rock gesture. I love it.

JK: I love that description. It is easier to mess with people in contexts where they're not coming to see me and don't know anything about me… It's harder to do at my own shows, but I try.

AR: That's probably something great about being a "multimedia" artist. I love showing up where nobody expects anything.

Visit Joseph's Residency Page

Ariana Reines is a poet, playwright, and performing artist. Her newest book is A Sand Book, out this June from Tin House. She has created performances for the Whitney Museum, Swiss Institute, Le Mouvement Biel/Bienne, and many more. She wrote the Obie-winning play TELEPHONE.

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Hadar Ahuvia
BAC Story by Tatyana Tenenbaum

Hadar Ahuvia

May 23, 2019

A soft pulsing unison is emitted from a group of dancers in a line, holding hands. I observe as Mor Mendel expertly transmits dance steps to Oren Barnoy, Raha Behnam and Zavé Martohardjono. Throughout Mor’s instruction, a chorus of syncopated voices drones lightly in the background: who was here first / they were here first / was I here first / how does it bloom.

 

Mor is Israeli but she didn’t grow up doing Israeli folk dances. However, after working with Hadar for several years, the steps appear to have deeply embedded in her body, in her muscle memory.

Hadar Ahuvia sits elsewhere at a table, pouring over a manuscript as the vibrations and textures of her dance wash over her. Much of this material has been used in her work before. When material from one’s own work becomes a new sort of trope to be complicated, referenced, and re-written, it is a serpent eating itself.

The group is learning a complicated sequence of steps and text phrases based on the Yemenite step[1]. Each spoken phrase is a slight alteration of the previous, mirroring the way meaning might be obscured through a process of transmission. A string of words connects through their feet and the poetry gains new context through repetition.

Hadar tells me that she is recovering from a hip flareup a few days ago. “I could barely walk,” she says. She is convinced it is connected to a bike accident she had a few years ago, right before she left for a trip to Israel/Palestine to do humanitarian work. Through our friendship I also know that the trip stirred deep wounds between her and her Zionist family. “Now this stuff is finally getting into my work, and [the hip flareup] comes back.” The stuff she is talking about—it’s not the conflict in Israel/Palestine per se, but rather, the embodying of the conflict within her own family and how she has begun to unwind it.

Everything You Have is Yours, Hadar’s previous work, was a performance-lecture whose purpose was to artfully illustrate how Zionism built a nation through embodied ideology. It drew attention to cultural nuances that most Americans, and especially American Ashkenazi[2] Jews, could likely miss, having low literacy on the many ethnic and cultural lineages embedded within Israel/Palestine. But it is the personal connections—the fact that Hadar’s grandfather was a literal pioneer of the Zionist Kibbutz movement, or that her mother performed in a semi-professional folk dance troupe, that make Hadar’s stakes in this information so real, so gut-wrenchingly tangible.

In The Dances are for Us Hadar attempts to foreground these personal stakes, while at the same time involving a larger group of collaborators in conversation, dance, and song. Her collaborators have varied backgrounds: some Jewish, some not. Some have relationships to folk dance and some do not. Raha takes scrupulous notes. Autumn Leonard, having just arrived, begins to get the new sequence down.

The group begins to dance a hora, a circle dance enjoyed at social occasions by Jews in Eastern Europe before and during the settling of Palestine. I enjoy watching the coexistence of many divergent physicalities. What gives a dance like this its unity and cohesion? Is it the stomping of feet? A decided posture, perfected by all? Or could it be said that a shared intention, a social contract like an invisible thread connecting hearts and minds, is enough?

Hora was practiced by Zionists before the founding of the state. It was danced by Jews who were not yet Israeli. This imagined diasporic dance provides a backdrop for Hadar’s personal narrative. She operates with dry humor, imbibing a character modeled after a male Israeli dance instructor. This alter-ego is a way for Hadar to morph; to inhabit a persona in order to subvert it.

Her story drifts between contexts and places. She starts in Hawai’i, where her Israeli family moved when she was in high school. There she pokes fun at Jews for Jesus who attempt to perform Israeli folk dance without the requisite credentials, or chutzpah. She narrates a family trip to the Gilboa mountains in Israel. She balances her reverence with the descriptive smell of cow manure. Her voice begins to change and soften as she questions the authenticity of her own memory and truth: “why this” and “why that?”

As the group dances, Hadar’s virtuosic commentary continues to shift the meaning of the repetitive steps. Her telling becomes a reparative midrash[3] for a dance whose meaning has long been incorporated into a set of truths. I pause to reflect. Isn’t that what Jewish thought does? Continually question, debate, and complicate the well worn narratives, songs, and texts—if text could be considered a dance, a kind of text of the body? I am fascinated by the deep vestiges of Jewishness inside this making.

But not all Jews are the same. I remember being taught Israeli folk dances in elementary school by one of my classmate’s mothers. As an American Jew, I was confused. Was I supposed to feel some affinity to this tradition? The Israelis I knew were nothing like me. Their bodies were erect and confident and they spoke in loud voices. I remember bristling at the Israeli exchange student in my middle school. Her voice was too loud, her spine too erect. My own Jewish body felt meek in comparison. Her confidence embarrassed me.

Through Hadar’s work I have learned that this Israeli body, this sabra[4] body, was meticulously constructed. It was made through erect, collectivist ideologies, manual labor, farming, military service… and dance. It might surprise you that dance could serve as a vehicle for such profound social transformation. However, for those who devote their lives to fine-tuning their bodies and nervous systems through somatic work, the potency of this proposal is not a stretch. This is what is so captivating about watching Hadar’s work unfold. The viewer experiences for themselves the implicit persuasion of embodied narratives taking hold.

This essay flows forth at a time when many of us with power and privilege are being asked and challenged to put words to the supremacies we have inhabited, unchecked for so long. With much reflection, I realize that my body exudes another kind of socialized confidence: a confidence accrued through White Privilege. This very real, very tangible confidence is seated in the embodied knowledge that my body will be safe, in almost any context; that my thoughts and ideas will be taken seriously, in almost any context… Does my confidence embarrass you?

“There are no equivalencies, but there are parallels,” interjects Hadar.

Israeli folk dance has many sources, some more overtly acknowledged than others. Much like our American melting pot myth, this cultural construct obscures the historical power dynamics and multi-ethnicities imbedded within it. The Ashkenazi founders of the folk dance movement modeled their music and dance on those observed from Bedouin, Palestinian, Yemenite Jews, Druz, and other peoples whose cultures emerged from thousands of years of desert dwelling. The culling of these sources was an overt effort by Zionists to affirm their “native-ness.”

Hadar is of Ashkenazi descent. Her lineage traces the very power and privilege she is trying to deconstruct. Can a performance be a part of equalizing power? There is a moment when all the performers leave the stage and Hadar plays the music of a Palestinian dabke[5]. We are left to imagine, or contemplate, the void. It is not a perfect solution, and during the showing Hadar receives mixed feedback.

There is a general consensus that this moment can’t restore power to a people who aren’t in the room. But perhaps it can deflate the confidence of a narrative that props up those in power? So what does decolonization really mean? Does it mean physically leaving? Or does it mean, as I have heard it suggested by several Indigenous scholars, restoring power and equalizing the imbalances in our social and environmental ecology?

Questions of authority continue to surface. Hadar is trying to be transparent about her own limitations—the absence of origin, pure source, or even objectivity. “We’re not searching for an authentic moment. It’s about how the dances were used.”

At one point, an archival video shows Rivka Sturman, one of the folk dance movement’s founders. I can’t help myself—I am delighted by the image of this 80-something woman, surrounded by masses, all dancing her creations. Autumn calls this the “swan song moment.” “You get to see her humanity,” says Raha. “Tenderness,” says Zavé. “I associate [Hadar] with her.”

There is still a troubling sense that the information is one-sided. “There are no images to associate with source material,” says Raha. “Any time you have one voice in documentary, that voice starts sounding ‘correct,’” Autumn points out.

In regards to the moment when Palestinian dabke music plays for an empty stage, Zavé adds that “the imagination is colonized.” They offer an alternate meditation: As we begin to conjure a source in its absence, can we instead, draw attention to our colonized minds?

Visit Hadar's Residency Page

Tatyana Tenenbaum is the daughter of a fiber artist, granddaughter of Broadway producers, and great-granddaughter of Hungarian and Ukrainian Jewish immigrants who settled in New York City/Lenapehoking. She grew up doing community musical theater. Over the past decade she has performed and collaborated with Yoshiko Chuma, Daria Faïn, Jennifer Monson, Levi Gonzalez, Emily Johnson/CATALYST, Andy Luo & lily bo shapiro, Hadar Ahuvia, the DOING AND UNDOING collective, and Juliana May.


[1] A Israeli folk dance step based on the dances of Yemenite Jews. It was observed, appropriated and codified by folk dance founder Rivka Sturman, an Ashkenazi Zionist.

[2] Ashkenazi is a term for Jews of central or Eastern Europe descent.

[3] Midrash is a Judaic practice of providing extra commentary on biblical texts.

[4] Sabra is the desert prickly pear, a symbol chosen to represent the new Jew, born in Israel who had shed the physical and psychological trappings of the diaspora.

[5] Dabke is a folk dance practiced throughout the Levant, including in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Jordan. It is also the source on which the Israeli folk dance step Debka was based.

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