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.


BAC Story by Dot Armstrong

Milka Djordjevich

I arrive and the structure is already in motion. This is a drill. The dancers sway and march and try to keep a beat between them. Exactness hovers like a promise, electrifying the space, galvanizing four individuals towards a common goal. Bodies, separate, become one body, together. They pause, rest, recalibrate. Today, Martita Abril (CORPS cast) winds a hip and shimmies both shoulders. Dorothy Dubrule (CORPS cast) puts both hands on her head, then on her hips, walks in a circle.

Ayano Elson (CORPS cast) sits down. Annabella Vidrio (UMS intern and guest dancer) records something on a laptop and rejoins the group. Other bodies filled the formation on other days: Josie Bettman (guest dancer/artist) was here, and Tara Sheena (guest dancer/artist). Milka, with notebook in hand, dictates the day’s tasks in a voice halfway between drill sergeant and dance captain.

The day’s tasks: four dancers are practicing togetherness, creating a precise complexity, preparing a hivemind of distinct intelligences. Language, literal and embodied, emerges between and around them. They know some things I don’t. On the projection screen at one end of the studio are the words they’re echoing in syncopated canon.

SOMETIMES WORDS ARE THE WORST
SOMETIMES WORDS ARE JUST
            WORDS
SOMETIMES WORDS ARE THE COURAGE
            TO THINK THE COURAGE
            TO THINK
TOO MUCH TOO MUCH
                                                                        “audience text”
repeat after me:
                                                point point counterpoint
mark time, go.
                                    (step right, left, etc.)
a clicking sound
            piling up piling up piling up                 (counting thrice on fingers)
far off place

movements ancillary to movement
in order
to hold one’s place to hold the rhythm
            “I got off.”
like pins in fabric, rank-markers, bright bars
codified lines lines lines insignia
or ropes to pull on so the flag flails back towards
you and catches the wind again
catches the rhythm
catch it?
                                    syn co pay shun

fatigued edge, the beat, the pace
the strain and shear of one too many

            where the choreography of mentally marking thin and thick

how do you count up to catch it? downbeat—
how do you march and bend your knees?

number accent math iambic stress
                        no rest
                                    “Where do you guys take your breaths?”
                                    “It’s all triplets, except for certain ones.”
                                    Pain is temporary- push through
             “I’m gonna call some things.
                        From grid— go—”
            “If i’m throwing you in, I’m thinking—”
            “I thought you said half-left,
                        side-left.”
            The gas is on
                        You look scared

            “Shimmy go—”
                        “Freeze or hold? Would the gas is on
            still go? That’s good—”
                        “Crispy? Yeah. Golden brown.”
            “Maybe I’ll try some face stuff?”
                        “I wonder if it’s a record scratch—”
                                    scared
                                    scared
                                    scared
                                    scared

            “Let’s try a round of marking time.”

drill-calling fatigue: leaders forgetting possibilities
the choices given are smaller when those in power
                        circles go
when the steps are fewer
                        mark time go
                        forward go
                        pivot go
the group is tired
                        yes head go. blah!
                        left face go
what can they do?
                        backwards go
thinking hard, I see it in their faces
compensatory movements
                        left face go
                        left face go
but push through. endurance, stress of world-making,
                        right left
what practice prepares us for
                        snaps go
                        yes go
                        backwards go
what structure, implied or concrete, constructed
                        tempo up
who are you while you
                        go mark time
                        left face go
who are you together, a body
                        gah! watch you burn
                        you look scared
synchronous-asynchronous corpse corps
                        backwards go
new kind of virtuosity, or oldest in the book
                        hold! freeze!

recognizable language, then—
let it change
what happens, when?
variables, beats, lines: together
apart— a part of a whole
rhythmic impulse to same
to same to same
hard things that look hard
hard things that look easy
easy things that look hard
start again from the beginning

CORPS is shorthand for a delicate balance of regiment and agency. CORPS looks like disparate bodies deployed as a synchronous unit, constituting a provisional togetherness. CORPS sounds like a surreal cheerleading practice or an ROTC sergeant’s lucid dream. The structure, directed at first by the choreographer’s outside eye, grows and shifts, moving as a differentiated body of bodies.

After the dancers leave, Milka and I discuss the performance. Theoretically, Milka doesn’t sit on the outside and call the maneuvers as she did in rehearsal; the dancers, manifesting and questioning the choreography, will make the movement calls themselves. The structure will become self-perpetuating. There’s something here about how community functions and the stakes of joining in: beyond the surrender to stepping in time lies the promise of emergent agreements and organic decision-making. Individuals will materialize, asserting themselves between the lines marched in unison.

Dot Armstrong is Minnesota-born and Brooklyn-based. Dot currently explores the limits of performance with/for ChristinaNoel and the Creature, Spacejunk Dance, and Thea Little. Dot is a founding member of Futile Gestures, a performance collective/nonsense repository. Their choreographic work has appeared at The Dance Collective, Artefix NYC, Green Space, and HATCH Performance Series. Dot contributes to Culturebot as a performance reviewer/archivist/observer. They trained at the American Dance Festival, Movement Research, the Martha Graham School, and Joffrey Ballet Chicago and graduated summa cum laude from the University of Iowa with degrees in Dance Performance (BFA) and English (BA).

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BAC Story by Ellie Goudie-Averill

Lori Belilove

Lori Belilove and her company of dancers worked together in the BAC studios for eight hours a day of class and rehearsals for her new work Wild Beauty. Their two-week residency began just after the CDC allowed vaccinated folks to gather unmasked. “The first day we went around the room and went ‘A FACE! AHA!’ while looking at each other. We animated our faces as a start.” Because of the pandemic, many dancers hadn’t been training in the way that they were accustomed to, so they started slow.

“We didn’t know how much jump was left, how much fluidity was left, how much technique was left inside of us, so I nurtured and explored that as an opportunity to renew.”

In Wild Beauty, Belilove is working to “beg, borrow and steal from my dear Isadora, and throw her to the winds, gather myself, and bring in the power that I feel. [Isadora] has a Victorian sweetness within her repertoire. It has a cathartic niceness, and I wanted to disturb that. My new work is called Wild Beauty because Duncan did her dances in her time and there is an internal feminine power that I think can be evoked further.” She calls her work “Belilove’s Isadora,” and finds herself often returning to the Duncan repertory as source material. “We all come from somewhere. Isadora came from somewhere, too, so I’m just carrying on.”

In writing about Wild Beauty, Belilove referred Duncan’s “iconic feminist aesthetic.” I asked her how Duncan’s work embodies feminism as she sees it: “I think we should just go back to the Greeks. That is where she figured something out about the power of the female archetypes within mythology. The Greek sculptures embody such a rich beauty of the female body. If you look at an Aphrodite, or an Athena, it doesn’t look anything like the model Victorian body that she must have grown up with—the cinched waist, the parasol, the boots—all of that body shaping. She says that she evoked the Statue of Liberty, and in your wildest imagination you can’t imagine that statue in a tutu. Isadora was making herself mammothly large from an internal place because of her breath. When the corsets took away the breath from women, feminism was going down. So, breathing is a huge part of understanding Ducna’s technique and the iconic feminist aesthetic.”

I first encountered Belilove while attending the retirement performance gala for dance historian Dr. Lynn M. Brooks at Franklin & Marshall College. Belilove paid homage to Brooks, a mutual friend and board member for Belilove’s Isadora Duncan Dance Company, by dancing an excerpt of her solo The Art of Isadora. That evening, F&M students ardently performed Duncan’s Dance of the Furies, restaged by Belilove. Throughout her career, Belilove has worked on countless reconstructions of Duncan’s work. In her residency at BAC, however, she worked on what she terms a “deconstruction” or a “dismantling” of the interior material of Duncan’s signature pieces. “There is a phrase within the dance Death and a Maiden, choreographed by Isadora, and it is a minute and a half of frenzy: huge points, big swooping skips and crashes, and turns and twists. In my new work, we dismantled that phrase, reconfigured it, and added more points, more repetition, and more twists and turns, as an idea of how to make even more of a frenzy. It became kind of like wild horses at that point.” There is a sense of growing intensity even as Belilove speaks about her process of reinforcing the ideas within a phrase, making it more concentrated and true to its own feeling state.

The group worked with ten different pieces of music before Belilove settled on The Moldau by Smetana, an homage to the Volta river in Czechoslovakia, and a piece that she has been wanting to mine more deeply. “If I read further [into the music], there was flooding that would happen, and the folk would be displaced. I’m interested in water, in the delicate balance of our natural resources, and making a statement about it and invoking it in our bodies in the power and preciousness that it is. I learned from Isadora some tricks for how to handle symphonic music: sometimes when it’s at the top of the range, she does nothing, and other times she stays way within it and moves off of the melodic line.”

“When I coach dances, I talk to the dancers, sometimes in technical terms, or I shoot out little notes while they’re dancing. I have one extraordinary dancer, Nicole, who has been doing the Death and the Maiden dance for some time now, and evoking some really spiritual depths.” At the end of the residency, the new work was being filmed and “there she was in her full costume. She did the whole dance, and she was way beyond technical coaching, so I began to speak the poetry of the dance. I said: And when she began she had nothing, and now she can’t take anymore, and now she can’t stand, no don’t take my life, I’m not ready yet. We were crying at the end. Don’t take me yet, that’s really the name of the dance.” This was a magical moment for Belilove within the residency. “I’d been afraid to have my voice in performance and this is the breakthrough into it. The residency broke me open to the idea that my voice could be used. I’m stimulated artistically again—it’s all bubbling.”

Note: Though the premiere of Wild Beauty is tentatively planned for Fall 2021 with rotating casts of dancers, Belilove and dancers were able to perform a portion of the finished work just one week after their BAC residency, on June 11th at Global Water dances in Riverside Park.

Originally from the Midwest, Ellie Goudie-Averill is a dance artist and educator who works with dancers of all ages on technique and performance. Since graduating with her MFA in Dance Performance from the University of Iowa in 2007, she has served as a professor at Temple University, Bucknell University, and Franklin & Marshall College. She currently teaches Ballet at Connecticut College, where she recently created a new work outdoors for ConnColl students. Ellie has danced professionally for Susan Rethorst, Lucinda Childs, Bronwen MacArthur, Group Motion, and Stone Depot, which she co-directs with Beau Hancock. She is a regular collaborator and dancer with Tori Lawrence + Co. in dance films and site-specific works.

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BAC Story by Jonathan Matthews-Guzmán

Yin Mei

In February 2020, I was approached with the opportunity to write two BAC Stories – one on Justin Hicks, and one on Yin Mei. The threat of COVID-19 already looming, it didn’t yet seem as though we were headed towards the shutdown that ultimately took place – however by mid-March, Baryshnikov Arts Center, along with the rest of the world as I knew it, had announced indefinite closure (“at least through March 31,” they said…).

As a writer, I had largely been a performance reviewer leading up to this opportunity. Always more interested in unpacking than assessing, the notion of chronicling a process versus evaluating a product was so deeply tantalizing, such a move forward, and, as such, all the more profound a loss for me.

Throughout the pandemic, BAC was quick to find a rhythm with its digital programming, which included a virtual commission from Hicks, which, oddly enough, I was assigned to review for Eye on Dance and the Arts. It wasn’t until April 2021 that I received word of BAC resuming its residencies, with Yin Mei scheduled for May 17-28. I jumped at the opportunity to resume work that had yet to be, and set aside as many times as I could to get the fullest possible impression of Yin Mei’s process.

Only available for a few hours of four days within Yin Mei’s two weeks, I knew off the bat I had to fight my completionist instincts. It was all the more fitting that Yin Mei’s residency took place in the John Cage & Merce Cunningham Studio, the spirits of whose namesakes I felt granting me permission to see and respond to whatever I happened to chance upon. Little did I know at the time that this was the only way to really understand what Yin Mei was up to.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021, 4pm

I walk into what feels like a construction site. Floor and walls are covered in printer’s paper, which, in turn, is covered, to various degrees, in paint, ink, and charcoal. In addition to the space’s surfaces, individual rolls of paper hang from the rig above. Five crowd where I enter like a forest, while one hangs on its lonesome across the way, caught between the studio’s massive windows in the afternoon light.

I come in during lunch. The first person I see is Taylor Myers. Taylor and I both went to NYU Tisch – he in Drama, I in Dance. We sang tenor in a school chorus together, after which we lost touch but remained mutual admirers. I shriek and call him Tyler by mistake. His arms and legs are smattered with gray and black pigment. He is improvising gently and freely to recorded music as cinematographer Yao Wei captures his every move from within a steadycam rig.

Isabella Bower is mixing gray acrylic paint with water. A student of Yin Mei’s in the Dance Department at Queens College, she is serving as a versatile hand on deck for whatever task Yin Mei may dream up. She tells me of what has happened before – how we got here. The process of laying down the paper…what markings happened when and how…

Not here today is another performer, Erick Montes. I’ll catch him next time.

When the work resumes, Yin Mei begins to ask Taylor if his feet can fit in a paint tray. Taylor has a way of asking Yin Mei questions that help guide her towards a clearer idea of what she’s looking for. The tray is filled with gray paint, and, both feet planted inside, Taylor swings his arms to scoot himself forward in space like a giant trying a human sled. Paint flings out and back from his forward thrusts, leaving a deceptive trail. Yin Mei laments to Yao Wei – “You weren’t filming?”

I would have lamented, too; it looked really cool. I myself was about to film the bit on my phone, but was so taken by the moment there was no time to think about anything other than the moment itself.

Yao Wei is there to capture everything. His camera is always rolling, from 1-6pm for two weeks. It’s a lot.

They try another variation – Taylor directs his spacing into more of a loop than a line. After, Yin Mei holds his hand like a ballroom dancing partner, helping Taylor to take sharper turns and maintain more precarious balances to Chet Baker’s “I Get Along with You Very Well.”

They use silk screen spreaders to further spread the residue of Taylor’s activities into the paper on the floor.

Switching gears, Yin Mei and Taylor each take a piece of charcoal to the back wall, commencing a contact improvisation with each other as well as the wall, leaving traces of their motions via the charcoal in their hands against the paper on the wall. The physicalities are varied – regular drawing, dancing which initiates the arm to leave marks, and more extreme reaches and jumps that leave more particular marks.

Seeing Taylor and Yin Mei move together is a great character study. Yin Mei is slow, methodical, intuitive, and elegant. As choreographer and performer, she steps out and observes, often enjoying what she is facilitating. Taylor is strong but gentle, save when he is overcome with boyish impulses, such as throwing his piece of charcoal aggressively against the wall, leaving an accordingly explosive trace.

The exploration feels honest, yet meandering, until Yin Mei is compelled to take white paint to begin highlighting the marks that have been made, bringing out a post-hoc intentionality to free impulses. As soon as this image is given more structure, Yin Mei goes over the composition with blotches of red and black, using the silk screen spreader.

So engrossed in their work, they barely have enough time to clean up.

Thursday, May 20, 2021 4pm

Erick is back, lying with Taylor on the floor in a heap of markings. Yao Wei keeps track of them at a distance, while Susan Mei, who, at the time, was serving as an extra cameraperson but is now editing the results of the residency, captures them up close.

There are new panels of paper on what yesterday was a bare wall.

Yin Mei had come to like a section of the floor so much yesterday that she covered it over with another layer of paper so that the image would remain intact while they continued their work.

As a trio, Erick, Taylor and Yin Mei take turns soloing with charcoal on a bare stretch of wall. They each have different characters to using friction and weight.

Erick and Yin Mei find themselves in a mirroring duet while Taylor continues to draw alone.

Taylor joins, partnering Erick, leaving Yin Mei as the odd one out.

Remembering yesterday’s exploration, she grabs a bucket of watered-down ink and nestles her feet inside.

Without having to be told, Erick and Taylor each take an arm, and help Yin Mei fling herself through space, off kilter.

A pattern begins to emerge of stepping back and admiring the visual traces of their physical improvisations, as though an audience to their own art show – the difference being that most, if not all of the visual component is purely accidental and vestigial – a comparatively permanent, though haphazard, result of more intentional, however ephemeral, movement.

It turns out that they are able to take showers at the space.

Wednesday, May 26, 4pm

I enter to thunderous sounds of paper flapping.

Just before I came, Mikhail Baryshnikov himself had graced the studio, which Yin Mei reported had “given the group a tremendous boost of energy.” The aforementioned sound was that of vigorous strokes of pigment, fueled by the very person who facilitated their existence.

Before my arrival, the group had been exploring a structure in which, after putting up a new section of paper on an unexplored wall, Yin Mei gave Taylor and Erick three seconds to run to the paper, make any mark they could, and leave, in a calligraphic relay race.

Taylor and Erick are duly exhausted.

As I get settled, I see Yin Mei, deep in a circular study with the charcoal against a panel. She is relentlessly retracing the same circle, using the bend of her knees to pump more energy through the spine to reinvigorate the circle, leaving markings of different intensities, all piled on top of each other.

Erick intervenes, smudging several sections of this charcoal hurricane, which rests above a deep red splotch of paint from the day before.

The two step back, asking, “Who did that?,” pleased with the result of their collective effort.

In front of me is a makeshift contraption – a sponge taped to the end of several cardboard paper rolls. It must have been used to make the markings I am now noticing are impossibly high up.

The section of floor that was covered up with fresh paper yesterday is now covered in thin, small, focused blots of black and red ink.

To a string quartet, Erick, Taylor, and Yin Mei simultaneously draw, exploring the relationship between different physical textures as well as different visual textures, and what of the former is needed to produce the latter. Gold becomes a new contender in what has been largely a palette of black, gray, white, and red.

Whereas before, improvisations focused on long stretches with one quality, we now have, to the sounds of string quartet counterpoint, strong vectors interweaving with smudges and soft curves. Against Yin Mei’s diligence is a steadfast rubbing from Erick, punctuated with Taylor’s acute irreverence. Over time, physical artistry gives way to doing whatever is physically required to continue drawing in the dynamics they have fallen into.

Again, they step back and look in admiration and appreciation of one another.

But Taylor isn’t done – he approaches the figure and slashes violently to make shadows and highlights. Yin Mei is amused. The figure begins to resemble a rooster.

Elsewhere, an orb begins to resemble the Death Star. Abstractions are gradually becoming figurative and referential.

Erick plays with moving more elaborately to create single marks, jumping and falling in order to give his arm the right force to make a particular kind of scrape over and over again.

Meanwhile, Yin Mei becomes fixated on the sun shining through the window. She asks everyone to trace the edges of the sunlight in the room, which, as soon as they get going, shifts ever so slightly as afternoon heads into evening, leaving behind a mess of aggregate cleanliness.

After often improvising to the sounds of other artists, it is here that Yin Mei plays the music of her project’s composer, Huang Ruo, entitled Ashes in Time.

For the first time, Yin Mei is being more direct, giving Erick and Taylor specific tasks within what have been free improvisations. She asks for more color. They ask where. She clarifies, “Anywhere!”

Yao Wei’s filming is constant – moments of planning, working, and resting. No one feels the need to perform for his lens. Its constant presence renders performativity too exhausting a prospect.

Yin Mei has folded up long pieces of paper accordion style into large fans. She asks Taylor to dance with one, which quickly resembles a bird’s mating dance. Yin Mei is then reminded that she has metal sheets, which the dancers try to maintain vertically above their heads, running in the direction of their inevitable falling, creating thunder claps that fit perfectly with the epic Alice Coltrane track playing over the speakers.

I shamelessly intervene, taking a video of the Death Star orb, beginning microscopically close and gradually zooming out to the entire structure.

The in-betweens are divine.

Thursday, May 27, 4pm

I arrive during lunch. Taylor and Yin Mei discuss their families. It is the last day to really work before Friday’s final clean up, and it shows in how everyone is exploring with much more urgency as well as invention.

There is no time to explore, only to do.

The folded-up paper fans have since been dressed with paint and ink. Any material or tool that has yet to be used is in full swing.

All this culminating activity ends up revealing attachments that have been slowly and unwittingly forming to what have been ostensibly left completely to chance. Even having protected sections of paper with designs deemed worth preserving, Yin Mei mourns favorite figures, which, in various improvisational frenzies, have become splotched just beyond their original recognition.

She saves the panels she doesn’t want to see further changed, and goes on to use the rest of the red ink, making sharp spatters by flicking the bristles of a paint brush.

They continue rolling up panels of paper they feel are done.

Erick returns to a more dance-centered approach, struggling to maintain his balance in a puddle of ink.

Taylor plays with a paint roller like a fidget spinner.

Yin Mei and I compare our respective times in the Tisch Dance Department, over twenty years apart.

Taylor and Erick are affectionate with one another, leaning into each other like a slow dance, basking in the melancholy of the impending close of this chapter.

Talking between improvisations, Yin Mei noted how, once the paint and ink have been used, their life continues in how they interact with the paper and change in the drying process. “When you come back the next day, it looks entirely different, nothing like what I had originally put down.” Before the pandemic, she was working towards creating a new performance work, but has since changed her focus to a more process-oriented intention, looking towards the chemical wisdom of her mixed visual media as guidance.

Yin Mei’s theories have developed in tandem with the residency. Film was not originally intended to be so integral to the project. Yao Wei, who was a dance student-turned-film major, happened to be in the US and offered to work on the project. In this way, as Yin Mei sees the paintings as recordings of the choreography that made them, the footage documenting this process are, just as well, cinematic recordings of Yao Wei’s movements behind the camera.

There may be sixty paintings, and fifty hours of footage, but all they really do is chronicle the movement required to produce them.

Yin Mei is interested in time. Using visual media, she measures movement, which she maintains is “always happening in the space, just waiting to be embodied.” By having every hour of every day of the residency filmed by Yao Wei, she is aware of her presence and how it is changing when she knows she is on display.

“There is so much invisible that I want to make visible – that’s why I use film.” In one respect, film spoils the elusive ephemerality of embodied performance; on the other hand, it indiscriminately shows all that goes into a process. It is, at once, the best and worst thing for chance-based work.

The most salient bit of chance that has come from this process is the very date range of May 17-28 (the date span of her BAC Residency). Yin Mei has been going through her diaries, looking at what happened in her life during this stretch of time in two particular periods of her life, triangulated with the present period of her Residency.

The first draws from her experience of the Cultural Revolution in China at roughly ten years of age, from 1966-1973, additionally incorporating letters received and written between 1969 and 1979.

Next involves Yin Mei, approaching her third decade of life, becoming transfixed by the very namesakes of her residency’s studio – encountering the work of Merce Cunningham and John Cage in 1981 when she was a principal dancer with the Hong Kong Dance Company. Soon after this epiphany, she came to the US by way of the American Dance Festival in 1985, going on to pursue and complete her graduate degree in Dance at NYU in 1989.

As such, Yin Mei calls this project a “re-representation,” as well as a “revolution simulacrum,” placing these experiences, bound by the same range of dates, in direct conversation with each other in a space which is not objective or physical, but is generated by the creative process itself, in a nonlinear, multidimensional understanding of time.

Speaking specifically about her improvisations, I found it all too timely when she ultimately said, “The fact that anything is there is cause for celebration.”

Jonathan Matthews-Guzmán is a Memphis-born / New York-based performer, creator, curator, writer, and educator of Irish and Puerto Rican descent. They hold a BFA from NYU Tisch Dance, where they currently accompany technique classes, mentor the students of Future Dancers and Dancemakers Workshop on musical collaboration, and direct the Tisch Dance Alumni Choreographic Mentorship. Their work and studies have taken them abroad to Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance, Springboard Danse Montréal, the International Theatre Festival of Kerala, and Toscana Dance HUB (now WADE). They dance with Darrah Carr Dance, Indah Walsh Dance Company, and Valerie Green / Dance Entropy, and, with Holly Sass, co-founded and co-direct BREAKTIME. Jonathan sings tenor with the Cecilia Chorus of New York, music directs for Queens Shakespeare Inc./What Dreams May Co., has composed for Giada Ferrone, Patrick Corbin, Gaspard Louis, and Rashaun Mitchell, and teaches lower school chorus at The Calhoun School. They additionally accompany Ballez classes at Gibney Dance and youth classes at Mark Morris Dance Center. Jonathan was an inaugural Curatorial Fellow in Dance through SMUSH Gallery. They review regularly for Eye on Dance and the Arts, and have additionally contributed to The Dance EnthusiastDance MagazineDance Teacher MagazineTime Out NYDancegeist, and The Journal of Dance Education.

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BAC Story by Ellie Goudie-Averill

Kayla Farrish

December 26, 2020

KF:  “The work feels like activism to me.”

Kayla Farrish is vibrant and active when she speaks.

We’re on Zoom (where else?), the green velvet couch in her Brooklyn apartment matching the cactus that frames me outside my studio in Oakland, CA. Movement spills, pops, and shifts in gesture, expression, and posture—she fills up the screen as we talk. I spoke to Kayla just after her Baryshnikov Arts Center residency ended in late November, and she was energized about her time in the studio, her cast, and how to continue her work in a sustainable way in this incalculable and constantly restructuring New Year. She was supposed to show her new work, Martyr’s Fiction, at Gibney in March of 2020 and continue working on the piece, which she had begun a couple of months earlier, at BAC directly after the show. As with most pre-COVID plans during that time, her performance was cancelled and her BAC residency was, thankfully, postponed. For her current piece, Kayla’s initial ideas centered on surrealism as a concept. Our conversation got me thinking about conversations around race and abstraction, and the conversation around race and surrealism felt intertwined, but also different to me, re-framing the question of who is allowed to make abstract work, and shifting that into the question: “Who is allowed to dream?”

KF: “Surrealism, what is that? I was curious because I love that word and the concept and felt, why do I feel so distant from what that is? I don’t really think that people in my community or family have access to surrealism. I’m thinking about the lights outside behind me, the cops that are patrolling people. When you’re thinking about survival, you might fantasize, but it’s likely in your head and it’s with a lot of barriers. When do we get to dream about pink elephants? What I grew up on is, I can only dream so far. Even when I’m making things, I’ll have this crazy vision, but will I have the resources to support that? Will people understand me? What is surrealism from my perspective-- the perspective from an African American dreamer? I feel, in my experience in blackness [and dance] that I have to be demonstrative, that I have to make sure I’m very clear... People need to understand the context and know where I am coming from. There is surrealism in imagination, but there is also surrealism in real life, like when you’re talking to someone and they say ‘racism doesn’t exist.’ And I think, ‘am I a myth?’”

Kayla grew up in North Carolina, in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area, which was home to one of the largest plantations in the US. Before our Zoom session, along with many images and videos of the work-in-progress, she shared a folder with me called “Plantation/Farm'' that contained images from her research. There were beautiful barns, and the building plans of barns and houses built by slaves to live and work in, built with pegs instead of nails and still standing strong. Her father’s side of the family were sharecroppers, working in tobacco and tending the land that they still farm today. Kayla’s family came to own the land because her great-grandfather was an only child who inherited the land and passed it down to her grandmother.  We spoke about the night terrors that her father had throughout her childhood. This brought up the idea of watching someone else dream, and how rare that experience is. In her process, Kayla began working on recounting dreams with her cast through movement and language and exploring personal history.

KF: “There are shopping centers in NC called ‘Plantation Shopping Center,’ neighborhoods called ‘Wakefield Plantation.’ These places are turned into more money, and more erasure out in the open. What are we worth if we can just vanish? It’s as if it was nothing. It’s enraging, it’s offensive. There is a surreal nature to that erasure, and to current violence. My father is the oldest of seven from his sharecropping family. In his night terrors, he would scream, he would have really physical responses. He shouted my name. He never remembered what the dream was, but it always felt so real. It was so animated and intense. I got really into nightmares and exploring horror. I wanted to explore questions with my collaborators: 'What are you confronting and what are you running from? Can we edge up on these boundaries? What is escapism? What is surrealism to you?’ It was also interesting to see where my collaborators allowed fantasy in their lives. Some people are very sci-fi, intergalactic and so far away, and some people’s dreams felt so real, like an embodiment of their stories. I’d played a role in Sleep No More, the maid Danvers, who appears in and out of the shadows, who had so much restraint, but also this incredible fantasy life that was the flip of that restraint. I really related to that.”

Martyr’s Fiction is now going to become a full-length film, featuring Kayla and her collaborators Nik Owens, Jamal Abrams, Rebecca Margolick, and Alexander Diaz, with cinematography by Kermie Konur and music by Melike Konur. Kayla had one order in mind for the live work, and now a new order is emerging for the film as things have changed through COVID. Most of her movement material is set, with some scores that are left a little more open. One scene, called “sites,” explores sites of erasure, like the plantations of NC. There is also a scene exploring contemporary escapism called “wine night.” Characters shift and change throughout the work. Production week for the film will be in the late summer or fall and then the film will premiere at the end of 2021.

KF: “At the end of my residency, I had the option of doing a live stream, but I didn’t want flat documentation. I've now been thinking of the piece more in a cinematic way. I see cinematic landscapes as a way to see into these characters. My longtime collaborator Kerime’s input and feedback adds to and challenges me in a lovely way, especially when I’m performing in the work. What’s been so remarkable about the whole process is asking ourselves: ‘Is [this work] indulgent? Is this changing anything?’ We’ve been working on a section called “three black men,” and my collaborators were not happy with me at first. We first played with horror, and it was fun, it was fantasy, and then it went into trying on stereotypes that we’ve seen growing up, becoming the monsters that people think we are. My collaborators said, “I’m a black queer man, and you’re talking about spaces I’m not allowed to exist in when I walk out the door.” We pushed it in a really safe way. I want to feel monstrous, I don’t want to feel invisible any more. It’s liberating when you take the work in the studio out into the world. Your imagination can affect the collective and I never knew that was achievable, because dreaming is supposed to be so personal. I’m excited for how the whole work will unfold. Is this a loop, is this a dream?”

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Originally from the Midwest, Eleanor Goudie-Averill is a dance artist and educator who works with dancers of all ages on technique and performance. Since graduating with her MFA in Dance Performance from the University of Iowa in 2007, she has served as a professor at Temple University, Bucknell University, and Franklin & Marshall College. She currently teaches at Connecticut College, where she created a new outdoor work for ConnColl students this Fall. Ellie has danced professionally for Susan Rethorst, Lucinda Childs, Bronwen MacArthur, and Group Motion. She is a regular collaborator and dancer with Tori Lawrence + Co. in dance films and site-specific works. Ellie is also a dance writer, frequently publishing dance and book reviews on the Philadelphia-based thINKingDANCE website.

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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.

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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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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.

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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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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.

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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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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.

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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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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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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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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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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.”

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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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