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.
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.”
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.
Jun 6, 2019
Portal begins with an eruption — male, upward thrusting — a percussive, rolling rat-a-tat-tat of drums explodes out of the movement. Andreas Brade’s music, composed for the dance, responds to the action, from minimal and soothing to cacophonous, as needed.
The seven strong, blithe dancers of Cornfield Dance devour the space in the John Cage & Merce Cunningham Studio, fully committed to the athletic demands of the choreography, powered by their vigorous joy for the craft. It’s the kind of imprimatur that signals a master at work, and Ellen Cornfield’s reputation precedes her.
The choreographer, who danced for Merce Cunningham from 1974-1982 and taught at Cunningham Studio for 30 years, may fit diagonally on some dance genealogy tree, but she has also made her own distinct mark. There is a brand identity to the technique that is unmistakable. However, fresh eyes, like those of the students in the BAC After School program, see it on its own merits. In a visit with Cornfield during her residency, the teens watched her company rehearse. They saw, “formalism with flair, and flights of fancy. Quirky, rhythmic, gestural phrases woven into broadly abstract works with exciting choreography. Cute moments that hint at a story.”
Cornfield developed Portal, her latest work, during her BAC Space residency this spring at BAC, while also working on spacing and refinements for two other works (Close Up and Pas de Detour) for the company’s performances at the Harkness Dance Festival. In the second part of her residency, Cornfield worked with collaborators Glen Fogel, Mark Brady, and Jordan Strafer to create a video version of Portal, featuring the architecture and spaces of the BAC building. The costumes for Portal, by Karen Young, visually reflect the space and the surrounding cityscape through their patchwork design of angular shapes in a narrow range of gray shades. Cornfield described the natural light streaming down in shafts through the closed shades of the studio on bright afternoons as “magical.”
A new version of Close-Up (2017), presented at Cornfield’s BAC Space showing and reworked during her residency, was inspired by her company’s performance at the Yale Center for British Art in 2018, where the company performed the dance in five separate gallery rooms simultaneously. “Experiences have taught me to embrace the unexpected,” Cornfield said. This new version, performed in decades-old unitards, is her homage to Merce’s “Events,” which were made up of bits of material from different works put together for a unique performance. At BAC, she and her dancers rearranged the original stage work into a condensed version, presented side by side at the same time.
Cornfield said she saw her dancers perform “deeper into the work and more confidently with their own gifts and abilities,” at their BAC studio showing — a result of “the supportive physical environment and the level of saturation in the work that was made possible through the residency.”
Brian McCormick is part-time Assistant Professor at The New School teaching graduate courses in Media Studies, and an adjunct lecturer at CUNY Lehman College teaching Theater. He is contributing editor at Gay City News, and has written for The New York Times, The Advocate, Dance Magazine, Dance Studio Life, and BAMbill. Since 2003, he has taught for Arts Connection’s Teen Reviewers and Critics (TRaC) program, and in 2019 received the Linda LeRoy Janklow Teaching Artist award. He leads the BAC After School program, established in 2012. Brian served on the New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Awards selection committee from 2002-2012, and is currently on the Board of Directors of Pentacle/Dance Works, Inc.
May 31, 2019
My first visit finds Terrence O’Brien – Terry, in the room – and a group of actors around a table, deep in discussion. There are collisions between unexpected pieces. One actor questions the direction of the conversation of the work, saying, “I’ll just put my bias on the table.” What is the impact of the work? “Let’s turn over the rock and see what’s under there.” Terry says.
Nail on the head versus opening the question. Unpacking materials without fully unpacking. Examining the difference between killing and fucking. Free range conversations veer across politics. Is it an exchange? Is it a space to advocate for a point of view? Are we just going to be animals, or are we going to evolve?
“What I like…” Terrence posits from the point of view that there are certain things in the text that he likes and wants to maintain. “I don’t want to ‘sort of.’ That’s me, though.”
Actors attempt to paraphrase the intention of characters. One performer feels strongly about adding certain ideas (such as evolution). Solutions versus not solving but still moving forward.
Of this time and particular place – how do the female voices in the work exist within the context of the current moment and modality? Is the future better than the present?
You can have two people looking at one thing with two completely different points of view, so, as Terry asks, “How do we make that work?” Upon suggestion, the men attempt to share a speaking role using Organic Intuitive Consensus.
My second visit: the table is now in the middle of the room, chairs on either side. The crew is a bit larger, a few new faces amid the recognizable ones. Terry, from the table in the corner, leans towards the action, stops it, stands up and joins the actors at the table for a few adjustments and comments, and returns to his table. There is general experimentation coupled with fine tuning. “If it doesn’t work, you’ll probably know right away,” Terry says.
There are women in masks. Some of the masks are wrong. They use them anyway to get used to the added element. Back and forth staging – incremental pieces put in place, then solidified. “That seemed a little cluttered. Let’s try it again.” The complexity of five men standing and escorting three women to sit with them at a table.
Means by which to interject a directorial voice: “Maybe – I’m wondering if – Let’s try – See what that does – Any thoughts about this? – Let’s get some other opinions on this.”
Tell, don't tell.
After a break, they lie in a circle and play storytelling games. Ways to create a shared thought environment, to listen, to participate fully in something while thinking on one’s feet (or back, as it were). The assignment: you’re the pirate. A preacher has told you that you’re behaving obscenely. One sentence per person. Sentence by sentence, the actors, using variations on pirate voices (one seems Irish), end up telling a surprisingly coherent tale as the pirate recruits the preacher to join the ship’s crew. “I’ve got quite a few positions other than missionary that you can fill.”
The work continues, now with an intermingling of gender, the three women taking over male roles at times, other times standing outside of the action. It’s somewhat of a challenge to understand what is an interjection and what is source text. “Okay, okay, let’s back up a bit.” Solving for source versus interjection – “Try addressing it to someone specific when you’re one of the supernaturals.” General versus particular. “On the other hand, it’s going really well. Let’s go back.”
Dan O’Neil is an NYC-based writer who grew up on a farm in northwestern Minnesota, where he learned to drive a tractor, use a chainsaw, and identify various star constellations. Notable recent projects include: Librettist on The House of Influence, an experimental opera composed by Alec Hall and performed in a parking garage in Harlem in 2018, Oblivion Falls, an in-process dance with text composition with Designated Movement Co., and Bear Slayer, developed through a 2016 Project Residency by Ars Nova and also presented as part of ANT Fest 2015. Leadership roles include Theater Editor of Culturebot and co-artistic director for Designated Movement Co. Education: B.A. in performance from the University of Minnesota and an M.F.A in dramatic writing from Carnegie Mellon University.
Jun 3, 2019
A conversation between Spring 2019 BAC Space Resident Artist Jospeh Keckler and poet, playwright, and performing artist Ariana Reines.
Conversation begins late.
Ariana Reines: That gave me time to eat some lamb off the bone. I don’t eat meat generally but…
Joseph Keckler: Only off the bone when you do? Good policy.
AR: Only off the bone, marinated for six hours in Malbec by a former veterinarian, in a country where meat is a kind of religion. You can see it’s affecting me neurologically. I do have some questions prepared though! I’ve always wanted to ask you this, and it is the most clichéd question that gets asked of artists, but I mean it in the most expansive way possible: how did you discover your voice?
JK: It was more gradual, not a singular moment. I decided to cover a Cab Calloway song for the 4th grade talent show. My parents were recently recalling that I started to practice it and sounded very off-tune and — the implication — talentless. But then something clicked and I suddenly was hitting the notes, and sort of “channeling” Cab Calloway, is how they put it — their only explanation for my sudden ability to sing on pitch. As a teenager I started taking voice lessons because I would sing various dirges at the piano very aggressively and become hoarse after only one song, so I needed to learn technique. My voice teacher at that time, Fay Smith, who just passed away this year at 90, wanted me to have an opera career, and when I was a child I was really into Mel Blanc, the Warner Brothers voice actor, and always doing all this vocal shapeshifting stuff. My facility for that was apparent before the facility for singing.
AR: That’s fascinating. For whatever reason I prefer thinking of your art in terms of mediumship than mimetic camp.
JK: Yes, I don’t think of it in those terms. Then again, how do you define camp these days? What’s a contemporary example? To me there's an overlap between absurdity and divinity that might be present in a camp performance but not summed up by it.
AR: That’s very well said. I agree, camp is an antiquarian term. I’ve noticed that in my life when absurdity is present I trust that divinity is too. Without some kind of sick joke or a kind of impossible hilarity present, I don't trust reality. So yes, camp feels like an antiquated thing, but I do feel that as a performer you acknowledge that tradition mildly, without making a thing about it. Pardon my double use of "thing." I am high off pork (pork followed the lamb). So how long is Let Me Die?
JK: I think it’s a cool 75. I originally envisioned it as an austere museum piece, durational. I realized that has its own aura of cliché and is not really what I do. Rather than being a solo, there will be three very enchanting singers performing much of the piece. I will be a sort of master of ceremonies.
AR: And how did you run into “Arianna’s Lament?”
JK: Right, Let Me Die is titled after Monteverdi's “Lasciatemi Morire,” also known as “The Lament of Arianna.” It was among the first arias I sang when I started to study voice. It's a longing for death, an appeal to the gods, after she (Arianna, or Ariadne) has been abandoned on the island of Naxos. And it's the only part of the opera that has survived. So, I like the way in which she is doubly stranded, the way this is a singing fragment. I also like that this is one of the first pieces you learn in classical voice, implying that to learn to sing is to learn to die. It was only after I asked you to have this conversation that I realized the subconscious connection I'd already made between Arianna, and you, Ariana. And you said you actually sang that aria too?
AR: I did, when I was a beginner singer. I used to have more of a voice but I became too sad to use it except for extreme circumstances. I grew up in a house that had lots of music in it. My mom studied piano with a student of Liszt and I began playing very young, by ear. I'm a lazy person by nature and I was a very happy little dancer composer. When my parents split up and my mom became schizophrenic, I suppose you could say my life became more "operatic."
JK: Does your mother still play?
AR: No, she no longer plays. She is a homeless person now. She plays my heartstrings.
I think you're right that learning to sing is like learning to die, and it's what is so sacred about great singers. The great singers, with their mouths wide open—I think a lot of darkness can fly in. I'm thinking about what killed Whitney Houston, Billie Holiday, Amy Winehouse, Chet Baker, etc. Maybe Kurt Cobain. Obviously it can be argued that drugs killed these people. But I feel there is something else going on, connected to the heart, and the sorrow in people, which they inhaled for us, and returned to us with such overwhelming sensitivity. There are other singers who died of our darkness, and of course there are the great singers who manage to survive the sorrow of their audience.
JK: “They inhaled for us" — that is interesting to me also and something I’m thinking about in this project: opera’s origins in tragedy and tragedy’s origins in sacrifice. There is a sacrificial aspect of performing.
AR: It is something beyond mere technique. And the dangerous, "mediumistic" part of the art, it seems to me.
JK: It is the Sonnet to Orpheus: “real singing is a nothing breath, a god blowing…”
AR: Yes! It sounds to me as though you have a clearheaded understanding of the danger in what you do, and also its power, what it gives to people. What I love about the way you combine talking and singing in your performances is that your voice is literally an instrument of shock. People don't listen to this kind of music that much these days, and we're not used to hearing voices like yours. There's a genial kind of, I don't know, Brechtian disruption going on when you hurl that sound at people. They just lose their shit and do not know what to do with themselves. It is somehow a punk rock gesture. I love it.
JK: I love that description. It is easier to mess with people in contexts where they're not coming to see me and don't know anything about me… It's harder to do at my own shows, but I try.
AR: That's probably something great about being a "multimedia" artist. I love showing up where nobody expects anything.
Ariana Reines is a poet, playwright, and performing artist. Her newest book is A Sand Book, out this June from Tin House. She has created performances for the Whitney Museum, Swiss Institute, Le Mouvement Biel/Bienne, and many more. She wrote the Obie-winning play TELEPHONE.
May 23, 2019
A soft pulsing unison is emitted from a group of dancers in a line, holding hands. I observe as Mor Mendel expertly transmits dance steps to Oren Barnoy, Raha Behnam and Zavé Martohardjono. Throughout Mor’s instruction, a chorus of syncopated voices drones lightly in the background: who was here first / they were here first / was I here first / how does it bloom.
Mor is Israeli but she didn’t grow up doing Israeli folk dances. However, after working with Hadar for several years, the steps appear to have deeply embedded in her body, in her muscle memory.
Hadar Ahuvia sits elsewhere at a table, pouring over a manuscript as the vibrations and textures of her dance wash over her. Much of this material has been used in her work before. When material from one’s own work becomes a new sort of trope to be complicated, referenced, and re-written, it is a serpent eating itself.
The group is learning a complicated sequence of steps and text phrases based on the Yemenite step. Each spoken phrase is a slight alteration of the previous, mirroring the way meaning might be obscured through a process of transmission. A string of words connects through their feet and the poetry gains new context through repetition.
Hadar tells me that she is recovering from a hip flareup a few days ago. “I could barely walk,” she says. She is convinced it is connected to a bike accident she had a few years ago, right before she left for a trip to Israel/Palestine to do humanitarian work. Through our friendship I also know that the trip stirred deep wounds between her and her Zionist family. “Now this stuff is finally getting into my work, and [the hip flareup] comes back.” The stuff she is talking about—it’s not the conflict in Israel/Palestine per se, but rather, the embodying of the conflict within her own family and how she has begun to unwind it.
Everything You Have is Yours, Hadar’s previous work, was a performance-lecture whose purpose was to artfully illustrate how Zionism built a nation through embodied ideology. It drew attention to cultural nuances that most Americans, and especially American Ashkenazi Jews, could likely miss, having low literacy on the many ethnic and cultural lineages embedded within Israel/Palestine. But it is the personal connections—the fact that Hadar’s grandfather was a literal pioneer of the Zionist Kibbutz movement, or that her mother performed in a semi-professional folk dance troupe, that make Hadar’s stakes in this information so real, so gut-wrenchingly tangible.
In The Dances are for Us Hadar attempts to foreground these personal stakes, while at the same time involving a larger group of collaborators in conversation, dance, and song. Her collaborators have varied backgrounds: some Jewish, some not. Some have relationships to folk dance and some do not. Raha takes scrupulous notes. Autumn Leonard, having just arrived, begins to get the new sequence down.
The group begins to dance a hora, a circle dance enjoyed at social occasions by Jews in Eastern Europe before and during the settling of Palestine. I enjoy watching the coexistence of many divergent physicalities. What gives a dance like this its unity and cohesion? Is it the stomping of feet? A decided posture, perfected by all? Or could it be said that a shared intention, a social contract like an invisible thread connecting hearts and minds, is enough?
Hora was practiced by Zionists before the founding of the state. It was danced by Jews who were not yet Israeli. This imagined diasporic dance provides a backdrop for Hadar’s personal narrative. She operates with dry humor, imbibing a character modeled after a male Israeli dance instructor. This alter-ego is a way for Hadar to morph; to inhabit a persona in order to subvert it.
Her story drifts between contexts and places. She starts in Hawai’i, where her Israeli family moved when she was in high school. There she pokes fun at Jews for Jesus who attempt to perform Israeli folk dance without the requisite credentials, or chutzpah. She narrates a family trip to the Gilboa mountains in Israel. She balances her reverence with the descriptive smell of cow manure. Her voice begins to change and soften as she questions the authenticity of her own memory and truth: “why this” and “why that?”
As the group dances, Hadar’s virtuosic commentary continues to shift the meaning of the repetitive steps. Her telling becomes a reparative midrash for a dance whose meaning has long been incorporated into a set of truths. I pause to reflect. Isn’t that what Jewish thought does? Continually question, debate, and complicate the well worn narratives, songs, and texts—if text could be considered a dance, a kind of text of the body? I am fascinated by the deep vestiges of Jewishness inside this making.
But not all Jews are the same. I remember being taught Israeli folk dances in elementary school by one of my classmate’s mothers. As an American Jew, I was confused. Was I supposed to feel some affinity to this tradition? The Israelis I knew were nothing like me. Their bodies were erect and confident and they spoke in loud voices. I remember bristling at the Israeli exchange student in my middle school. Her voice was too loud, her spine too erect. My own Jewish body felt meek in comparison. Her confidence embarrassed me.
Through Hadar’s work I have learned that this Israeli body, this sabra body, was meticulously constructed. It was made through erect, collectivist ideologies, manual labor, farming, military service… and dance. It might surprise you that dance could serve as a vehicle for such profound social transformation. However, for those who devote their lives to fine-tuning their bodies and nervous systems through somatic work, the potency of this proposal is not a stretch. This is what is so captivating about watching Hadar’s work unfold. The viewer experiences for themselves the implicit persuasion of embodied narratives taking hold.
This essay flows forth at a time when many of us with power and privilege are being asked and challenged to put words to the supremacies we have inhabited, unchecked for so long. With much reflection, I realize that my body exudes another kind of socialized confidence: a confidence accrued through White Privilege. This very real, very tangible confidence is seated in the embodied knowledge that my body will be safe, in almost any context; that my thoughts and ideas will be taken seriously, in almost any context… Does my confidence embarrass you?
“There are no equivalencies, but there are parallels,” interjects Hadar.
Israeli folk dance has many sources, some more overtly acknowledged than others. Much like our American melting pot myth, this cultural construct obscures the historical power dynamics and multi-ethnicities imbedded within it. The Ashkenazi founders of the folk dance movement modeled their music and dance on those observed from Bedouin, Palestinian, Yemenite Jews, Druz, and other peoples whose cultures emerged from thousands of years of desert dwelling. The culling of these sources was an overt effort by Zionists to affirm their “native-ness.”
Hadar is of Ashkenazi descent. Her lineage traces the very power and privilege she is trying to deconstruct. Can a performance be a part of equalizing power? There is a moment when all the performers leave the stage and Hadar plays the music of a Palestinian dabke. We are left to imagine, or contemplate, the void. It is not a perfect solution, and during the showing Hadar receives mixed feedback.
There is a general consensus that this moment can’t restore power to a people who aren’t in the room. But perhaps it can deflate the confidence of a narrative that props up those in power? So what does decolonization really mean? Does it mean physically leaving? Or does it mean, as I have heard it suggested by several Indigenous scholars, restoring power and equalizing the imbalances in our social and environmental ecology?
Questions of authority continue to surface. Hadar is trying to be transparent about her own limitations—the absence of origin, pure source, or even objectivity. “We’re not searching for an authentic moment. It’s about how the dances were used.”
At one point, an archival video shows Rivka Sturman, one of the folk dance movement’s founders. I can’t help myself—I am delighted by the image of this 80-something woman, surrounded by masses, all dancing her creations. Autumn calls this the “swan song moment.” “You get to see her humanity,” says Raha. “Tenderness,” says Zavé. “I associate [Hadar] with her.”
There is still a troubling sense that the information is one-sided. “There are no images to associate with source material,” says Raha. “Any time you have one voice in documentary, that voice starts sounding ‘correct,’” Autumn points out.
In regards to the moment when Palestinian dabke music plays for an empty stage, Zavé adds that “the imagination is colonized.” They offer an alternate meditation: As we begin to conjure a source in its absence, can we instead, draw attention to our colonized minds?
Tatyana Tenenbaum is the daughter of a fiber artist, granddaughter of Broadway producers, and great-granddaughter of Hungarian and Ukrainian Jewish immigrants who settled in New York City/Lenapehoking. She grew up doing community musical theater. Over the past decade she has performed and collaborated with Yoshiko Chuma, Daria Faïn, Jennifer Monson, Levi Gonzalez, Emily Johnson/CATALYST, Andy Luo & lily bo shapiro, Hadar Ahuvia, the DOING AND UNDOING collective, and Juliana May.
 A Israeli folk dance step based on the dances of Yemenite Jews. It was observed, appropriated and codified by folk dance founder Rivka Sturman, an Ashkenazi Zionist.
 Ashkenazi is a term for Jews of central or Eastern Europe descent.
 Midrash is a Judaic practice of providing extra commentary on biblical texts.
 Sabra is the desert prickly pear, a symbol chosen to represent the new Jew, born in Israel who had shed the physical and psychological trappings of the diaspora.
 Dabke is a folk dance practiced throughout the Levant, including in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Jordan. It is also the source on which the Israeli folk dance step Debka was based.
February 5, 2019
Watching the audience was one of the major pleasures of Sally Silvers’ piece ALONG at Roulette last night. I was with them, and in them, and they were also up there above us in balconies flanking the stage, and our collective fleeting looks of delight, absorption, boredom, restlessness, triumph, all contributed to the enduring patterning pinging the room.
We were destabilized always into being part of it. Along for the ride. And the dance was wyrd, deliberately so. First a golden spangled curtain on stage right withheld and released the dancers, and also they were standing along the walls waiting for their cues. Meanwhile, a bank of teevees full of shifting patterns faced us sitting in our central seats on the risers. Late in the show those teevees contained eyes, large ones, going horizontal and vertical, estranging the very organ of the eye itself, and I found myself thinking of my animal, a dog whose eyes are both shallow and deep as nature. Always I feel her outer limits, my dog, yet she’s other too. I go only so far in her world without language. Dancers murmur in this piece, not constantly but intermittently in a way that additionally jostled the scale of the production. A word or two would come across, enough for me to feel the life out there and simultaneously my apartness from it. The dancers’ wardrobe seemed like sylvan meets punk. Sally’s choreography derives from sci fi and the history of the genre was spoofed. She’s not a sci fi buff, so perhaps the immersive effect of the show is about our collective alienation in this political moment. Aliens are perpetually odd and desperate. Their fingers flail and signal one another. Sometimes they paw each other’s face for a vanishing contact, an expression of wellness or love. Aliens die because they’re not from here. One hits the floor and the other aliens sniff and surround their fallen friend. I thought of Gulliver among the Lilliputians. Do aliens feel alienated too. The entire cast of eight, at two different points, went full on at us sitting on the risers, confronting us with their faces, bodies, and eyes. A particular scale haunted the production. The non-western deployment of eyes alongside the weird finger dancing created a mutuality effect of us staring at them while they stared at us (I coined “an armada of ya” defensively while they bored in), and continually I nervously scanned the room to see how the other bodies felt. Sound design was active here. At one point a yearning electric Hawaiian guitar herded the dancers and our feelings into the next configuration of push pull and exhilaration, as if now we were at the brink of meaning. Or story. Dancers scare me. Have you ever been to a dancer’s birthday party where the rest of us are afraid to take the floor because they are such happy animals, so adept with their every tentacle, full of shared laughter and belonging and swift movement because they know what this means and we don’t. The regulators of Sally’s ALONG were three roller derby girls who barged onto the scene most often cued by a whistle and whirled in a tight formation, connected and pushing each other. Kathleen Hanna blaring. What they enforced in fact was the rhythm and the timing of the show. They made an outside, a there there. They girded the night. And punk, of course, in the history of the world, was an injection of ‘alien’ after the softer subversive hippy movement failed or moved on. Trying some weirdness was always youth culture’s next step. Think of it. Aliens enter cultural life when we can’t or refuse to assimilate what someone is trying to show, why “they” came. In ALONG it’s sometimes like we’ve got the Living Theater, with their arms raised, becoming trees or jeremiads. But rather than inviting us to join in and feel paradise, now we watch these aliens writhe and prance in a box, or a tube, so to speak. One of the major plot points of ALONG was the unexpected entrance of a drone. The alarming presence and the droning sound of it. Its green light hovered over the piece and the momentary thrill of such a device being on our side, the anticipation of something watching all this and us from above at our or Sally’s behest was an authentically fleeting passion. What the hell is dance after all. We sit in a square, or, I saw a rehearsal of ALONG on Skype a few weeks ago - a camera showed me a partial view of the show, and I puzzled over how something as vital as clusters of bodies in time and space gets telegraphed by a camera or a square room, and then we sit in order to see the spectacle almost as if it were flat. I guess we experience dance viscerally however it comes. We see one body halt and another act upon it, around it, and a third positions herself behind the other two, and the three interact, and I think oh dance is depth though sometimes there is dance in the streets, right, interpolated out there with traffic and passersby, but mostly it’s here in a box which effects the abstraction so the alienation we feel from our bodies can be shoved right in our face and then played with and torqued and then we feel awe and exhilaration at the wily manifestation of these special animals and tonight their invisible drone master, Sally, and poof then it’s gone. Why do dancers pick each other up I asked Sally. It’s framing, to make shapes, to let the dancer display form. Is there an average age I asked Sally. We were standing there after the show. Is it like horses that three is the correct derby moment. You know, and Derby is just a place in England, that’s all it means. And one dancer, Sally says, was free for all of September and that’s why he’s in all of the scenes. Or a lot of them. Who is that older man standing there when we talked. Is he a famous dancer. Oh no I like dancers of all ages Sally says but here they are in front of us, I’d say young and strange and ready to be used. The older man standing there. I wondered who he was. Then they all flail together, all at once, it’s ecstasy, it goes dark, and then it’s done.
Eileen Myles is a poet, novelist, public talker, and arts journalist. Their 21 books include evolution (poems), Afterglow (a dog memoir), a 2017 re-issue of Cool for You, I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems, and Chelsea Girls. Eileen is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Andy Warhol/Creative Capital Arts Writers grant, four Lambda Book Awards, the Shelley Prize from the PSA, and a poetry award from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. In 2016, Myles received a Creative Capital grant and the Clark Prize for excellence in arts writing. In 2019 they will be teaching at New York University and Naropa University and they live in NYC and Marfa, TX.
January 31, 2019
During the dark and silent nights following the merciless Hurricane María, Alexa Rivera sat down at her piano chair and played. Studying music and playing the piano has been part of her life since childhood.
She comes from a family line of artist players and performers of música jíbara, the Puerto Rican counterpart of American bluegrass and folk music; immersion in folk music and rigorous musical discipline, lovingly imposed on her, did her right. When she was most alone, and the island of Puerto Rico was most alone, the piano did not forsake her. Something about the way time stretched and the sounds of the land echoed compelled her. Out in the streets, she felt an unspoken language of brotherhood, and in the still of the night, HIHEAL was born. It is where Alexa delivers as composer, lyricist, vocalist, and player.
The calm after the storm hung heavy in Puerto Rico, and artists suffered tremendously. There was no work and little connectivity for most everyone. And there, where quiet reigned, Alexa journeyed and visualized a musical healing cycle anchored in the image of a tree with roots, trunk, branches, and lush foliage. The musical compositions Over Me and Under Me frame HIHEAL. The musical story moves clockwise with the melodic tune and lyrics of Jíbaro Anciano (Ancient Folk), the heartbeat of this album, dedicated to her grandfather. She writes down jíbaro anciano in the one o’clock position in the picture of the tree describing the musical journey of HIHEAL. Her grandfather represents her first memory of how she learned to love Puerto Rico, her homeland.
Alexa offers three reasonings about the project’s title. A play on words with the word “hi,” as in a greeting, and inspired by the word “high,” as in altitude. The word “heal” represents recovery. HIHEAL is about healing from a place above the practical world, a space of few words, a space for sound. HIHEAL also references the high heel of a woman’s shoe. Her femininity is cradling her creativity. She is so beautiful her looks may belie her talent and her deep sound. Deep cannot be faked; it is either a part of you or it is not. And Alexa has it. That spark that ignites when she is high in her musings. With her, nothing is gratuitous. There is always a backstory, and the backstory has a backstory, and she feeds them and integrates those mind and heart occurrences into her present sound.
On the second day of her residency at BAC in the Jerome Robbins Theater, Alexa welcomed me with a live concert with sound so vast and deep it brought tears to my eyes. Though very much a musician, Alexa is also a poet and a young weaver of dreams. Her commitment to music is pinned to universal notions of the battle of the self between darkness and light. She has given herself utterly to that notion and has broken free from thinking she has no voice, from feeling trapped within her expressive turf, and has proven yet again that no amount of modern life can substitute for the purity of the piano.
There’s a tune titled If You Want To, and another, Asymmetric, and Here and Now, and Kiss Your Nightmares. Alexa plays horror with love. Her live piano concerto to me ended with Over Me. Her musicality crystallizes maturity, exuding strength from the core melody as she stretched its sounds with her damper's touch.
On this second day of rehearsal she waits for Matt Geraghty (bass) and Ruben Coca (drums). Geraghty talks through some pointers and begins playing before Alexa plays the keys. She waits for the right time and comes in seamlessly on his cords, and it's magical. Geraghty’s entrance is Jeff Beck-like: unapologetic, spatial, expansive, directional. The Jerome Robbins Theater fills to the brim with the high and low chords of improvised classical piano and rock bass tones so steady nothing falls into discord. Vibrations stay together and the drums pace it all forward. Here in New York City, Alexa's HIHEAL reaches a high performing rehearsal trance dedicated to the present. There is purpose in playing each cycle of the album to its maximum. She and Matt are part of a collective that performs for global unity, creativity, and freedom. Artistically, creatively, and personally, Alexa stands at that intersection with her collaborations and explorations. Whoever she brings together meets humanity through music, where music carries them to weaving chords, understanding, patience, and trust. That’s how you HIHEAL; playing to play, to listen, to accept each other as artists, to fall for a melody that thrusts a sound, so you never forget it, because it belongs to the present, until the very end.
Soldanela Rivera has been a professional dancer, actress, choreographer, television host, production coordinator, teaching artist, project captain, documentary researcher, tour manager; a music, theater, and film publicist, a music concert and theater producer, an adjunct lecturer, and a director of communications for a community college in the South Bronx. She has worked in community centers, educational institutions, historic concert halls, museums, parks, prisons, stadiums, sound stages, and large and small theaters. She is a host and producer of the podcast Notes From A Native Daughter (NFAND), a weekly series of raw conversations about arts, culture, and society with figures from the Pan-American experience.
January 29, 2019
To explain her latest work, dancer and choreographer Ashwini Ramaswamy evoked a memory: bars on windows in India. (We were both born in America to Indian immigrants.) She moved onto discussing how a DJ or electronic musician recalls the past in the present, creating a new song that samples a snatch of an old one.
Meanwhile, bars on a window flash in a faraway brain. The connection, between forms of samples, led to an early vision, of an audience led to the diasporic headspace via music played first live, then remixed.
I had called to discuss the result of that vision: Let The Crows Come, the proposal which landed Ramaswamy a Fall 2018 BAC Space Residency at Baryshnikov Arts Center in Manhattan. A few weeks earlier, we met in the Danny Kaye & Sylvia Fine Kaye Studio at BAC. Ramaswamy wore a blouse and loose pants, a sari fastened on top. As she clapped I recalled the fearsome teachers from childhood trips to India. Alanna Morris-Van Tassell, a dancer trained in the Martha Graham school, improvised to her beat. Let The Crows Come unites dancers and musicians new to bharatanatyam, the dance form practiced by Ramaswamy, who—unlike the teachers of my memory—bears the flat a’s and cheer of the Midwest. In high school and college, she was a member of a different sort of “one percent,” as she put it later by phone: nonwhite students. Along with her sister and mother, with whom she now runs a bharatanatyam troupe based in Minneapolis, she immersed herself in her art. Her two worlds honed her ability to code switch: to enter any space and seem like a native.
Before the residency began, she read an article on the intelligence of crows. She had once thought of the sharp-beaked birds as harbingers of evil. A new sense jolted her. She thought to pair fixations: the integrity of crows with the cut-up rhythm of diasporic life.
Via online searches, crow cameos surfaced in ancient text. In a hymn from 5th century BCE poet Valmiki’s version of the Ramayana, the Hindu god Rama pierces with an arrow the eye of a man in the form of a crow. The crow gets a boon: to see spirits others cannot. At the close of a poem from the Tamil Sangam tradition about a lovelorn woman, a crow lands on the mast of a ship to observe the humans below. A third text sources to a 9th century Vedic architecture treatise, the Brihat Samhita, vast enough to consider flowers and insects. The excerpt uses the movements of crows to predict the future.
Texts brighten points in Ramaswamy’s orbit: from the bird’s “other sightedness,” to the longing of the woman, and the nonlinearity of a Brihat Samhita sense of time. By phone, Ramaswamy sounded very much the sampler of a DJ paradigm, laughing that she slanted her read of them to suit “a theory” she has “chosen to adopt.” Meanwhile, untrained bodies move to Sanskrit words and control their sound. Like the second generation kid, bharatanatyam can wear new clothes and still be itself.
Mallika Rao is a writer in Brooklyn. Her work centers a diasporic, second gen American perspective, and can be found online and in the pages of The New York Times, The Believer, The Village Voice, Vulture, and The Atlantic, where she is a regular digital contributor.
January 15, 2019
With a gentle urgency, James Allister Sprang wants me to understand something about his set up. In his studio at Baryshnikov Arts Center, he talks it through while we can’t help but catch up in a kind of standing dance, clicking, turning, and tinkering with his equipment, digressing and teaching.
Our conversation loops through his set up, dives down into the personal, flies around “poetry,” into laughter, back to the set up, time travels in a backwards/forwards spiral toward the work he’s making now. Later, at our third meeting, he draws this set up in my notebook. See: he’s got this library of language he’s cultivated through interviews, words spoken and written and read by others, mostly poets and scholars, mostly women of color—words he’s studied enough to treat as a medium; dials for shaping the sounds’ resonances, their emergence into and creation of a physical space; backing tracks he’s composed along with Aon (Pablo Chea); and a looping station, familiar, key to the sense of a live mind responding by returning, by combining, listening through the creation of sound.
In my notes and memory, I realize that my questions about how this set up works are full of bad metaphors, binaries (the human versus the technological) that I don’t believe in, do I? James’ responses are a creativity of patience—guiding me at one point toward Eshu, Yoruban trickster god of the crossroads, the fader, divining with his palm nuts on a platter, stylus reading the groove—mythic and linguistic ancestry for the turntable. In translating the technical aspects of his production of sound and language for Turning Towards a Radical Listening, Sprang’s care feels sacred, feels joyful; this care insists on language (just one way to organize sound) as a constantly and multiply mediated phenomenon, a kind of deadly miracle. His work as GAZR has entered a new stage, moving from speaking to listening, from, he says, “poet-rapper” to “listener, doing the work of a poet.” The complexly musical, social, and psychological space-times orchestrated by GAZR’s deep energy, in word and body, have phased from the exterior toward the interior—though the medium of sound is always playing with the distinction. This performance is a work to practice, to cultivate, to model, to argue for a virtuosity of listening.
To begin, this one time: the looping rhythmic knock of the skip hop of a needle on vinyl; GAZR’s voice asking Google’s Speech API to recognize and display certain words in the document projected on the central screen, take familiar actions (“SELECT ALL!” he speaks then shouts into one mic dangling from the studio ceiling, then the other)—and the failure of his rising voice to be recognized. The audience laughs at the program’s failure to do its job, but, built into the DNA of this performance is the fact of technology’s bias—highlighted by the work of scholar Safiya Noble (i), whose interview he cites and mixes. I hear a primer in the hum throbbing over the skip, maybe a tuning of the body to the dynamics of sound. The shriek up and shred down that shuffles the ears toward what becomes loosened and attenuated in the body as he elevates the frequencies or rolls them low, shifts the balance, alters the kind of space the sound comes from.
And then the words land, bubbling up from a pitch. Words that speak, in my ears, to the problem of having and being had by a colonizer’s language: English, to long for other languages. To need it to survive, and to be historically and systematically misheard. Amber Rose Johnson says, “This language which is the only language that I have, that is mine, is also not, and never will be.” What happens, sonically, is wildly more and less than this sentence, simply rendered in text. GAZR’s live mixing transmits, amplifies, degrades, hones, and mediates these sounds, words from his library—working the levels, weaving tracks like paths and directions toward and away from access, reception, comprehension. All the while Google’s Speech API is “listening,” “translating” the sounds it hears into that projected text behind him, generating its own poetry. Conceptually as well as sonically, GAZR builds toward intersectional lessons in the form of questions: How is listening a kind of mixing? How do we learn by altering what we hear? How can a greater awareness of the ways technology organizes our sound intervene, at the physical level, in how and who we hear?
Words flutter, unfurl, pound, and leap amid crisis sounds, doom sounds, peace sounds. I recognize the voice of Claudia Rankine, reading from the Stop-and-Frisk / Script for Situation video in Citizen. The mix haunts me, haunts itself with “so angry you can’t drive yourself sane.” (ii) The crawling iterations of a looped phrase, ticked below a choral wave—voice against voice, patterned in different increments—the emergence, disappearance, and return of certain words inside of his live mixing: “mine” / “we need.” GAZR tells me mixing codes moves into his physicality, bumping and leaning into small gestures spiraling out. Google’s program wants to turn off because it’s overwhelmed. It shouldn’t be uncanny that there’s something “human” about the computer’s variable ease or struggle, its uneven error. Some voices in the mix are “heard” by the voice-to-text program more accurately than others—specifically mine, emitting from this white body. GAZR’s work suggests the same could be said of us as individual bodies: that a desire to hear, to understand does not outmuscle the structural biases we inherit through language, context, culture. Complicity with the problem is not optional; it is a function of language, of our tools.
Witnessing this performance, GAZR invites you to feel into what you do with sound, to attend to yourself as you listen for what you hear when a sentence becomes a word, becomes a phoneme, becomes a beat, becomes attenuated into a string digitally plucked: Can you hear (in yourself) the stakes in what moves you? Do you want to dance (with me)? Who gets to make meaning (inside you) when they speak?
i. Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of Oppression (New York: NYU Press, 2018).
ii. Claudia Rankine, Citizen (Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2014).
Sara Jane Stoner is a teacher, writer, and PhD candidate in English at CUNY Graduate Center, critically obsessed with the erotics of consciousness. Her first book, Experience in the Medium of Destruction (Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Labs), was nominated for a Lambda Award.
January 9, 2018
Every day in courthouses across the country, thousands of potential jurors are asked a similar litany of questions. Transcriptions of the process pass from court stenographer to an online database, and into the hands of Morgan Green and Milo Cramer, two Brooklyn-based theater artists.
Green and Cramer spend three weeks in a rehearsal studio collaging those words and recording their own performances of the transformed texts. On one November afternoon in that same studio, those recordings are played into the ears of actors, who speak the text in front of an audience. Performance. Transmission. Transformation. Performance.
In the American justice system, voir dire (French for “to see to speak”) is the process by which a judge interrogates a jury pool in order to learn of their potential biases. Green was fascinated by the process when she was called for jury duty and sat for voir dire, watching a room full of strangers share some version of themselves in an experience that is mandatory, coldly bureaucratic, and intimate all at once. Though she wasn’t selected for the jury, she describes the experience as life-affirming: “I felt like an individual. I felt like a citizen.”
Cramer was similarly excited by the inherent drama of voir dire. He describes it as like striking “formal gold,” providing the pair with a compelling, prefabricated structure through which to interrogate both the ideals of the American judicial system and its failings. What’s remarkable about their work thus far is how much voir dire rhymes with the act of making theater: a process of truth-seeking in which individuals perform themselves in miniature in a high stakes environment.
In their workshop presentation, Robert Johanson stands at a table, speaking the text of the judge: “No one is here to judge anyone as a person,” he says directly to the audience, arousing that often-divisive dread that this might be one of those Audience Participation Shows. Eventually, LaToya Lewis, who sits in the front row while her face is live-streamed onto a television, begins to speak the collaged text of all the potential jurors, preserving the inaccuracies and failures of the transcription process: “I think that the inaudible. I think it all comes down to high inaudible.” Though the presentation is simple, faithful to the voir dire process, whatever truth was revealed in the original courtroom may be just out of reach.
On the other side of their residency, Green and Cramer point to the balance of audience participation as their most pressing decision point. They both admit that they tend to hate audience participation: “Your defense mechanisms go up,” says Cramer. In one of their presentations, Green describes watching an audience member sitting behind Lewis who saw his face appear in the live video feed and slowly shifted in his seat until he moved out of frame.
And yet the questions they’re asking about how audience participation works its way into their piece also most clearly parallel the questions they’re asking about the justice system: To what extent is participation mandatory? What is at stake when one participates? What are we honest about and what do we hide when we perform ourselves to a room full of strangers? “Maybe what my preferences and tastes are in theater go against what this piece needs to be,” says Green. “We’re open to that.”
Elliot B. Quick is a dramaturg, producer, director, and educator who received an MFA in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism from the Yale School of Drama. He has worked as a Literary Associate with Playwrights Horizons, Yale Rep, and Page 73, and as an Editorial Associate for The Civilians’ Extended Play. As a freelance dramaturg and director, his work has been seen at the Sharon Playhouse, the Under the Radar Festival, the Invisible Dog, Ojai Playwrights Conference, The Access Theater, The Fisher Center at Bard College, and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. He currently teaches at the Maggie Flanigan Studio and at SUNY Purchase College.
June 24, 2018
Rehearsal Report: ”You can think of yourself as a collection”
In early April at a rehearsal for RoseAnne Spradlin’s latest piece, tentatively titled Y, eight dancers walk onto black marley from all directions of the room. They lightly settle into an insular posture of group repose, and then they set off.
The studio shades are drawn, the city peeks in, an industrial soundtrack made by collaborator Glen Fogel accompanies them. The ambience is composed of rehearsal recordings - footfalls and running. Spradlin tells me these percussions are cut with nature sounds “like birds and people walking over large rocks and gravel,” all aiding and abetting the effect of arrival. It’s a kind of inversion of alien visitation (how beautiful that humans may visit themselves) here in this pristine rehearsal room, for the common myth holds that extraterrestrials can best show themselves in the throes of nature. But in this case weirdness is a collection of purposeful bodies moving in a space arbitrarily demarcated for the purpose of art. Against a gritty and compressed churn, I find myself paying attention to the dancers’ shared agreement with the floor, how mysteriously anchored their limbs seem to the ground, and if one body takes off another will bring it back down just as quickly. It is hard to locate a romantic feeling in the hive, and maybe that’s because all the feeling has been turned inside out - it is not a vocabulary of coyness - or rather, returned to its original location: the surface of the skin. To be touched is not just a metaphor; contact creates response in sequences flowing, acute and unprecious.
Approximately 20 minutes in, the flock begins to lap the room clockwise while one dancer, Athena Malloy, stands against a barre observing the herd. It could be the emergence of an opinion or a personality as she slowly enters the current and slumps to the floor; the runners form elliptical orbits around her person that taper into a still tableau. (I later learn that my narrative imposition is a product of chance, Malloy nursing an injury that day.) Crunching sound gives way to birds as the dancers look up and out. Connor Voss, in a tye-dyed shirt and shorts that bag over his skinny legs, walks downstage, obscuring the group portrait, punching the air once, then twice, and walking away. The camera is tilted upwards to face the light grid, the movement complete for now.
This is only a teaser, Spradlin tells me - the four repetitions composing the structure of this material have since doubled to eight - but as a sketch it begins to hint at the surprise theatrics I have come to love in her dances, achieved through deeply roundabout yet highly incisive sensorial explorations. Looking at this footage, I think about visiting the studio a month prior, the company just beginning its work; a newly formed collective, many of the dancers are entering Spradlin’s process for the first time. Waiting for the choreographer, who has been delayed by an appointment, I sit against the wall and watch them warm up for a long time, each dancer absorbed in a wholly idiosyncratic dialogue with their own body. For some, stretching dissipates into collegial conversation, while others remain focused on what is physical and unobservable to my eye.
Spradlin enters and assembles the group. I turn on my tape recorder as she starts to talk with the company, beginning with the simple premise: “You can think of yourself as a collection of cells,” tracing along one dancer’s body the potential of a sideways consciousness. “You don’t have to make any of this happen, but this idea of lateral lines, like fish.” And they do seem to form a school, in their youth and mass, but there is nothing pedantic about Spradlin’s tone, which is more akin to invitation than dogma. As a witness to this methodology of finely grained haptics, I have the uncanny sensation of having been here before, reminded of watching Spradlin in technical rehearsal for g-h-o-s-t-c-r-o-w-n (working title) at New York Live Arts in 2014, where once again she was in close proximity to a performer’s body, using just the slightest amount of pressure from her hands to jump start a memory of what the performer already knew so that they could make a difficult turn. “You just have to feel it,” she said.
In correspondence, I ask Spradlin about the title of the piece and she writes: “Early on, I was calling the new work star child (moving over the ground). Around APAP time, I just decided to change the title to Y. My last piece was called X and so far it's been getting good reviews and feedback, but I haven't yet got any touring for it. I guess it feels less like I'm abandoning X if I call my next work Y …” I pay attention to the language here, the sense I am already getting of extraordinary creatures or changelings being embodied in Y, and how its seeds were planted in the precursor, a work for three bodies that premiered at the Joyce in 2016. X seemed to propose the dancer as hungry mole, eyes located in knees and backs and arms. Dislocated vision reinvented ballet barres as features of a survivalist gymnasium, everything made strange, wondrous, and more hypnotically rigorous by virtue of a world gone askew. I guess that world is always right here too, even as it eludes us outside the studio walls. Of course, I wonder what Spradlin is looking towards as the latest work’s gaze shifts into eerie distance... every work as odd as a newborn coming into ambulatory power, fierce and preternaturally wise, perhaps mostly so when sidewise.
Jess Barbagallo is a writer, director, performer, arts journalist, and teacher based in New York City. Playwriting credits include: Not for Resale (in collaboration with Lex Powell and the NYU Drama Therapy program); Melissa, So Far; My Old Man (and Other Stories); Sentence Fetish; Joe Ranono’s Yuletide Log and Other Fruitcakes; Karen Davis Does …; Good Year for Hunters; Room for Cream: A Live Lesbian Serial; Saturn Nights; and Grey-Eyed Dogs. He is currently acting in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Lyric Theatre.
Jun 21, 2018
Someone I once dated introduced “tabanca” into my lexicon. It is an affective state referenced in many soca songs, mourning the end of carnival time before it’s even begun—that lovesick feeling you get when you desire someone or something that has yet to be lost.
When I meet Sacha in her studio for the first time, she hands me a photography book about the Borscht Belt while recounting what she’s been able to patch together about Shirley, her maternal grandmother. It was the 1950s, and Shirley would throw off the thick blanket of New York City humidity and make her way up north to The Concord, one of the many Jewish-owned and operated resorts in the Catskills. The Borscht Belt was a repository of the American Dream for Jewish folks, a post-war survival strategy. The promise of security and affirmation of resilience could be found at the nightly kosher dinner buffet lit by a cluster of chandeliers.
In the mind’s eye of her granddaughter, Shirley was a housewife seeking a clarifying mountain breeze for a brain humming with McCarthy-era paranoia. She was also Cherie Dre, an elusive showgirl who spent her summers at The Concord’s Imperial Room entertaining dinner guests with sensual cabaret acts. According to secondhand accounts from family members, Shirley was likely living with undiagnosed bipolar disorder or paranoid schizophrenia, with Cherie Dre being her alter ego.
Sacha’s studio showing at BAC was the first time I met Shirley and Cherie Dre. With fine manipulations of the brow, slight shifts of weight in the feet, and carriage of the shoulders, Sacha is an embodied dimmer switch who fluidly oscillates between the physicalities and timbres of two women she knows so deeply yet incompletely. One moment, she is Shirley, who gives a glowing review of The Concord’s five-star amenities as if you’re sitting across from her at the dining room table. In the next instant, Cherie Dre trails in like a feather boa: “Come on in, meet the girls,” she announces in a husky, flirtatious drawl as she leans her back against an invisible vanity table.
Sacha, Shirley, and Cherie Dre are knitted together like fascia.
As I flip through the pages of the Borscht Belt book, I notice the stark contrasts in landscape documented by the photographs: A 1950’s advertisement, in its highly saturated optimism, features smiling tan people leisurely congregating by the poolside. A photograph taken in the 2000’s depicts that same pool abandoned and crumbling at its edges, covered in carpets of moss. Sacha wonders out loud what Shirley may have been up to during those luxurious summers at The Concord, as if placing a transparency of the ad over the image of contemporary decay. Together, we process the phenomenon of vacation as it relates to trauma, the false dichotomy between reality and delusion, past and present, grief and closure.
Sacha’s tetherdness to Shirley and Cherie Dre is tabanca as I understand it: the practice of learning to love through the prism of loss. It is a lesson passed down like a matrilineal heirloom. A hasty distillation of Cherie Dre could cast her existence as the manifestation of Shirley’s undiagnosed mental illness. I think a more tender interpretation can acknowledge this narrative while holding space for contradicting truths, more expansive interpretations of reality. After all, what is a delusion if it is someone you know by their first name?
As Director of Programming at Abrons Arts Center/Henry Street Settlement, Ali Rosa-Salas develops the Center’s live programming and exhibitions with Artistic Director Craig Peterson. As an independent curator, she has produced visual art exhibitions, performances, and public programs with AFROPUNK, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, Danspace Project, Knockdown Center, MoCADA, Weeksville Heritage Center, and more. She has also organized discursive events as an Alumnae Fellow at the Barnard Center for Research on Women and as the Associate Curator of the 2017 American Realness Festival. She graduated from Barnard with a B.A. in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, with interdisciplinary concentrations in Dance and Race/Ethnic Studies and has an M.A. from the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance at Wesleyan University. In addition to her role at Abrons, Ali supports electronic music DJs and producers through her work with Discwoman.