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.
Writer, teacher, and “performance enabler” Aaron Landsman is currently curious about a particular set of hours: 2:50-5:10. While he attaches no modifier to these numbers in his performance text Night Keeper, audience members in attendance at his recent showing of the work in the Rudolf Nureyev Studio at Baryshnikov Arts Center quickly understood his preoccupation with the after-midnight as actor Jehan Young brought down the shades in the large studio. Two women fanning themselves to ward off the late-June heat seemed particularly grateful for this respite from the day’s sun. Situated in near-darkness, illuminated only by a clip light throwing brightness against a cool stone wall, Jehan began to read Landsman’s text to a crowd assembled against a long wall while some viewers chose to sit in chairs arranged in pairs throughout the massive room:
“Maybe you’re 9 years old? Maybe 8. Maybe 10. You can’t fall asleep.”
From this position the 9 or 8 or 10 year old is privy to their parents’ television set playing a late-night talk show. From this position, more acutely, the 9 or 8 or 10 year old learns how to use restlessness as an opportunity for oblique communion. It’s an inciting moment: the discovery of a very foundational intimacy with the self mediated by the comings-and-goings of close creatures who become mysterious by virtue of their present, yet hidden activities.
Over the course of the monologue, accompanied by guitarist Norm Westberg’s exquisite live loops—built through improvisation in the rehearsal room with a few pre-mixed samples at the ready—a child’s first brush with restlessness becomes an adult’s quiet battle with insomnia, heroically reclaimed as “night keeping.” And in the in-between space of this journey, the restless child and sleepless adult/parent become conversational companions (the dialogue performed with light characterization by Jehan) as the piece toggles between observations made between the aforementioned space of 2:50-5:10 by the lone adult and more playful episodes initiated by the precocious kid.
“What was it like when you were as young as me?”
“That’s actually a really long time ago.”
“It used to be that when we wanted to reach someone we had to be in the house, attached to a wall by an umbilical contraption called the telephone.”
Sleeplessness opens the floodgates of memories temporally near and far, often blurring the distinction. For anyone who has ever been haunted by a particularly searing experience, something that happened ten or twenty years ago can feel, as they say, like yesterday. But Aaron is not so interested in recounting traumas as he is in marveling at the changes he has witnessed in himself and the world. His memories live in the lovely banal, so plain they invite audience members to recall the nights they have spent in foreign beds, been kept awake by the sounds of garbage trucks, and tracked the revolving doors of their overpopulated apartment buildings. In that way, the piece is a love letter to the city dweller. And I am that.
In Aaron’s project those memories become sites on a map, replacing chronology with association. In Night Keeper, he physically realizes this idea by creating a movement score in collaboration with Jehan that travels through the audience. During the showing that I’ve been describing, I served as Jehan’s assistant—a fellow night keeper, albeit a quiet, lurking one— bringing her chairs and striking a light to build and collapse Aaron’s short scenes. The performance ended with a short commiserating exchange between the two of us—man, this job, am I right?—preceded by a dance of smartphones constructed by choreographer Hilary Clark with the assistance of David Guzman, who taught me and Jehan the sequence the day before the work was presented to the public.
I performed this text myself in 2020 at the Chocolate Factory in an earlier work-in-progress showing, so I am familiar with Aaron’s thinking and writing. But the better verb might be whittling, as Aaron continues to sculpt the text in small fits of subtraction, generating bursts of text to be cut, cut, cut as he listens to their resonance in the room. At the top of my script, I made a little note, eavesdropping on Aaron in conversation with Norm as they discussed a contrapuntal relationship that had begun to emerge between Jehan’s delivery and the musician’s guitar. I heard Aaron say: “It brings out a sentimental quality that I think is kinda scary-good.” In the dimmed lights of the Nureyev, designed by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, I liked contemplating what makes sentimentality scary and good. In the final moments of Night Keeper, opening her gaze out to a rapt crowd of fellow night keepers (spoiler: we all keep the night), Jehan reports in tones even and poignant: “We sag with moisture. Our arms are hoops. Regrets lullaby us.” I cannot say I understand the steps of her logic, but there are traces of tears and shapes of holes in her prosaic musings. And no one’s pillow is a stranger to those marks.
By a Waterfall: Children of Immigrants Chart a Path to the Sacred
In 1842 there was a massive earthquake in Haiti, and legend has it that the quake created a large waterfall, called Le Saut. The area surrounding it, called Saut-d’Eau (French for waterfall), or Sodo in Haitian Creole, has become a destination for pilgrims, both Catholics and practitioners of vodou, who visit the site during the festival of Our Lady of Carmel, in mid-July.
Fifty years earlier, in the late 18th century, Haitians had mounted the only successful slave revolt in history, establishing the first independent black state in the Americas. The Catholic Church tried for years to suppress the effects of this rebellion, and French banks have strangled the nation’s economy for decades as a result of it; these tensions played out in Saut-d’Eau, where manifestations of miracles—like an apparition of the Virgin Mary in a tree—were suppressed by French priests concerned about superstitious practices. The priests promptly died, the Haitians took this as a kind of sacred vengeance, and the Catholic clergy have come to accept the pilgrimage, with its associated syncretic festivities, as a fact of Haitian life. A primary devotional activity is bathing in the waterfall.
Phyllis Galembo, a longtime observer of Haitian art and life, visited the site more than 20 years ago during the mid-summer festival, and photographed pilgrims cleansing their bodies and souls in the water. Her 2021 book, Sodo, inspired choreographer Gaspard Louis, whose BAC Open residency began in early June.
Gaspard, raised in Port-Au-Prince until his early teens, was transplanted to New Jersey by his Protestant mother, but he also went to his father’s Catholic church. “In fact,” he tells me, “I enjoyed it more than the Protestant church, because it was more fun and shorter. I didn't care much for the long hours of Sunday school. However, we were not allowed to appreciate the vodou religion, which I came to find out is the heartbeat of Haiti.”
His parents’ plans for him included safe and lucrative professions: law, medicine, or business. He always wanted to be an actor, but faced a language barrier; French and Creole were his first languages, and he came to English late. While a student at Montclair State, practicing martial arts, he was lured into performing in a dance show. The rest is history: after touring with ALLNATIONS Dance Company, based at New York’s International House, he made it into Pilobolus and spent 10 years there, finding along the way a wife, spending a few years in the business career his parents sought for him, and finally working his way back to the dance world.
He is fifty now and a father of two; he was born in the same year as Pilobolus, the company he joined as a fledgling dancer that supported him well for a decade. Now he’s director of Gaspard & Dancers and the choreographer of Sodo, the brand-new, beautiful duet he built in June in the Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine Kaye Studio at BAC, collaborating with performers Kevin Boateng and Marsha Guirlande Pierre, who dance the roles of a young couple visiting the falls to sanctify their relationship. Mahalia Stines, a Brooklyn-based Haitian Jew who practices vodou, is designing sets and costumes; he brought to her attention Galembo’s book of photographs. Daniel Bernard Roumain’s piano-and-violin score for the 17-minute piece incorporates Stines’ recitation in Haitian Creole of a text from the book, a poem by Jean Leopold Dominique.
This information does not begin to reveal the experience of witnessing the piece itself, and the process by which Gaspard fine-tunes the choreography and the performances by this dream team of dancers. Working five hours a day for 12 days, the three of them build the dance collaboratively, approaching it as a mutual responsibility rather than a top-down delivery of steps. Their movement creates a breeze in the room. I arrive in the middle of the process, on day seven, in time to watch and listen to Stines as she hovers in the studio with bags of material, feeling out the necessary textiles and props. On one edge of the performance space lies a circle of cloth on which rests an enamel bowl full of water, herbs, and berries; a simple mug; and a candle. Alongside this tableau is a little wooden chair with a cane seat. Stines sets out a dozen small battery-powered votives that are crucial to the final moments of the work.
“Let me just go make a fool of myself,” Gaspard mutters as he heads onto the dance floor to demonstrate, full out, what he wants the dancers to try. And then, as he clambers back up onto his feet, “Oh, Elizabeth, never get old.” I have 27 years on him, actually, so I know where he’s coming from; though the plastic chairs in the studio are among the best I’ve ever encountered, my body still seizes up after hours of sitting on one.
The two dancers are rarely still, taking the initiative to rehearse the complex choreography even when Gaspard is busy elsewhere. Fearless and independent, they slide, they somersault. She’s his protector, he her cavalier. They give each other space. They spiral around each other, their spines in constant, sinuous motion. She jumps onto his back; he sits on her knee. The pair direct themselves as Gaspard watches; it appears to be a joyous process.
Marsha, 25, is a compact, lively dancer, born in Trenton, New Jersey and raised primarily on the east coast of the U.S. by Haitian parents; her father insisted she learn Creole. Three years out of Montclair State, and experienced as a modern dancer with Limon and Carolyn Dorfman, she now lives in the Bronx and works as a yoga teacher and social media editor for a church. Kevin, 30, speaks Twe; his parents are from Ghana, and he lives in Dallas, commuting to rehearse with Gaspard, mostly in New York. He’s ballet-trained; his “dance mom,” he says, is Kihyoung Choi, a former member of the Korean National Ballet who now teaches in neighboring Fort Worth.
The work they are doing together is, I must confess, breathtaking. It’s clear that Gaspard chose them for who they are as people as well as for their technical prowess. “I entered into this project with a level of care and sensitivity,” says Kevin. “I wanted to be respectful of the culture and the creative process. The African and Caribbean cultures are so similar—traditions, food, how we wash our hands, our clothes….”
“My mom would put herbs in water—ferns and eucalyptus—and wash me with it,” adds Marsha. “Eucalyptus is good for your energy.” The bowl on the studio floor is, it turns out, full of ferns and eucalyptus.
During a break one afternoon, I ask all three about their history with swing dancing, with the Lindy. They look at me blankly. “I’m an immigrant,” Gaspard reminds me. But there is something about the way he has built this duet, the way Marsha and Kevin perform it, that seems, though made on exquisitely trained dancers comfortable with the intimacy of contact improvisation, at once casual and serious and social, channeling the very soul of African style
Gaspard and his dancers return to the studio in August, preparing for a tour that will take them and Sodo to Duke University in Durham, North Carolina; to Wilmington, North Carolina; and on to the Dominican Republic, and Croatia. Turning a still visual artifact—in this case a suite of photographs of a sacred site—into choreography is a process fraught with danger, but Gaspard has managed it well, and the world awaits the chance to view the finished piece.
Elizabeth Zimmer has written about dance, theater, and books for many publications including Dance Magazine and The Village Voice. She offers writing workshops for students and professionals across the country, and edits manuscripts of all kinds. She contributed to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Halifax and Vancouver from 1971-1978, covered ballet for the Philadelphia Inquirer (1997 – 2005), edited the dance section of The Village Voice (1992 -2006), and has served as a critic there and elsewhere since 1981. She taught in the Hollins University MFA dance program (2011-2019), where she met Gaspard Louis, and has studied many forms of dance.
In February 2020, I was approached with the opportunity to write two BAC Stories – one on Justin Hicks, and one on Yin Mei. The threat of COVID-19 already looming, it didn’t yet seem as though we were headed towards the shutdown that ultimately took place – however by mid-March, Baryshnikov Arts Center, along with the rest of the world as I knew it, had announced indefinite closure (“at least through March 31,” they said…).
As a writer, I had largely been a performance reviewer leading up to this opportunity. Always more interested in unpacking than assessing, the notion of chronicling a process versus evaluating a product was so deeply tantalizing, such a move forward, and, as such, all the more profound a loss for me.
Throughout the pandemic, BAC was quick to find a rhythm with its digital programming, which included a virtual commission from Hicks, which, oddly enough, I was assigned to review for Eye on Dance and the Arts. It wasn’t until April 2021 that I received word of BAC resuming its residencies, with Yin Mei scheduled for May 17-28. I jumped at the opportunity to resume work that had yet to be, and set aside as many times as I could to get the fullest possible impression of Yin Mei’s process.
Only available for a few hours of four days within Yin Mei’s two weeks, I knew off the bat I had to fight my completionist instincts. It was all the more fitting that Yin Mei’s residency took place in the John Cage & Merce Cunningham Studio, the spirits of whose namesakes I felt granting me permission to see and respond to whatever I happened to chance upon. Little did I know at the time that this was the only way to really understand what Yin Mei was up to.
Wednesday, May 19, 2021, 4pm
I walk into what feels like a construction site. Floor and walls are covered in printer’s paper, which, in turn, is covered, to various degrees, in paint, ink, and charcoal. In addition to the space’s surfaces, individual rolls of paper hang from the rig above. Five crowd where I enter like a forest, while one hangs on its lonesome across the way, caught between the studio’s massive windows in the afternoon light.
I come in during lunch. The first person I see is Taylor Myers. Taylor and I both went to NYU Tisch – he in Drama, I in Dance. We sang tenor in a school chorus together, after which we lost touch but remained mutual admirers. I shriek and call him Tyler by mistake. His arms and legs are smattered with gray and black pigment. He is improvising gently and freely to recorded music as cinematographer Yao Wei captures his every move from within a steadycam rig.
Isabella Bower is mixing gray acrylic paint with water. A student of Yin Mei’s in the Dance Department at Queens College, she is serving as a versatile hand on deck for whatever task Yin Mei may dream up. She tells me of what has happened before – how we got here. The process of laying down the paper…what markings happened when and how…
Not here today is another performer, Erick Montes. I’ll catch him next time.
When the work resumes, Yin Mei begins to ask Taylor if his feet can fit in a paint tray. Taylor has a way of asking Yin Mei questions that help guide her towards a clearer idea of what she’s looking for. The tray is filled with gray paint, and, both feet planted inside, Taylor swings his arms to scoot himself forward in space like a giant trying a human sled. Paint flings out and back from his forward thrusts, leaving a deceptive trail. Yin Mei laments to Yao Wei – “You weren’t filming?”
I would have lamented, too; it looked really cool. I myself was about to film the bit on my phone, but was so taken by the moment there was no time to think about anything other than the moment itself.
Yao Wei is there to capture everything. His camera is always rolling, from 1-6pm for two weeks. It’s a lot.
They try another variation – Taylor directs his spacing into more of a loop than a line. After, Yin Mei holds his hand like a ballroom dancing partner, helping Taylor to take sharper turns and maintain more precarious balances to Chet Baker’s “I Get Along with You Very Well.”
They use silk screen spreaders to further spread the residue of Taylor’s activities into the paper on the floor.
Switching gears, Yin Mei and Taylor each take a piece of charcoal to the back wall, commencing a contact improvisation with each other as well as the wall, leaving traces of their motions via the charcoal in their hands against the paper on the wall. The physicalities are varied – regular drawing, dancing which initiates the arm to leave marks, and more extreme reaches and jumps that leave more particular marks.
Seeing Taylor and Yin Mei move together is a great character study. Yin Mei is slow, methodical, intuitive, and elegant. As choreographer and performer, she steps out and observes, often enjoying what she is facilitating. Taylor is strong but gentle, save when he is overcome with boyish impulses, such as throwing his piece of charcoal aggressively against the wall, leaving an accordingly explosive trace.
The exploration feels honest, yet meandering, until Yin Mei is compelled to take white paint to begin highlighting the marks that have been made, bringing out a post-hoc intentionality to free impulses. As soon as this image is given more structure, Yin Mei goes over the composition with blotches of red and black, using the silk screen spreader.
So engrossed in their work, they barely have enough time to clean up.
Thursday, May 20, 2021 4pm
Erick is back, lying with Taylor on the floor in a heap of markings. Yao Wei keeps track of them at a distance, while Susan Mei, who, at the time, was serving as an extra cameraperson but is now editing the results of the residency, captures them up close.
There are new panels of paper on what yesterday was a bare wall.
Yin Mei had come to like a section of the floor so much yesterday that she covered it over with another layer of paper so that the image would remain intact while they continued their work.
As a trio, Erick, Taylor and Yin Mei take turns soloing with charcoal on a bare stretch of wall. They each have different characters to using friction and weight.
Erick and Yin Mei find themselves in a mirroring duet while Taylor continues to draw alone.
Taylor joins, partnering Erick, leaving Yin Mei as the odd one out.
Remembering yesterday’s exploration, she grabs a bucket of watered-down ink and nestles her feet inside.
Without having to be told, Erick and Taylor each take an arm, and help Yin Mei fling herself through space, off kilter.
A pattern begins to emerge of stepping back and admiring the visual traces of their physical improvisations, as though an audience to their own art show – the difference being that most, if not all of the visual component is purely accidental and vestigial – a comparatively permanent, though haphazard, result of more intentional, however ephemeral, movement.
It turns out that they are able to take showers at the space.
Wednesday, May 26, 4pm
I enter to thunderous sounds of paper flapping.
Just before I came, Mikhail Baryshnikov himself had graced the studio, which Yin Mei reported had “given the group a tremendous boost of energy.” The aforementioned sound was that of vigorous strokes of pigment, fueled by the very person who facilitated their existence.
Before my arrival, the group had been exploring a structure in which, after putting up a new section of paper on an unexplored wall, Yin Mei gave Taylor and Erick three seconds to run to the paper, make any mark they could, and leave, in a calligraphic relay race.
Taylor and Erick are duly exhausted.
As I get settled, I see Yin Mei, deep in a circular study with the charcoal against a panel. She is relentlessly retracing the same circle, using the bend of her knees to pump more energy through the spine to reinvigorate the circle, leaving markings of different intensities, all piled on top of each other.
Erick intervenes, smudging several sections of this charcoal hurricane, which rests above a deep red splotch of paint from the day before.
The two step back, asking, “Who did that?,” pleased with the result of their collective effort.
In front of me is a makeshift contraption – a sponge taped to the end of several cardboard paper rolls. It must have been used to make the markings I am now noticing are impossibly high up.
The section of floor that was covered up with fresh paper yesterday is now covered in thin, small, focused blots of black and red ink.
To a string quartet, Erick, Taylor, and Yin Mei simultaneously draw, exploring the relationship between different physical textures as well as different visual textures, and what of the former is needed to produce the latter. Gold becomes a new contender in what has been largely a palette of black, gray, white, and red.
Whereas before, improvisations focused on long stretches with one quality, we now have, to the sounds of string quartet counterpoint, strong vectors interweaving with smudges and soft curves. Against Yin Mei’s diligence is a steadfast rubbing from Erick, punctuated with Taylor’s acute irreverence. Over time, physical artistry gives way to doing whatever is physically required to continue drawing in the dynamics they have fallen into.
Again, they step back and look in admiration and appreciation of one another.
But Taylor isn’t done – he approaches the figure and slashes violently to make shadows and highlights. Yin Mei is amused. The figure begins to resemble a rooster.
Elsewhere, an orb begins to resemble the Death Star. Abstractions are gradually becoming figurative and referential.
Erick plays with moving more elaborately to create single marks, jumping and falling in order to give his arm the right force to make a particular kind of scrape over and over again.
Meanwhile, Yin Mei becomes fixated on the sun shining through the window. She asks everyone to trace the edges of the sunlight in the room, which, as soon as they get going, shifts ever so slightly as afternoon heads into evening, leaving behind a mess of aggregate cleanliness.
After often improvising to the sounds of other artists, it is here that Yin Mei plays the music of her project’s composer, Huang Ruo, entitled Ashes in Time.
For the first time, Yin Mei is being more direct, giving Erick and Taylor specific tasks within what have been free improvisations. She asks for more color. They ask where. She clarifies, “Anywhere!”
Yao Wei’s filming is constant – moments of planning, working, and resting. No one feels the need to perform for his lens. Its constant presence renders performativity too exhausting a prospect.
Yin Mei has folded up long pieces of paper accordion style into large fans. She asks Taylor to dance with one, which quickly resembles a bird’s mating dance. Yin Mei is then reminded that she has metal sheets, which the dancers try to maintain vertically above their heads, running in the direction of their inevitable falling, creating thunder claps that fit perfectly with the epic Alice Coltrane track playing over the speakers.
I shamelessly intervene, taking a video of the Death Star orb, beginning microscopically close and gradually zooming out to the entire structure.
The in-betweens are divine.
Thursday, May 27, 4pm
I arrive during lunch. Taylor and Yin Mei discuss their families. It is the last day to really work before Friday’s final clean up, and it shows in how everyone is exploring with much more urgency as well as invention.
There is no time to explore, only to do.
The folded-up paper fans have since been dressed with paint and ink. Any material or tool that has yet to be used is in full swing.
All this culminating activity ends up revealing attachments that have been slowly and unwittingly forming to what have been ostensibly left completely to chance. Even having protected sections of paper with designs deemed worth preserving, Yin Mei mourns favorite figures, which, in various improvisational frenzies, have become splotched just beyond their original recognition.
She saves the panels she doesn’t want to see further changed, and goes on to use the rest of the red ink, making sharp spatters by flicking the bristles of a paint brush.
They continue rolling up panels of paper they feel are done.
Erick returns to a more dance-centered approach, struggling to maintain his balance in a puddle of ink.
Taylor plays with a paint roller like a fidget spinner.
Yin Mei and I compare our respective times in the Tisch Dance Department, over twenty years apart.
Taylor and Erick are affectionate with one another, leaning into each other like a slow dance, basking in the melancholy of the impending close of this chapter.
Talking between improvisations, Yin Mei noted how, once the paint and ink have been used, their life continues in how they interact with the paper and change in the drying process. “When you come back the next day, it looks entirely different, nothing like what I had originally put down.” Before the pandemic, she was working towards creating a new performance work, but has since changed her focus to a more process-oriented intention, looking towards the chemical wisdom of her mixed visual media as guidance.
Yin Mei’s theories have developed in tandem with the residency. Film was not originally intended to be so integral to the project. Yao Wei, who was a dance student-turned-film major, happened to be in the US and offered to work on the project. In this way, as Yin Mei sees the paintings as recordings of the choreography that made them, the footage documenting this process are, just as well, cinematic recordings of Yao Wei’s movements behind the camera.
There may be sixty paintings, and fifty hours of footage, but all they really do is chronicle the movement required to produce them.
Yin Mei is interested in time. Using visual media, she measures movement, which she maintains is “always happening in the space, just waiting to be embodied.” By having every hour of every day of the residency filmed by Yao Wei, she is aware of her presence and how it is changing when she knows she is on display.
“There is so much invisible that I want to make visible – that’s why I use film.” In one respect, film spoils the elusive ephemerality of embodied performance; on the other hand, it indiscriminately shows all that goes into a process. It is, at once, the best and worst thing for chance-based work.
The most salient bit of chance that has come from this process is the very date range of May 17-28 (the date span of her BAC Residency). Yin Mei has been going through her diaries, looking at what happened in her life during this stretch of time in two particular periods of her life, triangulated with the present period of her Residency.
The first draws from her experience of the Cultural Revolution in China at roughly ten years of age, from 1966-1973, additionally incorporating letters received and written between 1969 and 1979.
Next involves Yin Mei, approaching her third decade of life, becoming transfixed by the very namesakes of her residency’s studio – encountering the work of Merce Cunningham and John Cage in 1981 when she was a principal dancer with the Hong Kong Dance Company. Soon after this epiphany, she came to the US by way of the American Dance Festival in 1985, going on to pursue and complete her graduate degree in Dance at NYU in 1989.
As such, Yin Mei calls this project a “re-representation,” as well as a “revolution simulacrum,” placing these experiences, bound by the same range of dates, in direct conversation with each other in a space which is not objective or physical, but is generated by the creative process itself, in a nonlinear, multidimensional understanding of time.
Speaking specifically about her improvisations, I found it all too timely when she ultimately said, “The fact that anything is there is cause for celebration.”
Jonathan Matthews-Guzmán is a Memphis-born / New York-based performer, creator, curator, writer, and educator of Irish and Puerto Rican descent. They hold a BFA from NYU Tisch Dance, where they currently accompany technique classes, mentor the students of Future Dancers and Dancemakers Workshop on musical collaboration, and direct the Tisch Dance Alumni Choreographic Mentorship. Their work and studies have taken them abroad to Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance, Springboard Danse Montréal, the International Theatre Festival of Kerala, and Toscana Dance HUB (now WADE). They dance with Darrah Carr Dance, Indah Walsh Dance Company, and Valerie Green / Dance Entropy, and, with Holly Sass, co-founded and co-direct BREAKTIME. Jonathan sings tenor with the Cecilia Chorus of New York, music directs for Queens Shakespeare Inc./What Dreams May Co., has composed for Giada Ferrone, Patrick Corbin, Gaspard Louis, and Rashaun Mitchell, and teaches lower school chorus at The Calhoun School. They additionally accompany Ballez classes at Gibney Dance and youth classes at Mark Morris Dance Center. Jonathan was an inaugural Curatorial Fellow in Dance through SMUSH Gallery. They review regularly for Eye on Dance and the Arts, and have additionally contributed to The Dance Enthusiast, Dance Magazine, Dance Teacher Magazine, Time Out NY, Dancegeist, and The Journal of Dance Education.
Molly Won’t Stop Singing, Eleanor Won’t Stop Talking, And I Don’t Know Why
As I was writing this, my dear friend (and fellow BAC Story writer) Benedict Nguyen sent one of their brilliant missives, tracing their own process of writing towards this assignment. They ask (or plead, or muse, quietly, to themselves), “...is writing about art (or maybe anything), some weird exercise in confirmation bias [?]
I not only see what I want to see but I get to reconfirm my perception by having (some of) the words I write be shared ‘in a public record’.”
I state this here not as a way for me to inch away from owning up to my own subjectivity or absolve myself from all of the cluttered biases I carry, if such a thing is possible. I wish to frame what I am about to say with the necessary knowledge that it is born of my own highly personal opinion. And, I do so with the hope of public affirmation and skepticism in equal measure.
Molly and Eleanor don’t need my disclaimers, though. They are so in the depths of how they work and make and perform that, frankly, they are waiting for us all to catch the fuck up. They know that what they are doing is misunderstood by many and needed by many more (myself included). They know they don’t have much control over certain narratives (of the vulnerability of the naked female body; of the pervasive, creeping male gaze) that may orbit their work. Dispelling any myths about what they do is not the best use of their time. They are busy doing the work.
Allow me to be slightly reductive for a minute:
I met with Molly and Eleanor during the second week of their BAC Space Residency, and, at a certain point in our conversation, I was curious about the choice they have made in recent years to use their voices. Literally, use them, in their work. I know it may seem crass or trivial, but this question has lingered since a certain watershed moment from Basketball (2017, Baryshnikov Arts Center), when Eleanor told us (admitted? admonished?), through clenched teeth, about a past sexual assault. But, did she really tell us? It seemed to offer a crack in the surface of what had been the work of and for two mostly nude, female bodies up until that point: intense, intertwined, sculptural, steadfast. Though their practice has always been rooted in the body, we could no longer ignore the very specific instances of harm and assault involved with these bodies. We couldn’t stay living in our enamoredness of their abstracted physicality. But, let’s be clear: they did the work to make us see what was there all along.
If that moment in Basketball was the watershed, Body Comes Apart (2019, New York Live Arts) ushered in the deluge. A collage of personas — hot group fitness leader, proper Southern lady, wholesome middle school teacher — swirled in a maelstrom that recounted to us many more instances of possible (probable) sexual trauma and suffering. And, clothing. Lots of clothing — girly underwear, loose tanks that slip a subtle sideboob, pinks and purples and lace and florals abound — continuously coming on and off their bodies, shifting and shaping how we notice their bodies.
That space — the maelstrom, the same clothing mess — is where we come back to (or start from) in STAMINA (2020), the work they developed during their recent BAC Space Residency.
STAMINA (2020), in some ways, is the pot in which this soup stews. In our conversation, they speak of fully inhabiting the performance before they quite know the recipe. From the first day in the space, they perform it, which may take hours or a few minutes. They know enough to know they have stories: Eleanor has her impressions, Molly has a bad rendition of Time After Time, they have all the clothes (yes, all of them), and a series of mirrored panels that can be wheeled around the space, acting as both barrier and aperture. The ways they twist persona, narrative, and embodiment root themselves strongly in direct address. They tell us stories, continue to sing bad renditions of pop songs, admit to past transgressions… Eleanor even has an impeccable impression of Professor Minerva McGonagall waiting to strike at just the right moment.
They also feed into many perverse and questionable ways performers relate to their audiences. At times, boxed in by the mirrored walls they continuously wheel around, reflecting both their spectators and themselves, they give us whisperings of answers to questions no one poses, speaking from a post-show talkback that isn’t currently happening.
“Oh, thank you. I really like my work, too,” Eleanor says to no one in particular, with a raspy, smoker’s voice.
“You know, it comes naturally, of course,” Molly sweetly riffs later on.
I love these moments in their work: the power, the humor. It tells me that if they can get there first, if they can hold up all the weird assumptions about their dancing, if they can project all the perverted desires right back to us, then they can control the ways an audience’s perception serves to muffle or obfuscate who these women are permitted to be (onstage, outside, online, everywhere). In these moments, they are slippery — too slippery to ever be held down by a future projection. They get out ahead of it, again.
At a certain point in our conversation, I am trying to understand: why. Why use language to address what they’re doing? Do they not think dance is enough?
“There’s a responsibility to a culture of people who’ve been through sexual trauma; there is a responsibility to make sure it’s communicated and not ambiguous,” Molly says. It’s about legibility, sure, but it’s also about a wider cultural awareness that women, all over, are speaking out in highly public ways. Speaking out in their work comes along with the accountability they wish to enact beyond the boundaries of their creative partnership. “The abstraction craft can come in other forms of the work, but not in that one,” Eleanor adds. They are very deliberate about the ways this is rooted in their physical vocabulary first and foremost. Until the wider culture can value the communication strategies of a non-speaking body, until we can all agree to locate value in how a body contains knowledge and a logic unto itself, until we permanently shred the systems that harm and deceive, they will continue to use their voices. They have to.
In thinking about this writing, I remembered an article from literary journal Tin House by writer Claire Vaye Watkins titled “On Pandering.” I recall it gaining significant digital traction when it was published in 2015. It spoke to the abuses of patriarchy towards female creativity just before the onset of the #MeToo movement and, in that way, really began to harness that necessary energy, bubbling and ripe, before we all quite knew what to do with it. It is a searing indictment of the ways non-male artists navigate their creative careers by way of an invisible, insidious pandering to an ever-looming white man. She recounts many painful instances of this, self-indicting along the way, and cops to many of her efforts (including a well-received debut novel and fancy literary agent) as an extension of that constant pandering. She writes:
“I am trying to write something urgent, trying to be vulnerable and honest, trying to listen, trying to identify and articulate my innermost feelings, trying to make you feel them too, trying a kind of telepathy, all of which is really fucking hard in the first place and, in a culture wherein women are subject to infantilization and gaslighting… I sometimes wonder if it’s even possible.”
This notion, of pandering to a pervasive patriarchy, is something from which dance is not exempt. It is also something that is not always easy to name in our performance works, rooted in our very real bodies, containing real breasts, and ass cheeks, and liquids, and crevices, and fatigued muscles, and overstretched hamstrings. It determines the ways we show up, or don’t. It lives in the DNA of our work, because, how could it not? To be clear, I am not speaking of surface-level patriarchy, which determines the leadership structures of these institutions and their boards, still very white and very male. I am not speaking of where the money flows and from whom. I am not speaking of the male benefactors or the male dancers who were rightly fired from all the ballet companies, again, very white and very male.
These are all important facets to receive, but, no. I am speaking to something cellular and windy. Something that lives, unexamined and invisible, in all that we are, all that we create.
That something doesn’t seem to live in the work of Molly and Eleanor. Or, at least, I feel like they have cracked a code of sorts. Their work doesn’t pander, it doesn’t falsely promise, it doesn’t beg or bury or bend to fit a perception that you may need to hold in order to sleep better at night. I hate to say it, but: it’s so hard to explain. When they move through a space, you believe that they don’t need to try to dodge all the patriarchal traps we’ve bought into. The way they insist on being themselves might be enough, that it is possible. If that’s my own “exercise in confirmation bias,” as Benedict says, I can live with that. I have to.
By virtue of this realization, I also have to realize the pressure that puts on them, as artists, to enact some sort of untouchable feminism, wherein we have dissolved the wage gap, obliterated all harmful notions of gender or bias, and have never encountered the Trumps or Weinsteins or Cosbys of the world. I also have to realize that this acting outside of patriarchal trappings comes with the privilege of light skin and incredibly able bodies; the consequences for them may be less, or different, if this were otherwise. So, to be honest, this argument is very fraught, but I’ll stay clinging to it. That I feel I need them in ways that far transcend what they, or any artist, can provide, is ultimately unfair.
I hope, if anything, that my time with them — and recounting it here — can speak to their strength as artists who do the work, gathering embodied knowledge, and provoking a future path forward. They tread that path, encouraging us to attention. They glance our way from far ahead, seeing us over their shoulders, with love and assurance, transmitting a quiet, profound, beating urge: catch the fuck up.
Tara Sheena is a dancer and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. As a performer, she has collaborated on recent projects with Catherine Galasso, Ivy Baldwin. Gillian Walsh, Leyya Tawil, Nadia Tykulsker, Ursula Eagly, Lindsey Dietz Marchant, stormy budwig, and Faye Driscoll for the forthcoming film, Shirley. Her latest writing, Capital-D Dance, is a chapbook collaboration with artist Katie Dean, which you can purchase on Etsy! She was born in Detroit and graduated from the University of Michigan with a BFA in Dance and BA in English in 2011.
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.
Jun 18, 2018
What does it mean for dance to be a site where “thingliness” is worked through, where the oscillation of the (black) body between thing, nothingness, and something else is bravely worked out as a kind of practice?
Ligia Lewis has completed two pieces of her BLUE, RED, WHITE trilogy, with Sorrow Swag (2014) and minor matter (2016) as the first two pieces of that trilogy. The Spring 2018 BAC residency is one of the first assemblies of a team of collaborators and the beginning of a rehearsal process for the third piece of the trilogy, Water Will (in Melody).
This rehearsal process includes Lewis, Berlin-based performer Makgosi Kgabi, and composer-performer Colin Self. As the final part of a trilogy, one might expect the process to have a sense of finality, perfect summation, or closure, but the creation process in the studio is dynamic, vibrant with many ideas, and with no sense of bringing thinking and action to a close.
At the work-in-progress showing in the John Cage and Merce Cunningham Studio, Lewis introduces the German fable of “the willful child” and the role that storytelling plays in the creation of this piece. She describes how these culturally familiar fables inform her process, how she tries to find deviancy within the text themselves and test the borders of language. The performers are on the floor, breathing audibly. Their movement is slow and sustained. The floor is treated as support, but the movers also pay attention to its characteristics, its texture, color, temperature, and scent. This is a practice that, during rehearsal, Lewis describes as experimenting with the senses through “emptying out subjectivity” and not giving primacy to “the body” as it is traditionally understood in dance. This practice stages what it means to access the risks and possibilities of sitting with nothingness, and exploring touch in the (impossible) community of things. This dance raises awareness of how material dance bodies relate to things, the ground, and the land.
Lewis’ practice of staying in the hold of nothingness, where blackness has often been relegated, runs the risk of reifying exactly what it challenges. Lewis takes up this risk and doesn’t run away from it, since, as performance theorist Fred Moten has argued in A Poetics of the Undercommons: “You think you have to say ‘No, I am not a thing.’ It’s a horrible experience to find that one is an object among other objects, a thing among other things...but the maneuver that requires you to claim humanness is horrible as well precisely because it may well replicate and entrench the disaster.” In that respect, Water Will challenges us to ask: how can what is deemed nothing be with nothing in dance? How does touch operate in that space, and how do we resist reducing touch to romance and subjectivity?
Water Will’s movement vocabulary is watery; gesture flows like waves, both gentle and turbulent. The successive and sequential undulations have no discernible initiation points; they do not end and they do not begin. However, the intended porousness of the theater landscape and the wavy flow of the choreographic vocabulary are not reducible to mere representations of how water moves. In other words, Lewis is not making the move championed by French ballet master Jean-Georges Noverre in his 18th Century dance treatises of creating sublime movement that mimics/simulates water. She is also not attached to a metaphorical or symbolic engagement with water. The question of water is fleshed out beyond our cultural associations with water (cleansing/catharsis). She is interested in water’s materiality in performance as it pertains to the water in us, which flows and pours out when we bleed, or cry, or make love.
The sounds created electronically by Colin Self merge with the vocal sounds made by Kgabi and Lewis, building to create a cacophonous sonic environment. Kgabi circles the stage, takes purposeful big steps. Her storytelling and operatic singing style is superimposed with Lewis’ speech that plays with alliteration. Speech breaks/brakes and the operatic turns into chesty growls, whistling, and unintelligible whispers. Self’s recorded sound summons Romantic German music’s utopianism. For Self, this is a process of calling up that tradition while trying to move away from some of its characteristics. The music in Water Will accentuates and names (il)legible the melodramatic form. During the post-showing conversation, Lewis articulates that these choices of experimentation with a variety of sonic arrangements occasion the breakdown of language, and open up ways to “other” the theater space itself, exposing its representational logics that mobilize the senses to titillate, in ways that further problematic racial fantasies. At a time where the “given” nature of ideas such as “the self,” “being,” “personhood,” and “the body” are under constant questioning and revision, there is much to be gleaned from this provocative practice of inhabiting nothingness, the void, and non-representationalism.
Mlondi Zondi is a PhD candidate in Performance Studies at Northwestern University with research interests in contemporary Black movement experiments, Black visual art, dramaturgy, and curatorial practice. Mlondi also makes performances and also co-edits an independent journal called Propter Nos. Prior to pursuing PhD study, Mlondi received an MFA in Dance from the University of California, Irvine and a BA (Hons) in Cultural Studies and Performance Studies from the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal. Mlondi has presented and participated in performance work by other art-makers at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, the Durban Art Gallery, the Jomba Contemporary Dance Experience (in South Africa), the Laguna Beach Museum, Gibney in New York, San Francisco MoMA, High Concept Labs in Chicago, and Joe Goode Annex in San Francisco. Recently, Mlondi served as production consultant for Victory Gardens Theater's production of Mies Julie in Chicago.
Jun 14, 2018
David and his collaborators workshopped three seemingly separate ideas – on intergeneration and women (with performances by Sarah Rudner, Jodi Melnick, and Victoria Roberts-Wierztbowski), cosmology, and race and American identity.
“Things Are Happening… but not as they appear… this is messy. Messy is necessary.”
The above quote is taken from my rehearsal notes from David Neumann/Advanced Beginner Group’s residency at BAC. David and his collaborators workshopped three seemingly separate ideas – on intergeneration and women (with performances by Sarah Rudner, Jodi Melnick, and Victoria Roberts-Wierztbowski), cosmology, and race and American identity.
In the time since the performance, I have come to realize how they are related – through the gravity of movement and politics, the science of race, the colonization of downtown New York dance, the search for concrete solutions in infinite space. These themes are messy. I love messy because by dealing with the mess we have to confront that which is dirty, chaotic, jumbled, often created by us. It is unpleasant and difficult because mess insists. It is no less tangible when we close the door to it. The muck and mire sits, waiting for us to return to that too-full closet, the one with the rotted floorboards and the rodent infestation… and that forgotten fragile heirloom from your mother’s great aunt. Be it through fate or circumstance, eventually, someone will have to clean that closet.
This is a most messy moment for America. Less a time of civil unrest, more so of civil insomnia. It is in this mess, a uniquely American one, that the seeds of David’s new work are being sewn. Spurred by a reaction to police violence, systemic racism, and white supremacy; inspired by Octavia Butler and Charlie Rose, by 23andMe, Charlottesville and The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond; examining tribalism and humanism by way of the family narrative. All themes are in dialogue with media, narratives, and movement vocabularies. The collection of ideas, sounds, and visuals are woven together, sometimes curvilinear, mostly at odd angles, to create the whole. There is no optimal. Instead, it is through the patchwork fiction and fact that we find truth.
I first met David Neumann in 2015 while he was touring his Bessie Award-winning work, I Understand Everything Better. On this piece, I wrote, “Neumann seeks balance along the continuum between existing and happening.” Three years later, I find that statement to be a bit too opaque for writing about a work that made me openly weep, but, while sitting in rehearsals during his BAC residency, I am once again struck by the way David activates liminal space in his process. The in-betweens have great resonance. Awkward pauses and shifts in perspective provide as much information as anything identified as an “event.” His work is a collection of moments, sometimes humorous, sometimes heartbreaking, but always fine-tuned. Still too opaque? Perhaps, but this new work is in what I call the “Something’s Coming” space. It is one of the most exciting periods because all things are possible, and his seed material is rich.
Q: What does it mean to hold yourself accountable as an American citizen? How do you unpack your privilege, as a cis white man, without engaging in polemics, proselytizing, or more privilege?
A: Among other things, collaborate with Marcella Murray. She is of African American southern roots and an East Coast liberal arts education. Use personal narratives, hers and yours. Your stories about family and race are your primary sources. Discuss isolation and integration. Be challenged by her questions. Decentralize your voice. Have a conversation.
Q: Devalue fearlessness. This is not a question, by the way.
A: Yes. Make this work because you are wary, frightened, uncertain. Allow your “interest to remain high, while your comprehension falls away.” Change perspectives, visually and audibly. This will be a key theme in the work: Chris (sets), Tei (sound), and Hyung Seok (video), will be essential in this regard. Things are happening, but not as they appear. As Marcella says, “get at the big and small by looking at it all.” It will be uncomfortable. America is experiencing extreme discomfort. It is disingenuous to ignore that.
Q: Who gets to define your work?
A: A lot of white men in Ted Talks. Let’s unpack that more. This is not a joke, by the way.
Final Thoughts (for now):
Not knowing what this work will become, I sense that it is turning a corner in how white artists, American artists, cis male artists interrogate their role in artmaking, and the repercussions of that work on the field and the world. It would be far easier for David Neumann/Advanced Beginner Group to make a work about any of number of interesting, less timely ideas. It is far more urgent to confront whiteness, and the policing, literally and figuratively, of blackness. It is incumbent on white artists to tackle these themes. There is no blackness without whiteness. Doing the work is a shared responsibility. During the BAC residency, I expected to encounter a rich process where each of the collaborators has a voice and the content is engaging. What has me invested is the desire to amplify the voices of black women and the willingness to make a work that tackles the responsibilities and burdens of being a citizen of the field and the world, in spite of the fear of getting it wrong. It is messy. It is necessary.
Melanie George is the Dramaturg and Audience Educator for Lumberyard Contemporary Performing Arts. As a dramaturg and performance coach, she has contributed to projects by Susan Marshall & Company, Raja Feather Kelly, Morgan Thorson, Alice Sheppard, and Caleb Teicher, among others. Prior to joining Lumberyard, she was the Dance Program Director at American University in Washington DC. As the founder of Jazz Is… Dance Project she has presented her research on jazz dance improvisation and pedagogy through the U.S., Canada, and Scotland. Her jazz choreography is regularly commissioned by colleges throughout the United States. Publications include Jazz Dance, Pop Culture, and the Music Video Era in Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches (University Press of Florida) and Imbed/In Bed: Two Perspectives on Dance and Collaboration for Working Together in Qualitative Research (Sense Publishers).
May 31, 2018
Watching Jimena Paz in performance drives me to tears. As I walk into the studio where the showing of her work-in-progress is taking place, I sit in my seat by Vicky Shick and Donna Costello and chat about life and dance and life in dance and about Jimena and how we’re “waiting” for the performance to begin...
while she is already onstage exposed in her nervous anticipation to begin performing “for us” and I suddenly realize that I’m already in it with her and that there is so much about what this work is doing that is being proposed right in this very charged moment of the intersection between what Jimena has been going through, in this very same room up until now, and the moment that we come to be let in as witnesses to her process.
It all seems very matter-of-fact yet it takes on a profound meaning and metaphor since we are coming into a room where the artist is simply being with us seemingly as she has been on her own during the process. In other words, there is no artifice, no representation of anything, just Jimena in a latent state of readying herself with an open and vulnerable presence, with eyes that do not look away but that reveal to us the risk and the fear and the courage of the performative act. This energy, this realness, these unassuming transparent choices make my heart feel more open, my eyes less in search of meaning, but opening into a peripheral seeing that senses and feels rather than just seeing the image in front.
This work asks for an empathetic viewing. Jimena is doing nothing more than taking us by the hand through the practices that she has been putting herself through during the process, a research of unearthing, hearing, seeing, understanding, and perhaps even reckoning with the memories in her body, her training, her culture, her dancing living body’s history. Living and dancing and learning in Argentina many years ago and then abruptly leaving all that behind, and from then on forever being a foreigner, an Other, going through Europe and then staying in New York.
Ver a Jimena en escena me hace llorar. No tiene que hacer nada más que estar ahí parada frente a nosotros, dejándose ser mirada mientras que se escucha una hermosa canción. Su cara tiene la mirada de alguien que está sintiendo mucho y me hace sentir case como que no debería estar mirándola, como que es demasiado íntimo este momento para ella y que nosotros como público deberíamos mirar para otro lado, pero sin embargo nos produce una especie de fascinación mirarla porque no hace nada más que estar ahí sintiendo algo que nosotros no podemos saber exactamente qué es, nos deja ahí mirándola sentir con total incertidumbre y a la vez con total certeza de que hay un mundo interno al ser humano al cual nunca tendremos acceso. Que siempre seremos extranjeros en la tierra del cuero del otro. Y sin embargo, me siento a la vez fuera de su mundo, de su cuerpo, y muy cerca porque hay también en ella una íntima invitación a vivir con ella su experiencia. Siento la distancia entre lo que ella está sintiendo y viviendo en escena y yo aquí desde el público tan desarraigado, desconectado de lo que viven los bailarines o actores en escena. El público somos como los extranjeros en el mundo de Jimena Paz…. Pero la canción me hace sentir a mí también y mucho! Reconozca el tipo de música, la voz de la cantante, me hace acordar de quién soy yo, de donde vengo. Quién es? Es Mercedes Sosa? Puede Ser… creo que reconozco la voz aunque no conozco la letra:
“Más allá de cualquier zona prohibida
hay un espejo para nuestra triste transparencia.” *
Lágrimas y lágrimas y muchas… ya no puedo seguir tomando apuntes de lo que voy a decir cuando tenga que escribir sobre este momento, sobre “la obra”; ya no puedo seguir mirando desde la cabeza, ahora es mi corazón latinoamericano el que mira con mis ojos de coreógrafa neoyorquina… Ya me siento más cercana a Jimena, más cercana a ella que al público, ya son ellos los extranjeros y ella y yo las del Sur.
As I cry and feel so much empathy for her standing there feeling her foreignness as this song in Spanish is playing I wonder if the audience feels anything at all. I wonder if they feel touched by her in a universal human way even though they might not understand and get the cultural reference, even though it doesn’t make them cry…? I wonder if they just engage in it in an intellectual way, thinking about what this might mean, and what it means to be sitting watching someone feel something onstage, especially a dancer who is not yet moving. I wonder if this makes them feel like foreigners in their own land. I wonder why so much fear and discomfort comes from not understanding another language, another way of feeling and being.
All of a sudden, the repetitive song is no longer playing and Jimena has moved towards the corner of the space with her arms open as she turns with a ritualistic, meditative quality that is clearing, cleansing, healing after all that crying and feeling and nostalgic remembering of a distant land and peoples. Her turning washes the tears from my face and opens my eyes to a wider seeing. Now I can see her feet and feel the reality of this moment passing and her feet feeling this ground that we’re all sharing and not that ground where they came from; but those feet are performing a very specific pattern, technique that they learned from one of her influential teachers in Argentina (this I know from conversations during her process), a practice that she was deeply invested in learning and that got abruptly interrupted by her leaving the country but that still remains in her body. She’s been coming back to this practice of turning during her process and she’s sharing it with us now and it grounds us in this moment, reminding us of the ephemeral nature of life passing by moment to moment, turn after turn. It is fleeting but also very grounding as we feel her feet turning and feeling the ground as we feel this ground. And with this act Jimena connects us with the time when her feet learned this practice years ago in Argentina. And then her fingers, still outstretched, begin to slightly brush up against each wall and it’s so satisfying… her fingers feel like the antennas of her body keeping her safe from collision, from getting too close, and at the same time kind of plugging her into the corner grounding her whole body and movement not only to the floor but to the walls as well.
No pares, quiero estar acá para siempre, viéndote girar, sintiendo la calma y lo sanador que se siente compartir esto contigo. La posibilidad de suspender el tiempo, suspender el cuerpo en giro, la posibilidad de colapsar aquellos giros de hiciste en Argentina y estos que estás haciendo acá. Y me pregunto si este proceso, este “ejercicio” de volver a las prácticas y a la historia de/en tu cuerpo no tiene en sí un deseo de conectar, unir, sanar las distancia geográfica, temporal, cultural y por lo tanto emocional de todos los giros y pasos y saltos y danzas de allá y de acá. De cocer, tejer, unir, curar de algún modo esa constante sensación en el cuerpo de vivir desarraigado, de ser un “inmigrante”, un cuerpo inmigrante que vivió un exilio de sus danzas allá a otras danzas acá.
Pero no es para siempre, todo cambia (como dice la canción de Mercedes Sosa), y Jimena ya no puede girar más. El cuerpo se cansa y envejece y no aguanta más, es una simple y necesaria realidad pero me da tristeza. Algo en la honestidad de Jimena en escena, en como cambia de una acción a la otra da mucha ternura, debe ser su vulnerabilidad. Su cuerpo es fuerte, hay una fuerza interna y una capacidad y maestría, años de experiencia, de sofisticación, técnica y acceso al cuerpo que se nota en los pequeños detalles de su movimiento, incluso en la claridad de sus transiciones.
Vuelve la música y esta vez es una Murga y esa fuerza interior que se intuía en ella se vuelve externa y una vez más siento en ella una necesidad de volver, de entender, de tocar, de sentir su tierra, sus músicas, sus danzas para deshacer esa distancia, ese desarraigo que tanto nos parte el corazón a los inmigrantes. De repente la vemos Bailar con mayúscula, saltando, moviendo las caderas, disfrutando y trabajando duro a la misma vez; el trabajo del bailarín, el trabajo de la liberación y del empoderamiento. El agotamiento. Y ahora no veo tanto a Jimena bailando su Murga Argentina sino que veo un manifiesto feminista, una mujer latina bailando su manifiesto. Y otra vez las lágrimas…
Now the music is off again and Jimena, exhausted, lies face down and begins to speak into the ground in Spanish. She speaks about a memory with her grandma. Again I wonder how the others feel, how they feel about her speaking Spanish. Once again I feel like an accomplice to her Latinidad, her Otherness, and I wonder how the non-Spanish speaking audience members feel. I know she wanted this written partly in Spanish or translated into Spanish, so I know that there is a political intention of claiming our language in this imperialist xenophobic first world country, but it feels like there’s more to it; perhaps simply letting herself be vulnerable and transparent enough to be the body from which Spanish flows out of instinct, the body with memories in Spanish.
I ask Vicky and Colleen after it ends if they felt alienated by not understanding and they say that they didn’t, they felt the feeling that emanated from her speaking and they “listened” as they “see or listen” to a dance. Perhaps that is what feels most feminist and feminine to me about Jimena’s work and performative body and presence; that she calls for a different kind of understanding, a heart-body understanding, a peripheral-seeing understanding, a felt understanding, an understanding of our feet in the ground and a desire to connect all of the grounds, especially those from which we have been uprooted.
*Excerpt from Arbol de Diana by Alejandra Pizarnik, Argentine poet whose poems are known for their stifling sense of exile and rootlessness.
luciana achugar is a Brooklyn-based choreographer from Uruguay who grew as an artist in close dialogue with the NY and Uruguayan contemporary dance communities. She has been making work in NYC and Uruguay independently and collaboratively since 1999. Her work is concerned with the post-colonial world, searching for an undoing of current power structures from the inside out. She is a two-time Bessie Award recipient and was nominated for a 2016 Outstanding Production Bessie for her work An Epilogue for OTRO TEATRO: True Love. Other accolades include a Guggenheim Fellowship, Creative Capital Grant, Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grant, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council President’s Award, and the 2017 Alpert Award. In 2015, OTRO TEATRO was named “Best Touring Work” by Austin’s Critics Circle. She is currently a 2017-18 Brooklyn Arts Exchange Artist in Residency and will continue on for a second year developing her current project: Brujx.
Jan 23, 2018
Slot machines make noise. Emit light. They can also wreck lives on a slower simmer than opiates, speed, or cards. The cheap trance they offer is both throwback and harbinger.
In Cold Enough To Levitate, Christina Masciotti—herself both American language wrangler in a long humanist tradition and forward-looking manipulator of material elements towards a naturalism of reverberation—brings her sniper-like attention to the effects of this cheap trance on Frankie, a war veteran, cop, and accused embezzler, as a window onto a vast societal ping pong of malady and self-medication.
At the beginning of her BAC residency process, Masciotti and her director Mallory Catlett, along with their light and sound designers, were experimenting with deconstructing the slot machine’s functions as a means of washing play and audience in its staccato rhythms as mood stabilizer and saboteur. By the time I visited the rehearsal room in mid November, a few days before their showings, her focus had shifted to Frankie—constructing in the sharpest of detail the human being in front of the machine, the man at the center of the play.
Walking into the rehearsal room mid-scene, I found Frankie facing a machine that would be made manifest in light and sound, talking to himself, through himself, his lawyer George behind him, shuttling between George’s questions and the machine’s lull.
One quick, quiet beat after the scene breaks Masciotti looks to the actor playing Frankie, and says simply “guiltish.” He nods, understanding. I am confused.
They work through a few scenes again. “I’d feel less guiltyish if it didn’t affect them so much,” Frankie says of his parents in response to a question from George. Suddenly I understand too. The actor had accidentally changed Masciotti’s phrasing with a “y” that belonged to the word in the wider world, but not in the vocabulary of the man who had presented himself in her mind as protagonist.
Again the scene breaks. A beat. Again Masciotti says “guiltish.” The actor takes a moment, nods. The next time through he gets it right.
What differentiates Masciotti from the majority of language-attuned American playwrights is that fundamentalist precision, underpinned by an unabashed attentiveness to particularity of place; what differentiates her from almost every playwright attentive to particularity of place is that she is most often focused on places (in this case her native Reading, Pennsylvania) that don’t frequently command art’s attention; what differentiates her from the few living playwrights sharing both of these attentions is that her attention to individuality is equally sharp. She writes people, not functions in plot, but discreet individual human beings shaped not only by the sounds of place, but by their own idiosyncratic circumstances, genetics, fascinations, and tics. Thick, textured American people who do boring, shitty, regular things. Masciotti’s characters don’t live in Brooklyn or Portland, or any of the vaguely interchangeable revitalized industrial districts or exurban clumps of capital threaded between them.
Roughly a century ago, in 1921, Luigi Pirandello had this audacious formalist idea to put six characters in search of an author onstage, to make the major conceit of an evening at the theater the suggestion that the characters themselves had lives, that all they really needed was a medium, a channeling ringmaster with an eye towards coherence to arrange them into circumstance. Pirandello raised the curtain on the playwright’s mind; in so doing he also exposed the confessional booth in which character and playwright had been communing secretly at least since Ibsen and Chekhov began attempting to put life as they saw it on stage.
Playwrights have been figuring out how to negotiate the demands of their characters and the awareness of their audiences ever since. In contemporary American theater, from the most radical formal experimentation to the tightest Broadway cause and effect dramas, we are for the most part awash in authors ignoring characters. For some, it is a point of pride; for others there is simply little recognition that characters are people too.
And then we have Christina Masciotti.
When I see her work I have the sense that she waits with ceaseless patience in bus stations and doctor’s offices and anterooms of bureaucracy for anyone with a sharp, particular voice, a small story not being told, a pay grade lower than the typical theatergoer, and too many mounting concerns to recognize their place in a larger system.
The way Frankie drew her back from sound and light is not surprising. It separates Masciotti as much from Pirandello as from her peers. Without full people along for the ride, audience has little to take away from formalist adventure. If the particular is the pathway to the universal, Christina Masciotti is the medium of which the contemporary American character is most in need.
Ben Gassman is a playwright from Queens. Sam's Tea Shack, a piece he co-created with Sam Soghor and Meghan Finn, was presented this past fall by The Tank in NYC and by Barker Room Rep in Los Angeles. Gassman, along with director Brandon Woolf, is a 2018 Artist-In-Residence at the Performance Project of University Settlement, where they will be launching their new collaborative endeavor, Culinary Theater. bengassman.com.
Dec 20, 2017
Prumsodun Ok is a contemporary Cambodian-American artist who works primarily in dance, theater, and film. He was born in Long Beach, California to parents who were refugees from Cambodia. Two years ago, he moved to Cambodia to continue his dance career and to create the first Cambodian gay dance company.
This article is based on an interview with Prum while he was in residence at Baryshnikov Arts Center. He is an extraordinary dancer who began studying Cambodian classical dance when he was 16.
Rachel Cooper: How did you get started in Cambodian dance?
Prumsodun Ok: I have always loved dance. When I was 4 years old in Long Beach, California, I’d imitate dance from the local TV. The dancers were from the local Cambodian temple, not professional dancers; in fact they were pretty bad. They wore tinsel instead of flower garlands and cardboard crowns with sequins sewn on. Still there is something about art when the spirit is strong, even when it’s not done well. At four years old I felt that spirit of Cambodian dance in me. It wasn’t until I was 16 that I found a teacher. After having watched my sister’s classes, I finally asked if I could learn too, and I became quite serious about dance throughout high school.
RC: How did your family react to your decision to go into the arts as a profession?
PO: My parents were from the countryside and survived the genocide, the refugee camps, and now they live in inner city Long Beach. For them, life was a culture of survival and they were afraid to see me going into art. They even threatened to disown me, but I stayed with it. However, when I started my career in the arts it was not for dance. I went to San Francisco to study experimental filmmaking. The way we were taught Cambodian dance in the United States was not as an art form but as a way of learning your culture, and culture is associated with ethnic identity as opposed to philosophy or your approach to life. One day in 2008 I was editing in a tiny dark basement. It was 6:00 am, I hadn’t slept, and I thought: people are waking up, or making love, or getting their kids ready for school and I am here alone in a basement trying to find light. It was lonely and I missed the physicality of dance where I don’t need anything to make dance other than my body. I decided that was what I would do and returned to Los Angeles and from then on it was making dance, making dance, making dance. I am an interdisciplinary artist: I write, I design sound, I work with video. But really, the art form that informs me the most and gives spirit to my soul is classical Cambodian dance.
RC: Do you see your work as traditional or experimental? How do you think these terms apply to you?
PO: I have had the opportunity to perform on various experimental dance stages that my peers trained in classical and experimental dance have never had. The words that inspire me are from the French surreal poet René Daumal, using a term that I continue to contemplate: “the avant-garde in antiquity.” I’ve contemplated that term for a long time. I’m so over this idea of “new for new sake.” For me, it’s something I got from my filmmaking experience where my professor said, “experimental is not a product, experimental is an approach.” I can perform the oldest Cambodian classical dance and find a way to make it fresh, or bend and break within it, as long as the intention is clear.
For me there are three principles I try to follow. Something is experimental when: 1) it pushes you 2) it pushes the art form 3) it pushes society. I strive to hit all three in my work, no matter what I make. Whether it’s making a dance that uses traditional music, costuming, or dance that depicts gay love or marriage, as long as I’m pushing myself in these three ways I know I’m being true to myself and to my art. I actually don’t care what people call me, traditional or contemporary, as long as they see the value of what I do. I’m able to speak both languages.
RC: How does ethnic identity play into your understanding of yourself and your work?
PO: When I was young, being Cambodian-American was a struggle: you are never Cambodian enough nor American enough, you are pulled left and right at the same time. Now I feel being Cambodian-American is being a center, able to pool approaches, histories, mediums, and cultures, all unto myself. That richness is a source of strength and possibility that others don’t have.
RC: Is your work considered contemporary now that you are based in Cambodia?
PO: Living in Asia I sometimes feel there is a neocolonial reign that some of the cool contemporary curators think they have. For me, contemporary just means “of this time.” Time is layered: it is past, present, and future, all layered into now. I have my qualms with people who enforce what things should mean instead of being open to the spirit of the artist. When you start to label work as contemporary or traditional too narrowly, you shut things down and it can take on an oppressive nature.
RC: Can you say more about how these ideas of traditional and contemporary co-exist?
PO: This idea of the “avant-garde of antiquity” intrigues me. It's the idea of edge. Even if you are dancing a very old dance, how do you add the edge? The reason these dance forms are alive and passed on from one generation to the next is that they have a core; each generation must find the edge to sharpen, refine, push, and transform it. As someone who carries that tradition, I need to maintain that core, that spirit, that philosophy, that essence which is embodied in the form, but then push it out, sharpen an edge.
RC: Why did you decide to move to Cambodia?
PO: I initially went to Cambodia to develop my project called Beloved. I thought I would just be there one year. I asked my friend to help me find young gay men who wanted to learn classical dance and were open to trying new things. I thought he would find me probably one or two but when we had the auditions there were twelve who showed up, between the ages of 17 and 30. After a month and a half of training these young men in my living room, I looked at them and thought this looks like a real dance company; Cambodia’s first gay dance company just formed in my living room. It’s been a journey ever since. After my TED Talk the online comments in Cambodian were very interesting. One stated, “I don’t think there should be third or fourth genders, but I can see that Prum is sharing our culture with the world and this is an effort where we should all support each other in solidarity.” It’s touching this real world. When I was performing in Los Angeles in experimental spaces it was too safe, it left up the walls of an elitist space. I feel very thankful that I see my work now as touching society; I think it is the role of artists to transform society. Over half of Cambodia is under 35 years old. People are looking for things that are new, that are original.
RC: What has the reception been to your work in Cambodia?
PO: Our company had its debut in Cambodia a year ago. We opened the theater an hour before the concert was to start and within minutes it was totally packed. The makeup of the audience really mirrored the population of Phnom Penh. Lots of young people, students, artists, dancers, non-artists, 18-25 year olds, expats, older Cambodians, and parents of my dancers. The parents were seeing their kids on stage for the first time. Since this is a gay dance company it makes a point. I’m speaking to real people - grandma, grandpa, parents, kids - everyone is there. In Los Angeles, it was just artists’ friends and other artists. I was recently featured in a broadcast video as part of an anti-rape campaign in Cambodia. I was with major popular celebrities from film and music. I’m a dancer and that line between the popular sphere and the fine arts context was blurred, which I think is good. Now after my TED Talk my landlord has a new respect for me. He said, “Wow, I saw your TED Talk and I turned on the TV and I saw you on the news today.” This, from an elderly Cambodian person. I feel my art helps to reach and transform society broadly and it is exactly what I want to do.
Visit Prum's Residency Page
Rachel Cooper has extensive experience in the presentation of traditional and contemporary Asian and Asian-American performing arts and the development of interdisciplinary programs. She has presented over 500 performances at the Asia Society and venues across the U.S. She has worked with Cambodian artists since 1995 and co-organized Dance the Spirit of Cambodia. She serves on the Board of Cambodian Living Arts. Cooper was awarded a Best Practices Award for Cultural Diplomacy, Manhattan Borough Award for excellence in preserving the diversity of New York, Dawson Award for Sustained Achievement in Performing Arts Programmatic Excellence from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP), and an Isadora Duncan Award for the Festival of Indonesia. She did her graduate work in Dance Ethnology at UCLA. Ms. Cooper is the co-founder and former director of the San Francisco-based Balinese music and dance company, Gamelan Sekar Jaya, which has been presenting the arts of Bali in the United States since 1979.
Aug 3, 2017
“I am here to remind you… I am here to remind yoooou,” sings Dorothée Munyaneza as she balances the entire weight of her body on her heels before stumbling onto the floor with the microphone stand.
There on the floor, through heavy breaths, she sings again, “I am here to remind you…” What Munyaneza wants to remind us of are the narratives of children born from rape during episodes of war and genocide, in areas of the world experiencing extreme bouts of violence, including in her home country of Rwanda. In Unwanted, Dorothée explores rape used during war and conflict as a “weapon of mass destruction” that not only mutilates women’s bodies, but creates generational damage as women struggle with both disease and children who come to know that they are the children of rape, but do not know their fathers.
Dorothée Munyaneza, originally from Rwanda and now based in Marseilles, France, is an internationally-acclaimed singer, dancer, percussionist, and actress whose practice explores social integration through dance. While her primary work explores her experience during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the nuance of her practice emphasizes that she is not only interested in retelling the trauma, but in interrogating what trauma we retell, how, and by whom. Holland Andrews, an invited collaborator, is a Portland-based performer who blends live looped operatic vocals and clarinet to weave layered sonic experiences that skirt neat categorization. I met both artists when we were all residents at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art’s Collaborative Exchange Lab in the Fall of 2016. I sensed an immediate synergy between their work. While there are clear differences in their practices, both women are united conceptually by their engagement with approximation, or the challenges of articulating that which evades the parameters of language, easy legibility, and public speakability.
As Munyaneza describes her motivation for Unwanted, she shares a growing archive: newspaper clippings, photographs of rape survivors in Rwanda, printed articles, books, and film clips. While Unwanted erupts from Munyaneza’s growing archive, the collaborative performance is itself an archive of sorts, but not an archive in how we may traditionally imagine it as manilla folders with orderly materials that present a concise history. Rather, the archive produced through Unwanted is the one that reminds us of the very failures of archives. In Sadiya Hartman’s essay “Venus in Two Acts,” she asks, “How does one listen for the groans and cries, the undecipherable songs, the crackle of fire in the cane fields, the laments for the dead, and the shouts of victory, and then assign words to all of it? Is it possible to construct a story from ‘the locus of impossible speech’ or resurrect lives from the ruins?” In many ways, Unwanted asks similar questions of how we represent the undecipherable.
In the rehearsal, Munyaneza and her collaborator Andrews did not seek a full articulation of this history but were instead, it seems, interested in how to translate moments of speech disfluency such as stutters and stammers, or the sometimes indecipherable into the movement and sonic experience of Unwanted. In Susan Howe’s 1990 Talisman Interview with Edward Foster, Howe mentions something she read where poet Charles Olson commented that in Herman Melville’s Billy Budd,“the stutter is the plot.” Howe goes on to say that she is interested in the stutter because it is the “sounding of uncertainty.” This uncertainty creates a moment of refusal and an illegibility that invites us away from the comforts of neat narratives that lead to romantic resolutions.
Deep operatic bellows erupt from the corner of the dimly lit corner. It is Andrews sonically creeping into the space. Her words are unclear, but the mood is unmistakable: there is a foreboding of sorts, something is about to happen. However, before the expected something happens, the singing ends abruptly, and Andrews leaves her dimly lit corner to begin a circle path that hugs the perimeter of the room. Soon after beginning, she stops to look slightly above the audience as if to peer out of a window as she prunes. She continues to walk, then stumbles, but maintains just enough balance to keep walking. After a few more moments of walking, she stumbles again, yet this time she almost loses all balance. Up again she continues to walk and travels back to her corner where she was once singing.
The live operatic loop begins, and Munyaneza emerges from the opposite side of the room with a green and red patterned fabric cradled in her hands like a small child. Andrews winds up her vocals and ejects a series of mounting screams, then a shriek before this shriek unfolds into a series of unintelligible sentences. As I glance toward Andrews, my attention is dually focused on Andrews and Munyaneza who is now on the floor, then up again at which point she swings the fabric over her head before draping it over her shoulder, then finally weaves it into her white cropped tank top. She crawls across, creeping toward the audience.
She stands up to grip the microphone stand and begins to sing. Three lines are repeated: "I am here to remind you."; "Papa, papa, papa!"; and "because of you, Da-ddy, they call me Yuda!" Between these repeated mantras, she breaks into a singing of George Michael's, "I Will Be Your Father Figure" as well as Stromae's "Papaoutai." "Où t'es, papa," she asks. As she sings, she grips the mic and arches her body backward as if she might fall backward, but does not. Her balance seems to be a feat of its own. She does stumble and fall once, taking the microphone stand with her, but she continues to sing as she regains full footing. The incantation continues, picking up pace, and the sharp transitions between voices and phrases and songs remind me of a radio tuner, one which I have no control over. Or possibly even an exorcism. These stories trapped inside of her throat, her belly, fight for an opportunity to escape, and in the process they trip over themselves, folding and collapsing into one another. It is much like the sensation of stuttering. Again, as Susan Howe reminds us, the stutter is the plot. The moments when Munyaneza appears to have several stories erupting from one mouth simultaneously is a reminder of the many stories of rape during war and genocide that have such few pathways for articulation. It is a reminder of the public speakability of these traumas. It is a reminder that no one neat sentence or dance movement will suffice. It is a reminder that there are parts of this trauma that language and movement may never be able to express.
Munyaneza ends the showing calling out the names of countries where rape was used as a war tactic: Syria, Congo, Ukraine, Rwanda, and the United States of America.
Instead of giving us one neat story with triumphant endings or clear plot points, Munyaneza holds us accountable to telling complex stories; ones fraught with absences, silences, and missing bits. As a visual artist and writer, I am keen to compare this work to mediums I am most familiar with: the erasure poems, concrete poems, Oulipo-based work, and the extensive histories of Black experimental writers. The rehearsal performance reminded me of my favorite kind of poetry, what Lyn Hejinian calls "open texts" in her essay "The Rejection of Closure" (1985). Here she writes, "each moment stands under an enormous vertical and horizontal pressure of information, potent with ambiguity, meaning-full, unfixed, and certainly incomplete." An open text embraces the challenge. An open text does not yearn for linearity. An open text she writes is one where any reading of work is an improvisational act itself as "one moves through the work not in straight lines but in curves, swirls, and across intersections." Open texts take a form that is less of a container and more of a "force" or "velocity." Andrews and Munyaneza’s improvisational form that integrated strategic stumbles and stutters created a velocity that led the audience to cross through various visual and cognitive terrains.
Andrews closes out the performances with a soft twinkle before Munyaneza leaves the stage. The twinkle is a clever invitation: we can re-enter our post-performance worlds to be lulled by the illusions of the immaculate resolution, or we could linger a bit more in the world created by the performance: a world of stutters, stammers, and stumbles.
Kameelah Janan Rasheed is a Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary artist, former high school public school teacher, and writer working in installation, photography, printmaking, publications, and performance. She has exhibited her work at Jack Shainman Gallery, Studio Museum in Harlem, Bronx Museum, Queens Museum, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 2017 Venice Biennial, among others. Learn more about her at www.kameelahr.com