Each season, BAC invites writers into the studio to interview our Resident Artists. The resulting BAC Story essays offer an intimate behind-the-scenes look at the creative process.
June 24, 2018
Rehearsal Report: ”You can think of yourself as a collection”
In early April at a rehearsal for RoseAnne Spradlin’s latest piece, tentatively titled Y, eight dancers walk onto black marley from all directions of the room. They lightly settle into an insular posture of group repose, and then they set off.
The studio shades are drawn, the city peeks in, an industrial soundtrack made by collaborator Glen Fogel accompanies them. The ambience is composed of rehearsal recordings - footfalls and running. Spradlin tells me these percussions are cut with nature sounds “like birds and people walking over large rocks and gravel,” all aiding and abetting the effect of arrival. It’s a kind of inversion of alien visitation (how beautiful that humans may visit themselves) here in this pristine rehearsal room, for the common myth holds that extraterrestrials can best show themselves in the throes of nature. But in this case weirdness is a collection of purposeful bodies moving in a space arbitrarily demarcated for the purpose of art. Against a gritty and compressed churn, I find myself paying attention to the dancers’ shared agreement with the floor, how mysteriously anchored their limbs seem to the ground, and if one body takes off another will bring it back down just as quickly. It is hard to locate a romantic feeling in the hive, and maybe that’s because all the feeling has been turned inside out - it is not a vocabulary of coyness - or rather, returned to its original location: the surface of the skin. To be touched is not just a metaphor; contact creates response in sequences flowing, acute and unprecious.
Approximately 20 minutes in, the flock begins to lap the room clockwise while one dancer, Athena Malloy, stands against a barre observing the herd. It could be the emergence of an opinion or a personality as she slowly enters the current and slumps to the floor; the runners form elliptical orbits around her person that taper into a still tableau. (I later learn that my narrative imposition is a product of chance, Malloy nursing an injury that day.) Crunching sound gives way to birds as the dancers look up and out. Connor Voss, in a tye-dyed shirt and shorts that bag over his skinny legs, walks downstage, obscuring the group portrait, punching the air once, then twice, and walking away. The camera is tilted upwards to face the light grid, the movement complete for now.
This is only a teaser, Spradlin tells me - the four repetitions composing the structure of this material have since doubled to eight - but as a sketch it begins to hint at the surprise theatrics I have come to love in her dances, achieved through deeply roundabout yet highly incisive sensorial explorations. Looking at this footage, I think about visiting the studio a month prior, the company just beginning its work; a newly formed collective, many of the dancers are entering Spradlin’s process for the first time. Waiting for the choreographer, who has been delayed by an appointment, I sit against the wall and watch them warm up for a long time, each dancer absorbed in a wholly idiosyncratic dialogue with their own body. For some, stretching dissipates into collegial conversation, while others remain focused on what is physical and unobservable to my eye.
Spradlin enters and assembles the group. I turn on my tape recorder as she starts to talk with the company, beginning with the simple premise: “You can think of yourself as a collection of cells,” tracing along one dancer’s body the potential of a sideways consciousness. “You don’t have to make any of this happen, but this idea of lateral lines, like fish.” And they do seem to form a school, in their youth and mass, but there is nothing pedantic about Spradlin’s tone, which is more akin to invitation than dogma. As a witness to this methodology of finely grained haptics, I have the uncanny sensation of having been here before, reminded of watching Spradlin in technical rehearsal for g-h-o-s-t-c-r-o-w-n (working title) at New York Live Arts in 2014, where once again she was in close proximity to a performer’s body, using just the slightest amount of pressure from her hands to jump start a memory of what the performer already knew so that they could make a difficult turn. “You just have to feel it,” she said.
In correspondence, I ask Spradlin about the title of the piece and she writes: “Early on, I was calling the new work star child (moving over the ground). Around APAP time, I just decided to change the title to Y. My last piece was called X and so far it's been getting good reviews and feedback, but I haven't yet got any touring for it. I guess it feels less like I'm abandoning X if I call my next work Y …” I pay attention to the language here, the sense I am already getting of extraordinary creatures or changelings being embodied in Y, and how its seeds were planted in the precursor, a work for three bodies that premiered at the Joyce in 2016. X seemed to propose the dancer as hungry mole, eyes located in knees and backs and arms. Dislocated vision reinvented ballet barres as features of a survivalist gymnasium, everything made strange, wondrous, and more hypnotically rigorous by virtue of a world gone askew. I guess that world is always right here too, even as it eludes us outside the studio walls. Of course, I wonder what Spradlin is looking towards as the latest work’s gaze shifts into eerie distance... every work as odd as a newborn coming into ambulatory power, fierce and preternaturally wise, perhaps mostly so when sidewise.
Jess Barbagallo is a writer, director, performer, arts journalist, and teacher based in New York City. Playwriting credits include: Not for Resale (in collaboration with Lex Powell and the NYU Drama Therapy program); Melissa, So Far; My Old Man (and Other Stories); Sentence Fetish; Joe Ranono’s Yuletide Log and Other Fruitcakes; Karen Davis Does …; Good Year for Hunters; Room for Cream: A Live Lesbian Serial; Saturn Nights; and Grey-Eyed Dogs. He is currently acting in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Lyric Theatre.
Jun 21, 2018
Someone I once dated introduced “tabanca” into my lexicon. It is an affective state referenced in many soca songs, mourning the end of carnival time before it’s even begun—that lovesick feeling you get when you desire someone or something that has yet to be lost.
When I meet Sacha in her studio for the first time, she hands me a photography book about the Borscht Belt while recounting what she’s been able to patch together about Shirley, her maternal grandmother. It was the 1950s, and Shirley would throw off the thick blanket of New York City humidity and make her way up north to The Concord, one of the many Jewish-owned and operated resorts in the Catskills. The Borscht Belt was a repository of the American Dream for Jewish folks, a post-war survival strategy. The promise of security and affirmation of resilience could be found at the nightly kosher dinner buffet lit by a cluster of chandeliers.
In the mind’s eye of her granddaughter, Shirley was a housewife seeking a clarifying mountain breeze for a brain humming with McCarthy-era paranoia. She was also Cherie Dre, an elusive showgirl who spent her summers at The Concord’s Imperial Room entertaining dinner guests with sensual cabaret acts. According to secondhand accounts from family members, Shirley was likely living with undiagnosed bipolar disorder or paranoid schizophrenia, with Cherie Dre being her alter ego.
Sacha’s studio showing at BAC was the first time I met Shirley and Cherie Dre. With fine manipulations of the brow, slight shifts of weight in the feet, and carriage of the shoulders, Sacha is an embodied dimmer switch who fluidly oscillates between the physicalities and timbres of two women she knows so deeply yet incompletely. One moment, she is Shirley, who gives a glowing review of The Concord’s five-star amenities as if you’re sitting across from her at the dining room table. In the next instant, Cherie Dre trails in like a feather boa: “Come on in, meet the girls,” she announces in a husky, flirtatious drawl as she leans her back against an invisible vanity table.
Sacha, Shirley, and Cherie Dre are knitted together like fascia.
As I flip through the pages of the Borscht Belt book, I notice the stark contrasts in landscape documented by the photographs: A 1950’s advertisement, in its highly saturated optimism, features smiling tan people leisurely congregating by the poolside. A photograph taken in the 2000’s depicts that same pool abandoned and crumbling at its edges, covered in carpets of moss. Sacha wonders out loud what Shirley may have been up to during those luxurious summers at The Concord, as if placing a transparency of the ad over the image of contemporary decay. Together, we process the phenomenon of vacation as it relates to trauma, the false dichotomy between reality and delusion, past and present, grief and closure.
Sacha’s tetherdness to Shirley and Cherie Dre is tabanca as I understand it: the practice of learning to love through the prism of loss. It is a lesson passed down like a matrilineal heirloom. A hasty distillation of Cherie Dre could cast her existence as the manifestation of Shirley’s undiagnosed mental illness. I think a more tender interpretation can acknowledge this narrative while holding space for contradicting truths, more expansive interpretations of reality. After all, what is a delusion if it is someone you know by their first name?
As Director of Programming at Abrons Arts Center/Henry Street Settlement, Ali Rosa-Salas develops the Center’s live programming and exhibitions with Artistic Director Craig Peterson. As an independent curator, she has produced visual art exhibitions, performances, and public programs with AFROPUNK, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, Danspace Project, Knockdown Center, MoCADA, Weeksville Heritage Center, and more. She has also organized discursive events as an Alumnae Fellow at the Barnard Center for Research on Women and as the Associate Curator of the 2017 American Realness Festival. She graduated from Barnard with a B.A. in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, with interdisciplinary concentrations in Dance and Race/Ethnic Studies and has an M.A. from the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance at Wesleyan University. In addition to her role at Abrons, Ali supports electronic music DJs and producers through her work with Discwoman.
Jun 21, 2018
From inverting the keyboard keys to questioning the sound of a rectangle to combining poetry and numerology with jazz, Tarek Yamani maneuvers his creative process in many atypical ways.
As his life has unfolded in the war torn and unpredictable city of Beirut, his music has come to hold its share of surprises. It’s not unlikely for Tarek to create a composition today for a jazz trio, and tomorrow ornament it with an ensemble of Khaleeji (Arabian Gulf) percussion. As an artist, he has become as variable as his city of birth – a place that has equally embraced him and swept him aside.
If his fingers moved to the 88th key on his upright Belarus piano, he would be two inches from ringing a C note into his sleeping grandfather’s ear. If he swung in the opposite direction, he’d greet the neighbor through the entrance door. Such were the space limitations of Beirut during Tarek’s developing years. Within this compact site, Tarek found the elixir of creativity. The physical space became less of a factor in his process. He managed to turn his portable habitat into an autodidactic laboratory of experimentation where his extraordinary harmonic knowledge, rhythmic complexities, and Arabic heritage created a mélange that transcended the available resources.
Today, Tarek leaves his apartment in Harlem at 8:30am to take the train to 34th Street then walk his way to BAC on West 37th Street. He enters the 20,000 square foot complex, greets the receptionist, takes the elevator to the 4th floor. He sits to practice on a grand piano in Studio 4B, where the southern light strikes the unfamiliar 43 by 29 foot space through broad windows that reach the ceiling height of 17 feet 7 inches. On his right, the wall is at least 15 feet away. On his left, his reflection appears in the mirrors that span the eastern wall. In this space, Tarek is set to create a new work to be performed at the end of his four-week residency at BAC.
Jazz happens in small spaces that turn the audience into capsules of ecstasy that erupt after every solo. Some cats are fireflies, presenting the hope symbolized by a beam of light in deep darkness, while others are dragonflies, reflecting changes in perspective. It is a real-time improvised conversation that absorbs the space and molds sound to form unity. The sound waves reach the audience and instantly reflect back to the musicians, who react to that feedback. It is what they derive from to create.
In the first few days of his residency, Tarek asks for the heat to be turned up, but realizes it isn’t the room temperature that’s contributing to the cold in his bones: it’s his artistic nakedness. With every new work, the artist is new. The process feels unfamiliar, unaccomplished, unmotivated. In Studio 4B, he faces empty space to fill. It’s not a random algorithm that space can define a musician’s sound; the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright said, “when I see architecture that moves me, I hear music in my inner ear.” In this large space, Tarek married the firefly with the dragonfly to create one of his most intimate approaches to his music – a conversation for two. He is set to create a new duet to be performed with vibraphonist Sasha Berliner at the end of his four-week residency at BAC.
Darine Hotait is an American Lebanese fiction writer and film director. She has written and directed a number of narrative short films that have screened at numerous international film festivals, received multiple Best Fiction Film awards, and were broadcasted on Sundance TV, AMC Networks, BBC, and Shorts International. She is the recipient of the Literary Fellowship at New York Foundation for the Arts and the Arab Fund for Arts & Culture Cinema Grant. In 2016, she was nominated for the prestigious Goethe Award. Her short stories and stage plays have appeared in various publications in print and online as well as curated art exhibitions in Berlin, New York, Beirut, and London. She is the founder of Cinephilia Productions in New York, an incubator for the development of filmmakers from the MENA region. Her new film Like Salt will premiere in July 2018. She resides in New York City.
Mar 8, 2018
How do we live? How do we go through any given day, whether we are a brain surgeon scheduled to confront a confounding cerebellum, or a marine entering strange new territory, or an old woman waking, taking the first breath that she notices, breathing in, breathing out.
Is breathing a repetition or a continuation of something once begun? Is each step the same step again, or is walking always new, each step like no other before it? These are George Stamos’ questions, presented at the opening of a piece he calls Recurrent Measures, performed in November 2017 at Baryshnikov Arts Center. If his performance was an answer, then the answer offered by the dancers was less prescriptive than descriptive: the answer is in the question that you, the onlooker, feel arise in your own physical and emotional response.
An archeologist of the event might note Stamos’ mentorship under Sara Shelton Mann, the dancer and healer George met in Novia Scotia, his home as a boy. One might notice, too, that his mom taught him the dances of the 1950s and 60s as well, skills he took to the clubs in the 80s and 90s, skills that he never really lost, that, to cite his title, are recurrent in this piece, recurrent from Latin, meaning “running back;” there is a lot to do with currents and tides in the piece, or so it feels to me. When I spoke with him about his mentors, George acknowledged as well a great debt to Zab Maboungou, the Franco-Congolese pioneer of African dance in Canada, with whom he has studied and collaborated, and who, it feels important to note, is not only a dancer (and founder and director of Montreal-based Compagnie Danse Nyata Nyata) but a philosophy professor. Physical philosophizing, thinking with the mind-of-your-body, or whatever it is that allows the body to know and see and feel the world: this is where Stamos took us at BAC, to what the Black Mountain College professor Charles Olsen might have called an experiment in group proprioception, energy transferences within (in this case) a room.
It was a very personal performance, personal for Stamos, I would imagine, and perhaps similarly for his two primary collaborators, Stacy Désilier and Chi Long, both Montreal-based dancers. But what I mean is that I found it personal as well for the audience, and when I describe it (or attempt to) it is as if I am describing a dream, of bodies in motion, bodies creating a kind of gravity. The piece began with Stamos spinning. I should say that I had previously read about his experiments with spinning, but nothing prepared me for experiencing the spinning itself. He stands on a small round wooden platform, something like a lazy Susan that would serve food by spinning at the center of a dinner table, though sturdy, compact, flattened. Then, in a beautifully simple boiled-down motion, he spins, inertia coming from small slight moves in his posture, a kind of bodily inhale and exhale.
One spectacular aspect of this particular spinning is that there seems to be so much to say about it, but that, at the same time, the spinning itself sums all that up, makes description moot. Immediately you sense a force, a weight, a seriousness in what manages to stay light and open. Immediately you feel the rhythm. You fall into its tidal flow, a back and forth, rather than the one-way spin of, say, a pirouette. You are drawn to the spinning as if you were tides influenced by the moon.
Stamos spun for an introductory few minutes and then stopped abruptly and walked across the room to stand next to another of the four walls. He began spinning again, this time adjacent to another dancer, Archie Burnett, best known for his appearance in Paris is Burning. They spun, next to the wall, in unison — or a kind of unison, the right hands spinning them one way, the left another. Watching the two spin, you could consider the different ways energy is transmitted between people. How does one movement affect another?
Meanwhile, across the room, on another wall, Chi Long and Stacy Désilier stepped onto their revolving floor disks, and they too began to spin. Similarly, they used the wall to push off, to stop for a breath in between spinning one way and then the other. As they touched the wall — slapped at it, pushed off of it, or sometimes seemed to pull from it — questions arose about the boundaries of the performance, and boundaries in general. The wall in this case wasn’t a point of constriction but an object that powered the dancers, maybe less like a wall and more like a membrane that allowed interaction with a larger space outside. If you let yourself, you could begin to think about quantum physics and alternate nodes of gravities, but the dancing never allowed you to drift too far from the spinning at hand. George moved to the wall with Désilier and Long, where he continued to spin, where they seemed to synch in three parts — not by matching each other but physically harmonizing, small differences that brought them together, bodily counterpoints.
Suddenly, Burnett walked through the center of the room, Voguing: something he not only made famous but invented. Watching him was like watching an asteroid or a shooting star spin through the solar system powered by the other dancers; wondrous joy. He moved to the wall, stepped on a disk, and began to spin again.
By this time, we in the audience were relaxed enough to move toward the dancers, to experience them like living sculptures, and, in so doing, we experienced two more modes. Again, the rhythm shifted. We watched as Stamos, spinning alongside Long and Désilier, left his platform. He slowly moved past the two dancers who continued to spin off the wall, back and forth. As each dancer spun, he came between them and the wall. As he moved slowly past, carefully observing the surface of the wall, shading it, he managed to make it feel more permeable. In these moments, he became the wall, so that at times they pushed off of him. He was in the gears of their spinning, and in a way he was the gear, their hands pressing off of him, as well as the wall, their power source. As I thought about this for days afterward, I began to remember a trip I took years ago to the Grand Coulee Dam, in the Columbia River, on of the largest hydro electric dams in the world. An engineer took me down into the bottom of the dam, down to where the turbines were spinning, pushed by the tremendous force of the mountain-born river. The river’s power was deafening; we wore earplugs. The force of the river shook the room like a constant earthquake. I put my hand to the wall of the turbine chambers and felt the power of the river in my chest.
The playful denouement came when the dancers met in the center of the room, a spatial surprise for us observers who had spent so much time considering the walls. Long and Désilier spun adjacent, collaborated in spinning, entwined. Stamos joined in, and Burnett seemed to playfully scold, stomping his boot, the great interplanetary force. This little set scene was charged by the spinning that had happened before and that would continue as the performance came to an end, as Long and Désilier held still; as Stamos at last did too. You left with the spinning in your ears, with the pulse of the performance in your chest and heart. Maybe an answer to the questions that Stamos offered has to do with what rhythm is. The word comes from rhuthmos, a Greek term for flow. It would seem to have to do with the repetition of beats, but at its origin it is about movement and fluids. You can think of breathing as taking breaths, one at a time, or you can think of breathing as participating in the air, in the currents that make up the atmosphere, the skies and the oceans through which our bodies sail every day.
Robert Sullivan is the author of numerous books, including The Meadowlands, My American Revolution, A Whale Hunt and Rats. A contributing editor at A Public Space and Vogue, he also teaches science at Hunter College in New York City, and writing at the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College in Vermont. His writing has appeared in many magazines, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, and New York. He lives in New York City.
Mar 1, 2018
Since its formation in 2009, The Mad Ones has developed a rigorous, idiosyncratic process for conceiving, generating, and shaping its plays, one that blurs the rigid lines of definition between contributing artists and privileges collaboration and consensus over traditional notions of hierarchical work structures and individual authorship.
We are an ensemble of hybrid play-makers. Performer-writers Marc Bovino, Joe Curnutte, Michael Dalto, and Stephanie Wright Thompson and director-writer Lila Neugebauer collectively serve as co-artistic directors. The company also includes designers Ásta Bennie Hostetter (costumes), Mike Inwood (lights), Laura Jellinek (sets), and Stowe Nelson (sound), and me, the house dramaturg. Together, we create richly detailed, character-driven play-worlds that playfully appropriate and reinterpret genre, delight in moments of theatrical surprise, and examine and illuminate American nostalgia.
(As an aside, I often find myself toggling between pronoun-orientations when talking about the company and its work - we/us, they/them - and these reflections on the BAC residency will probably reflect that.)
The Mad Ones used their November BAC residency to do early conceptual development work on a new commission for Ars Nova. Prior to arriving at BAC, they had winnowed down a shortlist of potential play-kernels (among the discarded contenders: a forensic lab procedural, an emergency room blood farce, a backstage drama about the Booth brothers performing Hamlet) to identify the organizing principle for our latest play: a focus group. Marc, Joe, Michael, Stephanie, and Lila arrived at BAC with scores of questions. Some were essentially dramatic in nature: What is being studied, tested, or examined? Who commissioned and organized the focus group? Is this a slick, polished, professional operation, or more makeshift, shaggy, ragtag? Where and when and who might these characters be? Other questions engaged the realm of the theatrical: What shape, ultimately, might this play take? Will it unfold in a succession of scenes or seamlessly in real time? Will the set encompass a single location or many? What moments of surprising athleticism, magic, or theatrical disruption might the play contain? Others were more conceptual and thematic: what anxieties, preoccupations, values, or assumptions about American life might the focus group illuminate, engage, critique, subvert?
During my three visits with The Mad Ones during their residency, the core company and intern Regan Moro were gathered around tables engaged in conversation ranging from nostalgic to speculative and from playfully imaginative to critically analytic. Michael Dalto gave a lengthy presentation on the political and cultural trajectory of the 1990s. Joe Curnutte talked us through the idiosyncratic filming of a movie called Timecode (Google it). The ensemble prepared and shared written responses to assignments designed to generate possibilities and alternatingly widen and tighten the focus on our collective imaginings. These opened up into long, digressive conversations touching on, among other things, the violence of late-stage capitalism, confirmation bias, the mingling in marriage of sexual and financial intimacy, and whether and how anxieties about personal safety on a large scale (related to, say, national security or climate change) express themselves in our relationships to consumer products like dish soap.
One challenge of a communal approach to play-making can be the risk of diffusion of the work. But over time The Mad Ones have built a practice that allows them to maintain a collaborative process without sacrificing conceptual or aesthetic rigor. Perhaps even more remarkably, they’ve done so while defining a distinct, unified voice. By filtering the developing work through a multiplicity of perspectives, ideas are tempered, tested, and refined. Dramatic worlds and theatrical canvasses are brought into sharper focus. Characters and relationships are conjured into vivid life. Through this iterative conversation, the work accumulates the detail, texture, and multivalence that have become the company’s signature.
It is a process that sacrifices efficiency in favor of the richness and multiplicity that arises from communal effort. This kind of collaboration requires patience, commitment, accountability, and a foundation of deep mutual respect for one another and for the process. It pays off in the fullness and dimension of the completed work, but it’s slow in the making; perhaps more than anything, it requires time. Workshops like the BAC residency become exercises in practicing democracy. The Mad Ones finished the residency, just as they began it, with questions. But new questions, different questions, more refined, more specific. (For instance: Does the play take place in 1999, or 2020? How directly or elliptically will the subject of the focus group reveal itself to an audience?) They have isolated particular fields for inquiry and exploration and have charted an agenda for their next workshop, coming up in the spring.
Visit The Mad Ones' Residency Page
Sarah Lunnie is the literary director at Playwrights Horizons and the house dramaturg with The Mad Ones. Production dramaturgy: The Mad Ones’ Miles for Mary (The Bushwick Starr, Playwrights Horizons), The Essential Straight and Narrow (New Ohio) and Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War (The Brick/Ars Nova/New Ohio); Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House Part 2 (Broadway), The Christians (Humana Festival, Playwrights), nightnight and Death Tax (Humana); and Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me (Clubbed Thumb), among others. She was previously the literary manager at Actors Theatre of Louisville, where she was involved with curating and developing new work for the Humana Festival of New American Plays.
July 13, 2017
With her Paramodernities project, Netta Yerushalmy has landed on an intriguing and challenging experiment worthy of her wide-ranging, even promiscuous intelligences, which are clearly many.
She’s working on a series of investigations that juxtapose landmark dance works by canonic, paradigm-changing choreographers: Nijinsky, Graham, Balanchine, Cunningham, Ailey and Fosse (also, I’m told, a wild-card artist as yet undetermined) – with contributions by writers and scholars, appearing in the flesh. Her overarching subject: the project of modernity.
If this sounds overly academic or dry, I can report that the three rehearsals I attended recently at BAC were anything but. I left each invigorated, alive in new ways to the clanging dissonances of new building construction (or was it deconstruction?) on 37th Street and beyond, prepared by the mashups I had witnessed in the studio six floors above.
In a studio with photos of Merce Cunningham and John Cage as the only adornment, Netta works on an arrangement of excerpts of Cunningham choreography spanning five decades, rehearsing with dancers Brittany Engel Adams and Marc Crousillat. Netta tells me that for this installment she’s exerting her will on the material, working against the grain of Cunningham’s Zen-related objective to let go of his own will, or at least some of it, through the practice of subjecting many compositional decisions to chance operations. Neither Brittany nor Marc is much trained in Cunningham Technique, yet their dancing belies this. To my eye, both could have performed in the Cunningham company.
Mikhail (Misha) Baryshnikov joins me, an unexpected treat, and together we watch a run-through of today’s iteration of this experiment. The movement, at least at the onset, is immediately recognizable to both of us as unadulterated Cunningham. Too, much of what is danced looks like it could be an arrangement Cunningham himself made. But soon little disruptions poke through this surface. How is it both dancers are now playing with weight and gravity in a most un-Cunningham way? In partnering, Brittany always provides support to Marc, never the other way around, an understated challenge to Cunningham’s more traditional presentation of gender roles. But when the dancers begin to speak aloud, relaying their personal histories and markers of identity, and when they begin to dance with, and then to, Ethiopian pop music, I know I’m not in Kansas anymore.
Netta has told us she’s in no way trying to replicate or restage any of Cunningham’s works. This is clear to both Misha and me. “What he wouldn’t have done,” observes Misha. Yet why is it I feel as if I’ve seen something about the Cunningham movement that has somehow remained otherwise obscured? A section in which Netta has organized movements by types – e.g., pivots on one leg, movement with arches, running moves, triplets, jumps – is particularly revealing. A running phrase from a 1950’s work bumps up against running phrases from dances from subsequent decades. I see the movement and the dancers’ labor anew through this novel, utterly un-Cunningham organization. Too, the transgressions to Cunningham’s choreographic practices, like hearing the dancers speak, makes the more unalloyed sections appear in vivid relief. The movement emerges crisp and fresh (dare I say pure?).
Misha points out that talking while dancing is a trope unto itself, even a cliché, “like in The Turning Point.” It takes a moment for Netta and me to recall the rehearsal scenes of dancers gossiping and flirting while they’re dancing in the now-classic dance film in which Misha starred. Point taken.
Today I see a real mashup – Ailey, Cunningham and Nijinsky walk into a room (sounds like the start of a joke, right?) and are met with a contemporary scholar, David Kishik, reading from an academic essay, “The Work of Dance in the Age of Sacred Lives.” This is my first encounter with the juxtaposition of textual and choreographic language that Netta places as vital to her project. Ailey’s choreography is danced by Stanley Gambucci, Nijinsky’s by Netta, and Cunningham’s by Brittany again. At one point Netta directs the dancers to “turn the volume down” on their dancing during a particular section of David’s text, to avoid “putting pressure on what he’s saying.” I take this as an important clue to the relationship of word to movement – both have agency, even autonomy, here.
Each dancer traverses an independent trajectory alongside that of the essay and essayist, with connections both clearly drawn and accidental. Ah, I think, Netta is employing some of Cunningham’s practices of indeterminacy here, which she avoided in the more overtly Cunningham construction. I catch fragments of David’s text – a meeting twixt Christina, queen of Sweden and Descartes resulting in the libretto for a ballet… Mallarmé’s assertion that the body of a dancer writes a poem… Agamben’s countering that the dancer does not so much write with movement, but instead “reads what was never written” – while I simultaneously turn my attention to the emblematic moves of the dancers. I watch Netta assiduously execute the inner-rotation of her legs that is immediately recognizable as 100% Nijinsky, from his choreography for Le Sacre du Printemps. Soon after David begins relating how Nijinsky worked against the idea of the dancer as a machine for manufacturing beauty, the rupture evident, for example, in the awkwardly inverted legs of the dancers: “like Netta’s,” David points out.
All the while another dancer, Sarah Lifson, studies video of Fosse choreography on a laptop in a corner of the room, periodically bursting forth with shoulder rolls and jazz hands. She’s learning material for another section within Paramodernities, but my eye puts everything in the room together. I’m seeing yet another mashup, with Bob joining Alvin, Merce and Vaslav (another joke waiting for a punchline).
The materials today are more clearly cut from the same cloth, a Graham-inflected tapestry. Netta and Taryn Griggs are working with movement they’ve learned, I’m told, only from the recording of Night Journey in “A Dancer’s World,” the iconic 1957 film of Graham and her dancers that culminates with Graham abruptly exiting her dressing room as if to take the stage to perform the role of Jocasta. Carol Ockman, a professor of art history from Williams College, is reading from her essay "Trauma, Interdiction, and Agency in ‘The House of Pelvic Truth.’" Heady stuff indeed! I hear John Berger and Julia Kristeva invoked, the male gaze and feminine power. I find myself studying Netta and Taryn as they plug away at the demanding Graham movement with all its intended passions, wondering about authenticity: are their contractions real? Soon my query is answered by Ockman, who asks aloud what it means for these dancers to be wrestling with vocabulary for which they’ve not been trained.
I later learn that Netta too has asked this and other questions in her writing about Paramodernities: “Can I be faithful to Graham’s tormented Jocasta as I simultaneously dance the role of Oedipus her son? Is this mere mimicry?” “Is a legacy public?” She asks too about “unavoidable failures,” curious if there might be something generative to be found there.
At one point in the rehearsal Netta inquires if I’ve ever studied Graham. I have. She asks, “Did anyone ever say anything about the vagina?” Dang if I can recall any such reference, except in jest.
It’s clear that Netta is truly experimenting with this project, and not just paying lip service to the idea. She’s stated that Paramodernities project is fueled by reverence and violence. In these rehearsals, I found more of the former than the latter. Parts homage, critique, and update; parts performance and symposium. The results thus far are provocative, timely and, as unlikely as it may seem, utterly lively
Neil Greenberg is a choreographer, dancer and educator who, relevant to this BAC Story, danced with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1979-1986 and later created two works for Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project. He is currently a Professor of Choreography at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts, The New School and served as dance curator at The Kitchen from 1995-1999. His most recent project, This, continues his quixotic search for an experience of the performance moment in and of itself.
June 15, 2017
How do we know what is true, and why does it matter? In her new work in progress, It’s All True / Grandfather Muna Tseng is exploring these questions as she pieces together the remarkable life of her grandfather Toy Dong, a Chinese American merchant and the prodigious patriarch of a family that included 3 wives and 19 surviving children, and spanned an ocean and two centuries.
But rather than attempting straightforward biography, Tseng is crafting a wry commentary on “authoritative” accounts of Chinese migration, a reverie on (personal and ancestral) memory, and a meditation on loss. There is the “official” version as recounted by Bill Moyers (including the legacies of 19th-century Chinese exclusion and anti-miscegenation laws); the “official” archival documentation including birth certificate, tax returns, property deeds; the personal relics (photographs, forgotten objects and hand-me-downs) that bear traces of the lives that once animated them; the meticulously numbered account of the births of sons and daughters; and the stories recounted by those wives and offspring, translated and reinterpreted across time, space, and generations. And more: Tseng asks, how do these personal stories take shape against an unremitting backdrop of racist yellow-face images of scheming, sadistic villains and lazy coolies that have fueled the popular imaginary of what a “Chinaman” is or does? She explores the entanglement of these histories in the reconstruction of Toy Dong’s life.
With the help of collaborators Chanterelle Ribes (who portrays beautifully the fungible “ingénue” New Wife du jour) and Perry Yung (whose haunted, haunting shakuhachi pierces the layers of distanced historical accounts with a sonic “now” that can be jarring and affecting), the three performers improvise their way backward in time, toward the constantly receding figures of the globe-trotting entrepreneur Dong and his wives.
“Isn’t that hilarious?!” Tseng giggles mischievously as we listen to a snippet of faux-oriental pop music, played under projections of equally kitschy images of “Chinese-ness” gleaned from the internet: glamorous Shanghai cigarette girls from ‘30s advertisements, cartoon drawings of chubby Chinese babies, textbook illustrations of neoclassical English gardens, Pipo Nguyen-duy’s ironic self-portraits (Confederate soldier, rough-riding Teddy Roosevelt, etc.). Almost all the images and sounds Tseng chooses are “fake” — popular imagery hijacked here to tell a personal story. An established dancer-choreographer, Tseng is striking out on a new path, combining movement and visual elements with scripted text and narrative. Throughout the piece, she steps in and out of the role of director/choreographer, narrator/interpreter, and character. The movement, she says, gives her a sense of freedom and playfulness. After all, given the futility of trying to recover a definitive account of Dong’s life, what else is there to do but assemble one?
Tseng’s “playing” in the BAC studio is precisely that labor of assemblage: popular, fictional, personal, speculative, and somatic ways of “knowing” combine to create a portrait of this 19th-century Chinese American “modern man” but also of Tseng herself: the one who longs to know the mysterious grandfather who is unknowable and intimately present in/as her embodied self. “That’s history for you,” she notes near the end of the piece, followed by an exasperated (or is it irreverent?) “Ha!” She throws up her hands and dances it out, as the blinds of the Cage Cunningham Studio open and bring us (back) to the world of the living.
Karen Shimakawa is the Chair of Performance Studies at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and an instructor in the NYU School of Law. Her research and teaching focuses on Asian American performance and critical race theory. She is the author of National Abjection: The Asian American Body Onstage and her current research focuses on the ethics and aesthetics of discomfort in performance.
Jan 12, 2017
“Being is fractal.” This is the concept that floats in my mind days after witnessing Kota Yamazaki build Darkness Odyssey with performers Mina Nishimura, Julian Barnett, Raja Feather Kelly, and Joanna Kotze.
“A fractal is a figure with a fractional number of dimensions. […] What you end up with looks like a snowflake. […] The outline is endlessly dividing and is therefore infinitely riddled with proliferating fissures.” Every snowflake is different, singular.
In Darkness Odyssey, dissimilarities between bodies, the performers’ cultural backgrounds, trainings, and ways of translating Kota’s choreography live inside a fragmented reality, in which a simultaneity of gestures, utterances, and inflections form an interconnected network. Kota offers a vision of the body becoming like a black hole, which absorbs everything.
Kota isn’t after approaching bodies or cultures as solid, fixed objects. Instead, he extends his porous notion of blurring: “I want to break the western way of labeling different cultures. I am trying to find a way to internalize varying cultures, unlike fusing or mixing. It’s an interbeingness of cultures, bodies, and perspectives. Not me and you – not like looking at a clear mirror of the self. More like when you see into aluminum, you see yourself blurry, not clearly. I’m interested in this kind of blurry image.”
In the studio at the Baryshnikov Art Center, as part of his BAC Space Residency, I witness layers and layers of translation as bodies decipher each other in unfamiliar physicality. Kota speaks in bursts of English and body movement, while Mina translates from Japanese. They are working on a form in which one person remains stationary in the center, in what Mina calls a landscape spasm, as the other person orbits improvisationally. Kota watches and points out moments that connect to his idea. Glimpses of form congeal, and are shaped as they go.
Kota proposes his somatic practice, Fluid Technique, to cultivate sensitivity to an ever-changing body. He then teaches an abundance of phrases selected from years of material captured in his video archive. In conversation I learn how Kota dances everywhere: in his kitchen, as he’s fishing, running. Many of these instances are recorded. In transmitting movement, the inflection of each performer is more important to Kota than the movement itself. I ask Kota why he makes so many phrases, “schizophrenia,” he responds. He doesn’t like to repeat the same movement. He likes things to be happening simultaneously.
This must be why I seem to be seeing fractals. The performers move through layers of interpretation, similar to the way a fractal becomes a “web of proliferating fissures in infinite regress toward the void.” They seem to mutate as sparks fly off fingertips, radiating with vibrant texture. Fiery watery movements grounded and unhinged. They vocalize, too; each utterance is distinct.
Multiplicity and heterogeneity, elements of fractals, also speak to the nature of translation. At first I feel anxious, concerned that a rendering from western bodies may be an impediment. Writing this piece, I, too, am implicated in this web of interpretation as a western practitioner learning about Kota’s relationship to ankoku butoh, butoh pioneer Tatsumi Hjikata’s philosophy of dance of darkness. Kota describes his own approach and interpretation of ankoku butoh: “Dance of darkness is connected to dark emotions, or desire, or the dark side of human nature. This might be the true nature of ankoku butoh. For me, this darkness is more like a black hole. It’s not so much about expressing the dark side of people, it’s more like it absorbs everything.”
As Kota transmits the phrase material, the movement lives in a “state of perpetual transformation, perpetual translation” functioning “somewhat like DNA, spinning out individual translations, which are relatives, not clones, of the original,” allowing the material to live on through multiple iterations. This process reminds me of the words summoned by Eliot Weinberger and Octavia Paz’s Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, suggesting that a “poem dies when it has no place to go.” Across the space, my eye connects these slippery disjointed translations. It feels as if a collective body is becoming disassembled, morphing into a black hole. In this fragmentation, there is a kind of wholeness. A wholeness, which is about dispersing, evaporating, disappearing, and becoming absorbed.
Julian enters with arms as icy shards as three people collide in towards the center, on toes drifting along an invisible terrain. Mina is squeaking, sounding, blowing air past her clipped hand gestures. Raja’s limbs jab erratic. Sounds composed by Kenta Nagai and Masahiro Sugaya move from slippery, watery drips to frenzied percussive repetitions.
In between, fragments are spoken by the dancers. A “firefly hovering,” “the boy became like a shadow, like a black hole,” “the way the fork creates a shadow is like a volcano.” Chills move through my body as the piece builds up steam. The performers move in a rage with siren-like blasts of sound penetrating the space. In an associative rant, Julian recites glimpses of what he sees. “Hudson,” “Jersey.” We are reminded of the extended space in view.
The violence of sound is exalting. Bodies are caught, vibrating. Morphing together, the sound dissipates; everything is swallowed.
1. Massumi, Brian. A User's Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari. (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1992) 22.
2. Massumi 22-23.
3. Yamazaki, Kota. Personal interview. Translated by Mina Nishimura. 21 Dec. 2016.
4. Kota draws inspiration from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia in which schizophrenia is associated with multiplicities and producing connections, rather than a pathological condition.
5. Massumi 22.
6. Weinberger, Eliot, Octavio Paz, and Wei Wang. Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei: How a Chinese Poem Is Translated. (Mount Kisco, N.Y: Moyer Bell, 1987) 180, 184.
Cori Olinghouse is an artist, archivist, and curator, spearheading the Trisha Brown Archive as Archive Director since 2009, a company she danced for from 2002-2006. As an archivist, Olinghouse has worked with film historian, curator, and archivist, Jon Gartenberg, choreographer Cathy Weis, and is currently developing a series of projects with choreographer Melinda Ring. Recently, she was the recipient of The Award, conceived by Dean Moss (2015), a participant in Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's Extended Life Dance Development program made possible in part by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (2016-2017), and a panelist in the Museum of Modern Art’s Storytelling in the Archives forum (2015), alongside Boris Charmatz and Marvin Taylor. As part of her graduate research at the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance (ICPP) at Wesleyan University, Olinghouse is working on a series of hybrid projects that bring together her research in archives, curation, and performance.
Thank you to Kai Kleinbard for his editorial assistance.
Dec 2, 2016
“It’s kind of like you’re editing a video, but you’re editing real life,” says Andrew Schneider as he tells me about the process of developing his new work FIELD at Baryshnikov Arts Center.
Known for the technological sophistication of his performances, working in a studio at BAC with its large, open space, floor-to-ceiling windows and relatively spare tech set-up presented a new opportunity. “I had gone on some writing residencies – I told myself I was ‘writing by programming’ but I wasn’t. I’d bring all my gear, set it up, make sure it was all working and all of a sudden the time was up.” So he decided to take this time at BAC to investigate storytelling techniques and dramaturgy, do some writing to explore the major ideas of the piece with collaborators sound designer/composer Bobby McElvor and performer/choreographer Alicia Ohs.
“I don’t really know exactly where the idea for this show [FIELD] came from,” he tells me. “I started making sketches after YOUARENOWHERE was in COIL [Performance Space 122’s January festival] but that was about it.”
One of the origin points for FIELD, was Robert Irwin’s Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a book he had encountered previously. “I had always liked the Light and Space art movement, but I didn’t know why. Reading Irwin I realized I liked the work because the ideas he was investigating are ideas I’m interested in investigating too.”
Schneider’s newfound insight and renewed interest in Light and Space was further stoked by seeing the James Turrell retrospective at LACMA while he was in Los Angeles performing in The Wooster Group’s Early Shaker Spirituals.
“I became fascinated by the idea that there is a point when you become aware of your own perceptions. When you’re perceiving your own perceptions, seeing yourself see, this is where the experience happens. And making a show about that would be an incredibly hard thing to do – so I thought I should do it.”
Hearing Schneider describe his creative practice, he is part magpie, part explorer: he surrounds himself with books, images, digital media files, notebooks, laptops, software and sketches – anything that captures his eye and imagination – then starts to arrange, edit, accrete, re-arrange and edit again, worrying at the edge of an idea until things start to come into focus.
Schneider takes what one might call a “rapid prototyping” approach to making performance. His “writing” technique involves both writing in the traditional sense – at BAC he kept an always-growing Google doc for writing new text and tracking ideas – as well as programming, assembling and editing digital media in Ableton Live.
This approach proved useful when Schneider and collaborators had the idea for what he jokingly refers to as FIELD’s “hallucination ballet” sequence, and then realized they needed more performers to see how the piece operated.
“I didn’t need the people, I just needed people!” he laughs. He reached out to Rosemary Quinn at NYU’s Experimental Theater Wing who sent over some students. “Basically I wanted to set up the parameters for the sequence and then ‘run the simulation’.”
By giving the performers in-ear microphones to feed them text and direction and having the scenes cued and played through the Ableton Live software, Schneider could have the performers up and running, literally, with little to no rehearsal or preparation. “We ended up with this crazy 15 minute scene with the kids just running all over the place.”
This phase of development was about building material that will work in conjunction – and perhaps opposition – to other pieces of the work already created. Schneider’s most recent work, YOUARENOWHERE, was in some ways a barrage of sensation; a pulsing overwhelm of light, sound and fractured text moving at high velocity. Schneider intuited he had to do something different. “The metabolism of YOUARENOWHERE was that I was always five steps ahead of the audience, so for this show, I started wondering how do we curate the audience’s attention with the opposite of sensory overload?”
Curious about how sensory deprivation – a lack of perceptual input or change – can give rise to hallucinations, Schneider eventually found himself surrounded by Oliver Sacks books, books about mountaineering and about collective hallucinations in explorers. A new series of questions began to arise: “Can we stage hallucinations in a way that isn’t like a realistic play?” “What would storytelling through hallucinations look like?” “Can we make a shared hallucination?” “Is it possible to induce hallucinations or at least get people to think they’re hallucinating?”
An earlier residency at EMPAC was focused on lighting, stage effects and sound spatialization using High Order Ambisonics (HOA), a technology for 3D audio spatialization that is every bit as space-age as it sounds. “Right now I think the first part of the show will not be presenting the eye with a lot of visual information, we’re going to work mostly with the 3D soundscape.” He cites Elevator Repair Service’s Room Tone as a major influence.
At a moment where so much of live theater is captivated by the so-called “immersive” and “interactive”, and where the media world has become enamored of Virtual Reality, few artists are so thoughtfully, rigorously, playfully and successfully interrogating the nature (and location) of human experience itself. Schneider uses sophisticated digital age tools alongside the traditional practices of stagecraft (he started his career in musical theater!) to create visceral, engaging performances that leave audiences questioning reality and the authenticity of their own experience without ever leaving their seats or donning goggles. He nests layers of ideas and information together and delivers them in unexpected but accessible ways.
One of the great thrills of experiencing Andrew Schneider’s work – whether in development or in its final form – is the exhilaration of entering into the unknown followed by the joy of discovery. We might not be able to articulate what we’ve found, but we know we’ve been through something extraordinary.
I ask him if FIELD is likely to have any surprises as startling as YOUARENOWHERE and he laughs. “Right now there are no spoilers – but I don’t know if that will stay the same.”
Andy Horwitz is Director of Programs at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. From 2010-2013 he worked as the Director of Public Programs for the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council where he curated The River To River Festival, a free, month-long multidisciplinary arts festival at sites throughout Lower Manhattan. Previously he worked as Director of Strategic Partnerships at the Foundation for Jewish Culture, Producer at Performance Space 122, and, from 2007-2009, as co-curator of the PRELUDE Festival at the Martin E. Segal Theater Center at the Graduate Center at CUNY. A well-regarded critic as well as an administrator, Andy is the founder of the website Culturebot.org and a 2014 recipient of the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant for his project Ephemeral Objects: Art Criticism for the Post-Material World.
Aug 5, 2016
When BAC asked me to write a piece on the residency of Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy, I immediately said “yes” because I’d seen the two of them perform – as Nrityagram – and it’s embedded in my memory. I’d never want to miss an opportunity like this. - Wally Cardona
Rudolf Nureyev Studio, 3/8/16
S = Surupa Sen
B = Bijayini Satpathy
The room itself feels contained.
The music of Hossein Ali Zadeh (not “Indian” music)
S dances alone, maybe 30 seconds. B watches and responds “It seems like it needs…” (does some small movement)
S repeats second time. Seems deeper, the face more expressive. True? Or is it just what happens when seeing something a second time?
These eyes are always seeing SOMEthing.
Note: S has tape on her foot, the therapeutic kind.
B now dances. More attack, sharper edges. Crap. I’m comparing. Is it just what happens when seeing something back to back? Go with it…
S: a constant supple give at what might be identified as the end of something.
All parts of the body stay constantly full. Filled with what? Where do their bodies hurt?
They stop. A workfulness appears when they stop…but when moving, their bodies seem to take such pleasure out of dancing. Or do their bodies take pleasure in working, in being called upon?
S pulls out a mat and sits. Deep space. Am I watching her sit on “What comes next?”
B says to me “We like to finish each day practicing Odissi.” Was that NOT Odissi?
S dances first:
That crazy stomp/slap of the foot…How is that possible?(see tape on foot)
At every moment, an altered body
Insane stamina. How long has she danced this dance?
“Pure Dance” vs. “Storytelling” vs. Dancing Purely…
B dances next:
Squat jumps, back bends, impossible balances, vicious leg kicks, on the floor one moment, flying in the air the next… But nothing ever calls attention to itself. At any moment, during any and all of these actions, there is an absolute stillness.
Bijayini: For us, generally, if we’re not talking personally, maximum stress is in the legs, in the quadriceps, the hips. That’s where it is.
Surupa: Because you always stand with your weight planted, very solid, and hold that position while the upper body constantly moves with torso isolation.
Bijayini: Traditionally, there wasn’t any cooling down. That was never taught to us, so there were a lot of injuries. Because Orissa is a very warm and humid place, the dancers, when young, can dance without struggles.
Surupa: But if you’re not careful, there’s a lot of stress in your knees and your back, especially from the hard floors. And if you get tired and start to push, if you’ve been hammering away for 25 years…your body is going to say you’re not meant to be doing this like that.
Bijayini: The good part about most of our classical dances is that we have the Abhinaya, the expressional part of it all. But we do have pure dance in India, like the first dance Surupa did: movement vocabulary threaded together to match the melody. That is hard. Very hard.
Surupa: Pure dance does not have a story.
Bijayini: But even in pure dance, though there’s no narrative, it always dwells on joy and love. When you talk about emotional connection, this is something we always have in an Indian context. If it is a narrative, then there are the words, the poems, the context or the characters that give you the emotional connections. If a non-narrative - which is just vocabulary - then we practice and practice and practice, to find the source emotion of that physical movement.
Surupa: We don’t have to give it a word.
Bijayini: We have that connectedness but what we project through it is a different emotion, based on joy and love. Even when practicing little alphabets as our skill practice, it is always through joy and love. I would never do it as an exercise of just shape and form.
Surupa: In each of the forms there is an inherent personality within the form because it has developed out of a particular region where there is a primary deity, and the dance was offered as an invocation to the chosen deity. For every dancer, your being is the representation of the feminine energy yearning to unite with the infinite god head and that god head is considered male. Whether you are a male or female dancer, you dance as if you are longing to unite with that deity.
We’re not thinking of that character but the whole form is developed out of that faith. For us, the pre-given condition is that you are a devotee. You’re not just doing an action. You’re doing the dance as a sacred art, as a devotee, so everything is an offering. And the purest form of offering is without a sense of self. When you bring the sense of self into the offering, then you bring - as far as the concept of Hindu faith is concerned – you bring ego into it. So you try to disassociate yourself from the ego by making a pure dance offering.
Exactly like a devotee going to the temple… As you go from the exterior to the interior of the temple, the journey is as an individual who is alone. Hinduism is not a congregation faith. It is one person, in search. So what they do in a temple is represent the journey of a devotee. Outside is full of sculptures and many things; the second layer is slightly less ornate; and by the time you reach the inner sanctum, there is nothing. It is absolutely devoid of anything. It is a very small space so you and the deity have an individual intimate connection.
The dance is meant like that too… We begin with an invocation, to create an atmosphere where we can all start the journey. The second dance will be an ornate piece, where we do a pure dance offering. It is not meant to tell my story or anybody’s story. It is just me and my body offering to you with my spirit. Therefore…that joy. In the third dance, we’ll start to sing the songs of various aspects of the deities; and in India all deities are very human and have human stories. Then you go into the next level where, hopefully, in that transition, you have completely immersed yourself in the journey and have offered yourself up. So by the time you do the last dance, which is called the dance of salvation, or moksha, there is nothing of you left. You have worked it out. And when you finally go there, you and the spirit have become one.
Each dance has a very specific place in the repertoire. And you are meant to find that space as you go along, so that by the time you have finished, you are Puja, or prayer.
It is a reflection of life. And what you are trying to find in life…is emerging in your dance.
Surupa: Right now, at BAC, I have given myself a particular exercise: to simply explore different sounds. I’m not trying to make a dance that will fit into my repertoire…at all.
This is, for me, to learn something. It might not even be worth watching. But that’s what I’m doing.
Wally Cardona is a choreographer, dancer, and teacher living in Brooklyn.
Jun 1, 2015
It’s day seven of Robyn Mineko Williams’ ten-day residency at BAC and the long narrow blackout blinds of studio 6A roll upwards. Bright boxes of sunlight stream across the floor and Williams squints in the glare. After days of experimenting with projected imagery in theatrical darkness, she looks happy to see the sun. She asks dancers Adrienne Lipson and Isaac Spencer to repeat a section.
Choreographed in tandem with a dramatic play of projections, now it is simply two bodies working together with the weighted fluidity of molten metal. A lunge to the side is lengthened. A subtle shoulder shrug is shortened. The movement is precise; sometimes intricate, other times expansive, but always muscular.
Williams watches, then turns to her brother and collaborator, graphic designer Jay T Williams. He smiles and shrugs from a table littered with idle laptops and a projector rendered useless by the sunlight. He seems perfectly fine with his light design being temporarily nixed.
“I don’t think there’s any reason we can’t do both things,” she says, and rehearsal continues with the blinds open.
This calm acceptance of multiple possibilities seems typical for the soft-spoken 37-year-old Mineko Williams. A former dancer with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC), she is a self-professed introvert who didn’t plan on being a choreographer.
“As a dancer I wasn’t one to speak up a lot. It wasn’t my way,” she says, “I guess that’s why it surprised me to be in the front of the room and enjoying it.”
But there was never ambivalence about dancing. “Legend goes that I was bullying my mom for dance lessons when I was three,” she says, “but she made me wait until I was five.” She trained for 11 years with her mother’s teacher, Yvonne Brown Collodi at the Hinsdale Dance Academy in Illinois. After two years on scholarship at the Lou Conte Dance Studio she joined the River North Chicago Dance Company and eventually moved on to HSDC where she danced for 12 years before retiring in 2012.
In 2010 she collaborated with Terence Marling on Harold and the Purple Crayon: A Dance Adventure for Hubbard Street 2. Creating movement at first felt like a “science experiment,” she says, but after making the full length Recall for HSDC in 2012 she embraced the challenge. She has since choreographed several works for HSDC and Hubbard Street 2 and is often referred to as a rising talent in the Chicago dance scene. In 2013 she was awarded a Princess Grace Foundation-USA Choreographic Fellowship, and the following year a Princess Grace Foundation-USA Works-in-Progress Residency at BAC for the spring 2015 season.
“Movement is probably the most natural way for me to communicate,” she says. “Making dance is an extension of all that.”
The BAC residency is Mineko Williams’ first opportunity to create something that is hers alone. She hopes it will be a full-length piece or collection of related pieces, but admits everything hinges on working with people with whom she feels an unspoken connection.
“I like the rehearsal space to be a fun place,” she says, “I think that’s when magic can happen.”
So she has chosen her residency collaborators carefully. Dancer Isaac Spencer is a dear friend and a fellow former member of Hubbard Street. He now lives in Germany so Mineko Williams was thrilled that he was available. Adrienne Lipson was part of a Hubbard Street 2 workshop and Mineko Williams took an immediate shine to her ready-for-anything attitude. As for composer Robert Haynes, he and Mineko Williams have created several pieces together and both feel a real synergy with one another.
But Mineko Williams’ primary collaborator for her BAC residency is her brother Jay T whom she describes in an email as her “go to guy for inspiration” and “the one person who gets me…my aesthetic and my vision probably the most naturally and clearly.”
“He said he’d never seen me do anything that represented me,” she says, “it turned a light on in me to do more, to explore more.”
Mineko Williams says her brother’s job with the marketing firm Fision doesn’t allow him time to experiment and make what he describes as “real art.” That meant a learning curve for both of them. “He was quick to scrap ideas,” she says, “whereas in our process, finding, sculpting and discovering what works as we keep delving into the process is more the norm.”
By day ten the blinds are back down. Invited guests stand and watch a time-lapse video of the rehearsal process as it flickers by on the front of Jay T’s shirt. Haynes’ brooding pulsating score fills the room and the dancers insinuate themselves amongst the onlookers. They move in a fluid duet echoed by ghostly projections. A grainy home movie of Lipson as a baby fills the back wall. Spencer and the grown Lipson mimic with a floppy, real time duet. Then it is just Lipson. She is still, captured like a reluctant specimen under a beam of refracted light. Her movements are small and subtle, but bursts with carefully restrained vigor. The showing ends as casually as it began, but Mineko Williams and her brother look relaxed and happy. The segments are ideas – sparks of ideas – that Mineko Williams will take back to Chicago and blow into the full flame of her first independent effort.
Lisa Rinehart is a former dancer with American Ballet Theatre. She is a freelance writer and video journalist covering the arts, culture and social issues for a wide range of online and print publications.
Jun 6, 2014
In April I had the pleasure of attending rehearsals during the residency of Emmanuelle Vo-Dinh at BAC. I watched run-throughs and improvisatory constructions she was working on, and had the opportunity to speak with Emmanuelle both in rehearsal and in emails about this work, titled “Tombouctou deja-vu,” set to premiere in 2015.
Emmanuelle started working on this piece from what she called “the idea of going to an unknown place.”
It is such a privilege to see people working in the studio, before lights and costumes render work further into theatrical space, which can make it less accessible on a more intimate human scale. There is a tender easiness to the relationships the performers have with each other, blurring the line between what is on-stage interaction in performance, and what is just us being us together. At many points in Emmanuelle Vo-Dinh’s work-in-progress it was hard for me to tell when they were relating to each other because they know each other, and when it was part of the organized theatrical landscape. This ambiguity was totally charming; drawing me in towards Vo-Dinh’s interest in the “miniscule lives of the characters.” For me this was the gentle and compelling center of the work, these slack indulgences of casual behavior.
There are lots of different kinds of talking in the dance, people repeating names, or whispering to each other, or reading things off of cards (drawn from Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies) which serve as kindling for the constructions and repetitions in the dance. It bothered me not at all to feel foreign in these moments (I do not speak French) because I think I feel that way all the time when a performance is operating with some sort of beguiling or unknown methodology. Also, it fit so naturally into more palpable structures within the dance itself. Language molded casually or surreptitiously as improvisatory material, degraded, or gradually changed just as much as movement. Emmanuelle said of this she was looking for a kind of cross between the body and the voice. Watching the language fall apart becomes part of the patchwork landscape of gesture, movement through space, or fleeting scenes that occupy the 45 minutes of material.
The slanting personalities of the performers are so alluring. In her work Emmanuelle plays with recursive time, looping back spatial constructions, catching a moment and freezing it through repetition, giving a heightened experience to the viewer of how time is passing, and how or why things are important. She calls these moments ‘pistons’ in her work; they give a kind of direct visual satisfaction.
Hesitation seems exalted, like it’s been reclaimed from its in-between-state and is enacted as an entirely honest and separate way of embodying movement, which, to me, was gorgeous.
It was fascinating to see what specifically she worked on, how she honed certain moments or transitions into greater acuity. In a particular section where a microphone is passed from a man speaking to a women (through two surrogates) which devolves into sort of orgiastic floor-bound swaying, Emmanuelle focused not only on the exactitude of the passing, or the intonation but on the rhythms of things, the amount of time that is transition, the amount that is build up. Here the specificity and rigor supporting her work might reference her time studying with Merce Cunningham in the 80s in New York. When the amplified responses speed up, the passing speeds up, and the language loses meaning, until the swinging microphone and repeated responses become a swirl of strange sexualized behavior, which ends as abruptly as it began gradually. The kind of time things take seems so important.
Further viewings recommended by Emmanuelle Vo-Dinh:
Luis Bunuel’s The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)
Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent (1989)
Alex van Warmerdam’s The Northerners (1992)
Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2003)
Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012)
Silas Riener graduated from Princeton University with a degree in Comparative Literature and Creative Writing, and completed his MFA in Dance at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. He was a member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from November 2007-11. As a performer, he has worked with Chantal Yzermans, Takehiro Ueyama, Christopher Williams, Jonah Bokaer, and in Rebecca Lazier's TERRAIN. Riener regularly collaborates with choreographer Rashaun Mitchell. His work has been curated at Architecture OMI, CATCH, as part of LMCC's River to River Festival, at Danspace Project, and at the BFI Gallery in Miami. In 2013 he was invited to participate as an inaugural member of LMCC's Extended Life Dance Development Program. He is a 2014 New York City Center Choreographic Fellow.