Each season, BAC invites writers into the studio to interview our Resident Artists. The resulting BAC Story essays offer an intimate behind-the-scenes look at the creative process.
Jun 4, 2019
With spring sunlight filtering through the large warehouse-style windows of Baryshnikov Arts Center’s John Cage & Merce Cunningham Studio, Emily Schoen watches her six dancers as they work through an ensemble section of her newest piece, See Me In Your Eye.
The dancers, in two lines of three, walk, rock, twirl, and hop forward and backward, the lines slowly exchanging and then re-exchanging places like the ebbing and flowing of a tide.
“I’m interested in those moments when people change their mind in life. Because I think even in this age, in this space where we live, it’s harder and harder for people to soften to new information,” Schoen tells me later.
The dancers lean against and away from each other, heads supported by hands, a leg grasped as a dancer tilts to break free. They mirror each other in couples before splitting the space as two groups of three, a brief distance between them before they magnetically reconvene as a single unit in the corner.
The piece brings together dancers from the U.S. and Tunisia, where Schoen traveled twice in 2017 — first with Larry Keigwin and then a few months later to create her own work, Here We Are, a 30-minute piece that serves as the foundation — or as Schoen describes it, the “putty” — for See Me In Your Eye.
The soundtrack of the piece is composed largely by Curtis Macdonald with additional music by Simon Broucke, a Tunisian hip hop song by KATYB, and stories recorded by each of the dancers sprinkled throughout. This means that even as the dancers’ movements cohesively entwine, the piece toggles between cultures and languages, at once a reminder of both the cross-cultural exchange happening on stage and of the dancers’ individuality and humanity.
“The goal of this is for us to be ourselves, and for people to see us as ourselves and to get us as this unit of international diversity,” Schoen says. “Basically just presenting a full human experience.”
As I watch the dancers, I find myself wondering: if I did not know who was Tunisian and who was American from the outset, would I be able tell? And to what extent do these signifiers even matter? Further, what is it to be defined as being “from” somewhere? When speaking to Schoen’s Tunisian dancers, the fluidity of borders is clear — one dancer is originally from Algeria; one spent 9 months living in Houston; one studied in Paris and briefly danced in Finland.
Schoen is “not trying to make a political statement,” and yet when pushed further she adds, “maybe the political statement is that it’s not political. We can exist together, we can live together, without it being some message or some signpost in the sand, some marker of who you are…. We can have our culture, we can accept other peoples’ cultures, we can live together, right? So, yeah, maybe it’s political because it’s not.”
In the studio, the dancers spend time problem-solving a lift. They work on small phrases built from another ensemble piece and then they take time to learn each other’s phrases, the studio echoing with intermittent laughter.
“The beauty of this piece is quite simple: very different people coming together and giving of themselves and being open to people who are different from them through dance,” Schoen says. “It’s simple and I think it’s inherently beautiful in the physicality and the vulnerability that comes out of that.”
Elena Hecht is currently finishing an M.F.A. in creative writing at Columbia's School of the Arts. She has attended the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and her writing has appeared in Dance Magazine, Columbia College Today, and The New York Times. She is currently working on a novel loosely based on her grandparents’ lives during WW2 as well as a book centered around an art project she created in her sister’s memory. When not writing, Elena can probably be found dancing and has performed the work of David Neumann, Gabriel Forestieri, Zoe Scofield, Rami Be'er, Daniel Gwirtzman, Stephanie Liapis, and Ming Wong.
February 5, 2019
Watching the audience was one of the major pleasures of Sally Silvers’ piece ALONG at Roulette last night. I was with them, and in them, and they were also up there above us in balconies flanking the stage, and our collective fleeting looks of delight, absorption, boredom, restlessness, triumph, all contributed to the enduring patterning pinging the room.
We were destabilized always into being part of it. Along for the ride. And the dance was wyrd, deliberately so. First a golden spangled curtain on stage right withheld and released the dancers, and also they were standing along the walls waiting for their cues. Meanwhile, a bank of teevees full of shifting patterns faced us sitting in our central seats on the risers. Late in the show those teevees contained eyes, large ones, going horizontal and vertical, estranging the very organ of the eye itself, and I found myself thinking of my animal, a dog whose eyes are both shallow and deep as nature. Always I feel her outer limits, my dog, yet she’s other too. I go only so far in her world without language. Dancers murmur in this piece, not constantly but intermittently in a way that additionally jostled the scale of the production. A word or two would come across, enough for me to feel the life out there and simultaneously my apartness from it. The dancers’ wardrobe seemed like sylvan meets punk. Sally’s choreography derives from sci fi and the history of the genre was spoofed. She’s not a sci fi buff, so perhaps the immersive effect of the show is about our collective alienation in this political moment. Aliens are perpetually odd and desperate. Their fingers flail and signal one another. Sometimes they paw each other’s face for a vanishing contact, an expression of wellness or love. Aliens die because they’re not from here. One hits the floor and the other aliens sniff and surround their fallen friend. I thought of Gulliver among the Lilliputians. Do aliens feel alienated too. The entire cast of eight, at two different points, went full on at us sitting on the risers, confronting us with their faces, bodies, and eyes. A particular scale haunted the production. The non-western deployment of eyes alongside the weird finger dancing created a mutuality effect of us staring at them while they stared at us (I coined “an armada of ya” defensively while they bored in), and continually I nervously scanned the room to see how the other bodies felt. Sound design was active here. At one point a yearning electric Hawaiian guitar herded the dancers and our feelings into the next configuration of push pull and exhilaration, as if now we were at the brink of meaning. Or story. Dancers scare me. Have you ever been to a dancer’s birthday party where the rest of us are afraid to take the floor because they are such happy animals, so adept with their every tentacle, full of shared laughter and belonging and swift movement because they know what this means and we don’t. The regulators of Sally’s ALONG were three roller derby girls who barged onto the scene most often cued by a whistle and whirled in a tight formation, connected and pushing each other. Kathleen Hanna blaring. What they enforced in fact was the rhythm and the timing of the show. They made an outside, a there there. They girded the night. And punk, of course, in the history of the world, was an injection of ‘alien’ after the softer subversive hippy movement failed or moved on. Trying some weirdness was always youth culture’s next step. Think of it. Aliens enter cultural life when we can’t or refuse to assimilate what someone is trying to show, why “they” came. In ALONG it’s sometimes like we’ve got the Living Theater, with their arms raised, becoming trees or jeremiads. But rather than inviting us to join in and feel paradise, now we watch these aliens writhe and prance in a box, or a tube, so to speak. One of the major plot points of ALONG was the unexpected entrance of a drone. The alarming presence and the droning sound of it. Its green light hovered over the piece and the momentary thrill of such a device being on our side, the anticipation of something watching all this and us from above at our or Sally’s behest was an authentically fleeting passion. What the hell is dance after all. We sit in a square, or, I saw a rehearsal of ALONG on Skype a few weeks ago - a camera showed me a partial view of the show, and I puzzled over how something as vital as clusters of bodies in time and space gets telegraphed by a camera or a square room, and then we sit in order to see the spectacle almost as if it were flat. I guess we experience dance viscerally however it comes. We see one body halt and another act upon it, around it, and a third positions herself behind the other two, and the three interact, and I think oh dance is depth though sometimes there is dance in the streets, right, interpolated out there with traffic and passersby, but mostly it’s here in a box which effects the abstraction so the alienation we feel from our bodies can be shoved right in our face and then played with and torqued and then we feel awe and exhilaration at the wily manifestation of these special animals and tonight their invisible drone master, Sally, and poof then it’s gone. Why do dancers pick each other up I asked Sally. It’s framing, to make shapes, to let the dancer display form. Is there an average age I asked Sally. We were standing there after the show. Is it like horses that three is the correct derby moment. You know, and Derby is just a place in England, that’s all it means. And one dancer, Sally says, was free for all of September and that’s why he’s in all of the scenes. Or a lot of them. Who is that older man standing there when we talked. Is he a famous dancer. Oh no I like dancers of all ages Sally says but here they are in front of us, I’d say young and strange and ready to be used. The older man standing there. I wondered who he was. Then they all flail together, all at once, it’s ecstasy, it goes dark, and then it’s done.
Eileen Myles is a poet, novelist, public talker, and arts journalist. Their 21 books include evolution (poems), Afterglow (a dog memoir), a 2017 re-issue of Cool for You, I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems, and Chelsea Girls. Eileen is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Andy Warhol/Creative Capital Arts Writers grant, four Lambda Book Awards, the Shelley Prize from the PSA, and a poetry award from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. In 2016, Myles received a Creative Capital grant and the Clark Prize for excellence in arts writing. In 2019 they will be teaching at New York University and Naropa University and they live in NYC and Marfa, TX.
January 31, 2019
During the dark and silent nights following the merciless Hurricane María, Alexa Rivera sat down at her piano chair and played. Studying music and playing the piano has been part of her life since childhood.
She comes from a family line of artist players and performers of música jíbara, the Puerto Rican counterpart of American bluegrass and folk music; immersion in folk music and rigorous musical discipline, lovingly imposed on her, did her right. When she was most alone, and the island of Puerto Rico was most alone, the piano did not forsake her. Something about the way time stretched and the sounds of the land echoed compelled her. Out in the streets, she felt an unspoken language of brotherhood, and in the still of the night, HIHEAL was born. It is where Alexa delivers as composer, lyricist, vocalist, and player.
The calm after the storm hung heavy in Puerto Rico, and artists suffered tremendously. There was no work and little connectivity for most everyone. And there, where quiet reigned, Alexa journeyed and visualized a musical healing cycle anchored in the image of a tree with roots, trunk, branches, and lush foliage. The musical compositions Over Me and Under Me frame HIHEAL. The musical story moves clockwise with the melodic tune and lyrics of Jíbaro Anciano (Ancient Folk), the heartbeat of this album, dedicated to her grandfather. She writes down jíbaro anciano in the one o’clock position in the picture of the tree describing the musical journey of HIHEAL. Her grandfather represents her first memory of how she learned to love Puerto Rico, her homeland.
Alexa offers three reasonings about the project’s title. A play on words with the word “hi,” as in a greeting, and inspired by the word “high,” as in altitude. The word “heal” represents recovery. HIHEAL is about healing from a place above the practical world, a space of few words, a space for sound. HIHEAL also references the high heel of a woman’s shoe. Her femininity is cradling her creativity. She is so beautiful her looks may belie her talent and her deep sound. Deep cannot be faked; it is either a part of you or it is not. And Alexa has it. That spark that ignites when she is high in her musings. With her, nothing is gratuitous. There is always a backstory, and the backstory has a backstory, and she feeds them and integrates those mind and heart occurrences into her present sound.
On the second day of her residency at BAC in the Jerome Robbins Theater, Alexa welcomed me with a live concert with sound so vast and deep it brought tears to my eyes. Though very much a musician, Alexa is also a poet and a young weaver of dreams. Her commitment to music is pinned to universal notions of the battle of the self between darkness and light. She has given herself utterly to that notion and has broken free from thinking she has no voice, from feeling trapped within her expressive turf, and has proven yet again that no amount of modern life can substitute for the purity of the piano.
There’s a tune titled If You Want To, and another, Asymmetric, and Here and Now, and Kiss Your Nightmares. Alexa plays horror with love. Her live piano concerto to me ended with Over Me. Her musicality crystallizes maturity, exuding strength from the core melody as she stretched its sounds with her damper's touch.
On this second day of rehearsal she waits for Matt Geraghty (bass) and Ruben Coca (drums). Geraghty talks through some pointers and begins playing before Alexa plays the keys. She waits for the right time and comes in seamlessly on his cords, and it's magical. Geraghty’s entrance is Jeff Beck-like: unapologetic, spatial, expansive, directional. The Jerome Robbins Theater fills to the brim with the high and low chords of improvised classical piano and rock bass tones so steady nothing falls into discord. Vibrations stay together and the drums pace it all forward. Here in New York City, Alexa's HIHEAL reaches a high performing rehearsal trance dedicated to the present. There is purpose in playing each cycle of the album to its maximum. She and Matt are part of a collective that performs for global unity, creativity, and freedom. Artistically, creatively, and personally, Alexa stands at that intersection with her collaborations and explorations. Whoever she brings together meets humanity through music, where music carries them to weaving chords, understanding, patience, and trust. That’s how you HIHEAL; playing to play, to listen, to accept each other as artists, to fall for a melody that thrusts a sound, so you never forget it, because it belongs to the present, until the very end.
Soldanela Rivera has been a professional dancer, actress, choreographer, television host, production coordinator, teaching artist, project captain, documentary researcher, tour manager; a music, theater, and film publicist, a music concert and theater producer, an adjunct lecturer, and a director of communications for a community college in the South Bronx. She has worked in community centers, educational institutions, historic concert halls, museums, parks, prisons, stadiums, sound stages, and large and small theaters. She is a host and producer of the podcast Notes From A Native Daughter (NFAND), a weekly series of raw conversations about arts, culture, and society with figures from the Pan-American experience.
January 29, 2019
To explain her latest work, dancer and choreographer Ashwini Ramaswamy evoked a memory: bars on windows in India. (We were both born in America to Indian immigrants.) She moved onto discussing how a DJ or electronic musician recalls the past in the present, creating a new song that samples a snatch of an old one.
Meanwhile, bars on a window flash in a faraway brain. The connection, between forms of samples, led to an early vision, of an audience led to the diasporic headspace via music played first live, then remixed.
I had called to discuss the result of that vision: Let The Crows Come, the proposal which landed Ramaswamy a Fall 2018 BAC Space Residency at Baryshnikov Arts Center in Manhattan. A few weeks earlier, we met in the Danny Kaye & Sylvia Fine Kaye Studio at BAC. Ramaswamy wore a blouse and loose pants, a sari fastened on top. As she clapped I recalled the fearsome teachers from childhood trips to India. Alanna Morris-Van Tassell, a dancer trained in the Martha Graham school, improvised to her beat. Let The Crows Come unites dancers and musicians new to bharatanatyam, the dance form practiced by Ramaswamy, who—unlike the teachers of my memory—bears the flat a’s and cheer of the Midwest. In high school and college, she was a member of a different sort of “one percent,” as she put it later by phone: nonwhite students. Along with her sister and mother, with whom she now runs a bharatanatyam troupe based in Minneapolis, she immersed herself in her art. Her two worlds honed her ability to code switch: to enter any space and seem like a native.
Before the residency began, she read an article on the intelligence of crows. She had once thought of the sharp-beaked birds as harbingers of evil. A new sense jolted her. She thought to pair fixations: the integrity of crows with the cut-up rhythm of diasporic life.
Via online searches, crow cameos surfaced in ancient text. In a hymn from 5th century BCE poet Valmiki’s version of the Ramayana, the Hindu god Rama pierces with an arrow the eye of a man in the form of a crow. The crow gets a boon: to see spirits others cannot. At the close of a poem from the Tamil Sangam tradition about a lovelorn woman, a crow lands on the mast of a ship to observe the humans below. A third text sources to a 9th century Vedic architecture treatise, the Brihat Samhita, vast enough to consider flowers and insects. The excerpt uses the movements of crows to predict the future.
Texts brighten points in Ramaswamy’s orbit: from the bird’s “other sightedness,” to the longing of the woman, and the nonlinearity of a Brihat Samhita sense of time. By phone, Ramaswamy sounded very much the sampler of a DJ paradigm, laughing that she slanted her read of them to suit “a theory” she has “chosen to adopt.” Meanwhile, untrained bodies move to Sanskrit words and control their sound. Like the second generation kid, bharatanatyam can wear new clothes and still be itself.
Mallika Rao is a writer in Brooklyn. Her work centers a diasporic, second gen American perspective, and can be found online and in the pages of The New York Times, The Believer, The Village Voice, Vulture, and The Atlantic, where she is a regular digital contributor.
January 15, 2019
With a gentle urgency, James Allister Sprang wants me to understand something about his set up. In his studio at Baryshnikov Arts Center, he talks it through while we can’t help but catch up in a kind of standing dance, clicking, turning, and tinkering with his equipment, digressing and teaching.
Our conversation loops through his set up, dives down into the personal, flies around “poetry,” into laughter, back to the set up, time travels in a backwards/forwards spiral toward the work he’s making now. Later, at our third meeting, he draws this set up in my notebook. See: he’s got this library of language he’s cultivated through interviews, words spoken and written and read by others, mostly poets and scholars, mostly women of color—words he’s studied enough to treat as a medium; dials for shaping the sounds’ resonances, their emergence into and creation of a physical space; backing tracks he’s composed along with Aon (Pablo Chea); and a looping station, familiar, key to the sense of a live mind responding by returning, by combining, listening through the creation of sound.
In my notes and memory, I realize that my questions about how this set up works are full of bad metaphors, binaries (the human versus the technological) that I don’t believe in, do I? James’ responses are a creativity of patience—guiding me at one point toward Eshu, Yoruban trickster god of the crossroads, the fader, divining with his palm nuts on a platter, stylus reading the groove—mythic and linguistic ancestry for the turntable. In translating the technical aspects of his production of sound and language for Turning Towards a Radical Listening, Sprang’s care feels sacred, feels joyful; this care insists on language (just one way to organize sound) as a constantly and multiply mediated phenomenon, a kind of deadly miracle. His work as GAZR has entered a new stage, moving from speaking to listening, from, he says, “poet-rapper” to “listener, doing the work of a poet.” The complexly musical, social, and psychological space-times orchestrated by GAZR’s deep energy, in word and body, have phased from the exterior toward the interior—though the medium of sound is always playing with the distinction. This performance is a work to practice, to cultivate, to model, to argue for a virtuosity of listening.
To begin, this one time: the looping rhythmic knock of the skip hop of a needle on vinyl; GAZR’s voice asking Google’s Speech API to recognize and display certain words in the document projected on the central screen, take familiar actions (“SELECT ALL!” he speaks then shouts into one mic dangling from the studio ceiling, then the other)—and the failure of his rising voice to be recognized. The audience laughs at the program’s failure to do its job, but, built into the DNA of this performance is the fact of technology’s bias—highlighted by the work of scholar Safiya Noble (i), whose interview he cites and mixes. I hear a primer in the hum throbbing over the skip, maybe a tuning of the body to the dynamics of sound. The shriek up and shred down that shuffles the ears toward what becomes loosened and attenuated in the body as he elevates the frequencies or rolls them low, shifts the balance, alters the kind of space the sound comes from.
And then the words land, bubbling up from a pitch. Words that speak, in my ears, to the problem of having and being had by a colonizer’s language: English, to long for other languages. To need it to survive, and to be historically and systematically misheard. Amber Rose Johnson says, “This language which is the only language that I have, that is mine, is also not, and never will be.” What happens, sonically, is wildly more and less than this sentence, simply rendered in text. GAZR’s live mixing transmits, amplifies, degrades, hones, and mediates these sounds, words from his library—working the levels, weaving tracks like paths and directions toward and away from access, reception, comprehension. All the while Google’s Speech API is “listening,” “translating” the sounds it hears into that projected text behind him, generating its own poetry. Conceptually as well as sonically, GAZR builds toward intersectional lessons in the form of questions: How is listening a kind of mixing? How do we learn by altering what we hear? How can a greater awareness of the ways technology organizes our sound intervene, at the physical level, in how and who we hear?
Words flutter, unfurl, pound, and leap amid crisis sounds, doom sounds, peace sounds. I recognize the voice of Claudia Rankine, reading from the Stop-and-Frisk / Script for Situation video in Citizen. The mix haunts me, haunts itself with “so angry you can’t drive yourself sane.” (ii) The crawling iterations of a looped phrase, ticked below a choral wave—voice against voice, patterned in different increments—the emergence, disappearance, and return of certain words inside of his live mixing: “mine” / “we need.” GAZR tells me mixing codes moves into his physicality, bumping and leaning into small gestures spiraling out. Google’s program wants to turn off because it’s overwhelmed. It shouldn’t be uncanny that there’s something “human” about the computer’s variable ease or struggle, its uneven error. Some voices in the mix are “heard” by the voice-to-text program more accurately than others—specifically mine, emitting from this white body. GAZR’s work suggests the same could be said of us as individual bodies: that a desire to hear, to understand does not outmuscle the structural biases we inherit through language, context, culture. Complicity with the problem is not optional; it is a function of language, of our tools.
Witnessing this performance, GAZR invites you to feel into what you do with sound, to attend to yourself as you listen for what you hear when a sentence becomes a word, becomes a phoneme, becomes a beat, becomes attenuated into a string digitally plucked: Can you hear (in yourself) the stakes in what moves you? Do you want to dance (with me)? Who gets to make meaning (inside you) when they speak?
i. Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of Oppression (New York: NYU Press, 2018).
ii. Claudia Rankine, Citizen (Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2014).
Sara Jane Stoner is a teacher, writer, and PhD candidate in English at CUNY Graduate Center, critically obsessed with the erotics of consciousness. Her first book, Experience in the Medium of Destruction (Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Labs), was nominated for a Lambda Award.
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.