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.
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.
Photos by Maria Baranova
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.
Photo by Janelle Jones
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.
Photo by Janelle Jones
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.
Jan 13, 2014
During a recent rehearsal at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, Helen Simoneau worked quietly with a few dancers on the development of a complex duet. She watched the performers execute a passage of movement: one dancer leaned back, falling plank-like toward the floor only to have his momentum unexpectedly diverted by his partner. Suddenly the two bodies where intertwined, reclining gently into each other on the ground.
Deep lunging steps, improbable twisting lifts, elegant extensions emerging out of bodies tipped off their centers - these movements followed, weaving a partnership between two articulate, sensitive bodies. Helen offered suggestions and corrections - guiding the movement toward ease and consistency but also encouraging the dancers to see the space around them, to be attentive not just to their own bodies and to their partner, but also to their environment. I watched as the dancers' bodies softened into a fluid and easy performance of this difficult movement, rich in connection to self, partner and space. Around the room, two other small groups of dancers worked on their own. Another duet rehearsed a delicate lift where one dancer appeared to glide effortlessly over the back of her partner, while in the center of the room a group of women danced through a unison phrase of arcing, spiraling movements. The tone of the room was serious, focused, quiet - almost like a library; each study group moving with gentle determination to become both more expert at and sensitive to the given task.
Perception matters: how we create meaning out of a constant stream of sensory stimulus determines the scope and depth of our experience of being alive. Over time, we come to rely on perceptual habits to help us quickly identify what it is we are confronting. These habits enable us to predict what will please or harm us and help our bodies prepare accordingly. But, our ready-made perceptual habits can also limit our engagement with the world. We need to be reminded to expand our interpretations of the feelings, objects and events around us. In order to continue to evolve, we need to learn how to see and feel more and differently than what our habits allow.
Dance - both as a practice and as an art form meant to be experienced (felt/viewed) - has the power to render the human body and its expressive, communicative movement continuously unfamiliar. Dance can remind us to seek new ways of being in the world, guiding us to un-frame our previous assumptions about what it means to be a moving body.
Helen Simoneau's work lives decidedly in the realm of dance that seeks to open new spaces of possibility as to how bodies might move through the world. Helen brings viewers and performers toward an un-framing of rigid, habitual physicality by first creating spaces of quietude and calmness within both the dancers' bodies and the performance space. It is from this gentle attentiveness that a wealth of movement emerges - movement that quietly, but firmly insists on being seen and felt as inventive and unexpected. Helen's choreography reveals that our choices to create action in this world multiply when we treat our bodies and the spaces they inhabit with expansive, un-anxious, and generous curiosity. In a world full of hyperbolic extroversion, Helen's calm determination to look more deeply at the possibilities of human movement is a refreshing and necessary addition. So many choreographers and performers in today's over-saturated culture feel the need to loudly and forcefully make a claim for the body's capacity to be and do more in this world, forgetting that possibility comes not just from explosive force but also from quiet permission.
Helen's work is firm but unforced, energetically vital but never frantic. Helen's invitation to her dancers to locate a physical tone of calmness and hyper-awareness (to every edge of the body) allows for a rich mining of possibility from within available joints and muscles. Helen takes pleasure in working with excellently trained dancers: artists who understand how to expressively shape movement in service of an always-fresh communicative gesture, not as the reiteration of a list of pre-determined movement objects.
Watching Helen's newest works, I find my whole body calming down; the anxious noise of my mind abates and my focus is guided toward the action unfolding before me. Articulate, generous, precise, virtuosic movement meets my gaze. The performance space contracts and expands as movement pours, glides and pauses throughout the open terrain. I am drawn, not to narrative relationships, but toward relationships between time, space, and effort. I sense how it is possible to quiet the demanding push of time - to give one's body the time it needs to feel itself in action. I see how space can be opened, not dominated, by movement. The dancers move through and with space, treating it as a living surface and environment to engage with as a collaborative partner.
Helen's work leaves generous and expansive "room for interpretation" - truly revitalizing the meaning of this phrase. To experience Helen Simoneau's work is to feel the body, time and space yield and reveal new opportunities for seeing, feeling, moving - being.
Jesse Zaritt has performed his solo work in Russia, Korea, Germany, New York, Japan, Mexico and Israel. He was a 2012-2013 resident artist in the Studio Series Program at New York Lives Arts, working on a duet created in collaborative partnership with choreographer/performer Jumatatu Poe. Jesse's solo ‘Binding’ is the recipient of three 2010 New York Innovative Theater Awards: Outstanding Choreography, Outstanding Solo Performance, and Outstanding Performance Art Production. He has recently taught at the University of the Arts, Bard College, the American Dance Festival, Hollins University, and Pomona College, as well as at festivals in Japan, Korea, and Russia. Jesse was a member of the Shen Wei Dance Arts Company (2001-2006), and the Inbal Pinto Dance Company (2008). From 2009-2013 he performed in the work of Faye Driscoll and Netta Yerushalmy.
Jul 1, 2013
If you went into Baryshnikov Arts Center’s Studio 6A today, you would find a small house. Upon further inspection, you might think of it more as a variation on a house. It has four walls, yes. It offers sanctuary, intimacy, and an ordering of space. But its primary purpose is as a container for dance.
Rachel Tess is the artist behind the container—she is a choreographer who splits her time between Portland, Oregon and Stockholm, Sweden, and a dancer trained in ballet who has worked with major ballet companies and contemporary European choreographers. She started to work site-specifically in Portland starting in 2007, making and producing works in large forgotten urban spaces under the auspices of Rumpus Room Dance. The experience of working in warehouses and other large-scale environments, she told me when I visited her at BAC recently, drove her to crave intimacy in the performance environment. How does the audience read architecture and texture? How does the audience experience the vibrations of the dancing body? These are the questions driving Tess’ newest project.
Souvenir, what I’m calling a container for dance, is “designed for mobility,” Tess wrote to me recently. It’s also “modular,” so that the pieces of the structure can be reconfigured in a multitude of ways. It was constructed in Sweden, with the help of a two carpenter uncles and Swedish/Chilean designer Gian Monti, and then shipped to New York for Tess’ month-long residency. It took almost three days to erect in the BAC studio, during which time Tess taught the dancers she is working with—Anna Pehrsson and Luis Rodriguez—how to put it together. The intimacy between Tess, the dancers, and the structure is palpable. The walls of the structure Tess lovingly refers to as “skin.” The frame of the house contains cubbies for sitting in and a ledge for perching on. Eventually each cubby will have hooks, for audiences to arrange their belongings on, and a “survival kit,” of some kind, perhaps a blanket, Tess told me.
In a recent run-through, several test audience members were encouraged to walk around the structure and then choose a cubby to inhabit. In my walk around the structure I felt my gaze drawn in many different directions—to the skyline, the buildings outside, to the studio door. Once inside, my gaze became more focused. I no longer had a sense of the space as portable. Instead, the hard edges and clean lines of the structure seemed permanent, as if they had always been there, and watching the dancers negotiate the harshness of raw wood was both stimulating and strangely exhausting. Toward the end of the run through, both dancers left the structure, running their hands along the outside walls and emitting a low, meditative hum. The container seemed to vibrate with possibility and I found myself imagining it in a grassy meadow, as a respite from the sun, perhaps after a long hike. What are the ideal conditions for dance? Souvenir forces us to confront this question—and offers a space in which to imagine the possibilities.
Lydia Bell is a dance researcher, curator and administrator based in New York City. She is Development and Curatorial Associate at Danspace Project, where she serves as Managing Editor of the PLATFORM catalogue series. Lydia has contributed to publications such as Judson Now (Danspace Project, 2012), Museum and Curatorial Studies Review (University of California, Santa Cruz), and Movement Research Performance Journal. Lydia is a graduate of Wesleyan University and the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance (ICPP).
Jan 9, 2013
How about choreographic inspiration from Stephen Sondheim musicals, unhappy endings, and the busy sex life of Bonobo apes? Unlikely? Not to Sally Silvers.
Silvers, a veteran choreographer known for her smart, collage-like dances, used her BAC residency to develop Bonobo Milkshake, a dance premiered in November 2012 at Roulette in Brooklyn and described by New York Times dance critic Claudia LaRocco as one the “happiest sightings” of 2012.That’s welcome acknowledgement for a choreographer who’s been making eclectically influenced (some say radical) work for several decades, but who described herself in a 2009 New York Times interview as “old-fashionedly interested in movement.”
A native of Tennessee, Silvers is soft spoken and articulate. During an interview at the East Village apartment studio where she lives and works, Silvers explained her unexpected exposure to dance while a student at Antioch University in the early 1970’s. She’d signed up for modern classes as exercise, but was soon performing in the works of an artist friend. “People started noticing my performance and I felt like I’d gained a new source of power,” she said. After graduating, she moved to New York, fell under the spell of the cross-disciplinary Judson Dance Theater, and started auditioning for dance gigs.
“I was looking for something radical in dance and I wasn’t finding it,” she said. “I was finding kind of smoothed out, lyrical, contact-improvy based stuff…and so I think I just put together my first concert and said, OK, I’m going to do this myself.”
Influenced by, among others, the work of Simone Forti and Yoshiko Chuma, Silvers eventually started piecing together text, movement, voice, and music into crazy-quilt dances underpinned by big themes such as gender and race, but rooted in Silvers’s love of the human body in motion.
Bonobo Milkshake is no exception. According to Silvers, the dance isn’t directly about apes or musicals, but about the intricacies of human behavior, particularly as explored by Sondheim in his dark, irreverent lyrics and inherently un-danceable scores.
Sondheim “represents a real change in looking at society with more realism,” says Silvers. “He tackles things like aging, melancholy, things that don’t work out.”
But during the choreographer’s rehearsal time at BAC, gloominess was refreshingly absent. There was laughter and a free exchange of comments and suggestions as Silvers carefully edited and embellished small chunks of movement with the dancers.
One afternoon she had dancers Dylan Crossman, Elisa Osborne, Miriam Parker, Veraalba Santa, and Christopher Williams cluster front and center. She asked them for a titillating show of leg like they were old school chorines trying to impress a director. The dancers suggestively pulled at their sweatpants and Spandex, but the result was more aggressive than Silvers wanted. She directed them to soften everything. Less movement and more intent, she suggested. “You kind of have to believe in it,” she said.
There’s a sense that this is how Silvers works – the intellectual framework of the dance is pulled from wildly divergent sources and fastened together gestalt-like in her head. The piece is then built in rehearsal as the dancers experiment and layer movement onto that framework. Silvers appears fearless when it comes to marrying disparate ideas, and the dancers follow her lead with the willingness of converts.
During her residency Silvers pushed this approach even further. Bonobo Milkshake is a multi-layered mash-up with choreographed movement for six dancers (the five listed above plus Jeremy Pheiffer), structured improvisation for three more performers (Carolyn Hall, Jonathan Kinzel, and Edisa Weeks), semi-improvised duets for Silvers and Rebekah Windmiller, and monologues and movement solos for actor David Greenspan. Michael Schumacher composed and performed the music with original text and sound design by Bruce Andrews.
“I think the scale of this piece was made more possible by the BAC residency for sure,” says Silvers. “I was able to think bigger.”
In performance at Roulette, Silvers reversed the usual seating arrangement so that the audience, elevated on the stage, looked down at the dancers, and up to the balcony area where Hall, Kinzel, and Weeks periodically slunk through the seats in a sort of mating ritual. The effect was intriguing, but the space between floor and balcony made it hard to absorb everything all at once. And Silvers’ choreography is compelling enough that it was easy to lose track of the improvised bits even when they happened down at dance floor level.
In our interview before the premier she spoke of the challenges of overlapping choreography with improvisation. “Improvisation you really have to dive in and get involved with what you’re doing,” she said. “It’s hard to coordinate because [the improvisers] can’t be there as much as they would normally need in order to get something actually worked…They’ve got to be aware that that’s their time and that they have to be off the stage or they’re going to get run over by the next section.” In an email after the opening she said that if she presents Bonobo Milkshake elsewhere she’ll intertwine the two elements even more.
Silvers has an internal presence, call it confident calmness, that somehow makes the simple act of standing and tilting her head a potent comment on life’s absurdities. When asked about the dance’s title, she said, “My dance is not about Bonobos, it’s more about the spirit of the Bonobo…Bonobo Milkshake just sounded to me like a title that meant something hopefully exciting was going to happen.”
And her response when asked what Sondheim might say if he saw Bonobo Milkshake?
“I would be very curious what he had to say about what he saw,” she says with a slight smile. “I don’t know that he would see any relationship.”