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.
Molly Won’t Stop Singing, Eleanor Won’t Stop Talking, And I Don’t Know Why
As I was writing this, my dear friend (and fellow BAC Story writer) Benedict Nguyen sent one of their brilliant missives, tracing their own process of writing towards this assignment. They ask (or plead, or muse, quietly, to themselves), “...is writing about art (or maybe anything), some weird exercise in confirmation bias [?]
I not only see what I want to see but I get to reconfirm my perception by having (some of) the words I write be shared ‘in a public record’.”
I state this here not as a way for me to inch away from owning up to my own subjectivity or absolve myself from all of the cluttered biases I carry, if such a thing is possible. I wish to frame what I am about to say with the necessary knowledge that it is born of my own highly personal opinion. And, I do so with the hope of public affirmation and skepticism in equal measure.
Molly and Eleanor don’t need my disclaimers, though. They are so in the depths of how they work and make and perform that, frankly, they are waiting for us all to catch the fuck up. They know that what they are doing is misunderstood by many and needed by many more (myself included). They know they don’t have much control over certain narratives (of the vulnerability of the naked female body; of the pervasive, creeping male gaze) that may orbit their work. Dispelling any myths about what they do is not the best use of their time. They are busy doing the work.
Allow me to be slightly reductive for a minute:
I met with Molly and Eleanor during the second week of their BAC Space Residency, and, at a certain point in our conversation, I was curious about the choice they have made in recent years to use their voices. Literally, use them, in their work. I know it may seem crass or trivial, but this question has lingered since a certain watershed moment from Basketball (2017, Baryshnikov Arts Center), when Eleanor told us (admitted? admonished?), through clenched teeth, about a past sexual assault. But, did she really tell us? It seemed to offer a crack in the surface of what had been the work of and for two mostly nude, female bodies up until that point: intense, intertwined, sculptural, steadfast. Though their practice has always been rooted in the body, we could no longer ignore the very specific instances of harm and assault involved with these bodies. We couldn’t stay living in our enamoredness of their abstracted physicality. But, let’s be clear: they did the work to make us see what was there all along.
If that moment in Basketball was the watershed, Body Comes Apart (2019, New York Live Arts) ushered in the deluge. A collage of personas — hot group fitness leader, proper Southern lady, wholesome middle school teacher — swirled in a maelstrom that recounted to us many more instances of possible (probable) sexual trauma and suffering. And, clothing. Lots of clothing — girly underwear, loose tanks that slip a subtle sideboob, pinks and purples and lace and florals abound — continuously coming on and off their bodies, shifting and shaping how we notice their bodies.
That space — the maelstrom, the same clothing mess — is where we come back to (or start from) in STAMINA (2020), the work they developed during their recent BAC Space Residency.
STAMINA (2020), in some ways, is the pot in which this soup stews. In our conversation, they speak of fully inhabiting the performance before they quite know the recipe. From the first day in the space, they perform it, which may take hours or a few minutes. They know enough to know they have stories: Eleanor has her impressions, Molly has a bad rendition of Time After Time, they have all the clothes (yes, all of them), and a series of mirrored panels that can be wheeled around the space, acting as both barrier and aperture. The ways they twist persona, narrative, and embodiment root themselves strongly in direct address. They tell us stories, continue to sing bad renditions of pop songs, admit to past transgressions… Eleanor even has an impeccable impression of Professor Minerva McGonagall waiting to strike at just the right moment.
They also feed into many perverse and questionable ways performers relate to their audiences. At times, boxed in by the mirrored walls they continuously wheel around, reflecting both their spectators and themselves, they give us whisperings of answers to questions no one poses, speaking from a post-show talkback that isn’t currently happening.
“Oh, thank you. I really like my work, too,” Eleanor says to no one in particular, with a raspy, smoker’s voice.
“You know, it comes naturally, of course,” Molly sweetly riffs later on.
I love these moments in their work: the power, the humor. It tells me that if they can get there first, if they can hold up all the weird assumptions about their dancing, if they can project all the perverted desires right back to us, then they can control the ways an audience’s perception serves to muffle or obfuscate who these women are permitted to be (onstage, outside, online, everywhere). In these moments, they are slippery — too slippery to ever be held down by a future projection. They get out ahead of it, again.
At a certain point in our conversation, I am trying to understand: why. Why use language to address what they’re doing? Do they not think dance is enough?
“There’s a responsibility to a culture of people who’ve been through sexual trauma; there is a responsibility to make sure it’s communicated and not ambiguous,” Molly says. It’s about legibility, sure, but it’s also about a wider cultural awareness that women, all over, are speaking out in highly public ways. Speaking out in their work comes along with the accountability they wish to enact beyond the boundaries of their creative partnership. “The abstraction craft can come in other forms of the work, but not in that one,” Eleanor adds. They are very deliberate about the ways this is rooted in their physical vocabulary first and foremost. Until the wider culture can value the communication strategies of a non-speaking body, until we can all agree to locate value in how a body contains knowledge and a logic unto itself, until we permanently shred the systems that harm and deceive, they will continue to use their voices. They have to.
In thinking about this writing, I remembered an article from literary journal Tin House by writer Claire Vaye Watkins titled “On Pandering.” I recall it gaining significant digital traction when it was published in 2015. It spoke to the abuses of patriarchy towards female creativity just before the onset of the #MeToo movement and, in that way, really began to harness that necessary energy, bubbling and ripe, before we all quite knew what to do with it. It is a searing indictment of the ways non-male artists navigate their creative careers by way of an invisible, insidious pandering to an ever-looming white man. She recounts many painful instances of this, self-indicting along the way, and cops to many of her efforts (including a well-received debut novel and fancy literary agent) as an extension of that constant pandering. She writes:
“I am trying to write something urgent, trying to be vulnerable and honest, trying to listen, trying to identify and articulate my innermost feelings, trying to make you feel them too, trying a kind of telepathy, all of which is really fucking hard in the first place and, in a culture wherein women are subject to infantilization and gaslighting… I sometimes wonder if it’s even possible.”
This notion, of pandering to a pervasive patriarchy, is something from which dance is not exempt. It is also something that is not always easy to name in our performance works, rooted in our very real bodies, containing real breasts, and ass cheeks, and liquids, and crevices, and fatigued muscles, and overstretched hamstrings. It determines the ways we show up, or don’t. It lives in the DNA of our work, because, how could it not? To be clear, I am not speaking of surface-level patriarchy, which determines the leadership structures of these institutions and their boards, still very white and very male. I am not speaking of where the money flows and from whom. I am not speaking of the male benefactors or the male dancers who were rightly fired from all the ballet companies, again, very white and very male.
These are all important facets to receive, but, no. I am speaking to something cellular and windy. Something that lives, unexamined and invisible, in all that we are, all that we create.
That something doesn’t seem to live in the work of Molly and Eleanor. Or, at least, I feel like they have cracked a code of sorts. Their work doesn’t pander, it doesn’t falsely promise, it doesn’t beg or bury or bend to fit a perception that you may need to hold in order to sleep better at night. I hate to say it, but: it’s so hard to explain. When they move through a space, you believe that they don’t need to try to dodge all the patriarchal traps we’ve bought into. The way they insist on being themselves might be enough, that it is possible. If that’s my own “exercise in confirmation bias,” as Benedict says, I can live with that. I have to.
By virtue of this realization, I also have to realize the pressure that puts on them, as artists, to enact some sort of untouchable feminism, wherein we have dissolved the wage gap, obliterated all harmful notions of gender or bias, and have never encountered the Trumps or Weinsteins or Cosbys of the world. I also have to realize that this acting outside of patriarchal trappings comes with the privilege of light skin and incredibly able bodies; the consequences for them may be less, or different, if this were otherwise. So, to be honest, this argument is very fraught, but I’ll stay clinging to it. That I feel I need them in ways that far transcend what they, or any artist, can provide, is ultimately unfair.
I hope, if anything, that my time with them — and recounting it here — can speak to their strength as artists who do the work, gathering embodied knowledge, and provoking a future path forward. They tread that path, encouraging us to attention. They glance our way from far ahead, seeing us over their shoulders, with love and assurance, transmitting a quiet, profound, beating urge: catch the fuck up.
Tara Sheena is a dancer and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. As a performer, she has collaborated on recent projects with Catherine Galasso, Ivy Baldwin. Gillian Walsh, Leyya Tawil, Nadia Tykulsker, Ursula Eagly, Lindsey Dietz Marchant, stormy budwig, and Faye Driscoll for the forthcoming film, Shirley. Her latest writing, Capital-D Dance, is a chapbook collaboration with artist Katie Dean, which you can purchase on Etsy! She was born in Detroit and graduated from the University of Michigan with a BFA in Dance and BA in English in 2011.
It is very special to enter into the studio of a working artist, especially at an early stage of a project in process. Generosity and courage are both on display when seeing work without sets and sound systems, in rehearsal clothes, before all or any big decisions have been made. If I’m honest, it is probably my favorite way to experience performance. Without formality, with immediacy.
This was certainly all true when I sat among a small audience in Ella Rothschild’s studio as she presented excerpts and ideas from a forthcoming work. The hour unfolded in four parts with little explanation and plenty of room for revelation.
The activity on stage is already underway as the audience enters. A table, a chair, two women. Their eyes are locked on one another. Our eyes are locked on them. They look up, turn away, repeat. Their movements are quick, swift, definitive. Rothschild and Ariel Freedman are the dancers. Rothschild, also the choreographer, is dressed in all black. Freedman is in lighter colored clothing. Both have long hair pulled up into matching messy buns. It becomes clear that the movements are a sequence, pulling them around and around the table, getting faster as the audience gets settled.
Because I had spoken with Rothschild the week before, I wonder if they are really one woman represented by two bodies – one of them real, one of them the subconscious. One a shadow of the other. The space has the feeling of an interrogation room: sparse, with grey concrete walls, shiny black floor, and large windows covered with scrim, blurring out the city’s blocky buildings beyond. Interrogation room or not, from the start, we are clearly occupying a psychological space, in addition to being in a physical one.
Rothschild is a choreographer and dancer from Israel with an International practice. Like many choreographers, she must travel around the globe to support and realize her work. The piece she is currently developing interrogates the space between the physical world and the subconscious mind, and manifests as individual and collective characters gathering around the multi-sensory site of a dinner table. The project has or will take her to Lucerne, Vancouver, Israel, and New York, and maybe/hopefully beyond. She is working with 14 professional dancers in Lucerne (a commissioned work for the dance company of Lucerne Theater), with a handful of professional dancers in Israel, and intimately one-on-one with Freedman here in New York. I just met her, but in this way, she seems exceedingly agile and omnivorous.
The scene shifts and now only Freedman is in the space with one table and one chair. A new element: elongated, prosthetic arms with stiff, unyielding hands extend from Freedman’s own pliable and knowing arms. There is accompanying sound like electronic punctuation marks or like animals at night. An owl’s hoot, an interstellar communication, or a keystroke.
It is impossible to look at anything but the arms – as she slouches and lurches they slide, lifeless, across and over the sides of the table, reaching the floor, far away from her center. They are simultaneously fully in her control and also dictate every movement. Her proportions distorted, they are elegant because she is so precise and awkward because they are bereft of any suppleness. She moves slowly, intentionally.
Prompted by the arms and Freedman’s prowess with them, I think about how we think about bodies and self, body dysmorphia, differently abled bodies, the body in our mind, the body others perceive, the parts of the body we can control and the parts we can’t.
Then, snapping up my attention, she sits and begins to speak in a disembodied, monotone voice about being taken to a new place, a newly regimented life (in an asylum or something like it), away from a husband to a roommate, away from cooking and following recipes on her own to eating “square meals” on “round plates” prepared by a chef.
She’s up again. She (seductively?) shrugs off the arms, revealing her own. Then, illusion dispelled, her back turned to us, she picks up the arms again but this time wraps them around herself. One body has become two. Or, one mind imagines two bodies. Still in her control, she dances with the arms for one last moment then casually rests them, in their button-down shirt armature, on the back of the chair and walks away. Like none of it ever happened.
When we met, Rothschild talked about loneliness, and it permeates the performance space thus far. Whether there are one or two performers on stage, whether there is silence or sound. There is both a visceral drudgery and forcefulness about the movement that stems from a rift, one she is mining, between body and mind.
I don’t remember at exactly what point I notice it, but gradually or all of a sudden strips of the setting sunlight slice through the space, across furniture and bodies, through the stage and into the audience; no longer contained by the slim window coverings.
Rothschild joins Freedman again on the stage, the second chair returns, and there is a glass of red wine set on the table. Rothschild briefly describes that Freedman is in the room with another being, though it is not clear if this being is real or an extension of the subconscious.
Two women, two chairs, one table, and a glass of red wine.
Freedman releases her hair and lets it hang messily in front of, and therefore obscure, her face.
Strings and horns play ominously throughout the duet.
Freedman slides down onto the floor as if drawn to and along it by a magnetic force. She struggles her way to a chair, onto which she eventually, excruciatingly pulls herself up so her torso and arms rest on and entangle with the seat. With her weight heaped over it, she pushes and pulls as the chair moves heavily with her body, creaking around the stage.
Rothschild stands still for this entire sequence until Freedman pulls herself fully up. Rothschild takes a first sip of the wine. They hold hands. They pass this precarious wine glass back and forth, sipping, manipulating, caressing, holding, pulling, turning. At one climactic point, Rothschild holds Freedman by the neck for an amount of time that feels just uncomfortably long.
Rothschild starts speaking quickly and in a high-pitched voice, then in a lower pitch, a somewhat nonsense dialogue about a relationship with a “bitter and awful man.” A vague story emerges about relationships, perceptions, and what other people think. Then, the man himself, one register lower in Rothschild’s voice, enters the conversation catching the dialogue in progress. And then, all at once, the scene ends.
Continuing to tease out Freedman’s character, Rothschild introduces the final section as an exercise in how two beings occupy space with movement. The furniture has been struck and now the only thing shaping the playing space is the contrast of light and shadow streaming in from the partially scrimmed windows.
Horns, strings, and a fast-beating drum comprise the soundtrack.
The two women make big, determined gestures. Slow and then fast. In unison and then isolated. They appear to be exorcising demons from their bodies or letting themselves be occupied completely. The music shifts and becomes a little more melodic though still with a pulsing beat. The light creates haloes around their messy buns. They contract, bent over. Their stances widen, they open their arms. A tug of war ensues, each pulling the other’s arm as they turn to and from, back and forth and back and forth, until the sound quiets and it is just Rothschild, ever the shadow, pulling Freedman to her as she tries to pull away. Freedman’s movements become smaller and then stop.
We live in a time where the lines between reality and fantasy, fact and fake, are redrawn and redrawn again to suit particular needs and narratives. The liminal space of Rothschild’s studio where real bodies and minds portray the internal and external struggle, the push and pull, to distinguish between and play along a spectrum of real and imagined, physical and felt, is like an alchemical antidote.
Throughout the afternoon, it is clear to me that Rothschild is conveying something personal and universal, of our time and timeless: deeply embodied loneliness, a fear and desire to know oneself, in body and mind, in reality and in consciousness, and to know and convene with others, on a stage or around a dinner table or around a dinner table on a stage.
Melissa Levin is an arts administrator and curator committed to innovative, inclusive, and comprehensive approaches to supporting artists and initiating programs. She is currently the VP of Artists, Estates and Foundations at Art Agency Partners, where she advises artists and their families on legacy planning. Previously, Levin worked at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council for more than 12 years, where as VP of Cultural Programs she led the program design and artistic direction of LMCC's Artist Residency programs, the Arts Center at Governors Island, and the River To River Festival. Together with Alex Fialho, Levin has curated multiple, critically-acclaimed exhibitions dedicated to the late Michael Richards’s art, life, and legacy. Levin proudly serves on the boards of the Alliance of Artists Communities and Danspace Project. She received a B.A. with honors in Visual Art and Art History from Barnard College.
As I watch Kayla Farrish and Roobi Starla Gaskins warm up and rehearse (if it existed, the line between them floated beyond my perception), Marjani walks up to me and invites me to think about God. Roobi swings deep and shuffles light from left hip to right, she considers something in that middle space with eyes down, focus clear and soft.
Kayla swings her arms to herself, stomps, and steps to a deep crouch before swirling against where gravity would’ve taken her. As I watch these dancers watch something, shape a swath of air between their eyes and their arms, I wonder about the space they fling away from and find again, again.
Before the door to the studio is fully open, the music is louder than anything. The steady bass drum in The Chosen Gospel’s Singers’ “Prayer For The Doomed” treads on for most of my visit. Marjani Forté-Saunders’ and Everett Saunders’ son Everett Nkosi Zaire Saunders tours the studio, stopping to consider the dancers before continuing on, giving me a thumbs up as he passes.
Before offering me this prompt, Marjani speaks to Kayla and Roobi individually, who return to notebooks, records or mirrors of something they’re building towards. From a recent history of primarily choreographing works for one performer, Marjani expresses excitement about composing a work with these first-time collaborators. With Kayla and Roobi, Marjani offers guidance not just through words, but through her own dancing as well. As she watches them take these questions into their own bodies, she keeps dancing, keeps speaking. “Yes!” she exclaims.
For something worked on and studied to translate, even if just for this one witness this one day, is an easily satisfying feeling. As an artist, I get to trust process again. They get it, they see something. As a viewer, I can follow the thread. The artists are leading me places and we can go there, even with me in the seat of a plastic chair.
A week later, Everett asks the audience at the BAC Space Studio Showing, “How do you recognize an Emcee?” In a monologue that cites artists from Raekwon to Pharoahe Monch, Everett jabs at the air with pointed fingers to show the different textures emblematic of these figures’ rhythms. Embodiment, he tells us, is everything.
Beside him, Marjani wears on her head a sculpture from Memoirs of a... Unicorn (2017). The wooden horn sprawls more than the length of Marjani’s body as she makes the same gestures. When she stands, the horn waves from the crown of her head towards the ceiling, its weight changing how she could direct our sight through the studio, how her hands had scrawled on the studio just before.
This articulation finds still new dimension at the border of Roobi’s hands when she takes center stage. Marjani and Kayla take turns circling in short solos, idiosyncratic but not isolated. Everett raps, his voice fading and amplifying as he loops with them. Having pushed in one direction, Marjani whips her torso around to face another. Kayla floats, evoking vapor elusive but dense.
Marjani, Kayla, and Roobi prop up three plastic tables to reflect back Meena Murugesan’s projections, images of people spliced across imperfect surfaces. The floor’s spike marks had to be moved each time, Meena tells me after the show, each rehearsal a revision of catching photons in space at the angle they want us to see it. I won’t call it the right angle.
We’re asked to consider one’s natural response when approached with opposition or aggression. Even when dancing in unison, Marjani, Kayla, and Roobi don’t arrive at a singular right answer. A jump that propels the leg around the hips to turn the body unfurls together but creates three flashes of limb through space. Marjani tumbled through this move when they were marking through the material with audiences still entering. Laughing, she said, “I can’t do it.”
Of course she could. She did the move. “When teaching one to heal, you must also teach them how to fight,” Everett tells us.
To be able to see the work at this stage, after just a couple weeks of working all together, makes me wonder how this connection between them, the fluency in speaking and moving together, might evolve as the work grows.
For now, Everett picks up another monologue, germinated from last week’s rehearsal. Everett had worked to recapture the spirit of the original story he had once told Marjani. The details, the motifs, the gradual revelation of a spine, an unknown history of a place holding the heart of a community of Emcees/Lyricists, is revealed to us with smooth suspense. “We found God on that cold winter block” in North Philadelphia, Everett tells us.
What is a natural response? What is authentic storytelling told for a stage, rehearsed again and again? How can a private conversation keep its unceremoniousness in the ceremony of a performance scheduled for public engagement? What does it mean when white people are witnessing this work, when I, a Vietnamese-American writer, am writing about this work?
I don’t task the artists with answering these questions but they cross my mind as a viewer and as a writer.
Last week, in Roobi’s entrance following Everett’s section, Marjani asked Roobi to keep experimenting with the dynamics of her procession down the diagonal of the studio. To the opening notes of "Prayer for the Doomed," Roobi’s head could appear to be shaking, wondering or wandering somewhere we can’t know, each gaze switched nearly before being sent. Marjani had said to keep the motion in the body nice and small. Focus on the thing that keeps eluding you rather than any distraction, growing not on a linear progression but through another path.
And in the showing, this movement grows in the space outside Roobi’s skin as she turns around the place on her forehead where a unicorn horn would be. To have whipped the horn at Roobi’s velocity would have whipped it off.
But the way she was moving differently, echoing back to the horn on Marjani’s head, illuminated spaces between what I could see and what I could imagine, what I know and what I don’t. But beyond these vague invocations of the unknown, there is specificity. There’s texture to the movement of Emcees/Lyricists, history to the stories of Emcees/Lyricists, sounds richer than this text alone can convey.
Benedict Nguyen is a dancer, writer, and curator based in the South Bronx, NY. Benedict has recently performed in the works of José Rivera Jr., Sally Silvers, and Monstah Black. Their writing has appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Culturebot, Dance Magazine, and Shondaland, among others. As the 2019 Suzanne Fiol Curatorial Fellow at ISSUE Project Room, they developed a multidisciplinary platform soft bodies in hard places. They're sometimes online @xbennyboo and compile essay-memes for their newsletter, first quarter moon slush.
In a rehearsal the previous weekend, Keir tried swiping his torso around the corner of his shoulder with more force than before, resulting in a buttery scratch of his violin. Was it a feeling of refusal or insistence? And was it those feelings and/or the velocity of a wooden chassis hurtling to an abrupt stop that produced that particular sound?
This line of questioning might sound in company with Bobbi Jene Smith’s A Study on Effort (“58: what does it mean for the bow to make sound with air?”) but within Lost Mountain, the line becomes a world and the impetus becomes a fraught relationship between people playing their bodies, playing instruments.
Keir GoGwilt plays Chaconne, the last movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Violin Partita Nº2 in D Minor. Partitas are instrumental solos structured after Baroque court dances from the 17th and 18th centuries. Of course, court dances are a European synonym for social dances, though one movement is called Sarabande, a triple-meter form with potential origins from Central America.
I include this light music and dance history interlude to suggest, perhaps too literally, how this somber piece of music carries with it the ghosts of music and dance forms unseen or heard by us, echoing its melancholy into this rootless mountain in which we find ourselves. This piece of music appeared in Keir and Bobbi’s previous collaboration With Care, and again, the putative premise of the work has altered its meaning.
At four corners of a rectangle, Ariel Freedman, Keir, Yiannis Logothetis, and Bobbi trace the edges of something at the center. To whom or for what do they dance? What drives the urgency of the solos they take in the floor’s center? Bobbi rushes to the edge of a harsh feeling only to seep into a serenity behind her eyes. Yiannis too searches for something behind himself, turning over himself in stillness as he covers his eyes with his palms. Ariel propels into a crawl, raises and drops each of her shoulders and hips in clockwise succession, the motion an excision or coagulation of something she was holding. In all the ways to describe what and how they express themselves, for themselves alone or to each other, this section evinces a determined order.
Something frenetic breathes through the intricate precision of the performers’ movements, an urgency in each twitch and circle rippling through the smaller swaths of their bodies.
Rehearsing a partnering section last week, Marla Phelan covers Evan Copeland’s eyes with her hands, the shifting forces of gravity applied to each other’s skulls readily discernible as they dart into the fleeting negative between them.
Some of the implied questions of narrative were addressed in a first-time collaboration with novelist Nicole Krauss, brought on since Lost Mountain’s May 2019 premiere at La Mama. In the showing, we’re not given any explicit outcomes from this collaboration. A monologue delivered by cellist Coleman Itzkoff remains, for now, as it was in May. In a thin, pinched voice, he tells us of an imminent cold front bringing ice and reduced visibility.
In last week’s rehearsal Nicole had asked the collaborators about surface level characteristics that Ravid Kahalani might know about Lost Mountain, revealing what he’d get wrong from not living there. Other collaborators brainstormed the story, the texture of the room, and the field they’d inhabit with a specificity they knew could never be fully revealed but would still be felt.
For Bobbi, one of the goals of this residency was to shape the work’s text as an entry point into the work. A new collaborator to the project, Ravid’s throaty vocalizations blended over dry synths sound like a wail cut through like a knife, serrated and ultimately smooth. I wonder how the history of his voice and the context of his music fold in at this stage of the work’s development?
I describe these sections out of the sequence they were performed but in the sequence of a discussion of Ravid’s character, the keeper of this mountain we’ve somehow returned to; time doesn’t seem to move in a linear fashion anyway.
Before the partita, before the weather report, before Ravid sang, the other performers had entered one by one: Ariel with a bouquet of purple flowers, Evan with a wooden board upon which he would tap dance. They stood at right angles to each other before Marta Miller entered from a corner on the audience side, regarding them all, regal.
In the concluding excerpt for this day, Jesse Kovarsky scales the barre running the perimeter of the room, ascends the edge where the studio’s two walls meld with vigorous aplomb. Evan dons the tap shoes and adds to the raucous tunes of Coleman and Ravid. They’re chasing something, maybe each other, maybe something not there. They confront and recede and even smile as the geometries of their flight paths veer and lightly collide. Marta considers them again, softly imperious. Finally, Marla, resigned, crawls to a wired still, the surface of her back collating something of this place in the ligaments beneath.
Benedict Nguyen is a dancer, writer, and curator based in the South Bronx, NY. Benedict has recently performed in the works of José Rivera Jr., Sally Silvers, and Monstah Black. Their writing has appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Culturebot, Dance Magazine, and Shondaland, among others. As the 2019 Suzanne Fiol Curatorial Fellow at ISSUE Project Room, they developed a multidisciplinary platform soft bodies in hard places. They're sometimes online @xbennyboo and compile essay-memes for their newsletter, first quarter moon slush.
Jun 4, 2019
With spring sunlight filtering through the large warehouse-style windows of Baryshnikov Arts Center’s John Cage & Merce Cunningham Studio, Emily Schoen watches her six dancers as they work through an ensemble section of her newest piece, See Me In Your Eye.
The dancers, in two lines of three, walk, rock, twirl, and hop forward and backward, the lines slowly exchanging and then re-exchanging places like the ebbing and flowing of a tide.
“I’m interested in those moments when people change their mind in life. Because I think even in this age, in this space where we live, it’s harder and harder for people to soften to new information,” Schoen tells me later.
The dancers lean against and away from each other, heads supported by hands, a leg grasped as a dancer tilts to break free. They mirror each other in couples before splitting the space as two groups of three, a brief distance between them before they magnetically reconvene as a single unit in the corner.
The piece brings together dancers from the U.S. and Tunisia, where Schoen traveled twice in 2017 — first with Larry Keigwin and then a few months later to create her own work, Here We Are, a 30-minute piece that serves as the foundation — or as Schoen describes it, the “putty” — for See Me In Your Eye.
The soundtrack of the piece is composed largely by Curtis Macdonald with additional music by Simon Broucke, a Tunisian hip hop song by KATYB, and stories recorded by each of the dancers sprinkled throughout. This means that even as the dancers’ movements cohesively entwine, the piece toggles between cultures and languages, at once a reminder of both the cross-cultural exchange happening on stage and of the dancers’ individuality and humanity.
“The goal of this is for us to be ourselves, and for people to see us as ourselves and to get us as this unit of international diversity,” Schoen says. “Basically just presenting a full human experience.”
As I watch the dancers, I find myself wondering: if I did not know who was Tunisian and who was American from the outset, would I be able tell? And to what extent do these signifiers even matter? Further, what is it to be defined as being “from” somewhere? When speaking to Schoen’s Tunisian dancers, the fluidity of borders is clear — one dancer is originally from Algeria; one spent 9 months living in Houston; one studied in Paris and briefly danced in Finland.
Schoen is “not trying to make a political statement,” and yet when pushed further she adds, “maybe the political statement is that it’s not political. We can exist together, we can live together, without it being some message or some signpost in the sand, some marker of who you are…. We can have our culture, we can accept other peoples’ cultures, we can live together, right? So, yeah, maybe it’s political because it’s not.”
In the studio, the dancers spend time problem-solving a lift. They work on small phrases built from another ensemble piece and then they take time to learn each other’s phrases, the studio echoing with intermittent laughter.
“The beauty of this piece is quite simple: very different people coming together and giving of themselves and being open to people who are different from them through dance,” Schoen says. “It’s simple and I think it’s inherently beautiful in the physicality and the vulnerability that comes out of that.”
Elena Hecht is currently finishing an M.F.A. in creative writing at Columbia's School of the Arts. She has attended the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and her writing has appeared in Dance Magazine, Columbia College Today, and The New York Times. She is currently working on a novel loosely based on her grandparents’ lives during WW2 as well as a book centered around an art project she created in her sister’s memory. When not writing, Elena can probably be found dancing and has performed the work of David Neumann, Gabriel Forestieri, Zoe Scofield, Rami Be'er, Daniel Gwirtzman, Stephanie Liapis, and Ming Wong.
Jun 6, 2019
Portal begins with an eruption — male, upward thrusting — a percussive, rolling rat-a-tat-tat of drums explodes out of the movement. Andreas Brade’s music, composed for the dance, responds to the action, from minimal and soothing to cacophonous, as needed.
The seven strong, blithe dancers of Cornfield Dance devour the space in the John Cage & Merce Cunningham Studio, fully committed to the athletic demands of the choreography, powered by their vigorous joy for the craft. It’s the kind of imprimatur that signals a master at work, and Ellen Cornfield’s reputation precedes her.
The choreographer, who danced for Merce Cunningham from 1974-1982 and taught at Cunningham Studio for 30 years, may fit diagonally on some dance genealogy tree, but she has also made her own distinct mark. There is a brand identity to the technique that is unmistakable. However, fresh eyes, like those of the students in the BAC After School program, see it on its own merits. In a visit with Cornfield during her residency, the teens watched her company rehearse. They saw, “formalism with flair, and flights of fancy. Quirky, rhythmic, gestural phrases woven into broadly abstract works with exciting choreography. Cute moments that hint at a story.”
Cornfield developed Portal, her latest work, during her BAC Space residency this spring at BAC, while also working on spacing and refinements for two other works (Close Up and Pas de Detour) for the company’s performances at the Harkness Dance Festival. In the second part of her residency, Cornfield worked with collaborators Glen Fogel, Mark Brady, and Jordan Strafer to create a video version of Portal, featuring the architecture and spaces of the BAC building. The costumes for Portal, by Karen Young, visually reflect the space and the surrounding cityscape through their patchwork design of angular shapes in a narrow range of gray shades. Cornfield described the natural light streaming down in shafts through the closed shades of the studio on bright afternoons as “magical.”
A new version of Close-Up (2017), presented at Cornfield’s BAC Space showing and reworked during her residency, was inspired by her company’s performance at the Yale Center for British Art in 2018, where the company performed the dance in five separate gallery rooms simultaneously. “Experiences have taught me to embrace the unexpected,” Cornfield said. This new version, performed in decades-old unitards, is her homage to Merce’s “Events,” which were made up of bits of material from different works put together for a unique performance. At BAC, she and her dancers rearranged the original stage work into a condensed version, presented side by side at the same time.
Cornfield said she saw her dancers perform “deeper into the work and more confidently with their own gifts and abilities,” at their BAC studio showing — a result of “the supportive physical environment and the level of saturation in the work that was made possible through the residency.”
Brian McCormick is part-time Assistant Professor at The New School teaching graduate courses in Media Studies, and an adjunct lecturer at CUNY Lehman College teaching Theater. He is contributing editor at Gay City News, and has written for The New York Times, The Advocate, Dance Magazine, Dance Studio Life, and BAMbill. Since 2003, he has taught for Arts Connection’s Teen Reviewers and Critics (TRaC) program, and in 2019 received the Linda LeRoy Janklow Teaching Artist award. He leads the BAC After School program, established in 2012. Brian served on the New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Awards selection committee from 2002-2012, and is currently on the Board of Directors of Pentacle/Dance Works, Inc.
May 23, 2019
A soft pulsing unison is emitted from a group of dancers in a line, holding hands. I observe as Mor Mendel expertly transmits dance steps to Oren Barnoy, Raha Behnam and Zavé Martohardjono. Throughout Mor’s instruction, a chorus of syncopated voices drones lightly in the background: who was here first / they were here first / was I here first / how does it bloom.
Mor is Israeli but she didn’t grow up doing Israeli folk dances. However, after working with Hadar for several years, the steps appear to have deeply embedded in her body, in her muscle memory.
Hadar Ahuvia sits elsewhere at a table, pouring over a manuscript as the vibrations and textures of her dance wash over her. Much of this material has been used in her work before. When material from one’s own work becomes a new sort of trope to be complicated, referenced, and re-written, it is a serpent eating itself.
The group is learning a complicated sequence of steps and text phrases based on the Yemenite step. Each spoken phrase is a slight alteration of the previous, mirroring the way meaning might be obscured through a process of transmission. A string of words connects through their feet and the poetry gains new context through repetition.
Hadar tells me that she is recovering from a hip flareup a few days ago. “I could barely walk,” she says. She is convinced it is connected to a bike accident she had a few years ago, right before she left for a trip to Israel/Palestine to do humanitarian work. Through our friendship I also know that the trip stirred deep wounds between her and her Zionist family. “Now this stuff is finally getting into my work, and [the hip flareup] comes back.” The stuff she is talking about—it’s not the conflict in Israel/Palestine per se, but rather, the embodying of the conflict within her own family and how she has begun to unwind it.
Everything You Have is Yours, Hadar’s previous work, was a performance-lecture whose purpose was to artfully illustrate how Zionism built a nation through embodied ideology. It drew attention to cultural nuances that most Americans, and especially American Ashkenazi Jews, could likely miss, having low literacy on the many ethnic and cultural lineages embedded within Israel/Palestine. But it is the personal connections—the fact that Hadar’s grandfather was a literal pioneer of the Zionist Kibbutz movement, or that her mother performed in a semi-professional folk dance troupe, that make Hadar’s stakes in this information so real, so gut-wrenchingly tangible.
In The Dances are for Us Hadar attempts to foreground these personal stakes, while at the same time involving a larger group of collaborators in conversation, dance, and song. Her collaborators have varied backgrounds: some Jewish, some not. Some have relationships to folk dance and some do not. Raha takes scrupulous notes. Autumn Leonard, having just arrived, begins to get the new sequence down.
The group begins to dance a hora, a circle dance enjoyed at social occasions by Jews in Eastern Europe before and during the settling of Palestine. I enjoy watching the coexistence of many divergent physicalities. What gives a dance like this its unity and cohesion? Is it the stomping of feet? A decided posture, perfected by all? Or could it be said that a shared intention, a social contract like an invisible thread connecting hearts and minds, is enough?
Hora was practiced by Zionists before the founding of the state. It was danced by Jews who were not yet Israeli. This imagined diasporic dance provides a backdrop for Hadar’s personal narrative. She operates with dry humor, imbibing a character modeled after a male Israeli dance instructor. This alter-ego is a way for Hadar to morph; to inhabit a persona in order to subvert it.
Her story drifts between contexts and places. She starts in Hawai’i, where her Israeli family moved when she was in high school. There she pokes fun at Jews for Jesus who attempt to perform Israeli folk dance without the requisite credentials, or chutzpah. She narrates a family trip to the Gilboa mountains in Israel. She balances her reverence with the descriptive smell of cow manure. Her voice begins to change and soften as she questions the authenticity of her own memory and truth: “why this” and “why that?”
As the group dances, Hadar’s virtuosic commentary continues to shift the meaning of the repetitive steps. Her telling becomes a reparative midrash for a dance whose meaning has long been incorporated into a set of truths. I pause to reflect. Isn’t that what Jewish thought does? Continually question, debate, and complicate the well worn narratives, songs, and texts—if text could be considered a dance, a kind of text of the body? I am fascinated by the deep vestiges of Jewishness inside this making.
But not all Jews are the same. I remember being taught Israeli folk dances in elementary school by one of my classmate’s mothers. As an American Jew, I was confused. Was I supposed to feel some affinity to this tradition? The Israelis I knew were nothing like me. Their bodies were erect and confident and they spoke in loud voices. I remember bristling at the Israeli exchange student in my middle school. Her voice was too loud, her spine too erect. My own Jewish body felt meek in comparison. Her confidence embarrassed me.
Through Hadar’s work I have learned that this Israeli body, this sabra body, was meticulously constructed. It was made through erect, collectivist ideologies, manual labor, farming, military service… and dance. It might surprise you that dance could serve as a vehicle for such profound social transformation. However, for those who devote their lives to fine-tuning their bodies and nervous systems through somatic work, the potency of this proposal is not a stretch. This is what is so captivating about watching Hadar’s work unfold. The viewer experiences for themselves the implicit persuasion of embodied narratives taking hold.
This essay flows forth at a time when many of us with power and privilege are being asked and challenged to put words to the supremacies we have inhabited, unchecked for so long. With much reflection, I realize that my body exudes another kind of socialized confidence: a confidence accrued through White Privilege. This very real, very tangible confidence is seated in the embodied knowledge that my body will be safe, in almost any context; that my thoughts and ideas will be taken seriously, in almost any context… Does my confidence embarrass you?
“There are no equivalencies, but there are parallels,” interjects Hadar.
Israeli folk dance has many sources, some more overtly acknowledged than others. Much like our American melting pot myth, this cultural construct obscures the historical power dynamics and multi-ethnicities imbedded within it. The Ashkenazi founders of the folk dance movement modeled their music and dance on those observed from Bedouin, Palestinian, Yemenite Jews, Druz, and other peoples whose cultures emerged from thousands of years of desert dwelling. The culling of these sources was an overt effort by Zionists to affirm their “native-ness.”
Hadar is of Ashkenazi descent. Her lineage traces the very power and privilege she is trying to deconstruct. Can a performance be a part of equalizing power? There is a moment when all the performers leave the stage and Hadar plays the music of a Palestinian dabke. We are left to imagine, or contemplate, the void. It is not a perfect solution, and during the showing Hadar receives mixed feedback.
There is a general consensus that this moment can’t restore power to a people who aren’t in the room. But perhaps it can deflate the confidence of a narrative that props up those in power? So what does decolonization really mean? Does it mean physically leaving? Or does it mean, as I have heard it suggested by several Indigenous scholars, restoring power and equalizing the imbalances in our social and environmental ecology?
Questions of authority continue to surface. Hadar is trying to be transparent about her own limitations—the absence of origin, pure source, or even objectivity. “We’re not searching for an authentic moment. It’s about how the dances were used.”
At one point, an archival video shows Rivka Sturman, one of the folk dance movement’s founders. I can’t help myself—I am delighted by the image of this 80-something woman, surrounded by masses, all dancing her creations. Autumn calls this the “swan song moment.” “You get to see her humanity,” says Raha. “Tenderness,” says Zavé. “I associate [Hadar] with her.”
There is still a troubling sense that the information is one-sided. “There are no images to associate with source material,” says Raha. “Any time you have one voice in documentary, that voice starts sounding ‘correct,’” Autumn points out.
In regards to the moment when Palestinian dabke music plays for an empty stage, Zavé adds that “the imagination is colonized.” They offer an alternate meditation: As we begin to conjure a source in its absence, can we instead, draw attention to our colonized minds?
Tatyana Tenenbaum is the daughter of a fiber artist, granddaughter of Broadway producers, and great-granddaughter of Hungarian and Ukrainian Jewish immigrants who settled in New York City/Lenapehoking. She grew up doing community musical theater. Over the past decade she has performed and collaborated with Yoshiko Chuma, Daria Faïn, Jennifer Monson, Levi Gonzalez, Emily Johnson/CATALYST, Andy Luo & lily bo shapiro, Hadar Ahuvia, the DOING AND UNDOING collective, and Juliana May.
 A Israeli folk dance step based on the dances of Yemenite Jews. It was observed, appropriated and codified by folk dance founder Rivka Sturman, an Ashkenazi Zionist.
 Ashkenazi is a term for Jews of central or Eastern Europe descent.
 Midrash is a Judaic practice of providing extra commentary on biblical texts.
 Sabra is the desert prickly pear, a symbol chosen to represent the new Jew, born in Israel who had shed the physical and psychological trappings of the diaspora.
 Dabke is a folk dance practiced throughout the Levant, including in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Jordan. It is also the source on which the Israeli folk dance step Debka was based.
February 5, 2019
Watching the audience was one of the major pleasures of Sally Silvers’ piece ALONG at Roulette last night. I was with them, and in them, and they were also up there above us in balconies flanking the stage, and our collective fleeting looks of delight, absorption, boredom, restlessness, triumph, all contributed to the enduring patterning pinging the room.
We were destabilized always into being part of it. Along for the ride. And the dance was wyrd, deliberately so. First a golden spangled curtain on stage right withheld and released the dancers, and also they were standing along the walls waiting for their cues. Meanwhile, a bank of teevees full of shifting patterns faced us sitting in our central seats on the risers. Late in the show those teevees contained eyes, large ones, going horizontal and vertical, estranging the very organ of the eye itself, and I found myself thinking of my animal, a dog whose eyes are both shallow and deep as nature. Always I feel her outer limits, my dog, yet she’s other too. I go only so far in her world without language. Dancers murmur in this piece, not constantly but intermittently in a way that additionally jostled the scale of the production. A word or two would come across, enough for me to feel the life out there and simultaneously my apartness from it. The dancers’ wardrobe seemed like sylvan meets punk. Sally’s choreography derives from sci fi and the history of the genre was spoofed. She’s not a sci fi buff, so perhaps the immersive effect of the show is about our collective alienation in this political moment. Aliens are perpetually odd and desperate. Their fingers flail and signal one another. Sometimes they paw each other’s face for a vanishing contact, an expression of wellness or love. Aliens die because they’re not from here. One hits the floor and the other aliens sniff and surround their fallen friend. I thought of Gulliver among the Lilliputians. Do aliens feel alienated too. The entire cast of eight, at two different points, went full on at us sitting on the risers, confronting us with their faces, bodies, and eyes. A particular scale haunted the production. The non-western deployment of eyes alongside the weird finger dancing created a mutuality effect of us staring at them while they stared at us (I coined “an armada of ya” defensively while they bored in), and continually I nervously scanned the room to see how the other bodies felt. Sound design was active here. At one point a yearning electric Hawaiian guitar herded the dancers and our feelings into the next configuration of push pull and exhilaration, as if now we were at the brink of meaning. Or story. Dancers scare me. Have you ever been to a dancer’s birthday party where the rest of us are afraid to take the floor because they are such happy animals, so adept with their every tentacle, full of shared laughter and belonging and swift movement because they know what this means and we don’t. The regulators of Sally’s ALONG were three roller derby girls who barged onto the scene most often cued by a whistle and whirled in a tight formation, connected and pushing each other. Kathleen Hanna blaring. What they enforced in fact was the rhythm and the timing of the show. They made an outside, a there there. They girded the night. And punk, of course, in the history of the world, was an injection of ‘alien’ after the softer subversive hippy movement failed or moved on. Trying some weirdness was always youth culture’s next step. Think of it. Aliens enter cultural life when we can’t or refuse to assimilate what someone is trying to show, why “they” came. In ALONG it’s sometimes like we’ve got the Living Theater, with their arms raised, becoming trees or jeremiads. But rather than inviting us to join in and feel paradise, now we watch these aliens writhe and prance in a box, or a tube, so to speak. One of the major plot points of ALONG was the unexpected entrance of a drone. The alarming presence and the droning sound of it. Its green light hovered over the piece and the momentary thrill of such a device being on our side, the anticipation of something watching all this and us from above at our or Sally’s behest was an authentically fleeting passion. What the hell is dance after all. We sit in a square, or, I saw a rehearsal of ALONG on Skype a few weeks ago - a camera showed me a partial view of the show, and I puzzled over how something as vital as clusters of bodies in time and space gets telegraphed by a camera or a square room, and then we sit in order to see the spectacle almost as if it were flat. I guess we experience dance viscerally however it comes. We see one body halt and another act upon it, around it, and a third positions herself behind the other two, and the three interact, and I think oh dance is depth though sometimes there is dance in the streets, right, interpolated out there with traffic and passersby, but mostly it’s here in a box which effects the abstraction so the alienation we feel from our bodies can be shoved right in our face and then played with and torqued and then we feel awe and exhilaration at the wily manifestation of these special animals and tonight their invisible drone master, Sally, and poof then it’s gone. Why do dancers pick each other up I asked Sally. It’s framing, to make shapes, to let the dancer display form. Is there an average age I asked Sally. We were standing there after the show. Is it like horses that three is the correct derby moment. You know, and Derby is just a place in England, that’s all it means. And one dancer, Sally says, was free for all of September and that’s why he’s in all of the scenes. Or a lot of them. Who is that older man standing there when we talked. Is he a famous dancer. Oh no I like dancers of all ages Sally says but here they are in front of us, I’d say young and strange and ready to be used. The older man standing there. I wondered who he was. Then they all flail together, all at once, it’s ecstasy, it goes dark, and then it’s done.
Eileen Myles is a poet, novelist, public talker, and arts journalist. Their 21 books include evolution (poems), Afterglow (a dog memoir), a 2017 re-issue of Cool for You, I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems, and Chelsea Girls. Eileen is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Andy Warhol/Creative Capital Arts Writers grant, four Lambda Book Awards, the Shelley Prize from the PSA, and a poetry award from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. In 2016, Myles received a Creative Capital grant and the Clark Prize for excellence in arts writing. In 2019 they will be teaching at New York University and Naropa University and they live in NYC and Marfa, TX.
January 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.
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 18, 2018
What does it mean for dance to be a site where “thingliness” is worked through, where the oscillation of the (black) body between thing, nothingness, and something else is bravely worked out as a kind of practice?
Ligia Lewis has completed two pieces of her BLUE, RED, WHITE trilogy, with Sorrow Swag (2014) and minor matter (2016) as the first two pieces of that trilogy. The Spring 2018 BAC residency is one of the first assemblies of a team of collaborators and the beginning of a rehearsal process for the third piece of the trilogy, Water Will (in Melody).
This rehearsal process includes Lewis, Berlin-based performer Makgosi Kgabi, and composer-performer Colin Self. As the final part of a trilogy, one might expect the process to have a sense of finality, perfect summation, or closure, but the creation process in the studio is dynamic, vibrant with many ideas, and with no sense of bringing thinking and action to a close.
At the work-in-progress showing in the John Cage and Merce Cunningham Studio, Lewis introduces the German fable of “the willful child” and the role that storytelling plays in the creation of this piece. She describes how these culturally familiar fables inform her process, how she tries to find deviancy within the text themselves and test the borders of language. The performers are on the floor, breathing audibly. Their movement is slow and sustained. The floor is treated as support, but the movers also pay attention to its characteristics, its texture, color, temperature, and scent. This is a practice that, during rehearsal, Lewis describes as experimenting with the senses through “emptying out subjectivity” and not giving primacy to “the body” as it is traditionally understood in dance. This practice stages what it means to access the risks and possibilities of sitting with nothingness, and exploring touch in the (impossible) community of things. This dance raises awareness of how material dance bodies relate to things, the ground, and the land.
Lewis’ practice of staying in the hold of nothingness, where blackness has often been relegated, runs the risk of reifying exactly what it challenges. Lewis takes up this risk and doesn’t run away from it, since, as performance theorist Fred Moten has argued in A Poetics of the Undercommons: “You think you have to say ‘No, I am not a thing.’ It’s a horrible experience to find that one is an object among other objects, a thing among other things...but the maneuver that requires you to claim humanness is horrible as well precisely because it may well replicate and entrench the disaster.” In that respect, Water Will challenges us to ask: how can what is deemed nothing be with nothing in dance? How does touch operate in that space, and how do we resist reducing touch to romance and subjectivity?
Water Will’s movement vocabulary is watery; gesture flows like waves, both gentle and turbulent. The successive and sequential undulations have no discernible initiation points; they do not end and they do not begin. However, the intended porousness of the theater landscape and the wavy flow of the choreographic vocabulary are not reducible to mere representations of how water moves. In other words, Lewis is not making the move championed by French ballet master Jean-Georges Noverre in his 18th Century dance treatises of creating sublime movement that mimics/simulates water. She is also not attached to a metaphorical or symbolic engagement with water. The question of water is fleshed out beyond our cultural associations with water (cleansing/catharsis). She is interested in water’s materiality in performance as it pertains to the water in us, which flows and pours out when we bleed, or cry, or make love.
The sounds created electronically by Colin Self merge with the vocal sounds made by Kgabi and Lewis, building to create a cacophonous sonic environment. Kgabi circles the stage, takes purposeful big steps. Her storytelling and operatic singing style is superimposed with Lewis’ speech that plays with alliteration. Speech breaks/brakes and the operatic turns into chesty growls, whistling, and unintelligible whispers. Self’s recorded sound summons Romantic German music’s utopianism. For Self, this is a process of calling up that tradition while trying to move away from some of its characteristics. The music in Water Will accentuates and names (il)legible the melodramatic form. During the post-showing conversation, Lewis articulates that these choices of experimentation with a variety of sonic arrangements occasion the breakdown of language, and open up ways to “other” the theater space itself, exposing its representational logics that mobilize the senses to titillate, in ways that further problematic racial fantasies. At a time where the “given” nature of ideas such as “the self,” “being,” “personhood,” and “the body” are under constant questioning and revision, there is much to be gleaned from this provocative practice of inhabiting nothingness, the void, and non-representationalism.
Mlondi Zondi is a PhD candidate in Performance Studies at Northwestern University with research interests in contemporary Black movement experiments, Black visual art, dramaturgy, and curatorial practice. Mlondi also makes performances and also co-edits an independent journal called Propter Nos. Prior to pursuing PhD study, Mlondi received an MFA in Dance from the University of California, Irvine and a BA (Hons) in Cultural Studies and Performance Studies from the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal. Mlondi has presented and participated in performance work by other art-makers at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, the Durban Art Gallery, the Jomba Contemporary Dance Experience (in South Africa), the Laguna Beach Museum, Gibney in New York, San Francisco MoMA, High Concept Labs in Chicago, and Joe Goode Annex in San Francisco. Recently, Mlondi served as production consultant for Victory Gardens Theater's production of Mies Julie in Chicago.
Jun 14, 2018
David and his collaborators workshopped three seemingly separate ideas – on intergeneration and women (with performances by Sarah Rudner, Jodi Melnick, and Victoria Roberts-Wierztbowski), cosmology, and race and American identity.
“Things Are Happening… but not as they appear… this is messy. Messy is necessary.”
The above quote is taken from my rehearsal notes from David Neumann/Advanced Beginner Group’s residency at BAC. David and his collaborators workshopped three seemingly separate ideas – on intergeneration and women (with performances by Sarah Rudner, Jodi Melnick, and Victoria Roberts-Wierztbowski), cosmology, and race and American identity.
In the time since the performance, I have come to realize how they are related – through the gravity of movement and politics, the science of race, the colonization of downtown New York dance, the search for concrete solutions in infinite space. These themes are messy. I love messy because by dealing with the mess we have to confront that which is dirty, chaotic, jumbled, often created by us. It is unpleasant and difficult because mess insists. It is no less tangible when we close the door to it. The muck and mire sits, waiting for us to return to that too-full closet, the one with the rotted floorboards and the rodent infestation… and that forgotten fragile heirloom from your mother’s great aunt. Be it through fate or circumstance, eventually, someone will have to clean that closet.
This is a most messy moment for America. Less a time of civil unrest, more so of civil insomnia. It is in this mess, a uniquely American one, that the seeds of David’s new work are being sewn. Spurred by a reaction to police violence, systemic racism, and white supremacy; inspired by Octavia Butler and Charlie Rose, by 23andMe, Charlottesville and The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond; examining tribalism and humanism by way of the family narrative. All themes are in dialogue with media, narratives, and movement vocabularies. The collection of ideas, sounds, and visuals are woven together, sometimes curvilinear, mostly at odd angles, to create the whole. There is no optimal. Instead, it is through the patchwork fiction and fact that we find truth.
I first met David Neumann in 2015 while he was touring his Bessie Award-winning work, I Understand Everything Better. On this piece, I wrote, “Neumann seeks balance along the continuum between existing and happening.” Three years later, I find that statement to be a bit too opaque for writing about a work that made me openly weep, but, while sitting in rehearsals during his BAC residency, I am once again struck by the way David activates liminal space in his process. The in-betweens have great resonance. Awkward pauses and shifts in perspective provide as much information as anything identified as an “event.” His work is a collection of moments, sometimes humorous, sometimes heartbreaking, but always fine-tuned. Still too opaque? Perhaps, but this new work is in what I call the “Something’s Coming” space. It is one of the most exciting periods because all things are possible, and his seed material is rich.
Q: What does it mean to hold yourself accountable as an American citizen? How do you unpack your privilege, as a cis white man, without engaging in polemics, proselytizing, or more privilege?
A: Among other things, collaborate with Marcella Murray. She is of African American southern roots and an East Coast liberal arts education. Use personal narratives, hers and yours. Your stories about family and race are your primary sources. Discuss isolation and integration. Be challenged by her questions. Decentralize your voice. Have a conversation.
Q: Devalue fearlessness. This is not a question, by the way.
A: Yes. Make this work because you are wary, frightened, uncertain. Allow your “interest to remain high, while your comprehension falls away.” Change perspectives, visually and audibly. This will be a key theme in the work: Chris (sets), Tei (sound), and Hyung Seok (video), will be essential in this regard. Things are happening, but not as they appear. As Marcella says, “get at the big and small by looking at it all.” It will be uncomfortable. America is experiencing extreme discomfort. It is disingenuous to ignore that.
Q: Who gets to define your work?
A: A lot of white men in Ted Talks. Let’s unpack that more. This is not a joke, by the way.
Final Thoughts (for now):
Not knowing what this work will become, I sense that it is turning a corner in how white artists, American artists, cis male artists interrogate their role in artmaking, and the repercussions of that work on the field and the world. It would be far easier for David Neumann/Advanced Beginner Group to make a work about any of number of interesting, less timely ideas. It is far more urgent to confront whiteness, and the policing, literally and figuratively, of blackness. It is incumbent on white artists to tackle these themes. There is no blackness without whiteness. Doing the work is a shared responsibility. During the BAC residency, I expected to encounter a rich process where each of the collaborators has a voice and the content is engaging. What has me invested is the desire to amplify the voices of black women and the willingness to make a work that tackles the responsibilities and burdens of being a citizen of the field and the world, in spite of the fear of getting it wrong. It is messy. It is necessary.
Melanie George is the Dramaturg and Audience Educator for Lumberyard Contemporary Performing Arts. As a dramaturg and performance coach, she has contributed to projects by Susan Marshall & Company, Raja Feather Kelly, Morgan Thorson, Alice Sheppard, and Caleb Teicher, among others. Prior to joining Lumberyard, she was the Dance Program Director at American University in Washington DC. As the founder of Jazz Is… Dance Project she has presented her research on jazz dance improvisation and pedagogy through the U.S., Canada, and Scotland. Her jazz choreography is regularly commissioned by colleges throughout the United States. Publications include Jazz Dance, Pop Culture, and the Music Video Era in Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches (University Press of Florida) and Imbed/In Bed: Two Perspectives on Dance and Collaboration for Working Together in Qualitative Research (Sense Publishers).