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.
Apr 8, 2016
“We’re going to start with something that makes no sense.”
This is Mark DeChiazza advertising the work he is about to show. Not to apologize, I realize later; rather, to articulate that the world this work inhabits will not wholly reveal itself in the little bit of movement I’ll soon see.
And yet it does. Navarra Novy-Williams rolls across the stage, out of her unbuttoned white shirt, under which there is a blue shirt, and then rolls out of the blue shirt, under which there is another white shirt. Denisa Musilova tracks her movements, close by, perhaps even initiating them, her steps and Navarra’s rolling hard-synched, while upstage, Sara Gurevich tracks them both, more frenetically. The process of disrobing and tracking iterates, until Navarra has rolled everything off except her own clothes.
A body adorned with costumes--these colors signify characters--becomes a body that is uniquely itself. We strip the character out of the player and then the playing stops. Mark reminds us that this work is made of real people with real stories; that myth, narrative, opera, all targets for his grinding up and subsequent reassembly, are themselves the fixed forms into which we pour our own ideas, not the other way around.
Orpheus Unsung is a work about words from which all words have been excised. Based on and composed from a text, moving across physical space in the ways that language moves, it derives its power from work that words are tasked with performing but that movement, costume, image, and sound are challenged to do, charged with doing, representing and signifying in a spider’s web, inhabiting an idea but never fully containing it. This is what the music does, Steven Mackey’s extraordinary counterpoint and color built out of looping, alternate tuning, and an orchestral approach to the guitar, and Jason Treuting’s physiological lock into these complex rhythmic strata ranging from whisper to roar.
This is what white and blue shirts, purchased earlier from the Salvation Army store, are doing. Eurydice is white and Orpheus is blue, that much we know, but when three dancers share two garments, one of each color, in the wedding scene, what are we seeing? As they move each others’ bodies, folded together, entangled, who is doing the positioning and who is being positioned? Which body? Or which character, or which human being standing in the Baryshnikov Arts Center on a particular evening in March, taking direction?
This work meditates on the failings of words by asking mute languages to speak. We can read Ovid’s “thin story,” as Mark describes its length, but also perhaps the quality of its veiling, and understand the operations. Orpheus Unsung offers us those operations but takes up their subsequent embodiment, in culture, as a living text, a co-author. Then it radically dismantles this text, subverts every co-author who has ever played Orpheus one-to-one: a character, a costume, an actor linked to particular deeds, particular words. Here Eurydice and Orpheus are free radicals, energies that sound and bodies conjure but never ground.
This lightness is palpable in the room, a real space inhabited by real bodies but brought into weightlessness by the building of collaborative community, the “innocent place” Mark describes, “where everyone is your friend.”
“Everyone,” he continues, “needs to feel like they’re in a space that honors them.” In honoring these bodies we honor the story, in a sense, but also the process of making a story, a vessel into which we might discard our costumes, becoming free to inhabit our given space in our own clothes.
Andrea Mazzariello is a composer, performer, writer, and teacher. His work borrows from both popular and art music approaches, and obsesses over technological intervention, instrumental technique, and the power of language. So Percussion, NOW Ensemble, Newspeak, and many others have performed his concert music. He’s played shows at venues like the Knitting Factory, the Princeton Record Exchange, Galapagos, and Cakeshop. The Queens New Music Festival, Make Music New York, and the Wassaic Festival have presented his songs and spoken word. Active as an educator, he’s taught at Princeton University, Ramapo College of New Jersey, and the So Percussion Summer Institute. He’s currently Visiting Professor of Music at Carleton College, where he teaches composition, music technology, and music fundamentals.
April 7, 2016
In Tow is about what we carry, but it also is very much a portrait of what Jennifer Monson brings with her into the studio and how she arrives there—her past, her friends, people with whom she shares creative affinities.
Here is a list of all the people invited into this expansive project who also bring themselves, things, ideas, baggage, and skills in tow: Susan Becker, DD Dorvillier, Niall Jones, Rose Kaczmarowski, Alice MacDonald, Jennifer Monson, Valerie Oliveiro, Zeena Parkins, Angela Pittman, Nibia Pastrana Santiago, David Zambrano. Despite the varied artistic backgrounds of these individuals, all roles are shared and traversed. All the scores are dancing scores, musical scores, and designing scores. Everyone is assumed to be a novice and an expert in any and every role, position, and point of view. Research initiates and continues throughout this process; whoever comes into the room destabilizes what was there before and then what appears there then, now, next. These artists fortify and destabilize each other.
Extending creative intimacies from various moments of artistic practice into a methodology of choreographic thought is a deeply personal project. We watch these artists grapple with the questions of horizon lines, the limits of space, the exchange of one system into another, the sensations and sentiments of resonance and vibration. In this span of creative intimates and the tasks organizing their activities, how much of Monson's autobiography is a means to read what transpires in front of us—both in terms of methodology employed as well as the identities of the people in the room doing these activities? Monson does not indicate why such and such persons are present together—maybe we speculate who each of these people are and who they are in relation to Jennifer Monson. Maybe it's about comfort. Maybe it's about the dreamscape of a community. Maybe it’s about a hopeful wish for extraordinary collaboration—in self-organizing modes of proposing and expressing with others, maybe we can shift the world. They are just there together, trying to work without a predetermined aesthetic or product.
The means of production, at once personal and structural, remind us that the personal is political. In this scenario of gathering and examining, Monson attempts to make power transparent. It's not a faux democracy. She brings these collaborators in tow, and they bring themselves and what they carry. Without a common language and without aiming to arrive at something, they are simply agreeing to BE together. Whatever is established temporarily requires listening, patience and action. There is a stated attempt to dismantle hierarchy into methods of sharing. A generative and generous notion of creativity as a mode of exchange and decision-making guides this methodology of destabilization.
Improvisation-based systems and environmental systems manifest themselves as choreography. Monson maintains and disrupts her deeply embodied practice of years of work—encapsulated in her acclaimed solo, Live Dancing Archive (that premiered at the Kitchen in February 2013), as she proposed a form of retrospective, choreographed in each and every instant, from her decades of dancing and improvising. She also brings philosophies of ILAND—Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Art Nature and Dance that she founded in 2007. Her removal from the explicit context of nature and environment facilitates a return to the dance studio and the conventional stage as such—as a site for display and the imaginary. These methodologies are integrated into a form of inquiry within the social field in an effort to hold abstract time and space.
Etymologically, utopia means no place. What unfolds here? Is it dystopic utopic? In her own way, Monson is constructing and acknowledging a practice out of the social ecosystem of the dance community. This choreographic container is constructed to be porous and open, despite the fact that she has invited the artists working and thereby the identities, personalities, and materials that will build this container. Not knowing and moving towards problems without solving them is at the core of this pursuit. It's not form, rather a method. The modes of creativity, intimacy, trust, and power sharing are articulated through such frames as indeterminacy, synch of synch, larger cultural context, climate change, and improvisational strategies. Jennifer Monson continues with the emboldened attitude and courage to engage in the experimental—as defined by John Cage—setting up a series of conditions from which we cannot know the result. These structures delve into processes to excavate modes of activity and enactment. Monson speaks about how she is trying not to base anything on an aesthetic, but rather working to base this practice on something nimble enough for radical shifts.
In this forward thinking and hopeful quest, Monson now confronts: what is the relation to the public? What space are we in as people watching; what space are they in and where are its limits? Four women move in the room—this is not the entire cast. Their gender is apparent. They are more human, creaturely, and mature than some social construction of the feminine in the West. Sounds, humming, bells, fabric, the limits of a room. They share weight, share surface textures of themselves, liberated bodies, sad bodies, lost bodies, female bodies. I have to watch and keep watching to comprehend what these bodies are doing and why they do it. Despite a striking presence of gender, these bodies cease to represent. Perhaps they cease to represent concretely because they are so much in the process. They constantly learn to exist together in this space and they constantly learn to release whatever is established.
The horizon line recedes infinitely. A constant devolution of structure and rules; tasks emerge again and again. What is the ecosystem of these exchanges? We may wonder about the internal / external relations of these performers with each other and ourselves to them. Without any answers yet an appreciation, the form and the object of attention is inquiry. Inquiry is the form as well as a step or an action. Each decision each performer makes impacts the multidimensional space we occupy in In Tow. What is the chance of choice and all its indeterminacy? When there is no transparent law governing their behaviors, when sharing is attempted…bodies distribute themselves. Are they lost? Are we lost watching them? We are bodies trying to understand and relentlessly express.
Moriah Evans’ choreographic work has been presented at Issue Project Room, Danspace Project, the Kitchen, MoMA/PS1, Judson Church, AUNTS, American Realness, BAX, New York Live Arts, The New Museum, The Chocolate Factory, Dixon Place, CalIT2, Kampnagel and Theatre de l’Usine. She is the Editor-in-Chief of the Performance Journal and has been involved with the publication since 2009. During her 2011-2013 residency at Movement Research, she initiated The Bureau for the Future of Choreography. She was a 2014 Artist in Residence at Issue Project Room. In recent years, she has had the pleasure to work with Trajal Harrell, INPEX, Tino Sehgal, Sarah Michelson, Jerome Bel and Xavier Le Roy. Her 2015 piece, Social Dance 1-8: Index was nominated for a Bessie award for the category Emerging Choreographer.
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.
Apr 9, 2015
Caroline Gravel talks with her hands, her body, her hair. I don’t speak French but when she speaks to me in French I have the illusion of understanding—so convincing is her sense of gesture. When I first saw Gravel’s work (in an evening at Danspace Project curated by Jenn Joy and Noémie Solomon in 2013) I was struck by that sense of conviction in her solo Ma mère est un mâle alpha. The title immediately grabbed its audience with an assertion that needs no translation and Gravel didn’t let that attention go for one moment.
In Gravel’s newest work, Bains Publics, she wants to engage differently with her audience. Her starting point—the concept of a public bath—provides a model for a shared experience without a clearly defined spectator. I was surprised to realize that the aggressive hold Gravel exerted over her audience in Ma mère est un mâle alpha is the very sense of control that she is currently questioning.
We discussed this shift in a recent studio visit and Gravel pointed out that part of this new point of inquiry is around the notion of constraint. Gravel’s movement vocabulary often employs a physical manifestation of constraint: there is a sense of pressure exerted from within her body that must contend with the space outside. In her research for Bains Publics, Gravel told me that she is interested in contending with the constraints of a theater: “How can the public feel free?” she wondered aloud to me.
For a recent studio showing in Studio 4B, Gravel positioned the audience in single chairs scattered throughout the studio with different facings. I was aware of my focus shifting between Gravel and her fellow performer, Laurence Dufour. My other choice as an audience member was to gaze at the mirrored wall where I could see both of the performers, my fellow audience, and myself. I had other choices available to me, of course, that I didn’t take: I could have scooted my chair around, for instance, or walked to a new chair, or left the studio altogether. I began to wonder if what Gravel is most interested in is the choices that we don’t make—the invisible constraints constantly acting on all of us.
One of the first things Gravel told me when I visited her studio was that she looks for authenticity in a dancer’s body. Or, as she explained to me, she doesn’t want to see a dancer moving excitedly, she wants to see excitement. Perhaps in Bains Publics, Gravel is demanding the same standards of her audience. She doesn’t want her audience to perform being present, she wants her audience to be present.
The question is how do you exact that presence from an audience? In a public bath, the heat of the sauna causes the core body temperature to rise, dilating the blood vessels and increasing blood flow to the skin’s surface. I’m not sure what the equivalent experience looks like for an audience but I have no doubt that Gravel will find out.
Lydia Bell is a cultural producer and arts administrator. She is currently Director of Programming at Artis in New York where she oversees artist commissions, public programs, exhibitions, and the Artis Grant Program. Prior to joining Artis in 2014, Lydia was Development and Curatorial Associate at Danspace Project. Lydia has also worked on projects with Eiko & Koma, Sam Miller/OAM Company, and Movement Research and spoken on national and international panels on the subject of interdisciplinary performance. She is a graduate of the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance at Wesleyan University.
Jul 3, 2014
To know Carmen de Lavallade is to know a gentle giant, and learning about her six-decade journey to becoming an icon in the dance world, is to be well informed. Ms. de Lavallade recounts her intriguing story in her solo show, As I Remember It, which received its world premiere at Jacob’s Pillow in June, but for a special audience she opened the doors during rehearsal at BAC just weeks before the show premiered.
Carmen de Lavallade, a Los Angeles native, began her performing career with the Lester Horton Dance Theater, the first multi-race dance company in the United States. She introduced to the school her high school friend, Alvin Ailey, who was also interested in dance, and both studied with Horton for years until Horton’s death when Mr. Ailey was chosen to run the Company. By invitation, during a Company trip to Jacob’s Pillow, Mr. Ailey and Ms. de Lavallade auditioned and were cast in the Broadway-bound musical House of Flowers (1954); soon after, they formed the “de Lavallade-Ailey American Dance Company,” now the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She went on to appear onscreen in Carmen Jones and Odds Against Tomorrow, among other films, and has performed with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Metropolitan Opera, and American Ballet Theatre. Ms. de Lavallade holds the longest Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival performing career -- from 1953 with the Lester Horton Dance Theatre to 2004 with Paradigm. For her momentous return to Jacob’s Pillow, she premiered As I Remember It, described as a combination of “…powerful movement and poignant storytelling to weave a theatrical memoir about her venerable life on stage.” Of a 1993 appearance in Milton Myers’ Ain’t No Way, dance critic Jennifer Dunning of the New York Times wrote, “her performance…ought to be required viewing for today's young dancers.”
It has been long coming, but this year, BAC invited Ms. de Lavallade to complete her solo show, in the second part of a two-part residency. Her “team,” as she calls them, who helped to realize this work are: Joe Grifasi (director), Talvin Wilks (dramaturg/co-writer), Maya Ciarrochi (video designer), and Mimi Lien (set designer). Ms. de Lavallade shared some thoughts on the residency, the process, the “Open Rehearsal” at BAC and the first performance at Jacob’s Pillow.
Charmaine Warren (CW): Congratulations on your opening at The Pillow.
Carmen de Lavallade: Thank you, dear. I'm so happy that it went well. It's not finished yet. This is our maiden voyage, we're going to do some re-writes, and we’re still working on it. We have other engagements coming up at the Kelly Strayhorn Center in Pittsburg and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
CW: The first residency at BAC was in 2012, correct?
Ms. de Lavallade: Yes. Thank goodness for BAC, we could never have accomplished this without BAC because it is so complicated. With the set and the projections I have at least four or five partners that I’m working with on stage. The audience is the other partner because we are going through it together.
CW: Did you set specific goals during the first residency?
Ms. de Lavallade: Yes, but it was bit by bit, starting from absolute scratch working with Talvin and Joe. It's mainly my words but with Talvin’s help we put it together, otherwise we didn't know how to go about it exactly. It was a lot of information.
CW: How did this second residency come about?
Ms. de Lavallade: It's always been Anna Glass [the show's producer]. She's the one that approached BAC. Anna's the angel. She's the person that really put this all together.
CW: Can you talk more about the team that you brought together in the beginning: Joe Grifasi and Talvin Wilks. Why these two men and what brings them to the table?
Ms. de Lavallade: Joe was one of my students at Yale (University). He's part of my Yale family; I have a dance family and a theatre family, he's also part of that special group of people in the 70s that produced extraordinary work. I met Talvin when we were doing those “10 Minute Plays.” He's a dramaturg; he works with words but he's also a director. He knows everything about me, he's like a book, and he has chronicled my whole life. When Joe and Talvin got together, Joe was worried about the relationship. He said, "I don't know, I'm a director and dramaturgs are really just into words and dates...we are from two different worlds." But they worked brilliantly together because they are both directors. Talvin also worked with dance people and has a different outlook, and Joe is particularly imaginative, as actors can be, plus he's movement orientated. Talvin has this thing about words…he sees things that Joe couldn't see in the text. He’d say, "Well this says this here, but we can do this here." That’s how he worked; he tried to make it more poetic, so it wasn't just a linear piece. It's more like a [Samuel] Beckett piece; it pops all over because that's the way memory is.
CW: How long has As I Remember It been on your mind?
Ms. de Lavallade: Anna and I touched on it a couple of years before. But everything was kind of crazy because Geoffrey [Holder, her husband] was having his problems, I was in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and I'd just moved—it was really kind of messy. I was supposed to do a very informal version, but there was just no way, then this evolved. I'd gone to speak to Misha [Mikhail Baryshnikov], and he was very gracious, he took the chance, then it all started!
CW: With the team, the thoughts are not only yours now, so what were the next steps?
Ms. de Lavallade: All three of us [Carmen, Joe and Talvin] looked at each other and said, "where are we gonna start"? And we just threw something together. Joe threw up a set [a bar and a couple of chairs], and said, "...ummmm, now what about Lester [Horton]?" And I said, “Well, he was one of my friends.” And just like that, it came from a little thing and it kept morphing.
CW: At the “Open Rehearsal” for BAC, which was the first time you’d run the entire show, you began with “I remember growing up,” and immediately took your audience to your beginnings: watching your favorite TV shows, you talk about your mother, your many aunties, your cousin and dancer whom you admired Janet Collins, your first dance class, first teacher, and so much more. What was this recall/this journey like?
Ms. de Lavallade: It was daunting! It was also very strange, particularly my mother's story. You want to get the essence of each moment… [but] it was so much. I went to the past because nobody knows where you're from, but those things are a part of you, you can't help being who you are, that affects your choices and how you deal with things. We actually kept changing things the day of the performance. My brain was fried, but everybody was working together. It was a team effort and they were incredible. Now the real work begins. We have to do the nipping and the tucking for the next time.
CW: Were some topics more difficult than others?
Ms. de Lavallade: Oh yes, I think my mother's topic was really difficult. It's a beautiful section; very moving, but then you lighten it up with all the other stories. Of course there was my daddy's story—he’s the hero. My sisters and I think about it, we don't know how he did it, being that young, they must have been in their 30s. They were newly married during the depression, and he with three little girls by himself, boy, what a man. He was an extraordinary man.
CW: You’re known as a dancer to many, but you are also a respected actress. Did movement and acting weigh equally during the creative process?
Ms. de Lavallade: It all goes together. I don't know where one leaves off and the other begins, in fact my dancing changed because I could explore more. I was never a technical person, I was not interested in technique; I just thought you had to have it. I didn't have those big turnouts; God didn't make me that way [laughs], but I was fortunate to work with Lester Horton. When I was in the company, everyone had their knees down to the floor in splits—not me! But I'm the one he picked to dance Salome. I had certain things that I was really good at because my body was made that way, but I didn't have a turnout worth a hoot [laughs]. My knees were always sticking up when everybody had their heads on the floor. Lester was a dramatic choreographer, so was John Butler and a lot of the people that I worked with. That was my strong point; I was more the dramatic person and I work very well with choreographers who work that way.
Then there is all that text. There were times when I didn't remember things and I call for line because that's the way memory is. Actors do that very well, they say, "don't worry if you miss…make it up," and they clean it up later. It's very hard because I'm in dancer mode, and as dancers we don't make mistakes; we get into that mode and if we freeze it drives you nuts! But that can happen to the best of us. Actors deal with words and emotions, everybody gets keyed up but they find their way back. That to me is what I have to work on.
CW: You’ve worked with some pretty important people whose stories you’ve shared. How did you decide who to include and who not to include?
Ms. de Lavallade: That was so difficult. What do you cut, what do you keep? What is going to fit, what is not? I still have to make some changes, I keep saying, "Oh dear, I forgot so and so," but I want to at least mention the things that they did; pop them in. We call it “the book" because you can’t put everything in, we also wanted to keep it at an hour, no more.
CW: Are there favorite memories included in the show?
Ms. de Lavallade: Oh, you took me off guard there [laughs]. All the memories are fun. I think my favorite are of my sisters and I playing radio, we used to make up all our games. We didn't have things, but it was to our advantage, anybody growing up in that period had to invent their own games because we didn't have things, but it was fun. I also want a little more of Yale, we went through that quickly. We added poems and the Titania speech from Shakespeare [“A Midsummer’s Night Dream”] where the old woman talks about her youth. That takes things out of context...it's not linear at all…because we put one thing with something else and it makes it more poignant.
CW: Has this BAC residency revealed new ideas around the work since 2012?
Ms. de Lavallade: Thanks to BAC for this last residency because that’s how we got the set in, at least the mock up, so that when we got to the Pillow we were ready to at least set up. It was complicated, but it never could have happened without BAC. I say thank you Mr. Baryshnikov and everybody there. I know they were wondering what in the world we were bringing; they were nervous. But this was an experience for everybody, it was something new, that set/curtain is like a dream and with the projections, it breathes. At the very end when I walk through the middle, I was like a cat, it was fun. There are other things we want to add…but that's still happening.
CW: How was it to finally premiere the work at Jacob’s Pillow?
Ms. de Lavallade: We are happy and The Pillow is happy. The Pillow didn't want a travelogue, but they were very pleased. It's still a work-in-progress. Like my son said “Ma, you're in your front room.” We will leave openings until we really get it down...but I don't want to lose that flavor, I want to have that feeling like you can go and talk to somebody in this room, this audience. It's a learning process for me, a huge learning curve.
Charmaine Patricia Warren, Ph.D. is a performer, historian, lecturer, consultant, dance writer and yoga instructor. After performing for many years with major New York dance companies, she joined the New York-based, dance/theater company david rousseve/REALITY. She is a faculty member at Hunter College, Kean University, Empire State College's Center for Distance Learning and The Joffrey Ballet School's Jazz and Contemporary Trainee Program. Charmaine is a former faculty member of The Ailey School and the Alvin Ailey/Fordham University dance major program. She co-curates for Harlem Stage's EMoves, and is the lead curator for Dance @ Wassaic Project Festival. Charmaine writes on dance for The New York Amsterdam News and Dance Magazine, among other 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.
Dec 15, 2013
2013 New York Dance and Performance (“Bessie”) Award winning choreographer Joanna Kotze is no stranger to the proverb “necessity is the mother of invention.” When she began working on her newest piece, Find Yourself Here: Trio B, rather than seeing the precarity of her performers’ schedules as a limitation, and in order to take full advantage of the residency opportunities she had lined up, she chose to diverge from her standard creative practice, instead making the work in a way that acknowledges and even tries to utilize the very real circumstance she was facing: absence.
Find Yourself Here: Trio B is the second in a series of three trios, each consisting of two dancers and one visual artist, each built to relate specifically to the spaces in which they are seen. Kotze herself dances in the first and third: Trio A, with Netta Yerushalmy and artist Jonathan Allen was shown at the Lu Magnus gallery in September and Trio C will be shown in February at SHOWROOM Gowanus with Silas Riener and artist Asuka Goto. The purpose of Kotze’s residency time at BAC was to continue work on Trio B, with dancers Molly Lieber and Stuart Singer, and visual artist Zachary Fabri. (Kotze is married to Jonathan Allen, and she met the other two collaborating artists when they and Allen all had Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Workspace residencies at Governor’s Island). When I visited the studio, Fabri, Kotze, Lieber and Singer were all meeting together for the first time. Kotze had just spent almost a month as a resident artist at Djerassi in California, but was only able to bring one performer with her at a time, so she spent a week separately with each dancer developing solos. Her three weeks at BAC were meant to explore what it would be to have these two solos in the same space at the same time, together with the new element of Fabri, who works with digital media and superimposition, filming himself setting up a space and photographing himself, placing himself into pre-existing frameworks, building his work digitally as well as in real time as live performance.
Throughout the development of Trio B, Kotze has allowed the realities of her experience to feed into her creative process, and to inform the choreographic structure. While at Bogliasco, Italy on a solo residency, she began exploring the notion of presence and absence, of being both in a studio and allowing herself to see what lay outside the room, the landscape that surrounded her. As she continued her solo explorations in California, immersed in quietude, thinking about what was beyond the room, the dualities of pristine/urban and calm/wild began to take shape, and what energy hums underneath/beneath these various states. In exchange with Fabri, they began discussing ideas of visual landscape and framing, darkness, using a slide projector for the sound of the shutter and the capture of motion like a video still. Initially, she developed a nearly forty minute solo in these residencies that she then used to generate the material for Lieber’s and Singer’s bodies, exploring an additional duality of “mine/not-mine”. She continues to maintain a separate solo practice with the material, and in fact recently adapted it further into a new duet with Jonathan Allen for Danspace Project’s Performing the Precarious event at Industry City.
The night I visited BAC, the sun had set in studio 6A, and Kotze had asked the three performers to engage in a show-and-tell. Lieber and Singer danced for each other, seeing the other’s movement for the first time. The space felt like a beautiful cathedral of silence and attention. Lieber went first, with long sweeping shapes, the pat-pat-pat of her feet running in a delightfully strange, huge circle with her arms twisted and extended over her head. I was reminded of Joanna’s own pacing circle that opened it happened it had happened it is happening it will happen. The geometries in her work always remind me of her architectural background. What imagery do these mysterious, often humorous shapes emerge from? Molly was doing a knee crawl on the floor, initiated by a big thrusting arm. Lieber’s and Singer’s solos contained different explorations of similar themes. Gaze--looking out, seeing out, Molly watching her feet, her hair cascading down over her head, her face disappearing, but still so deeply intent. Stuart walking so far downstage, to the very limit of the space. Looking, seeing beyond. The hardness and softness, the percussive walking, pacing. Stuart watched his feet too. There are heel pounds, feet slaps. I thought about the differences between Molly’s and Stuart’s bodies, male and female, their height, their very arresting dancing presences. This is the first time I am not seeing Joanna perform her own work (another absence). The repetition of things. They dance to the very edges of the room in a way that makes me so aware of the walls, of confinement, and feeling them wanting to burst out, exploding the container, not in a violent way, but because they are so full of this vital, vibrational energy.
When they’ve had a chance to see each other, there are a few notes, and the dancers each teach Fabri some moves from their solos. Then Kotze just charges ahead with the big question: can these two dances occur simultaneously in space and time, and what will happen? Zachary does his solo first. His shadow looms large in darkness lit intermittently with a slide projector, its shutter like a mesmerizing blinking of the eyes. He’s a prologue to the dance, maybe like a Greek chorus, with such a different relationship to the body and training, introducing us to everything we are about to see, but in a deeply enigmatic way. I think of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. I then watch in rapt awe as Lieber and Singer dance for another half hour, shocked at how much I’m seeing for the first time, though I’ve just focused so intently on them alone. Somehow, dancing together puts each of them in such stark relief against and with the other. The foreground and background begin to shift back and forth, there is a new dimensionality to the room, and the way the two are in constant relation and awareness of the other but with such an internal, studied focus is so exciting, at times dangerous. At some point Lieber lets out a yelp, nearly crashing into Singer as she launches into a blind run with head down. They both keep dancing. Moments of silence, of stillness, shock with power. When they finish, I am speechless.
It’s day one.
Aaron Mattocks is a Pennsylvania native, Sarah Lawrence College alumnus, and 2013 New York Dance and Performance (Bessie) Award nominee for Outstanding Performer. He is an associate artist with Big Dance Theater under the direction of Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar (Supernatural Wife, Comme Toujours Here I Stand (revival), Man in a Case, Alan Smithee Directed This Play) and is currently creating new works with Doug Elkins and Courtney Krantz. He is a 2013-2014 Context Notes Writer for New York Live Arts, after recently completing a year as guest editor for Movement Research’s Critical Correspondence. His writing has been published by The Performance Club, Culturebot, Hyperallergic, Critical Correspondence, The Brooklyn Rail, Hartford Stage and the BAM 2013 Next Wave Festival.
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).
May 22, 2013
Confronting the Cult of the Engendered Body
“The EXPERIENCES I accept now must question my own presumptions and help me rethink people’s assumptions.” - Octavio Campos
Having worked in various creative and educational arenas with a career spanning over 30 years, Octavio Antonio Campos is a matured, fearless artist. For his three-week residency at Baryshnikov Arts Center, the Cuban-American, Miami based performer has found himself in a place of self-reflection.
Continuously motivated by an overarching need to question and reexamine the fabric of the current socio-political climate, Campos, now in his 45th year, has started a process of reaching back into his past to reveal, perhaps, a new artistic truth about his present relationship to live performance.
Born to refugees of the Cuban Revolution, his parents were imprisoned for not falling into accordance to Fidel Castro’s leadership. Upon release, they fled to Miami, FL in the early 1960’s. In his newest creative venture entitled Triple Quince, Campos is bravely opening his memory bank to this experience among many others.
But memory is only one of the building blocks Campos is using to create this new work. Another concept that he admits has consumed him for the past few years is the idea of ‘hatred,’ which was also a theme in his 2009 work 1000 Homosexuals -- a play written by Michael Yawney. About his new work, Campos says:
"I’m always trying to transform [hate]. Look at it from another angle. Using the energy that hatred evokes, I’m attempting to defuse it, and use it to... power New York City someday, because there’s a lot of energy being expelled towards the other, all the time. I’ve been fascinated by the energy that’s behind it. I think it’s interesting to use this as a springboard to create the new work."
Age 15, Campos remembers, was a turbulent year. In Latin culture, when an adolescent turns 15, it represents a rite of passage, and while girls are thrown an extravagant party or Quinceanera, boys are thrown into a motel with a prostitute twice their age. For the teenage Campos, who had already self-identified as gay, this was quite a traumatizing experience.
Structured as three distinct chapters (each marked by a 15 years division), the new episodic performance will recount Campos’s early memories as a teen as well as his artistic occurrences at age 30 when he found himself performing tanz theatre in Berlin. He recalls the glory of the 90's after physically helping to destroy the Wall in 1989. He remembers the freedom of extacy, falling in love with Pina Bausch, love parades, and wild German performance art escapades.
Now, after having lived such a fulfilled life, he's asking himself "Who am I now?" Today, Campos enjoys the simple pleasures of kayaking, swimming, and sunbathing. Apart from his international commissions and residencies, he currently resources his work and maintains creative stability as an Artist-in-Residence at Miami Theater Center where he works as a choreographer, producer, and educator. He receives a full-time salary, benefits, and artistic support for his own creative musings. The position also allows him the freedom to travel and work remotely via satellite.
Proclaiming himself a buffon trapped in a dance-theater bodysuit; a political, gender torchbearer overtly confronting gay issues, Campos’s work addresses the current cultural moment with a performance art aesthetic and infectious comedic sensibility -- the result of years of German training in deep conversation with the complexities of his Cuban roots. Campos doesn’t aim to follow known methods of creation, so much as to subvert them and, in the process, share with his viewer what he values most about being a creator of live performance.
Whether performing a duet with a demolition truck (as seen in his 2006 work Developmentus Interruptus) or describing the 50th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Cuba's Bay of Pigs (as in 2011’s The Pig Show), Octavio Campos wants to give us very specific ideas to ponder while watching him. He provides an experience that not only demystifies his own personal questions and creative obsessions, but also reveals an emotional truth inside his audience as well.
Jaamil Olawale Kosoko is a producer, curator, poet, choreographer, and performance artist. He is a 2012 Live Arts Brewery Fellow as a part of the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, a 2011 Fellow as a part of the DeVos Institute of Art Management at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and an inaugural graduate member of the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance (ICPP) at Wesleyan University. With his creative partner Kate Watson-Wallace, he co-directs anonymous bodies || art collective, a visual performance company that presents work nationally specializing in site base performance and community building art practices.
Mar 29, 2013
The dances that Sam Kim makes aren’t pretty, and if you ask her, she’ll tell you, “I don’t make stories.” The works are non-linear, with no-set sequence, meant to evoke the state of dreaming. The movement is raw at times—the dance of zombies—but her choreography and subversion of technique places her performers into strange but familiar worlds. We recognize our own otherness in her dances; they scratch at surfaces.
Material she developed during her residency at BAC was shown at the end of March. A trio for three women with the working title "Sister to a Fiend,” this piece is overtly ritualistic. Two matching cups are repeatedly held aloft as if in offering, or a means of channeling, and they are also hurled to the ground, as if in anger or pain. Spiritual symbolism abounds, but the body is central to the proceeding. There is molestation. Energetic transfer. And what Kim refers to as “the table top human body, and they are taking what they need.” All three women appear to be in trance states, but not all the same kind—some are supplicant, some ecstatic, another desperate. Ultimately, through repeated and varied interactions, the three connect through a physical mutual dependence.
Before the showing, Kim answered a few questions about her work and process.
BMcC: For those who may not be familiar with you or your work, how would you describe what you do?
Dance is so weird. Really, truly strange. On some level I find it completely vulgar that anyone would put people on a stage just to watch them move around. Really? WHY? It can be so presentational, so precious with itself, and I find that repulsive as an aesthetic value. But, I think that's fundamentally why I'm driven to make dances, and why I remain curious--I'm trying to better understand the form myself, and I'm convinced that there's so much more to it. Historically speaking, dance is still in an incredibly incipient stage. Now we're in somewhat of a thaw after the fixation on and tyranny of beauty. For lack of a better word, my work is experimental. I'm interested in what's beyond beauty and how dance can be the platform to express a wild range of truth and experience. Fundamentally, I am an outsider working in an outsider's form, playing at the edges and seeing what that yields--I'm involved in a personal game of brinkmanship. Everything I know about making dances came from making dances. Yes, I am a dancer, but I discovered dancing and choreographing almost simultaneously back in my late teens. My love of composition (choreography) is separate from my love of dancing.
I do subvert the form a lot. There are red herrings in my work--some people are often unable to see past them. I'll use overexposed pop music, have people move like zombies, act like stroke victims, but I'm not being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian--all of these elements were necessary content or counterpoints to the tone I wanted to create. Part of the challenge and interest for me is to deliver the content functionally and rigorously, no matter what it is.
I've always taken heart in what David Lynch said about making "Blue Velvet: "it started with red lips, a white picket fence, and a severed ear.” That's all he knew, and that was enough. I feel the same about every dance I've ever made. I might know one or two things about it, but really, I have to take a leap of faith and make it to understand it.
This latest work springs from a work I made in 2007 called "Cult." A lot of "Cult" was built through improvised "incantations." I've brought back this score and have used it to start a lot of my rehearsals. It allows the performers to drop in to the right tone of this work, they literally thicken the air around them (I can feel it), while they simultaneously practice being seen. The thrust of this work is about the strange relationships between women, especially powerful women. They're not quite human, but they are definitely female, and they have secret rites, which I expose through the dance. The ultimate experience of this work is getting to see this.
BMcC: This new work combines symbolically loaded gestures, with some radical sensuality and a healthy dose of subversion. What art, ideas, rituals, imagery, etc are you drawing from for the construction/performance of this work?
SK: I wanted to extend everyone's arms and I also wanted to work with objects that had potency, potential talismans, so I brought in a set of vintage '70s cocktail cups. They're clear for the most part with a little bit of red and yellow, and they're also an unusual rectilinear shape with a curve thrown in. They've been very generative as objects to respond to--to give energy to, and to get energy from--they've served as a direct line of transmission to forces greater than ourselves.
I started this work, in the studio, during a residency I had at MacDowell back in the fall. There I danced with real, glass stemless wineglasses. I wasn't afraid of getting cut, but I did shatter one...so for practical reasons I'm still working with the plastic cups for the group, but we'll see. Glass has more power than plastic.
Films are always very important to me as inspiration, and I think there's something intrinsically filmic about my work. A LOT of my favorite films are about weird relationships between women: "3 Women," "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant," Breillat's "Bluebeard," "Mulholland Drive," etc. I've told the performers to have a gander at these films.
BMcC: How has the residency at BAC influenced your capacity to explore your artistic process?
SK: By providing a real choreographic home for 3 weeks, for providing 5 hours of rehearsal time every day without financial constraint. It allowed me to breathe easier, relax into the process. By the end of it, a 5-hour rehearsal really seemed the norm, not an infinite period of time. To inhabit this psychic framework of "yeah, this is my job--this is really how I spend my day," was incredibly liberating. The content just seemed to tumble out fast while in this state of mind. The studio I was in was also incredibly beautiful--light-filled with a dramatic view of the cityscape. This all helped set a mood, and I felt deeply supported by the city itself.
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.”