Each season, BAC invites writers into the studio to interview our Resident Artists. The resulting BAC Story essays offer an intimate behind-the-scenes look at the creative process.
Mar 8, 2018
How do we live? How do we go through any given day, whether we are a brain surgeon scheduled to confront a confounding cerebellum, or a marine entering strange new territory, or an old woman waking, taking the first breath that she notices, breathing in, breathing out.
Is breathing a repetition or a continuation of something once begun? Is each step the same step again, or is walking always new, each step like no other before it? These are George Stamos’ questions, presented at the opening of a piece he calls Recurrent Measures, performed in November 2017 at Baryshnikov Arts Center. If his performance was an answer, then the answer offered by the dancers was less prescriptive than descriptive: the answer is in the question that you, the onlooker, feel arise in your own physical and emotional response.
An archeologist of the event might note Stamos’ mentorship under Sara Shelton Mann, the dancer and healer George met in Novia Scotia, his home as a boy. One might notice, too, that his mom taught him the dances of the 1950s and 60s as well, skills he took to the clubs in the 80s and 90s, skills that he never really lost, that, to cite his title, are recurrent in this piece, recurrent from Latin, meaning “running back;” there is a lot to do with currents and tides in the piece, or so it feels to me. When I spoke with him about his mentors, George acknowledged as well a great debt to Zab Maboungou, the Franco-Congolese pioneer of African dance in Canada, with whom he has studied and collaborated, and who, it feels important to note, is not only a dancer (and founder and director of Montreal-based Compagnie Danse Nyata Nyata) but a philosophy professor. Physical philosophizing, thinking with the mind-of-your-body, or whatever it is that allows the body to know and see and feel the world: this is where Stamos took us at BAC, to what the Black Mountain College professor Charles Olsen might have called an experiment in group proprioception, energy transferences within (in this case) a room.
It was a very personal performance, personal for Stamos, I would imagine, and perhaps similarly for his two primary collaborators, Stacy Désilier and Chi Long, both Montreal-based dancers. But what I mean is that I found it personal as well for the audience, and when I describe it (or attempt to) it is as if I am describing a dream, of bodies in motion, bodies creating a kind of gravity. The piece began with Stamos spinning. I should say that I had previously read about his experiments with spinning, but nothing prepared me for experiencing the spinning itself. He stands on a small round wooden platform, something like a lazy Susan that would serve food by spinning at the center of a dinner table, though sturdy, compact, flattened. Then, in a beautifully simple boiled-down motion, he spins, inertia coming from small slight moves in his posture, a kind of bodily inhale and exhale.
One spectacular aspect of this particular spinning is that there seems to be so much to say about it, but that, at the same time, the spinning itself sums all that up, makes description moot. Immediately you sense a force, a weight, a seriousness in what manages to stay light and open. Immediately you feel the rhythm. You fall into its tidal flow, a back and forth, rather than the one-way spin of, say, a pirouette. You are drawn to the spinning as if you were tides influenced by the moon.
Stamos spun for an introductory few minutes and then stopped abruptly and walked across the room to stand next to another of the four walls. He began spinning again, this time adjacent to another dancer, Archie Burnett, best known for his appearance in Paris is Burning. They spun, next to the wall, in unison — or a kind of unison, the right hands spinning them one way, the left another. Watching the two spin, you could consider the different ways energy is transmitted between people. How does one movement affect another?
Meanwhile, across the room, on another wall, Chi Long and Stacy Désilier stepped onto their revolving floor disks, and they too began to spin. Similarly, they used the wall to push off, to stop for a breath in between spinning one way and then the other. As they touched the wall — slapped at it, pushed off of it, or sometimes seemed to pull from it — questions arose about the boundaries of the performance, and boundaries in general. The wall in this case wasn’t a point of constriction but an object that powered the dancers, maybe less like a wall and more like a membrane that allowed interaction with a larger space outside. If you let yourself, you could begin to think about quantum physics and alternate nodes of gravities, but the dancing never allowed you to drift too far from the spinning at hand. George moved to the wall with Désilier and Long, where he continued to spin, where they seemed to synch in three parts — not by matching each other but physically harmonizing, small differences that brought them together, bodily counterpoints.
Suddenly, Burnett walked through the center of the room, Voguing: something he not only made famous but invented. Watching him was like watching an asteroid or a shooting star spin through the solar system powered by the other dancers; wondrous joy. He moved to the wall, stepped on a disk, and began to spin again.
By this time, we in the audience were relaxed enough to move toward the dancers, to experience them like living sculptures, and, in so doing, we experienced two more modes. Again, the rhythm shifted. We watched as Stamos, spinning alongside Long and Désilier, left his platform. He slowly moved past the two dancers who continued to spin off the wall, back and forth. As each dancer spun, he came between them and the wall. As he moved slowly past, carefully observing the surface of the wall, shading it, he managed to make it feel more permeable. In these moments, he became the wall, so that at times they pushed off of him. He was in the gears of their spinning, and in a way he was the gear, their hands pressing off of him, as well as the wall, their power source. As I thought about this for days afterward, I began to remember a trip I took years ago to the Grand Coulee Dam, in the Columbia River, on of the largest hydro electric dams in the world. An engineer took me down into the bottom of the dam, down to where the turbines were spinning, pushed by the tremendous force of the mountain-born river. The river’s power was deafening; we wore earplugs. The force of the river shook the room like a constant earthquake. I put my hand to the wall of the turbine chambers and felt the power of the river in my chest.
The playful denouement came when the dancers met in the center of the room, a spatial surprise for us observers who had spent so much time considering the walls. Long and Désilier spun adjacent, collaborated in spinning, entwined. Stamos joined in, and Burnett seemed to playfully scold, stomping his boot, the great interplanetary force. This little set scene was charged by the spinning that had happened before and that would continue as the performance came to an end, as Long and Désilier held still; as Stamos at last did too. You left with the spinning in your ears, with the pulse of the performance in your chest and heart. Maybe an answer to the questions that Stamos offered has to do with what rhythm is. The word comes from rhuthmos, a Greek term for flow. It would seem to have to do with the repetition of beats, but at its origin it is about movement and fluids. You can think of breathing as taking breaths, one at a time, or you can think of breathing as participating in the air, in the currents that make up the atmosphere, the skies and the oceans through which our bodies sail every day.
Robert Sullivan is the author of numerous books, including The Meadowlands, My American Revolution, A Whale Hunt and Rats. A contributing editor at A Public Space and Vogue, he also teaches science at Hunter College in New York City, and writing at the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College in Vermont. His writing has appeared in many magazines, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, and New York. He lives in New York City.
Photos by Maria Baranova
Mar 1, 2018
Since its formation in 2009, The Mad Ones has developed a rigorous, idiosyncratic process for conceiving, generating, and shaping its plays, one that blurs the rigid lines of definition between contributing artists and privileges collaboration and consensus over traditional notions of hierarchical work structures and individual authorship.
We are an ensemble of hybrid play-makers. Performer-writers Marc Bovino, Joe Curnutte, Michael Dalto, and Stephanie Wright Thompson and director-writer Lila Neugebauer collectively serve as co-artistic directors. The company also includes designers Ásta Bennie Hostetter (costumes), Mike Inwood (lights), Laura Jellinek (sets), and Stowe Nelson (sound), and me, the house dramaturg. Together, we create richly detailed, character-driven play-worlds that playfully appropriate and reinterpret genre, delight in moments of theatrical surprise, and examine and illuminate American nostalgia.
(As an aside, I often find myself toggling between pronoun-orientations when talking about the company and its work - we/us, they/them - and these reflections on the BAC residency will probably reflect that.)
The Mad Ones used their November BAC residency to do early conceptual development work on a new commission for Ars Nova. Prior to arriving at BAC, they had winnowed down a shortlist of potential play-kernels (among the discarded contenders: a forensic lab procedural, an emergency room blood farce, a backstage drama about the Booth brothers performing Hamlet) to identify the organizing principle for our latest play: a focus group. Marc, Joe, Michael, Stephanie, and Lila arrived at BAC with scores of questions. Some were essentially dramatic in nature: What is being studied, tested, or examined? Who commissioned and organized the focus group? Is this a slick, polished, professional operation, or more makeshift, shaggy, ragtag? Where and when and who might these characters be? Other questions engaged the realm of the theatrical: What shape, ultimately, might this play take? Will it unfold in a succession of scenes or seamlessly in real time? Will the set encompass a single location or many? What moments of surprising athleticism, magic, or theatrical disruption might the play contain? Others were more conceptual and thematic: what anxieties, preoccupations, values, or assumptions about American life might the focus group illuminate, engage, critique, subvert?
During my three visits with The Mad Ones during their residency, the core company and intern Regan Moro were gathered around tables engaged in conversation ranging from nostalgic to speculative and from playfully imaginative to critically analytic. Michael Dalto gave a lengthy presentation on the political and cultural trajectory of the 1990s. Joe Curnutte talked us through the idiosyncratic filming of a movie called Timecode (Google it). The ensemble prepared and shared written responses to assignments designed to generate possibilities and alternatingly widen and tighten the focus on our collective imaginings. These opened up into long, digressive conversations touching on, among other things, the violence of late-stage capitalism, confirmation bias, the mingling in marriage of sexual and financial intimacy, and whether and how anxieties about personal safety on a large scale (related to, say, national security or climate change) express themselves in our relationships to consumer products like dish soap.
One challenge of a communal approach to play-making can be the risk of diffusion of the work. But over time The Mad Ones have built a practice that allows them to maintain a collaborative process without sacrificing conceptual or aesthetic rigor. Perhaps even more remarkably, they’ve done so while defining a distinct, unified voice. By filtering the developing work through a multiplicity of perspectives, ideas are tempered, tested, and refined. Dramatic worlds and theatrical canvasses are brought into sharper focus. Characters and relationships are conjured into vivid life. Through this iterative conversation, the work accumulates the detail, texture, and multivalence that have become the company’s signature.
It is a process that sacrifices efficiency in favor of the richness and multiplicity that arises from communal effort. This kind of collaboration requires patience, commitment, accountability, and a foundation of deep mutual respect for one another and for the process. It pays off in the fullness and dimension of the completed work, but it’s slow in the making; perhaps more than anything, it requires time. Workshops like the BAC residency become exercises in practicing democracy. The Mad Ones finished the residency, just as they began it, with questions. But new questions, different questions, more refined, more specific. (For instance: Does the play take place in 1999, or 2020? How directly or elliptically will the subject of the focus group reveal itself to an audience?) They have isolated particular fields for inquiry and exploration and have charted an agenda for their next workshop, coming up in the spring.
Visit The Mad Ones' Residency Page
Sarah Lunnie is the literary director at Playwrights Horizons and the house dramaturg with The Mad Ones. Production dramaturgy: The Mad Ones’ Miles for Mary (The Bushwick Starr, Playwrights Horizons), The Essential Straight and Narrow (New Ohio) and Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War (The Brick/Ars Nova/New Ohio); Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House Part 2 (Broadway), The Christians (Humana Festival, Playwrights), nightnight and Death Tax (Humana); and Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me (Clubbed Thumb), among others. She was previously the literary manager at Actors Theatre of Louisville, where she was involved with curating and developing new work for the Humana Festival of New American Plays.
Photos by Maria Baranova
Jan 23, 2018
Slot machines make noise. Emit light. They can also wreck lives on a slower simmer than opiates, speed, or cards. The cheap trance they offer is both throwback and harbinger.
In Cold Enough To Levitate, Christina Masciotti—herself both American language wrangler in a long humanist tradition and forward-looking manipulator of material elements towards a naturalism of reverberation—brings her sniper-like attention to the effects of this cheap trance on Frankie, a war veteran, cop, and accused embezzler, as a window onto a vast societal ping pong of malady and self-medication.
At the beginning of her BAC residency process, Masciotti and her director Mallory Catlett, along with their light and sound designers, were experimenting with deconstructing the slot machine’s functions as a means of washing play and audience in its staccato rhythms as mood stabilizer and saboteur. By the time I visited the rehearsal room in mid November, a few days before their showings, her focus had shifted to Frankie—constructing in the sharpest of detail the human being in front of the machine, the man at the center of the play.
Walking into the rehearsal room mid-scene, I found Frankie facing a machine that would be made manifest in light and sound, talking to himself, through himself, his lawyer George behind him, shuttling between George’s questions and the machine’s lull.
One quick, quiet beat after the scene breaks Masciotti looks to the actor playing Frankie, and says simply “guiltish.” He nods, understanding. I am confused.
They work through a few scenes again. “I’d feel less guiltyish if it didn’t affect them so much,” Frankie says of his parents in response to a question from George. Suddenly I understand too. The actor had accidentally changed Masciotti’s phrasing with a “y” that belonged to the word in the wider world, but not in the vocabulary of the man who had presented himself in her mind as protagonist.
Again the scene breaks. A beat. Again Masciotti says “guiltish.” The actor takes a moment, nods. The next time through he gets it right.
What differentiates Masciotti from the majority of language-attuned American playwrights is that fundamentalist precision, underpinned by an unabashed attentiveness to particularity of place; what differentiates her from almost every playwright attentive to particularity of place is that she is most often focused on places (in this case her native Reading, Pennsylvania) that don’t frequently command art’s attention; what differentiates her from the few living playwrights sharing both of these attentions is that her attention to individuality is equally sharp. She writes people, not functions in plot, but discreet individual human beings shaped not only by the sounds of place, but by their own idiosyncratic circumstances, genetics, fascinations, and tics. Thick, textured American people who do boring, shitty, regular things. Masciotti’s characters don’t live in Brooklyn or Portland, or any of the vaguely interchangeable revitalized industrial districts or exurban clumps of capital threaded between them.
Roughly a century ago, in 1921, Luigi Pirandello had this audacious formalist idea to put six characters in search of an author onstage, to make the major conceit of an evening at the theater the suggestion that the characters themselves had lives, that all they really needed was a medium, a channeling ringmaster with an eye towards coherence to arrange them into circumstance. Pirandello raised the curtain on the playwright’s mind; in so doing he also exposed the confessional booth in which character and playwright had been communing secretly at least since Ibsen and Chekhov began attempting to put life as they saw it on stage.
Playwrights have been figuring out how to negotiate the demands of their characters and the awareness of their audiences ever since. In contemporary American theater, from the most radical formal experimentation to the tightest Broadway cause and effect dramas, we are for the most part awash in authors ignoring characters. For some, it is a point of pride; for others there is simply little recognition that characters are people too.
And then we have Christina Masciotti.
When I see her work I have the sense that she waits with ceaseless patience in bus stations and doctor’s offices and anterooms of bureaucracy for anyone with a sharp, particular voice, a small story not being told, a pay grade lower than the typical theatergoer, and too many mounting concerns to recognize their place in a larger system.
The way Frankie drew her back from sound and light is not surprising. It separates Masciotti as much from Pirandello as from her peers. Without full people along for the ride, audience has little to take away from formalist adventure. If the particular is the pathway to the universal, Christina Masciotti is the medium of which the contemporary American character is most in need.
Ben Gassman is a playwright from Queens. Sam's Tea Shack, a piece he co-created with Sam Soghor and Meghan Finn, was presented this past fall by The Tank in NYC and by Barker Room Rep in Los Angeles. Gassman, along with director Brandon Woolf, is a 2018 Artist-In-Residence at the Performance Project of University Settlement, where they will be launching their new collaborative endeavor, Culinary Theater. bengassman.com.
Photos by Maria Baranova
Dec 21, 2017
A conference room. Tables, chairs. People focused on their computers working in silence. One of them stares away from the table, the computer, the room, at an indefinite point. At the back of the stage, a projection: “What makes a human being? Dignity.”
To the spectator the answer is not only obvious, but reassuring. She recognizes herself in it. It is four hours until a group of coworkers give their presentation in the context of an international conference on human rights. While the characters struggle with nerves, personal situations, and surprising revelations, both characters and spectators become aware of practices with consequences that, inadvertently but blatantly, contradict what they think they believe.
The apparent simplicity of the theatricality on stage, like the apparent simplicity of the initial question, eases the spectator into sympathy with the characters who, involuntarily, trigger laughter. Laughter, skillfully used by Compañía Bonobo, wakes us up. With nothing changing on stage, the neutral space of a conference room emerges as a microcosm that condenses and confronts the spectator with all the layers of a central question: what is dignity?
In this piece, the members of Compañía Bonobo continue their inquiry into the complex phenomenon of violence and the difficulty of identifying it when it happens in a friendly environment where there is no apparent discrimination, injustice, or inequality. What is our role in the violence perpetrated upon another? And who is ‘the other’? How is ‘the other’ constructed? With these questions in the background (like the question that the spectator reads at the beginning of the play), Compañía Bonobo’s crew goes through a creative process in which improvisation plays a key role. What they do seems impossible: turning questions into actions, theory into practice. The bodies on stage enter a silent dialogue to explore relations that are beyond language: context, intentionality, and individual histories color human encounters that, once translated into a staged scene, appear to be simple daily situations. Making visible these invisible relations is Compañía Bonobo’s line of work.
By revealing the invisible in our daily interactions, Compañía Bonobo members explore the light and shadows of human beings and their communities. In the conference room where there is a sharp contrast between light and shadow, the coworkers move between the bright light of the projector and the dark, unilluminated areas of the room. We either see them clearly in bright light as they are, or we see only their silhouette in the shadows. Or is it the other way around? Do we see them as they are in the shadows, but only see their silhouettes when they present themselves in bright light? The question of who the characters are turns into the question of who we are, and who we would be in this situation. The just and fair one? The one with strong judgment? The one with a secret past? The good-hearted emotional one? There is no easy answer; the spectator refuses to identify with any of them and is simultaneously able to identify with all of them.
With simplicity, empathy, and fine humor, Compañía Bonobo turns our attention to the invisible meaningful details of our everyday lives that perpetuate violence. Perhaps, after all, laughter is the beginning to the end of violence.
Teresa Casas Hernández, originally from Manresa (Barcelona), is a New York based actress and PhD student in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research for which she was awarded the fellowship La Caixa and The Onassis Foundation Fellowship in Ancient Greek Studies. With the image of “the world is theater” she is working on the intersection between philosophy and theater with the aim to bring into philosophical discussion elements that have been banned from philosophy since Plato banned the poets from the idea city—vividness, evanescence, co-presence. As a performer, she has worked with Beth Moysés and Tatsumi Orimot.
Photos by Maria Baranova
Dec 20, 2017
Prumsodun Ok is a contemporary Cambodian-American artist who works primarily in dance, theater, and film. He was born in Long Beach, California to parents who were refugees from Cambodia. Two years ago, he moved to Cambodia to continue his dance career and to create the first Cambodian gay dance company.
This article is based on an interview with Prum while he was in residence at Baryshnikov Arts Center. He is an extraordinary dancer who began studying Cambodian classical dance when he was 16.
Rachel Cooper: How did you get started in Cambodian dance?
Prumsodun Ok: I have always loved dance. When I was 4 years old in Long Beach, California, I’d imitate dance from the local TV. The dancers were from the local Cambodian temple, not professional dancers; in fact they were pretty bad. They wore tinsel instead of flower garlands and cardboard crowns with sequins sewn on. Still there is something about art when the spirit is strong, even when it’s not done well. At four years old I felt that spirit of Cambodian dance in me. It wasn’t until I was 16 that I found a teacher. After having watched my sister’s classes, I finally asked if I could learn too, and I became quite serious about dance throughout high school.
RC: How did your family react to your decision to go into the arts as a profession?
PO: My parents were from the countryside and survived the genocide, the refugee camps, and now they live in inner city Long Beach. For them, life was a culture of survival and they were afraid to see me going into art. They even threatened to disown me, but I stayed with it. However, when I started my career in the arts it was not for dance. I went to San Francisco to study experimental filmmaking. The way we were taught Cambodian dance in the United States was not as an art form but as a way of learning your culture, and culture is associated with ethnic identity as opposed to philosophy or your approach to life. One day in 2008 I was editing in a tiny dark basement. It was 6:00 am, I hadn’t slept, and I thought: people are waking up, or making love, or getting their kids ready for school and I am here alone in a basement trying to find light. It was lonely and I missed the physicality of dance where I don’t need anything to make dance other than my body. I decided that was what I would do and returned to Los Angeles and from then on it was making dance, making dance, making dance. I am an interdisciplinary artist: I write, I design sound, I work with video. But really, the art form that informs me the most and gives spirit to my soul is classical Cambodian dance.
RC: Do you see your work as traditional or experimental? How do you think these terms apply to you?
PO: I have had the opportunity to perform on various experimental dance stages that my peers trained in classical and experimental dance have never had. The words that inspire me are from the French surreal poet René Daumal, using a term that I continue to contemplate: “the avant-garde in antiquity.” I’ve contemplated that term for a long time. I’m so over this idea of “new for new sake.” For me, it’s something I got from my filmmaking experience where my professor said, “experimental is not a product, experimental is an approach.” I can perform the oldest Cambodian classical dance and find a way to make it fresh, or bend and break within it, as long as the intention is clear.
For me there are three principles I try to follow. Something is experimental when: 1) it pushes you 2) it pushes the art form 3) it pushes society. I strive to hit all three in my work, no matter what I make. Whether it’s making a dance that uses traditional music, costuming, or dance that depicts gay love or marriage, as long as I’m pushing myself in these three ways I know I’m being true to myself and to my art. I actually don’t care what people call me, traditional or contemporary, as long as they see the value of what I do. I’m able to speak both languages.
RC: How does ethnic identity play into your understanding of yourself and your work?
PO: When I was young, being Cambodian-American was a struggle: you are never Cambodian enough nor American enough, you are pulled left and right at the same time. Now I feel being Cambodian-American is being a center, able to pool approaches, histories, mediums, and cultures, all unto myself. That richness is a source of strength and possibility that others don’t have.
RC: Is your work considered contemporary now that you are based in Cambodia?
PO: Living in Asia I sometimes feel there is a neocolonial reign that some of the cool contemporary curators think they have. For me, contemporary just means “of this time.” Time is layered: it is past, present, and future, all layered into now. I have my qualms with people who enforce what things should mean instead of being open to the spirit of the artist. When you start to label work as contemporary or traditional too narrowly, you shut things down and it can take on an oppressive nature.
RC: Can you say more about how these ideas of traditional and contemporary co-exist?
PO: This idea of the “avant-garde of antiquity” intrigues me. It's the idea of edge. Even if you are dancing a very old dance, how do you add the edge? The reason these dance forms are alive and passed on from one generation to the next is that they have a core; each generation must find the edge to sharpen, refine, push, and transform it. As someone who carries that tradition, I need to maintain that core, that spirit, that philosophy, that essence which is embodied in the form, but then push it out, sharpen an edge.
RC: Why did you decide to move to Cambodia?
PO: I initially went to Cambodia to develop my project called Beloved. I thought I would just be there one year. I asked my friend to help me find young gay men who wanted to learn classical dance and were open to trying new things. I thought he would find me probably one or two but when we had the auditions there were twelve who showed up, between the ages of 17 and 30. After a month and a half of training these young men in my living room, I looked at them and thought this looks like a real dance company; Cambodia’s first gay dance company just formed in my living room. It’s been a journey ever since. After my TED Talk the online comments in Cambodian were very interesting. One stated, “I don’t think there should be third or fourth genders, but I can see that Prum is sharing our culture with the world and this is an effort where we should all support each other in solidarity.” It’s touching this real world. When I was performing in Los Angeles in experimental spaces it was too safe, it left up the walls of an elitist space. I feel very thankful that I see my work now as touching society; I think it is the role of artists to transform society. Over half of Cambodia is under 35 years old. People are looking for things that are new, that are original.
RC: What has the reception been to your work in Cambodia?
PO: Our company had its debut in Cambodia a year ago. We opened the theater an hour before the concert was to start and within minutes it was totally packed. The makeup of the audience really mirrored the population of Phnom Penh. Lots of young people, students, artists, dancers, non-artists, 18-25 year olds, expats, older Cambodians, and parents of my dancers. The parents were seeing their kids on stage for the first time. Since this is a gay dance company it makes a point. I’m speaking to real people - grandma, grandpa, parents, kids - everyone is there. In Los Angeles, it was just artists’ friends and other artists. I was recently featured in a broadcast video as part of an anti-rape campaign in Cambodia. I was with major popular celebrities from film and music. I’m a dancer and that line between the popular sphere and the fine arts context was blurred, which I think is good. Now after my TED Talk my landlord has a new respect for me. He said, “Wow, I saw your TED Talk and I turned on the TV and I saw you on the news today.” This, from an elderly Cambodian person. I feel my art helps to reach and transform society broadly and it is exactly what I want to do.
Visit Prum's Residency Page
Rachel Cooper has extensive experience in the presentation of traditional and contemporary Asian and Asian-American performing arts and the development of interdisciplinary programs. She has presented over 500 performances at the Asia Society and venues across the U.S. She has worked with Cambodian artists since 1995 and co-organized Dance the Spirit of Cambodia. She serves on the Board of Cambodian Living Arts. Cooper was awarded a Best Practices Award for Cultural Diplomacy, Manhattan Borough Award for excellence in preserving the diversity of New York, Dawson Award for Sustained Achievement in Performing Arts Programmatic Excellence from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP), and an Isadora Duncan Award for the Festival of Indonesia. She did her graduate work in Dance Ethnology at UCLA. Ms. Cooper is the co-founder and former director of the San Francisco-based Balinese music and dance company, Gamelan Sekar Jaya, which has been presenting the arts of Bali in the United States since 1979.
Photos by Maria Baranova
Aug 3, 2017
“I am here to remind you… I am here to remind yoooou,” sings Dorothée Munyaneza as she balances the entire weight of her body on her heels before stumbling onto the floor with the microphone stand.
There on the floor, through heavy breaths, she sings again, “I am here to remind you…” What Munyaneza wants to remind us of are the narratives of children born from rape during episodes of war and genocide, in areas of the world experiencing extreme bouts of violence, including in her home country of Rwanda. In Unwanted, Dorothée explores rape used during war and conflict as a “weapon of mass destruction” that not only mutilates women’s bodies, but creates generational damage as women struggle with both disease and children who come to know that they are the children of rape, but do not know their fathers.
Dorothée Munyaneza, originally from Rwanda and now based in Marseilles, France, is an internationally-acclaimed singer, dancer, percussionist, and actress whose practice explores social integration through dance. While her primary work explores her experience during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the nuance of her practice emphasizes that she is not only interested in retelling the trauma, but in interrogating what trauma we retell, how, and by whom. Holland Andrews, an invited collaborator, is a Portland-based performer who blends live looped operatic vocals and clarinet to weave layered sonic experiences that skirt neat categorization. I met both artists when we were all residents at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art’s Collaborative Exchange Lab in the Fall of 2016. I sensed an immediate synergy between their work. While there are clear differences in their practices, both women are united conceptually by their engagement with approximation, or the challenges of articulating that which evades the parameters of language, easy legibility, and public speakability.
As Munyaneza describes her motivation for Unwanted, she shares a growing archive: newspaper clippings, photographs of rape survivors in Rwanda, printed articles, books, and film clips. While Unwanted erupts from Munyaneza’s growing archive, the collaborative performance is itself an archive of sorts, but not an archive in how we may traditionally imagine it as manilla folders with orderly materials that present a concise history. Rather, the archive produced through Unwanted is the one that reminds us of the very failures of archives. In Sadiya Hartman’s essay “Venus in Two Acts,” she asks, “How does one listen for the groans and cries, the undecipherable songs, the crackle of fire in the cane fields, the laments for the dead, and the shouts of victory, and then assign words to all of it? Is it possible to construct a story from ‘the locus of impossible speech’ or resurrect lives from the ruins?” In many ways, Unwanted asks similar questions of how we represent the undecipherable.
In the rehearsal, Munyaneza and her collaborator Andrews did not seek a full articulation of this history but were instead, it seems, interested in how to translate moments of speech disfluency such as stutters and stammers, or the sometimes indecipherable into the movement and sonic experience of Unwanted. In Susan Howe’s 1990 Talisman Interview with Edward Foster, Howe mentions something she read where poet Charles Olson commented that in Herman Melville’s Billy Budd,“the stutter is the plot.” Howe goes on to say that she is interested in the stutter because it is the “sounding of uncertainty.” This uncertainty creates a moment of refusal and an illegibility that invites us away from the comforts of neat narratives that lead to romantic resolutions.
Deep operatic bellows erupt from the corner of the dimly lit corner. It is Andrews sonically creeping into the space. Her words are unclear, but the mood is unmistakable: there is a foreboding of sorts, something is about to happen. However, before the expected something happens, the singing ends abruptly, and Andrews leaves her dimly lit corner to begin a circle path that hugs the perimeter of the room. Soon after beginning, she stops to look slightly above the audience as if to peer out of a window as she prunes. She continues to walk, then stumbles, but maintains just enough balance to keep walking. After a few more moments of walking, she stumbles again, yet this time she almost loses all balance. Up again she continues to walk and travels back to her corner where she was once singing.
The live operatic loop begins, and Munyaneza emerges from the opposite side of the room with a green and red patterned fabric cradled in her hands like a small child. Andrews winds up her vocals and ejects a series of mounting screams, then a shriek before this shriek unfolds into a series of unintelligible sentences. As I glance toward Andrews, my attention is dually focused on Andrews and Munyaneza who is now on the floor, then up again at which point she swings the fabric over her head before draping it over her shoulder, then finally weaves it into her white cropped tank top. She crawls across, creeping toward the audience.
She stands up to grip the microphone stand and begins to sing. Three lines are repeated: "I am here to remind you."; "Papa, papa, papa!"; and "because of you, Da-ddy, they call me Yuda!" Between these repeated mantras, she breaks into a singing of George Michael's, "I Will Be Your Father Figure" as well as Stromae's "Papaoutai." "Où t'es, papa," she asks. As she sings, she grips the mic and arches her body backward as if she might fall backward, but does not. Her balance seems to be a feat of its own. She does stumble and fall once, taking the microphone stand with her, but she continues to sing as she regains full footing. The incantation continues, picking up pace, and the sharp transitions between voices and phrases and songs remind me of a radio tuner, one which I have no control over. Or possibly even an exorcism. These stories trapped inside of her throat, her belly, fight for an opportunity to escape, and in the process they trip over themselves, folding and collapsing into one another. It is much like the sensation of stuttering. Again, as Susan Howe reminds us, the stutter is the plot. The moments when Munyaneza appears to have several stories erupting from one mouth simultaneously is a reminder of the many stories of rape during war and genocide that have such few pathways for articulation. It is a reminder of the public speakability of these traumas. It is a reminder that no one neat sentence or dance movement will suffice. It is a reminder that there are parts of this trauma that language and movement may never be able to express.
Munyaneza ends the showing calling out the names of countries where rape was used as a war tactic: Syria, Congo, Ukraine, Rwanda, and the United States of America.
Instead of giving us one neat story with triumphant endings or clear plot points, Munyaneza holds us accountable to telling complex stories; ones fraught with absences, silences, and missing bits. As a visual artist and writer, I am keen to compare this work to mediums I am most familiar with: the erasure poems, concrete poems, Oulipo-based work, and the extensive histories of Black experimental writers. The rehearsal performance reminded me of my favorite kind of poetry, what Lyn Hejinian calls "open texts" in her essay "The Rejection of Closure" (1985). Here she writes, "each moment stands under an enormous vertical and horizontal pressure of information, potent with ambiguity, meaning-full, unfixed, and certainly incomplete." An open text embraces the challenge. An open text does not yearn for linearity. An open text she writes is one where any reading of work is an improvisational act itself as "one moves through the work not in straight lines but in curves, swirls, and across intersections." Open texts take a form that is less of a container and more of a "force" or "velocity." Andrews and Munyaneza’s improvisational form that integrated strategic stumbles and stutters created a velocity that led the audience to cross through various visual and cognitive terrains.
Andrews closes out the performances with a soft twinkle before Munyaneza leaves the stage. The twinkle is a clever invitation: we can re-enter our post-performance worlds to be lulled by the illusions of the immaculate resolution, or we could linger a bit more in the world created by the performance: a world of stutters, stammers, and stumbles.
Kameelah Janan Rasheed is a Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary artist, former high school public school teacher, and writer working in installation, photography, printmaking, publications, and performance. She has exhibited her work at Jack Shainman Gallery, Studio Museum in Harlem, Bronx Museum, Queens Museum, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 2017 Venice Biennial, among others. Learn more about her at www.kameelahr.com
Photo by Janelle Jones
July 13, 2017
With her Paramodernities project, Netta Yerushalmy has landed on an intriguing and challenging experiment worthy of her wide-ranging, even promiscuous intelligences, which are clearly many.
She’s working on a series of investigations that juxtapose landmark dance works by canonic, paradigm-changing choreographers: Nijinsky, Graham, Balanchine, Cunningham, Ailey and Fosse (also, I’m told, a wild-card artist as yet undetermined) – with contributions by writers and scholars, appearing in the flesh. Her overarching subject: the project of modernity.
If this sounds overly academic or dry, I can report that the three rehearsals I attended recently at BAC were anything but. I left each invigorated, alive in new ways to the clanging dissonances of new building construction (or was it deconstruction?) on 37th Street and beyond, prepared by the mashups I had witnessed in the studio six floors above.
In a studio with photos of Merce Cunningham and John Cage as the only adornment, Netta works on an arrangement of excerpts of Cunningham choreography spanning five decades, rehearsing with dancers Brittany Engel Adams and Marc Crousillat. Netta tells me that for this installment she’s exerting her will on the material, working against the grain of Cunningham’s Zen-related objective to let go of his own will, or at least some of it, through the practice of subjecting many compositional decisions to chance operations. Neither Brittany nor Marc is much trained in Cunningham Technique, yet their dancing belies this. To my eye, both could have performed in the Cunningham company.
Mikhail (Misha) Baryshnikov joins me, an unexpected treat, and together we watch a run-through of today’s iteration of this experiment. The movement, at least at the onset, is immediately recognizable to both of us as unadulterated Cunningham. Too, much of what is danced looks like it could be an arrangement Cunningham himself made. But soon little disruptions poke through this surface. How is it both dancers are now playing with weight and gravity in a most un-Cunningham way? In partnering, Brittany always provides support to Marc, never the other way around, an understated challenge to Cunningham’s more traditional presentation of gender roles. But when the dancers begin to speak aloud, relaying their personal histories and markers of identity, and when they begin to dance with, and then to, Ethiopian pop music, I know I’m not in Kansas anymore.
Netta has told us she’s in no way trying to replicate or restage any of Cunningham’s works. This is clear to both Misha and me. “What he wouldn’t have done,” observes Misha. Yet why is it I feel as if I’ve seen something about the Cunningham movement that has somehow remained otherwise obscured? A section in which Netta has organized movements by types – e.g., pivots on one leg, movement with arches, running moves, triplets, jumps – is particularly revealing. A running phrase from a 1950’s work bumps up against running phrases from dances from subsequent decades. I see the movement and the dancers’ labor anew through this novel, utterly un-Cunningham organization. Too, the transgressions to Cunningham’s choreographic practices, like hearing the dancers speak, makes the more unalloyed sections appear in vivid relief. The movement emerges crisp and fresh (dare I say pure?).
Misha points out that talking while dancing is a trope unto itself, even a cliché, “like in The Turning Point.” It takes a moment for Netta and me to recall the rehearsal scenes of dancers gossiping and flirting while they’re dancing in the now-classic dance film in which Misha starred. Point taken.
Today I see a real mashup – Ailey, Cunningham and Nijinsky walk into a room (sounds like the start of a joke, right?) and are met with a contemporary scholar, David Kishik, reading from an academic essay, “The Work of Dance in the Age of Sacred Lives.” This is my first encounter with the juxtaposition of textual and choreographic language that Netta places as vital to her project. Ailey’s choreography is danced by Stanley Gambucci, Nijinsky’s by Netta, and Cunningham’s by Brittany again. At one point Netta directs the dancers to “turn the volume down” on their dancing during a particular section of David’s text, to avoid “putting pressure on what he’s saying.” I take this as an important clue to the relationship of word to movement – both have agency, even autonomy, here.
Each dancer traverses an independent trajectory alongside that of the essay and essayist, with connections both clearly drawn and accidental. Ah, I think, Netta is employing some of Cunningham’s practices of indeterminacy here, which she avoided in the more overtly Cunningham construction. I catch fragments of David’s text – a meeting twixt Christina, queen of Sweden and Descartes resulting in the libretto for a ballet… Mallarmé’s assertion that the body of a dancer writes a poem… Agamben’s countering that the dancer does not so much write with movement, but instead “reads what was never written” – while I simultaneously turn my attention to the emblematic moves of the dancers. I watch Netta assiduously execute the inner-rotation of her legs that is immediately recognizable as 100% Nijinsky, from his choreography for Le Sacre du Printemps. Soon after David begins relating how Nijinsky worked against the idea of the dancer as a machine for manufacturing beauty, the rupture evident, for example, in the awkwardly inverted legs of the dancers: “like Netta’s,” David points out.
All the while another dancer, Sarah Lifson, studies video of Fosse choreography on a laptop in a corner of the room, periodically bursting forth with shoulder rolls and jazz hands. She’s learning material for another section within Paramodernities, but my eye puts everything in the room together. I’m seeing yet another mashup, with Bob joining Alvin, Merce and Vaslav (another joke waiting for a punchline).
The materials today are more clearly cut from the same cloth, a Graham-inflected tapestry. Netta and Taryn Griggs are working with movement they’ve learned, I’m told, only from the recording of Night Journey in “A Dancer’s World,” the iconic 1957 film of Graham and her dancers that culminates with Graham abruptly exiting her dressing room as if to take the stage to perform the role of Jocasta. Carol Ockman, a professor of art history from Williams College, is reading from her essay "Trauma, Interdiction, and Agency in ‘The House of Pelvic Truth.’" Heady stuff indeed! I hear John Berger and Julia Kristeva invoked, the male gaze and feminine power. I find myself studying Netta and Taryn as they plug away at the demanding Graham movement with all its intended passions, wondering about authenticity: are their contractions real? Soon my query is answered by Ockman, who asks aloud what it means for these dancers to be wrestling with vocabulary for which they’ve not been trained.
I later learn that Netta too has asked this and other questions in her writing about Paramodernities: “Can I be faithful to Graham’s tormented Jocasta as I simultaneously dance the role of Oedipus her son? Is this mere mimicry?” “Is a legacy public?” She asks too about “unavoidable failures,” curious if there might be something generative to be found there.
At one point in the rehearsal Netta inquires if I’ve ever studied Graham. I have. She asks, “Did anyone ever say anything about the vagina?” Dang if I can recall any such reference, except in jest.
It’s clear that Netta is truly experimenting with this project, and not just paying lip service to the idea. She’s stated that Paramodernities project is fueled by reverence and violence. In these rehearsals, I found more of the former than the latter. Parts homage, critique, and update; parts performance and symposium. The results thus far are provocative, timely and, as unlikely as it may seem, utterly lively
Neil Greenberg is a choreographer, dancer and educator who, relevant to this BAC Story, danced with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1979-1986 and later created two works for Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project. He is currently a Professor of Choreography at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts, The New School and served as dance curator at The Kitchen from 1995-1999. His most recent project, This, continues his quixotic search for an experience of the performance moment in and of itself.
Photo by Janelle Jones
June 22, 2017
Tóraigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne; or The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne
Love and Death: A Song Cycle in Three Parts
We’ve given ourselves over to maps, though not just any maps. We’ve turned ourselves over to the particular maps that live in our devices. They direct us, in large and small ways, to points in the world that align with what global positioning satellites see on the grid of latitudes and longitudes that delineate the globe.
Coordinate geometry delivers our takeout and our cruise missiles, gets us to work or to dinner on time. But what you come away with after experiencing the collaboration of composer Dana Lyn and poet Louis de Paor, in “Love and Death,” their multimedia telling of the story of Diarmuid and Gráinne, is another kind of mapping altogether, a navigational experience that adds layers and meanings to a ten-thousand-year-old story -- a redrawing of an often-recounted love triangle that you know going in is doomed.
It’s probably safer to say this love story is ten thousand years old at the very least. We see it in Irish writing from the tenth century but it’s a good bet that at that point somebody was at last writing down a story that worked, or had frequently gone over well, or was memorable and thus of interest to the people in the landscape that we today refer to as Ireland. It is sometimes cited as an ancestor of Tristan and Iseult, as well as the story of Guinevere and Lancelot’s betrayal of King Arthur. In the Irish epics, The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne comes at the death-end of an elopement. Gráinne is the daughter of Cormac Mac Art, the high king of Ireland. She is to marry Fionn Mac Cumhail, the great warrior and leader of the Fianna. Fionn’s own wife has died, and he has grieved for seven years. “He is undone, un-manned by grief,” Louis de Paor’s narrator announces. Fionn’s sons arrange the king’s marriage to Gráinne, the most beautiful woman in Ireland, to cheer the old man. Gráinne herself does not protest until the night before the wedding, at which point she flirts with Diarmuid, young and handsome
Diarmuid, a faithful comrade to Fionn, resists, but Gráinne casts something like a spell, making her impossible to disobey. At this point, they flee into Ireland. Diarmuid is still reluctant, but then a river is crossed, no return. Eventually, a truce happens, an armistice in which Diarmuid and Gráinne have children, there is an uneasy peace between the old warrior and the soldier who has taken his young wife-to-be away. Diarmuid and Gráinne make a family, awaiting the day, foreseen by all parties, when Diarmuid will be killed by his own hound.
In Lyn and de Paor’s multimedia telling, a storm opens the piece, and the sound of Lyn’s soundtable, a difficult-to-describe wooden sound-maker, lays down drone-like intonement of deep bass oscillations that might be crying or moaning, that might be an amplified movement of the world, the world collapsing, bending, coming apart, all at the same time. The narrator speaks, bringing us into the night when Diarmuid will die. And then Diarmuid himself, as sung by Mick McAuley, speaks:
I never saw or heard before
The likes of this icy storm.
Even the raven will not find
Refuge in a cave or island cove.
The rock-clinging mood builds, until Diarmud hears the hound barking, knowing he must leave Gráinne’s bed. Gráinne (Yoon Sun Choi) protests, to no avail:
Listen to me! It is foolish
For you to leave this room
When ice shackles every ford
And outside is deathly cold
Diarmuid ponders leaving, and his slow shift from lover to warrior is described in terms of climate change, the warmth of Gráinne and her bed leaving the man’s body: “Desire for blood / Is coursing his chest. / Ice has stitched his lips.”
Flute (Michel Gentile), violin (Orlando Wells), and cello (Alex Waterman) lead us anxiously through Diarmuid’s decision to depart, as Gráinne’s insists to the contrary, notes the cold, the ice, the rain. “Do not follow a cur howling in the darkness,” she says. A collage of abstract images (drawn by Lyn) allude to Diarmuid's departure, his change-to-ice. Mick McAuley sings again the description of the storm over a deep low drone from Lyn’s sound table. Yoon Sun Choi moves Gráinne’s mood change slowly, as Gráinne inches from mourning to resolve. “Rise and make ready for war,” Gráinne says at last.
In the three-part piece, the music of the second section, tonally speaking, makes tactical arrangements for the new relationships – new relationships that are dictated by end of the relationship of Gráinne and Diarmuid. Gráinne seems to review old ground; the melodies are vaguely romantic. Sharp snare drum (Vinnie Sperrazza) marks Diarmuid’s forward looks, his reconnaissance, the mapping of a way that is ultimately backwards — to heed the oath-call of his old leader, Fionn. And then Gráinne changes tempo, herself gearing for a counteroffensive against Fionn, who has broken their common-law truce.
The cello walks us slowly into the third part. There are more images: lovers, a hound, men clenched in battle. Gráinne, who has been waiting for Diarmuid’s return, knowing he won’t return, laments. Accompanied by piano, Gráinne sings of the three things that are, she says, futile to resist: “an old man’s jealousy; the persistence of rain; relentless love of a woman careless of death, who’d tear a world asunder, abandon her children and home for him.” The third thing is of course self-referential. At last, the end we know is coming, with Gráinne’s explicit call for harsh vengeance: “Punish all the world . . .“
Old texts speak to us. This one does, posing questions: When do the oaths of men take precedence beyond the connections of hearts and flesh? Where do laws trump bodies? To whom is duty due? Is there such a thing as worldly shelter from the intricacies of honors, from the complications of pride? And who is more fickle, the woman who decides to love a man she loves, who attends to a trans-traditional call of her body and his, or the rule-fixated old man whose “honor and cold, cold pride” do not allow him peace, or rest. Is honor and pride worth a lifetime of paranoia and surveillance, minding the night for death?
Old texts also work in counterpoint, as this collaboration shows in various ways. Louis de Paor’s English translation alongside Lyn’s orchestration opens the very space that the story describes, and, in the end, the multimedia work makes the coordinate mapping that we are used to seem poor and trivial. With “Love and Death,” the participant’s mind’s eye sees this landscape, of love and death – of the two at once, ultimately. The poem itself is un-translated, as I experienced it, mapped out in rich colors and sounds, and the counterpoints make resonances that mark out some of the ground that covers all the things that go between a woman and a man, between lovers in a world that is ruled by the opposite of love. I left the performance with a sound like wind still in my ears, or somewhere inside me, resonating, and somewhere on the way home I recalled that gaoithe, the Irish noun meaning wind, is feminine.
Robert Sullivan is the author of numerous books, including The Meadowlands, My American Revolution, A Whale Hunt and Rats. A contributing editor at A Public Space and Vogue, he also teaches science at Hunter College in New York City, and writing at the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College in Vermont. His writing has appeared in many magazines, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, and New York. He lives in New York City.
Photo by Janelle Jones
June 15, 2017
How do we know what is true, and why does it matter? In her new work in progress, It’s All True / Grandfather Muna Tseng is exploring these questions as she pieces together the remarkable life of her grandfather Toy Dong, a Chinese American merchant and the prodigious patriarch of a family that included 3 wives and 19 surviving children, and spanned an ocean and two centuries.
But rather than attempting straightforward biography, Tseng is crafting a wry commentary on “authoritative” accounts of Chinese migration, a reverie on (personal and ancestral) memory, and a meditation on loss. There is the “official” version as recounted by Bill Moyers (including the legacies of 19th-century Chinese exclusion and anti-miscegenation laws); the “official” archival documentation including birth certificate, tax returns, property deeds; the personal relics (photographs, forgotten objects and hand-me-downs) that bear traces of the lives that once animated them; the meticulously numbered account of the births of sons and daughters; and the stories recounted by those wives and offspring, translated and reinterpreted across time, space, and generations. And more: Tseng asks, how do these personal stories take shape against an unremitting backdrop of racist yellow-face images of scheming, sadistic villains and lazy coolies that have fueled the popular imaginary of what a “Chinaman” is or does? She explores the entanglement of these histories in the reconstruction of Toy Dong’s life.
With the help of collaborators Chanterelle Ribes (who portrays beautifully the fungible “ingénue” New Wife du jour) and Perry Yung (whose haunted, haunting shakuhachi pierces the layers of distanced historical accounts with a sonic “now” that can be jarring and affecting), the three performers improvise their way backward in time, toward the constantly receding figures of the globe-trotting entrepreneur Dong and his wives.
“Isn’t that hilarious?!” Tseng giggles mischievously as we listen to a snippet of faux-oriental pop music, played under projections of equally kitschy images of “Chinese-ness” gleaned from the internet: glamorous Shanghai cigarette girls from ‘30s advertisements, cartoon drawings of chubby Chinese babies, textbook illustrations of neoclassical English gardens, Pipo Nguyen-duy’s ironic self-portraits (Confederate soldier, rough-riding Teddy Roosevelt, etc.). Almost all the images and sounds Tseng chooses are “fake” — popular imagery hijacked here to tell a personal story. An established dancer-choreographer, Tseng is striking out on a new path, combining movement and visual elements with scripted text and narrative. Throughout the piece, she steps in and out of the role of director/choreographer, narrator/interpreter, and character. The movement, she says, gives her a sense of freedom and playfulness. After all, given the futility of trying to recover a definitive account of Dong’s life, what else is there to do but assemble one?
Tseng’s “playing” in the BAC studio is precisely that labor of assemblage: popular, fictional, personal, speculative, and somatic ways of “knowing” combine to create a portrait of this 19th-century Chinese American “modern man” but also of Tseng herself: the one who longs to know the mysterious grandfather who is unknowable and intimately present in/as her embodied self. “That’s history for you,” she notes near the end of the piece, followed by an exasperated (or is it irreverent?) “Ha!” She throws up her hands and dances it out, as the blinds of the Cage Cunningham Studio open and bring us (back) to the world of the living.
Karen Shimakawa is the Chair of Performance Studies at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and an instructor in the NYU School of Law. Her research and teaching focuses on Asian American performance and critical race theory. She is the author of National Abjection: The Asian American Body Onstage and her current research focuses on the ethics and aesthetics of discomfort in performance.
Photo by Janelle Jones
June 8, 2017
Kyoung H. Park had some new costumes for his actors: bright neon green tights, which he hands to actors Daniel K. Isaac and Raja Feather Kelly, both dressed in pajamas. “Why are we going now from pajamas to tights?” asked Isaac. Park paused before shrugging, “I don’t know yet.” It’s a rainy Tuesday and the three are developing a new work, PILLOWTALK, at the studio at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, as part of a three-week residency.
Pajamas to tights...it’s part of a larger question that the team is grappling with during this residency: how to best integrate the realism of the bedroom drama, with the surrealism of the dance sequences. “This process informed how we should actually choreograph the show when we premiere,” Park told me later, at the end of the residency.
Pillowtalk is a play for two men, about an interracial gay couple, navigating the ups and downs of marriage. It was inspired by Park’s own marriage, and the fight for marriage equality. During that time, Park was “really wondering what marriage meant and what would happen to the queer movement after the legalization of gay marriage.” And crucially, what do such institutions mean to queer communities of color, whose struggles go beyond that? Those musings became PILLOWTALK, what Park calls a “gay bedroom drama,” though the piece isn’t completely naturalistic; it also incorporates dance sequences modeled on a traditional pas de deux.
Like marriage, the pas de deux is a form that is traditionally between a man and a woman. In turning that form into a dance for two men, PILLOWTALK is also making a commentary on modern marriage itself. “Marriage has changed; what is that change and how can we theatricalize that?” Park explained.
For the PILLOWTALK team, the BAC Residency has been a time to learn the rules of a pas de deux, and then break it. “The male and female dancer tropes are so codified,” said Park. “The female version is always very helpless and always looking graceful...and male dancers always have to combat this idea that male dancers are gay or feminine, by doing various athletic, powerful movement.” So, having two men do a pas de deux becomes a way to “play around with those gender norms and gender roles,” he explained. “When you've got two men, and asking men to butch it up or femme it up or be more dommy or be more subby, it's kind of playful if we're intentional about.”
By the end of the BAC residency, the PILLOWTALK team created two different pas de deux: “one of it was adhering to the classical and iconic balletic movements,” recalled Park, “and then a second version that was a little more pedestrian and gestural, sort of anchored more into a body vernacular of the ordinary person.” Both were presented to an invited audience on the last day of the residency. Afterwards, the consensus was that the second version was more powerful (one person even said the traditional version made them “cringe”). This was bolstering for Park, who is currently doing one-more rewrite of PILLOWTALK before the piece world premieres in January.
“Classical ballet is kind of an oppressive sort of cultural paradigm, why would you want to replicate it if you are anti-oppression?” he posited. “So, I think that was one of those things where it was like, ‘okay we need to learn it to know what it is and then we need to undo it.’ It was twice the work, but it’s important work.”
Diep Tran is currently the associate editor of American Theatre magazine. She has a monthly column with the magazine focused on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. She is also the founder and producer of American Theatre’s biweekly Offscript podcast. In 2014, Diep led the creation and launch of AmericanTheatre.org, the first official website for the magazine. Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times, Playbill, Time Out New York, TDF Stages, Backstage, and Salon, among other publications. Her Twitter handle is @DiepThought.
May 12, 2017
A world that as a teenager, I could only imagine through queer memoir reminiscences, my mother’s secretly stashed pulp fan fiction, and my thumbed-through copy of Faggots by Larry Kramer -- all that was available to an Ohio boy’s searching. Ain’s first hand coming of age nostalgia is at once inviting and unfamiliar. I understand the period, the questioning, the wonderment, but the land is foreign.
Through the process of developing Radicals in Miniature, what I have connected with most is the “I was there” fascination with an era, a period, a first person anthropological romp. Ain as “Childe Harold” witness creates an homage to downtown sensationalism, fleeting celebrity, desperation, an insider’s guide to kitsch, hype, camp and everything in-between, where faux celebrity lives, a teenager’s hormonal night dream.
What was most significant about the first BAC residency in 2015 was that Ain, the king of minimal, was able to design the environment from the basic elements in the studio -- tables, monitors, sound equipment, Josh [Quillen]’s eclectic instrumentation, etc... The story was the thing, the tech trappings were there for mere amplification. The elements were immediate, subtle and simple -- a set of keys, a tax return, a pen, carried profound meaning as they were connected and reconnected to a time, a date, a memory. Thanks to BAC, the indelible stamp was discovered early, the environment never changed, it was only enhanced from residency to residency to premiere.
It is the way in which Ain navigates emotion that fascinates me the most. In the early workshops at BAC, he was carefully attentive to the dramaturgical impact of the emotional “reveal,” we discussed the aspect of when and where. Too soon and the entire journey becomes an emotional deluge, too late and the reverence is imbalanced. The key is to understand the depths and challenges of emotion and memory in public, the danger of the reveal. Memory is a tricky thing. Evoking memories in public is a trickier thing. Much of the time is spent mining an endless list of potential story-tellings…which ones to keep, which ones to let go? By the time we reach the end of the first residency, we have begun to experience the ritual, the ghosts join us. Even without lights and all the tech accoutrement, the ritual has arrived, we transcend the technology. There is an immediacy in the room, the dead will have their due.
After one of the first runs in the BAC studio there is a surprise, an unexpected flood of emotion in an unexpected place, it is a brilliant gem that Ain has been reserving. We laugh because almost any moment along the way could be an emotional slipstream for Ain, he must make choices about how he is navigating his feelings, just how revealing does he want to be? Lost in the sense of loss, the wave of nostalgia, the vulnerability…the bittersweet resonance of dashed dreams, memories of the ones who leave too soon, the ones who live long past longing. This is a reoccurrence at every residency along the way, the ghosts travel with us.
Through the experience of Radicals in Miniature we are invited to witness a special time and place and can fill in our own personal radicals. Through the navigation of one life, one street corner, one happenstance, one confluence of events, we remember multiple corners in multiple places, we make a history together.
Emotions creep in, memory is a bitch.
Feelings are not for the weak hearted.
Sentimentality be damned.
Along the way, I make my own discoveries. I add my names to the list. I summon my personal radicals as I watch and witness...the dead will have their due.
Talvin Wilks is the dramaturg for Radicals in Miniature, which was developed during a Spring 2015 BAC Space residency, and premieres at BAC May 16-24, 2017. Wilks is a director, playwright, and collaborative dramaturg based in both New York City and Minneapolis, where he is a professor of theater at the University of Minnesota. His work blurs the lines of many disciplines forming a unique composite of performative expression. This summer will find him in process with four grand choreographic divas - Camille A. Brown, Bebe Miller, Marlies Yearby, and Jawole Zollar/UBW. Look for his new play Jimmy and Lorraine at the Ko Festival in July 2017.