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.
January 31, 2019
During the dark and silent nights following the merciless Hurricane María, Alexa Rivera sat down at her piano chair and played. Studying music and playing the piano has been part of her life since childhood.
She comes from a family line of artist players and performers of música jíbara, the Puerto Rican counterpart of American bluegrass and folk music; immersion in folk music and rigorous musical discipline, lovingly imposed on her, did her right. When she was most alone, and the island of Puerto Rico was most alone, the piano did not forsake her. Something about the way time stretched and the sounds of the land echoed compelled her. Out in the streets, she felt an unspoken language of brotherhood, and in the still of the night, HIHEAL was born. It is where Alexa delivers as composer, lyricist, vocalist, and player.
The calm after the storm hung heavy in Puerto Rico, and artists suffered tremendously. There was no work and little connectivity for most everyone. And there, where quiet reigned, Alexa journeyed and visualized a musical healing cycle anchored in the image of a tree with roots, trunk, branches, and lush foliage. The musical compositions Over Me and Under Me frame HIHEAL. The musical story moves clockwise with the melodic tune and lyrics of Jíbaro Anciano (Ancient Folk), the heartbeat of this album, dedicated to her grandfather. She writes down jíbaro anciano in the one o’clock position in the picture of the tree describing the musical journey of HIHEAL. Her grandfather represents her first memory of how she learned to love Puerto Rico, her homeland.
Alexa offers three reasonings about the project’s title. A play on words with the word “hi,” as in a greeting, and inspired by the word “high,” as in altitude. The word “heal” represents recovery. HIHEAL is about healing from a place above the practical world, a space of few words, a space for sound. HIHEAL also references the high heel of a woman’s shoe. Her femininity is cradling her creativity. She is so beautiful her looks may belie her talent and her deep sound. Deep cannot be faked; it is either a part of you or it is not. And Alexa has it. That spark that ignites when she is high in her musings. With her, nothing is gratuitous. There is always a backstory, and the backstory has a backstory, and she feeds them and integrates those mind and heart occurrences into her present sound.
On the second day of her residency at BAC in the Jerome Robbins Theater, Alexa welcomed me with a live concert with sound so vast and deep it brought tears to my eyes. Though very much a musician, Alexa is also a poet and a young weaver of dreams. Her commitment to music is pinned to universal notions of the battle of the self between darkness and light. She has given herself utterly to that notion and has broken free from thinking she has no voice, from feeling trapped within her expressive turf, and has proven yet again that no amount of modern life can substitute for the purity of the piano.
There’s a tune titled If You Want To, and another, Asymmetric, and Here and Now, and Kiss Your Nightmares. Alexa plays horror with love. Her live piano concerto to me ended with Over Me. Her musicality crystallizes maturity, exuding strength from the core melody as she stretched its sounds with her damper's touch.
On this second day of rehearsal she waits for Matt Geraghty (bass) and Ruben Coca (drums). Geraghty talks through some pointers and begins playing before Alexa plays the keys. She waits for the right time and comes in seamlessly on his cords, and it's magical. Geraghty’s entrance is Jeff Beck-like: unapologetic, spatial, expansive, directional. The Jerome Robbins Theater fills to the brim with the high and low chords of improvised classical piano and rock bass tones so steady nothing falls into discord. Vibrations stay together and the drums pace it all forward. Here in New York City, Alexa's HIHEAL reaches a high performing rehearsal trance dedicated to the present. There is purpose in playing each cycle of the album to its maximum. She and Matt are part of a collective that performs for global unity, creativity, and freedom. Artistically, creatively, and personally, Alexa stands at that intersection with her collaborations and explorations. Whoever she brings together meets humanity through music, where music carries them to weaving chords, understanding, patience, and trust. That’s how you HIHEAL; playing to play, to listen, to accept each other as artists, to fall for a melody that thrusts a sound, so you never forget it, because it belongs to the present, until the very end.
Soldanela Rivera has been a professional dancer, actress, choreographer, television host, production coordinator, teaching artist, project captain, documentary researcher, tour manager; a music, theater, and film publicist, a music concert and theater producer, an adjunct lecturer, and a director of communications for a community college in the South Bronx. She has worked in community centers, educational institutions, historic concert halls, museums, parks, prisons, stadiums, sound stages, and large and small theaters. She is a host and producer of the podcast Notes From A Native Daughter (NFAND), a weekly series of raw conversations about arts, culture, and society with figures from the Pan-American experience.
January 29, 2019
To explain her latest work, dancer and choreographer Ashwini Ramaswamy evoked a memory: bars on windows in India. (We were both born in America to Indian immigrants.) She moved onto discussing how a DJ or electronic musician recalls the past in the present, creating a new song that samples a snatch of an old one.
Meanwhile, bars on a window flash in a faraway brain. The connection, between forms of samples, led to an early vision, of an audience led to the diasporic headspace via music played first live, then remixed.
I had called to discuss the result of that vision: Let The Crows Come, the proposal which landed Ramaswamy a Fall 2018 BAC Space Residency at Baryshnikov Arts Center in Manhattan. A few weeks earlier, we met in the Danny Kaye & Sylvia Fine Kaye Studio at BAC. Ramaswamy wore a blouse and loose pants, a sari fastened on top. As she clapped I recalled the fearsome teachers from childhood trips to India. Alanna Morris-Van Tassell, a dancer trained in the Martha Graham school, improvised to her beat. Let The Crows Come unites dancers and musicians new to bharatanatyam, the dance form practiced by Ramaswamy, who—unlike the teachers of my memory—bears the flat a’s and cheer of the Midwest. In high school and college, she was a member of a different sort of “one percent,” as she put it later by phone: nonwhite students. Along with her sister and mother, with whom she now runs a bharatanatyam troupe based in Minneapolis, she immersed herself in her art. Her two worlds honed her ability to code switch: to enter any space and seem like a native.
Before the residency began, she read an article on the intelligence of crows. She had once thought of the sharp-beaked birds as harbingers of evil. A new sense jolted her. She thought to pair fixations: the integrity of crows with the cut-up rhythm of diasporic life.
Via online searches, crow cameos surfaced in ancient text. In a hymn from 5th century BCE poet Valmiki’s version of the Ramayana, the Hindu god Rama pierces with an arrow the eye of a man in the form of a crow. The crow gets a boon: to see spirits others cannot. At the close of a poem from the Tamil Sangam tradition about a lovelorn woman, a crow lands on the mast of a ship to observe the humans below. A third text sources to a 9th century Vedic architecture treatise, the Brihat Samhita, vast enough to consider flowers and insects. The excerpt uses the movements of crows to predict the future.
Texts brighten points in Ramaswamy’s orbit: from the bird’s “other sightedness,” to the longing of the woman, and the nonlinearity of a Brihat Samhita sense of time. By phone, Ramaswamy sounded very much the sampler of a DJ paradigm, laughing that she slanted her read of them to suit “a theory” she has “chosen to adopt.” Meanwhile, untrained bodies move to Sanskrit words and control their sound. Like the second generation kid, bharatanatyam can wear new clothes and still be itself.
Mallika Rao is a writer in Brooklyn. Her work centers a diasporic, second gen American perspective, and can be found online and in the pages of The New York Times, The Believer, The Village Voice, Vulture, and The Atlantic, where she is a regular digital contributor.
Jun 21, 2018
From inverting the keyboard keys to questioning the sound of a rectangle to combining poetry and numerology with jazz, Tarek Yamani maneuvers his creative process in many atypical ways.
As his life has unfolded in the war torn and unpredictable city of Beirut, his music has come to hold its share of surprises. It’s not unlikely for Tarek to create a composition today for a jazz trio, and tomorrow ornament it with an ensemble of Khaleeji (Arabian Gulf) percussion. As an artist, he has become as variable as his city of birth – a place that has equally embraced him and swept him aside.
If his fingers moved to the 88th key on his upright Belarus piano, he would be two inches from ringing a C note into his sleeping grandfather’s ear. If he swung in the opposite direction, he’d greet the neighbor through the entrance door. Such were the space limitations of Beirut during Tarek’s developing years. Within this compact site, Tarek found the elixir of creativity. The physical space became less of a factor in his process. He managed to turn his portable habitat into an autodidactic laboratory of experimentation where his extraordinary harmonic knowledge, rhythmic complexities, and Arabic heritage created a mélange that transcended the available resources.
Today, Tarek leaves his apartment in Harlem at 8:30am to take the train to 34th Street then walk his way to BAC on West 37th Street. He enters the 20,000 square foot complex, greets the receptionist, takes the elevator to the 4th floor. He sits to practice on a grand piano in Studio 4B, where the southern light strikes the unfamiliar 43 by 29 foot space through broad windows that reach the ceiling height of 17 feet 7 inches. On his right, the wall is at least 15 feet away. On his left, his reflection appears in the mirrors that span the eastern wall. In this space, Tarek is set to create a new work to be performed at the end of his four-week residency at BAC.
Jazz happens in small spaces that turn the audience into capsules of ecstasy that erupt after every solo. Some cats are fireflies, presenting the hope symbolized by a beam of light in deep darkness, while others are dragonflies, reflecting changes in perspective. It is a real-time improvised conversation that absorbs the space and molds sound to form unity. The sound waves reach the audience and instantly reflect back to the musicians, who react to that feedback. It is what they derive from to create.
In the first few days of his residency, Tarek asks for the heat to be turned up, but realizes it isn’t the room temperature that’s contributing to the cold in his bones: it’s his artistic nakedness. With every new work, the artist is new. The process feels unfamiliar, unaccomplished, unmotivated. In Studio 4B, he faces empty space to fill. It’s not a random algorithm that space can define a musician’s sound; the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright said, “when I see architecture that moves me, I hear music in my inner ear.” In this large space, Tarek married the firefly with the dragonfly to create one of his most intimate approaches to his music – a conversation for two. He is set to create a new duet to be performed with vibraphonist Sasha Berliner at the end of his four-week residency at BAC.
Darine Hotait is an American Lebanese fiction writer and film director. She has written and directed a number of narrative short films that have screened at numerous international film festivals, received multiple Best Fiction Film awards, and were broadcasted on Sundance TV, AMC Networks, BBC, and Shorts International. She is the recipient of the Literary Fellowship at New York Foundation for the Arts and the Arab Fund for Arts & Culture Cinema Grant. In 2016, she was nominated for the prestigious Goethe Award. Her short stories and stage plays have appeared in various publications in print and online as well as curated art exhibitions in Berlin, New York, Beirut, and London. She is the founder of Cinephilia Productions in New York, an incubator for the development of filmmakers from the MENA region. Her new film Like Salt will premiere in July 2018. She resides in New York City.
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
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.
Apr 8, 2016
I arrive in the middle of Dave Malloy’s third-to-last rehearsal in the John Cage & Merce Cunningham Studio. Eight shoeless performers flip through new scripts, lean over each other to point out lines, pass pens and pages back and forth. “Gelsey, can you take on Ishmael?” Malloy asks.
Today’s rehearsal is the first with director Rachel Chavkin, and the day’s agenda is described as “a sharing of what everyone’s learned.” The read-through is freewheeling and rough and energized. The text is familiar. “I’m just a big literature buff,” says Malloy when asked about his continued interest in adapting the canon. Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, opening on Broadway in the fall, is based on Book 8 of War & Peace, and Malloy’s resume also includes adaptations of Shakespeare, Beowulf, Shubert, and The Bible. “Especially giant epic novels I have a real affinity for. I love that amazing sense of reading something that was written two or three hundred years ago and thinking, ‘that’s a thought I had yesterday!’ Seeing how humanity doesn’t change that much. I am looking at these classics through a very contemporary lens with the hope of rescuing them from their bad reputations.” At first listen, the script is dense and Melville-forward, but seems to resist heaviness by not dwelling on the finer narrative points: “My challenge is to adapt the novel on its own terms rather than extracting story. The novel is a very bizarre beast of a thing; it has all of these tangents and digressions, a bunch of different forms, and I wanted to embrace all of that.”
Malloy plays one-handed piano, someone shakes a tambourine, electropop backtracks are started and stopped, everyone dances in their chairs. The lone upright bass sounds more like a whale than I expect it to; more eerie than on-the-nose. The group seems amused by the grandeur of the language and the energy of the music. “Dance like whirling dervishes, dance like sun-kissed Brazilians,” they sing, alongside offhand contemporary references (“She works for a thinktank,” something about Capri Sun). Tahiti, Nantucket, India, Africa, and Russia are mentioned; size and scale and scope are subjects in themselves and are referred to directly: “the ocean is so vast and history is endless.” The script does not apologize for its largeness.
Whiteness as a condition or idea seems to function as a vein from Melville’s original document to Malloy’s contemporary priorities. “One of the beautiful things about Moby Dick is that Melville paints the whaleship as this utopian democracy where all of the communities and people of earth have bonded together. He talks a lot about where everyone comes from; it’s a diverse world. That said, it is 1851 so there is of course some problematic language, all the main characters are white, only the harpooners are people of color. The book itself contains some pretty interesting stuff about race; Ahab is white and has a weird relationship with Pip, a young man of color, and there is an amazing chapter called The Whiteness of The Whale which is about how whiteness is terrifying. We have lots of actors of color and we have women playing Ahab and the three mates. What would a diverse all-inclusive whaleship look like today? All of that is bubbling up in a really exciting way.”
Malloy is building a “large-form communal music theater event” as opposed to an opera, but the generic boundary is inconsequential: “My intention is to have the majority happen as song. I’m really drawn to the sung-through form; the few things that are spoken can resonate all the more. Spoken text is good for language that we want to really pop and for cumbersome exposition. Sometimes we just need people to say the lines so we can get to the song.” Rather than storytelling and dramaturgy (which will be fore-fronted in future residencies), rehearsals at BAC were devoted to music. “I am leading it more as a band leader and less as an Actors Equity-style 29 hour workshop. We purposefully didn't hire a musical director or stage manager. I love that collaborative breaking down of barriers.”
Due to sheer volume of the source material and his commitment to attend to all of it, Malloy’s Moby Dick welcomes unwieldiness. “My experience of seeing really long theater pieces is that you end up having a communal experience. You take breaks together, you feel like you’re in a process together. We’ll have a lunch break, a dinner break, lots of beer and rum. That’s what the whaling ship was like; they were stuck in a communal experience for three years; we want the audience to feel like they’re there on the ship, experiencing this giant epic thing.”
Lydia Mokdessi is a Brooklyn-based dance artist and writer from Chicago, Illinois. She has worked with choreographers Anthony Gongora, Heather McArdle, Alexandra Pinel, Emie Hughes, Stormy Budwig, Buck Wanner, and Maida Withers, and her work has been presented by Gibney Dance, Movement Research, Triskelion Arts, Fourth Arts Block, Dixon Place, and Brooklyn Arts Exchange. She currently works with choreographers Stormy Budwig and Buck Wanner and makes duets with performer/musician Benjamin Wagner. She is editor of Culturebot and her writing has appeared in New York Live Arts Context Notes, American Realness Reading, and Movement Research Critical Correspondence. She is a 2016 Guest Curator for the CURRENT SESSIONS and co-organizer of Community of Practice, an initiative for early-career artists and writers supported by University Settlement.