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.
In February 2020, I was approached with the opportunity to write two BAC Stories – one on Justin Hicks, and one on Yin Mei. The threat of COVID-19 already looming, it didn’t yet seem as though we were headed towards the shutdown that ultimately took place – however by mid-March, Baryshnikov Arts Center, along with the rest of the world as I knew it, had announced indefinite closure (“at least through March 31,” they said…).
As a writer, I had largely been a performance reviewer leading up to this opportunity. Always more interested in unpacking than assessing, the notion of chronicling a process versus evaluating a product was so deeply tantalizing, such a move forward, and, as such, all the more profound a loss for me.
Throughout the pandemic, BAC was quick to find a rhythm with its digital programming, which included a virtual commission from Hicks, which, oddly enough, I was assigned to review for Eye on Dance and the Arts. It wasn’t until April 2021 that I received word of BAC resuming its residencies, with Yin Mei scheduled for May 17-28. I jumped at the opportunity to resume work that had yet to be, and set aside as many times as I could to get the fullest possible impression of Yin Mei’s process.
Only available for a few hours of four days within Yin Mei’s two weeks, I knew off the bat I had to fight my completionist instincts. It was all the more fitting that Yin Mei’s residency took place in the John Cage & Merce Cunningham Studio, the spirits of whose namesakes I felt granting me permission to see and respond to whatever I happened to chance upon. Little did I know at the time that this was the only way to really understand what Yin Mei was up to.
Wednesday, May 19, 2021, 4pm
I walk into what feels like a construction site. Floor and walls are covered in printer’s paper, which, in turn, is covered, to various degrees, in paint, ink, and charcoal. In addition to the space’s surfaces, individual rolls of paper hang from the rig above. Five crowd where I enter like a forest, while one hangs on its lonesome across the way, caught between the studio’s massive windows in the afternoon light.
I come in during lunch. The first person I see is Taylor Myers. Taylor and I both went to NYU Tisch – he in Drama, I in Dance. We sang tenor in a school chorus together, after which we lost touch but remained mutual admirers. I shriek and call him Tyler by mistake. His arms and legs are smattered with gray and black pigment. He is improvising gently and freely to recorded music as cinematographer Yao Wei captures his every move from within a steadycam rig.
Isabella Bower is mixing gray acrylic paint with water. A student of Yin Mei’s in the Dance Department at Queens College, she is serving as a versatile hand on deck for whatever task Yin Mei may dream up. She tells me of what has happened before – how we got here. The process of laying down the paper…what markings happened when and how…
Not here today is another performer, Erick Montes. I’ll catch him next time.
When the work resumes, Yin Mei begins to ask Taylor if his feet can fit in a paint tray. Taylor has a way of asking Yin Mei questions that help guide her towards a clearer idea of what she’s looking for. The tray is filled with gray paint, and, both feet planted inside, Taylor swings his arms to scoot himself forward in space like a giant trying a human sled. Paint flings out and back from his forward thrusts, leaving a deceptive trail. Yin Mei laments to Yao Wei – “You weren’t filming?”
I would have lamented, too; it looked really cool. I myself was about to film the bit on my phone, but was so taken by the moment there was no time to think about anything other than the moment itself.
Yao Wei is there to capture everything. His camera is always rolling, from 1-6pm for two weeks. It’s a lot.
They try another variation – Taylor directs his spacing into more of a loop than a line. After, Yin Mei holds his hand like a ballroom dancing partner, helping Taylor to take sharper turns and maintain more precarious balances to Chet Baker’s “I Get Along with You Very Well.”
They use silk screen spreaders to further spread the residue of Taylor’s activities into the paper on the floor.
Switching gears, Yin Mei and Taylor each take a piece of charcoal to the back wall, commencing a contact improvisation with each other as well as the wall, leaving traces of their motions via the charcoal in their hands against the paper on the wall. The physicalities are varied – regular drawing, dancing which initiates the arm to leave marks, and more extreme reaches and jumps that leave more particular marks.
Seeing Taylor and Yin Mei move together is a great character study. Yin Mei is slow, methodical, intuitive, and elegant. As choreographer and performer, she steps out and observes, often enjoying what she is facilitating. Taylor is strong but gentle, save when he is overcome with boyish impulses, such as throwing his piece of charcoal aggressively against the wall, leaving an accordingly explosive trace.
The exploration feels honest, yet meandering, until Yin Mei is compelled to take white paint to begin highlighting the marks that have been made, bringing out a post-hoc intentionality to free impulses. As soon as this image is given more structure, Yin Mei goes over the composition with blotches of red and black, using the silk screen spreader.
So engrossed in their work, they barely have enough time to clean up.
Thursday, May 20, 2021 4pm
Erick is back, lying with Taylor on the floor in a heap of markings. Yao Wei keeps track of them at a distance, while Susan Mei, who, at the time, was serving as an extra cameraperson but is now editing the results of the residency, captures them up close.
There are new panels of paper on what yesterday was a bare wall.
Yin Mei had come to like a section of the floor so much yesterday that she covered it over with another layer of paper so that the image would remain intact while they continued their work.
As a trio, Erick, Taylor and Yin Mei take turns soloing with charcoal on a bare stretch of wall. They each have different characters to using friction and weight.
Erick and Yin Mei find themselves in a mirroring duet while Taylor continues to draw alone.
Taylor joins, partnering Erick, leaving Yin Mei as the odd one out.
Remembering yesterday’s exploration, she grabs a bucket of watered-down ink and nestles her feet inside.
Without having to be told, Erick and Taylor each take an arm, and help Yin Mei fling herself through space, off kilter.
A pattern begins to emerge of stepping back and admiring the visual traces of their physical improvisations, as though an audience to their own art show – the difference being that most, if not all of the visual component is purely accidental and vestigial – a comparatively permanent, though haphazard, result of more intentional, however ephemeral, movement.
It turns out that they are able to take showers at the space.
Wednesday, May 26, 4pm
I enter to thunderous sounds of paper flapping.
Just before I came, Mikhail Baryshnikov himself had graced the studio, which Yin Mei reported had “given the group a tremendous boost of energy.” The aforementioned sound was that of vigorous strokes of pigment, fueled by the very person who facilitated their existence.
Before my arrival, the group had been exploring a structure in which, after putting up a new section of paper on an unexplored wall, Yin Mei gave Taylor and Erick three seconds to run to the paper, make any mark they could, and leave, in a calligraphic relay race.
Taylor and Erick are duly exhausted.
As I get settled, I see Yin Mei, deep in a circular study with the charcoal against a panel. She is relentlessly retracing the same circle, using the bend of her knees to pump more energy through the spine to reinvigorate the circle, leaving markings of different intensities, all piled on top of each other.
Erick intervenes, smudging several sections of this charcoal hurricane, which rests above a deep red splotch of paint from the day before.
The two step back, asking, “Who did that?,” pleased with the result of their collective effort.
In front of me is a makeshift contraption – a sponge taped to the end of several cardboard paper rolls. It must have been used to make the markings I am now noticing are impossibly high up.
The section of floor that was covered up with fresh paper yesterday is now covered in thin, small, focused blots of black and red ink.
To a string quartet, Erick, Taylor, and Yin Mei simultaneously draw, exploring the relationship between different physical textures as well as different visual textures, and what of the former is needed to produce the latter. Gold becomes a new contender in what has been largely a palette of black, gray, white, and red.
Whereas before, improvisations focused on long stretches with one quality, we now have, to the sounds of string quartet counterpoint, strong vectors interweaving with smudges and soft curves. Against Yin Mei’s diligence is a steadfast rubbing from Erick, punctuated with Taylor’s acute irreverence. Over time, physical artistry gives way to doing whatever is physically required to continue drawing in the dynamics they have fallen into.
Again, they step back and look in admiration and appreciation of one another.
But Taylor isn’t done – he approaches the figure and slashes violently to make shadows and highlights. Yin Mei is amused. The figure begins to resemble a rooster.
Elsewhere, an orb begins to resemble the Death Star. Abstractions are gradually becoming figurative and referential.
Erick plays with moving more elaborately to create single marks, jumping and falling in order to give his arm the right force to make a particular kind of scrape over and over again.
Meanwhile, Yin Mei becomes fixated on the sun shining through the window. She asks everyone to trace the edges of the sunlight in the room, which, as soon as they get going, shifts ever so slightly as afternoon heads into evening, leaving behind a mess of aggregate cleanliness.
After often improvising to the sounds of other artists, it is here that Yin Mei plays the music of her project’s composer, Huang Ruo, entitled Ashes in Time.
For the first time, Yin Mei is being more direct, giving Erick and Taylor specific tasks within what have been free improvisations. She asks for more color. They ask where. She clarifies, “Anywhere!”
Yao Wei’s filming is constant – moments of planning, working, and resting. No one feels the need to perform for his lens. Its constant presence renders performativity too exhausting a prospect.
Yin Mei has folded up long pieces of paper accordion style into large fans. She asks Taylor to dance with one, which quickly resembles a bird’s mating dance. Yin Mei is then reminded that she has metal sheets, which the dancers try to maintain vertically above their heads, running in the direction of their inevitable falling, creating thunder claps that fit perfectly with the epic Alice Coltrane track playing over the speakers.
I shamelessly intervene, taking a video of the Death Star orb, beginning microscopically close and gradually zooming out to the entire structure.
The in-betweens are divine.
Thursday, May 27, 4pm
I arrive during lunch. Taylor and Yin Mei discuss their families. It is the last day to really work before Friday’s final clean up, and it shows in how everyone is exploring with much more urgency as well as invention.
There is no time to explore, only to do.
The folded-up paper fans have since been dressed with paint and ink. Any material or tool that has yet to be used is in full swing.
All this culminating activity ends up revealing attachments that have been slowly and unwittingly forming to what have been ostensibly left completely to chance. Even having protected sections of paper with designs deemed worth preserving, Yin Mei mourns favorite figures, which, in various improvisational frenzies, have become splotched just beyond their original recognition.
She saves the panels she doesn’t want to see further changed, and goes on to use the rest of the red ink, making sharp spatters by flicking the bristles of a paint brush.
They continue rolling up panels of paper they feel are done.
Erick returns to a more dance-centered approach, struggling to maintain his balance in a puddle of ink.
Taylor plays with a paint roller like a fidget spinner.
Yin Mei and I compare our respective times in the Tisch Dance Department, over twenty years apart.
Taylor and Erick are affectionate with one another, leaning into each other like a slow dance, basking in the melancholy of the impending close of this chapter.
Talking between improvisations, Yin Mei noted how, once the paint and ink have been used, their life continues in how they interact with the paper and change in the drying process. “When you come back the next day, it looks entirely different, nothing like what I had originally put down.” Before the pandemic, she was working towards creating a new performance work, but has since changed her focus to a more process-oriented intention, looking towards the chemical wisdom of her mixed visual media as guidance.
Yin Mei’s theories have developed in tandem with the residency. Film was not originally intended to be so integral to the project. Yao Wei, who was a dance student-turned-film major, happened to be in the US and offered to work on the project. In this way, as Yin Mei sees the paintings as recordings of the choreography that made them, the footage documenting this process are, just as well, cinematic recordings of Yao Wei’s movements behind the camera.
There may be sixty paintings, and fifty hours of footage, but all they really do is chronicle the movement required to produce them.
Yin Mei is interested in time. Using visual media, she measures movement, which she maintains is “always happening in the space, just waiting to be embodied.” By having every hour of every day of the residency filmed by Yao Wei, she is aware of her presence and how it is changing when she knows she is on display.
“There is so much invisible that I want to make visible – that’s why I use film.” In one respect, film spoils the elusive ephemerality of embodied performance; on the other hand, it indiscriminately shows all that goes into a process. It is, at once, the best and worst thing for chance-based work.
The most salient bit of chance that has come from this process is the very date range of May 17-28 (the date span of her BAC Residency). Yin Mei has been going through her diaries, looking at what happened in her life during this stretch of time in two particular periods of her life, triangulated with the present period of her Residency.
The first draws from her experience of the Cultural Revolution in China at roughly ten years of age, from 1966-1973, additionally incorporating letters received and written between 1969 and 1979.
Next involves Yin Mei, approaching her third decade of life, becoming transfixed by the very namesakes of her residency’s studio – encountering the work of Merce Cunningham and John Cage in 1981 when she was a principal dancer with the Hong Kong Dance Company. Soon after this epiphany, she came to the US by way of the American Dance Festival in 1985, going on to pursue and complete her graduate degree in Dance at NYU in 1989.
As such, Yin Mei calls this project a “re-representation,” as well as a “revolution simulacrum,” placing these experiences, bound by the same range of dates, in direct conversation with each other in a space which is not objective or physical, but is generated by the creative process itself, in a nonlinear, multidimensional understanding of time.
Speaking specifically about her improvisations, I found it all too timely when she ultimately said, “The fact that anything is there is cause for celebration.”
Jonathan Matthews-Guzmán is a Memphis-born / New York-based performer, creator, curator, writer, and educator of Irish and Puerto Rican descent. They hold a BFA from NYU Tisch Dance, where they currently accompany technique classes, mentor the students of Future Dancers and Dancemakers Workshop on musical collaboration, and direct the Tisch Dance Alumni Choreographic Mentorship. Their work and studies have taken them abroad to Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance, Springboard Danse Montréal, the International Theatre Festival of Kerala, and Toscana Dance HUB (now WADE). They dance with Darrah Carr Dance, Indah Walsh Dance Company, and Valerie Green / Dance Entropy, and, with Holly Sass, co-founded and co-direct BREAKTIME. Jonathan sings tenor with the Cecilia Chorus of New York, music directs for Queens Shakespeare Inc./What Dreams May Co., has composed for Giada Ferrone, Patrick Corbin, Gaspard Louis, and Rashaun Mitchell, and teaches lower school chorus at The Calhoun School. They additionally accompany Ballez classes at Gibney Dance and youth classes at Mark Morris Dance Center. Jonathan was an inaugural Curatorial Fellow in Dance through SMUSH Gallery. They review regularly for Eye on Dance and the Arts, and have additionally contributed to The Dance Enthusiast, Dance Magazine, Dance Teacher Magazine, Time Out NY, Dancegeist, and The Journal of Dance Education.
January 15, 2019
With a gentle urgency, James Allister Sprang wants me to understand something about his set up. In his studio at Baryshnikov Arts Center, he talks it through while we can’t help but catch up in a kind of standing dance, clicking, turning, and tinkering with his equipment, digressing and teaching.
Our conversation loops through his set up, dives down into the personal, flies around “poetry,” into laughter, back to the set up, time travels in a backwards/forwards spiral toward the work he’s making now. Later, at our third meeting, he draws this set up in my notebook. See: he’s got this library of language he’s cultivated through interviews, words spoken and written and read by others, mostly poets and scholars, mostly women of color—words he’s studied enough to treat as a medium; dials for shaping the sounds’ resonances, their emergence into and creation of a physical space; backing tracks he’s composed along with Aon (Pablo Chea); and a looping station, familiar, key to the sense of a live mind responding by returning, by combining, listening through the creation of sound.
In my notes and memory, I realize that my questions about how this set up works are full of bad metaphors, binaries (the human versus the technological) that I don’t believe in, do I? James’ responses are a creativity of patience—guiding me at one point toward Eshu, Yoruban trickster god of the crossroads, the fader, divining with his palm nuts on a platter, stylus reading the groove—mythic and linguistic ancestry for the turntable. In translating the technical aspects of his production of sound and language for Turning Towards a Radical Listening, Sprang’s care feels sacred, feels joyful; this care insists on language (just one way to organize sound) as a constantly and multiply mediated phenomenon, a kind of deadly miracle. His work as GAZR has entered a new stage, moving from speaking to listening, from, he says, “poet-rapper” to “listener, doing the work of a poet.” The complexly musical, social, and psychological space-times orchestrated by GAZR’s deep energy, in word and body, have phased from the exterior toward the interior—though the medium of sound is always playing with the distinction. This performance is a work to practice, to cultivate, to model, to argue for a virtuosity of listening.
To begin, this one time: the looping rhythmic knock of the skip hop of a needle on vinyl; GAZR’s voice asking Google’s Speech API to recognize and display certain words in the document projected on the central screen, take familiar actions (“SELECT ALL!” he speaks then shouts into one mic dangling from the studio ceiling, then the other)—and the failure of his rising voice to be recognized. The audience laughs at the program’s failure to do its job, but, built into the DNA of this performance is the fact of technology’s bias—highlighted by the work of scholar Safiya Noble (i), whose interview he cites and mixes. I hear a primer in the hum throbbing over the skip, maybe a tuning of the body to the dynamics of sound. The shriek up and shred down that shuffles the ears toward what becomes loosened and attenuated in the body as he elevates the frequencies or rolls them low, shifts the balance, alters the kind of space the sound comes from.
And then the words land, bubbling up from a pitch. Words that speak, in my ears, to the problem of having and being had by a colonizer’s language: English, to long for other languages. To need it to survive, and to be historically and systematically misheard. Amber Rose Johnson says, “This language which is the only language that I have, that is mine, is also not, and never will be.” What happens, sonically, is wildly more and less than this sentence, simply rendered in text. GAZR’s live mixing transmits, amplifies, degrades, hones, and mediates these sounds, words from his library—working the levels, weaving tracks like paths and directions toward and away from access, reception, comprehension. All the while Google’s Speech API is “listening,” “translating” the sounds it hears into that projected text behind him, generating its own poetry. Conceptually as well as sonically, GAZR builds toward intersectional lessons in the form of questions: How is listening a kind of mixing? How do we learn by altering what we hear? How can a greater awareness of the ways technology organizes our sound intervene, at the physical level, in how and who we hear?
Words flutter, unfurl, pound, and leap amid crisis sounds, doom sounds, peace sounds. I recognize the voice of Claudia Rankine, reading from the Stop-and-Frisk / Script for Situation video in Citizen. The mix haunts me, haunts itself with “so angry you can’t drive yourself sane.” (ii) The crawling iterations of a looped phrase, ticked below a choral wave—voice against voice, patterned in different increments—the emergence, disappearance, and return of certain words inside of his live mixing: “mine” / “we need.” GAZR tells me mixing codes moves into his physicality, bumping and leaning into small gestures spiraling out. Google’s program wants to turn off because it’s overwhelmed. It shouldn’t be uncanny that there’s something “human” about the computer’s variable ease or struggle, its uneven error. Some voices in the mix are “heard” by the voice-to-text program more accurately than others—specifically mine, emitting from this white body. GAZR’s work suggests the same could be said of us as individual bodies: that a desire to hear, to understand does not outmuscle the structural biases we inherit through language, context, culture. Complicity with the problem is not optional; it is a function of language, of our tools.
Witnessing this performance, GAZR invites you to feel into what you do with sound, to attend to yourself as you listen for what you hear when a sentence becomes a word, becomes a phoneme, becomes a beat, becomes attenuated into a string digitally plucked: Can you hear (in yourself) the stakes in what moves you? Do you want to dance (with me)? Who gets to make meaning (inside you) when they speak?
i. Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of Oppression (New York: NYU Press, 2018).
ii. Claudia Rankine, Citizen (Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2014).
Sara Jane Stoner is a teacher, writer, and PhD candidate in English at CUNY Graduate Center, critically obsessed with the erotics of consciousness. Her first book, Experience in the Medium of Destruction (Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Labs), was nominated for a Lambda Award.