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.
I arrive and the structure is already in motion. This is a drill. The dancers sway and march and try to keep a beat between them. Exactness hovers like a promise, electrifying the space, galvanizing four individuals towards a common goal. Bodies, separate, become one body, together. They pause, rest, recalibrate. Today, Martita Abril (CORPS cast) winds a hip and shimmies both shoulders. Dorothy Dubrule (CORPS cast) puts both hands on her head, then on her hips, walks in a circle.
Ayano Elson (CORPS cast) sits down. Annabella Vidrio (UMS intern and guest dancer) records something on a laptop and rejoins the group. Other bodies filled the formation on other days: Josie Bettman (guest dancer/artist) was here, and Tara Sheena (guest dancer/artist). Milka, with notebook in hand, dictates the day’s tasks in a voice halfway between drill sergeant and dance captain.
The day’s tasks: four dancers are practicing togetherness, creating a precise complexity, preparing a hivemind of distinct intelligences. Language, literal and embodied, emerges between and around them. They know some things I don’t. On the projection screen at one end of the studio are the words they’re echoing in syncopated canon.
SOMETIMES WORDS ARE THE WORST
SOMETIMES WORDS ARE JUST
SOMETIMES WORDS ARE THE COURAGE
TO THINK THE COURAGE
TOO MUCH TOO MUCH
repeat after me:
point point counterpoint
mark time, go.
(step right, left, etc.)
a clicking sound
piling up piling up piling up (counting thrice on fingers)
far off place
movements ancillary to movement
to hold one’s place to hold the rhythm
“I got off.”
like pins in fabric, rank-markers, bright bars
codified lines lines lines insignia
or ropes to pull on so the flag flails back towards
you and catches the wind again
catches the rhythm
syn co pay shun
fatigued edge, the beat, the pace
the strain and shear of one too many
where the choreography of mentally marking thin and thick
how do you count up to catch it? downbeat—
how do you march and bend your knees?
number accent math iambic stress
“Where do you guys take your breaths?”
“It’s all triplets, except for certain ones.”
Pain is temporary- push through
“I’m gonna call some things.
From grid— go—”
“If i’m throwing you in, I’m thinking—”
“I thought you said half-left,
The gas is on
You look scared
“Freeze or hold? Would the gas is on
still go? That’s good—”
“Crispy? Yeah. Golden brown.”
“Maybe I’ll try some face stuff?”
“I wonder if it’s a record scratch—”
“Let’s try a round of marking time.”
drill-calling fatigue: leaders forgetting possibilities
the choices given are smaller when those in power
when the steps are fewer
mark time go
the group is tired
yes head go. blah!
left face go
what can they do?
thinking hard, I see it in their faces
left face go
left face go
but push through. endurance, stress of world-making,
what practice prepares us for
what structure, implied or concrete, constructed
who are you while you
go mark time
left face go
who are you together, a body
gah! watch you burn
you look scared
synchronous-asynchronous corpse corps
new kind of virtuosity, or oldest in the book
recognizable language, then—
let it change
what happens, when?
variables, beats, lines: together
apart— a part of a whole
rhythmic impulse to same
to same to same
hard things that look hard
hard things that look easy
easy things that look hard
start again from the beginning
CORPS is shorthand for a delicate balance of regiment and agency. CORPS looks like disparate bodies deployed as a synchronous unit, constituting a provisional togetherness. CORPS sounds like a surreal cheerleading practice or an ROTC sergeant’s lucid dream. The structure, directed at first by the choreographer’s outside eye, grows and shifts, moving as a differentiated body of bodies.
After the dancers leave, Milka and I discuss the performance. Theoretically, Milka doesn’t sit on the outside and call the maneuvers as she did in rehearsal; the dancers, manifesting and questioning the choreography, will make the movement calls themselves. The structure will become self-perpetuating. There’s something here about how community functions and the stakes of joining in: beyond the surrender to stepping in time lies the promise of emergent agreements and organic decision-making. Individuals will materialize, asserting themselves between the lines marched in unison.
Dot Armstrong is Minnesota-born and Brooklyn-based. Dot currently explores the limits of performance with/for ChristinaNoel and the Creature, Spacejunk Dance, and Thea Little. Dot is a founding member of Futile Gestures, a performance collective/nonsense repository. Their choreographic work has appeared at The Dance Collective, Artefix NYC, Green Space, and HATCH Performance Series. Dot contributes to Culturebot as a performance reviewer/archivist/observer. They trained at the American Dance Festival, Movement Research, the Martha Graham School, and Joffrey Ballet Chicago and graduated summa cum laude from the University of Iowa with degrees in Dance Performance (BFA) and English (BA).
Lori Belilove and her company of dancers worked together in the BAC studios for eight hours a day of class and rehearsals for her new work Wild Beauty. Their two-week residency began just after the CDC allowed vaccinated folks to gather unmasked. “The first day we went around the room and went ‘A FACE! AHA!’ while looking at each other. We animated our faces as a start.” Because of the pandemic, many dancers hadn’t been training in the way that they were accustomed to, so they started slow.
“We didn’t know how much jump was left, how much fluidity was left, how much technique was left inside of us, so I nurtured and explored that as an opportunity to renew.”
In Wild Beauty, Belilove is working to “beg, borrow and steal from my dear Isadora, and throw her to the winds, gather myself, and bring in the power that I feel. [Isadora] has a Victorian sweetness within her repertoire. It has a cathartic niceness, and I wanted to disturb that. My new work is called Wild Beauty because Duncan did her dances in her time and there is an internal feminine power that I think can be evoked further.” She calls her work “Belilove’s Isadora,” and finds herself often returning to the Duncan repertory as source material. “We all come from somewhere. Isadora came from somewhere, too, so I’m just carrying on.”
In writing about Wild Beauty, Belilove referred Duncan’s “iconic feminist aesthetic.” I asked her how Duncan’s work embodies feminism as she sees it: “I think we should just go back to the Greeks. That is where she figured something out about the power of the female archetypes within mythology. The Greek sculptures embody such a rich beauty of the female body. If you look at an Aphrodite, or an Athena, it doesn’t look anything like the model Victorian body that she must have grown up with—the cinched waist, the parasol, the boots—all of that body shaping. She says that she evoked the Statue of Liberty, and in your wildest imagination you can’t imagine that statue in a tutu. Isadora was making herself mammothly large from an internal place because of her breath. When the corsets took away the breath from women, feminism was going down. So, breathing is a huge part of understanding Ducna’s technique and the iconic feminist aesthetic.”
I first encountered Belilove while attending the retirement performance gala for dance historian Dr. Lynn M. Brooks at Franklin & Marshall College. Belilove paid homage to Brooks, a mutual friend and board member for Belilove’s Isadora Duncan Dance Company, by dancing an excerpt of her solo The Art of Isadora. That evening, F&M students ardently performed Duncan’s Dance of the Furies, restaged by Belilove. Throughout her career, Belilove has worked on countless reconstructions of Duncan’s work. In her residency at BAC, however, she worked on what she terms a “deconstruction” or a “dismantling” of the interior material of Duncan’s signature pieces. “There is a phrase within the dance Death and a Maiden, choreographed by Isadora, and it is a minute and a half of frenzy: huge points, big swooping skips and crashes, and turns and twists. In my new work, we dismantled that phrase, reconfigured it, and added more points, more repetition, and more twists and turns, as an idea of how to make even more of a frenzy. It became kind of like wild horses at that point.” There is a sense of growing intensity even as Belilove speaks about her process of reinforcing the ideas within a phrase, making it more concentrated and true to its own feeling state.
The group worked with ten different pieces of music before Belilove settled on The Moldau by Smetana, an homage to the Volta river in Czechoslovakia, and a piece that she has been wanting to mine more deeply. “If I read further [into the music], there was flooding that would happen, and the folk would be displaced. I’m interested in water, in the delicate balance of our natural resources, and making a statement about it and invoking it in our bodies in the power and preciousness that it is. I learned from Isadora some tricks for how to handle symphonic music: sometimes when it’s at the top of the range, she does nothing, and other times she stays way within it and moves off of the melodic line.”
“When I coach dances, I talk to the dancers, sometimes in technical terms, or I shoot out little notes while they’re dancing. I have one extraordinary dancer, Nicole, who has been doing the Death and the Maiden dance for some time now, and evoking some really spiritual depths.” At the end of the residency, the new work was being filmed and “there she was in her full costume. She did the whole dance, and she was way beyond technical coaching, so I began to speak the poetry of the dance. I said: And when she began she had nothing, and now she can’t take anymore, and now she can’t stand, no don’t take my life, I’m not ready yet. We were crying at the end. Don’t take me yet, that’s really the name of the dance.” This was a magical moment for Belilove within the residency. “I’d been afraid to have my voice in performance and this is the breakthrough into it. The residency broke me open to the idea that my voice could be used. I’m stimulated artistically again—it’s all bubbling.”
Note: Though the premiere of Wild Beauty is tentatively planned for Fall 2021 with rotating casts of dancers, Belilove and dancers were able to perform a portion of the finished work just one week after their BAC residency, on June 11th at Global Water dances in Riverside Park.
Originally from the Midwest, Ellie Goudie-Averill is a dance artist and educator who works with dancers of all ages on technique and performance. Since graduating with her MFA in Dance Performance from the University of Iowa in 2007, she has served as a professor at Temple University, Bucknell University, and Franklin & Marshall College. She currently teaches Ballet at Connecticut College, where she recently created a new work outdoors for ConnColl students. Ellie has danced professionally for Susan Rethorst, Lucinda Childs, Bronwen MacArthur, Group Motion, and Stone Depot, which she co-directs with Beau Hancock. She is a regular collaborator and dancer with Tori Lawrence + Co. in dance films and site-specific works.
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.