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.
Amanda Szeglowski and her company, cakeface, was in residence at BAC June 6 - July 2, 2022, rehearsing a new-and-yet-untitled work exploring the realm of the supernatural. This virtual interview between Amanda and myself took place during this time.
Ivan Talijancic: I’d like to start by asking you about your artistic lineage. I have been following your work for some time now and always felt that you occupy a deeply idiosyncratic place in the sphere of American contemporary performance in the US, making work that truly is unlike any other. I feel like being a “writer/director” or a “performer/choreographer” are all-too-familiar tropes, but I think of you as a writer/choreographer, where both dimensions have equal potency, which is a rare find. What was your path to finding this unique approach?
Amanda Szeglowski: I've been drawn to storytelling since childhood. I started begging for dance class when I was three and at eleven I wrote my first play. I cast all of the neighborhood kids and scheduled rehearsals in the garage, but I never actually produced it. I was having too much fun rewriting the script day after day. (Ironically that's still a big part of my process). I chose to center my education on dance, but writing always remained part of my practice. At my arts high school, I learned about the possibilities that arise when I combine the two, and that fascinated me. When I got to NYC, I worked with choreographers extensively. Though non-verbal, much of the work was using narrative in a way that I hadn't really seen before and it impacted me greatly. Then when I launched cakeface in 2008, my personal style began to crystallize.
IT: Much of the work coming out of the New York “downtown” scene takes a rather irreverent, DIY approach. Personally, one of the things that really stands out in your work is just how meticulously crafted your pieces are, which gives them a sort of a European flair. Any thoughts you could share about where this artistic rigor and discipline derive from?
AS: I've always been a detail-oriented person, but the seed, in a creative respect, was probably planted during my earliest days as a dancer. For most of my childhood I trained at a Cuban dance studio in Florida, where every costume was incredibly ornate; every detail was considered. That definitely made an impression on me. Much later, when I began making my own work in NYC, I would strategize ways in which I could pull off something that appeared to have a high production value despite a virtually nonexistent budget. I've always cared not only about the work itself, but also how it is presented. What is the world that the piece lives in, and how can I manifest it? And I try to eliminate distractions in my work as much as possible, so the message is central. This is where rigor and discipline come in. If I am hoping to make some sort of a statement, I am generally trying to do it in a subtle or exploratory manner, so the path for that kind of messaging has to be clear. My goal with everything I make is for it to be relatable. My discipline and craft work to reduce, and hopefully eliminate, any noise that might get in the way of that.
IT: You have a knack for tapping into highly idiosyncratic subject matter. The project that you are developing here at BAC delves into a mysterious, even metaphysical territory. What drew you to this material?
AS: I’m all too familiar with existential angst. It's just my personality to always be asking impossible questions and obsessing over/dreading the unknowns. The pandemic, of course, magnified things exponentially and went right for the jugular - forcing us to face the reality of our own mortality. Personally, I've found that I combat my constant fear of death and destruction by consuming media related to psychic mediums, paranormal encounters, near death experiences, children who recall past lives, etc. The more anxious and stressed out I get, the further down the Reddit rabbithole I go. It's wonderful down there.
So the inception of the project was a combination of this moment in time, with all of these anxious feelings top of mind, my "paranormal therapy" if you will, and then a spark of nostalgia, which is the foundation for all of my work. In the 70s and 80s there was a friend of the family who had "the gift" and would read my family members. She died before I was able to get to know her, but as a creative kid, I'd hear the stories and always had grand images of her in my mind. She never really left me. Then there was this perfect storm and all of the disparate pieces just came together. That happens a lot. I always have several ideas just percolating in the recesses of my mind for years and then new components reveal themselves bit by bit and suddenly the path is clear and the piece needs to be made, now.
IT: Marvelous! Having tackled this material head-on during BAC residency, what do you feel you have been able to accomplish during this time? What are some new discoveries that have emerged, and are you already thinking about what’s next for this new work?
AS: The BAC residency has been truly invaluable; the generosity of time and space has allowed me to really be "in" the work. In the best scenarios, I follow my instincts and then let the piece lead me. And I was able to do that here. Specifically, I managed to get a handle on the performers' relationships to one another, establish the embodiment of Roxy (the inspirational psychic that I mentioned earlier) as a voiceover, perhaps eventually a hologram, and I laid the foundation for the tone and flow of the piece. As for new discoveries, I had a breakthrough idea for the scenic landscape that unlocked a lot of possibilities for me. Setting the "world" in which the piece lives is always a critical step in my creative process, and being able to determine that element while at BAC was a huge leap forward.
The composer that I am working with for this project, Christina Campanella, was simultaneously in another residency developing an opera, so my focus at BAC has been writing and choreography. The next step for this work is another intensive developmental period where we can start to integrate Christina's music. Sound design will be a key component of this piece, as there will be live songs, text, and music throughout.
I enjoy when work takes me on a journey of highs and lows and this project at the moment is heavy on the high side. Dark humor is a signature quality of my work and while this piece fully embraces that vibe, I also plan to add some more poignant moments, and a sliver of hope. So expanding the emotional range is something I look forward to working on in the next stage as well. Also hearing more stories. After our showing several people shared their own paranormal experiences and I’m loving that, bring it on!
Ivan Talijancic is a time-based artist and cultural producer, working at the intersection of theater, dance, film, installation art, new media, journalism, curatorial work and education in New York and around the globe. As a co-founder of the multidisciplinary art group WaxFactory, his work has been presented at numerous venues and festivals worldwide. Ivan is currently a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s John Wells Directing Program, the artistic director of CPP/Contemporary Performance Practice summer intensive in Croatia, and a member of The Bessies selection committee. He holds an MFA from Columbia University School of the Arts.
I’m imagining you four months or so from now, in winter 2023.
You’ll be thawing off from the New York City cold,
looking at a plexiglass and wood enclosure,
waiting for HotHouse,
Baye & Asa’s
newest work, to begin.
But we’re not there yet. It’s still summer, and Baye & Asa
just finished a month-long BAC Open Residency at Baryshnikov Arts Center.
While in residence, they developed HotHouse, premiering at Pioneer Works in January.
Amadi ‘Baye’ Washington and Sam ‘Asa’ Pratt
this company creates physically voracious, raging, tender, ferociously political
movement arts projects.
And to be clear, these are my words:
my reading of their upcoming evening-length work and my take on
the American violence
they are interrogating, exhuming, laying bare
in their larger body of work.
I’m Amy Shoshana Blumberg, a white woman in her thirties. I danced and now I make theater.
The structure will be imposing,
with wooden studs every eight feet,
a lighting truss above,
a small doorway.
You will be on the outside looking in,
milling about, looking at it from all sides,
and maybe you’ll wonder about the people who, just minutes from now, are going to be
within it, and maybe your brain will associate that box with…
This set, which is not in the room with us at BAC,
is the first thing we discuss when I join Sam and Amadi
in another largely glass enclosure: the airy John Cage and Merce Cunningham Studio.
Sam shouts across the room to Amadi.
Amadi begins a solo.
Something outside this box
is here and looming and alive
And this character knows it
even if he cannot see it.
He sharply tugs his pants up.
He feels for it on the back of his neck.
He wrenches some
from his own face
even as it
He throws the scales of justice
or is it that they throw him?
He is watching and at the ready and he knows
outside the edges of this box,
(and maybe already seeping in at the seams)
wish him well.
You will see a Black man and a white man
breathing the same
They both see a threat:
But drenched in the air outside the box,
maybe you’re wondering if you…
This dance that Amadi and Sam are making is of the now:
this, the third year of global disease,
the four hundred and third year since the beginning of American slavery.
So it is, of course, also a dance of
the past three years.
The past four hundred and three years.
Four months from now
you will see a white man seeing a Black man.
You will see the white man see the Black man seeing him.
The white man will throw his arms into a T, square his shoulders to the front, and twist his body to the diagonal,
as if on a cross.
You will see a white man who
tried and failed to find the fullness of his own extremities
under the gaze of a Black man
A performance of…
“You know what’s the biggest proof that astrology is all bullshit? The two of us. We are so different from one another, but people look at him and say: classic Leo. And then they look at me and say: classic Leo!”
“But we’re both outgoing. Isn’t that the biggest Leo quality?”
It started in the first grade.
They were six.
It is now the twenty fourth year of Sam and Amadi’s friendship.
I lilt at this news.
Audiences and fans
will always lilt at this news.
How could we not?
In high school, Amadi and Sam could choose
instead of P.E., and they did.
They studied Hip Hop and African dance languages.
I learn in their artist statement, and by watching their choreography, that
are the foundation of Baye & Asa’s technique.
The rhythms of these techniques, which they first learned
shape their approach to choreography,
to creating contemporary dance theater.
And throughout the dancing and the years passing
Sam and Amadi
entrusted themselves to one another in a way that
You will see them almost meet in the middle,
but they pinball away
suddenly occupying the other man’s side of the box.
And you’ll know that when they do
it will be…
From here on out, I will let you imagine who is doing what to whom.
They will run together, one man engulfing the crown of the other man’s head with his chin.
One man will sit on the other’s knee.
It will be almost parental
for a second, but then…
Eventually they will hurry forwards in a single file line,
the man in back cupping the other’s neck with his palm.
The one in front will look behind to see if the other is still there.
He’ll still be there, yes.
They will repeat the neck-holding-walk. The man in front will fall back.
They will propel one another until
one man sitting on his shins, holding the other in his lap, face up.
They will look at one another.
continue throwing each other with a violence that is
They entered breathing the same
but only one of them sees the staleness for what it is.
One man will lie on the ground face up
the other will be standing above him.
They will be holding hands.
The standing man will place his foot on the recumbent man’s thigh,
then move it towards his groin.
They’ll still be holding hands.
I wonder how it will end.
They will continue, catapulting
immediately pulling the other in,
heaving the other towards the ground
they will be in the same shape as before.
one man sitting on his shins, holding the other in his lap, face up.
They will look at one another.
"I like you doing that in the center. It deifies the middle a little.”
You’ll realize you haven’t inhaled or blinked
in what feels like minutes,
because it will just keep going
defying the laws of gravity and human tolerance
for almost everything.
But suddenly you’ll find breath in your lungs again because
one man sitting on his shins, holding the other in his lap, face up.
They will look at one another.
But this third time
the roles will be reversed.
And this time the man holding the other in his lap
will grab the other’s shirt, pin it over his face, and throw both himself and the other on the ground.
They will lie there,
one man exposing the other’s body to the sky.
This isn’t how it ends. They haven’t made it yet.
But it all feels incredibly generous to me, this mirror that Amadi and Sam are holding up
for us to look at ourselves,
for me to look at myself,
with their bodies as the frame.
Maybe you’ll be talking about how Baye & Asa
are setting works on world famous companies
or about how
they deserve to earn some staggeringly large source of funding.
And you’ll be talking about
and the men who made it.
The love they have for each other,
the relationship they forged before they had the language -
dance or otherwise -
to talk about white supremacy.
“I don’t know if our do si do is stupid”
“It is objectively stupid”
“Maybe we just release one of the arms”
“Part of the problem is that I’m just fucking standing here”
“No. It’s just a bad move. We teach it to second graders”
“Is there a reason I’m ducking?”
“Oh, see, I can’t see you ducking”
“It’s an embellishment. I just don’t know if it feels like a useful embellishment”
“Well…an embellishment can certainly be useful.”
They dance again.
Amy Shoshana Blumberg is a theater director, playwright, and dramaturg based in Brooklyn, NY. She is co-founder and co-producing artistic director of the after-image, with whom she creates devised dance-theater works including, most recently, HOUSE OF AMERICAN ACTIVITIES. Her other collaborations include directing interactive theater for IKantKoan Games / Jessica Creane and serving as dramaturg for works by GREYZONE, ChristinaNoel & The Creature, and MeenMoves. Amy is also a teaching artist for The Moth. She earned a B.A. in Africana Studies and Dance from Barnard College and a M.F.A. in Theater Directing from Temple University.
Sorry John Henry the song has no end
mace dent johnson
I'm not typically one for a Q&A or a talkback. I briefly worked for a director who turned to me after opening night of their show, moments before the talkback, and said “Shall we go?” Apparently, they rarely went to talkbacks or Q&As, not even for their own shows—and I took that permission gratefully.
Still, I was immensely grateful for the more-of-a-comment-than-a-question from Imani Uzuri, acclaimed genre-pushing contemporary vocalist and composer, who was in both the audience and the chorus of Sorry John Henry the song has no end. They said, and I paraphrase, “This was very avant,” and encouraged us to lean into the avant-garde-ness of the project. They said blackness is an avant-garde lived experience and that our performance expressed that, moved through it.
The term “avant-garde” came into vogue in artistic contexts during the first World War. The phrase became popular among a largely white populace of European artists who felt newly confronted by mortality, political immorality, the racial other, and hyper-industrialization. Modern artists sought out new ways to make art that more adequately reflected unprecedented times. “Avant-garde,” which translates to “advance guard,” had its pre-Modernism origins in the context of the battlefield as early as the 15th century. Broad swaths of artists across the political-ideological continuum found meaning in this repurposed military term. They felt their art was pushing up against a real danger, was right on the edge of something destructive, potent, entirely new. These artists felt that it could all come crashing down at any moment—"it” being many things, a construction of pure whiteness, the literal physical world, the state, a rain of missiles. At what felt like the end, artists became, somewhat paradoxically, obsessed with newness.
Uzuri’s comment rang true—we had, in a literal way, created something new, and we were drawing upon shared lived experiences of living through and against impossibilities to do so. But throughout the process of developing Sorry John Henry the song has no end, Ian Askew, the creator of the project and primary artist in residence at BAC, reminded us that we were actually doing something quite old. The project is thinking through, collaging from, and responding to John Henry, the 1940 Broadway musical based on a 1931 novel of the same name by Roark Bradford. Once a first lieutenant in the Coast Artillery during World War I, and later a Trainer in the Navy Reserves during World War II, Bradford was also a white writer who made a living writing stories in convoluted dialect about Black people in the American Southeast.
The Broadway adaptation of John Henry features Bradford’s bizarre, imagined “black” dialect alongside virtuosic performances by Paul Robeson (as John Henry), Ruby Elzy, Josh White, and Bayard Rustin, among others. For the most part, Bradford’s John Henry is a pretty typical John Henry story—perhaps with a bit more latent depression, body horror, and obligatory substance abuse. John Henry is a hard working roustabout, who brazenly goes up against a steam winch, loses, and dies trying. The story backstage was a bit less typical—the Broadway run ended abruptly, just five days after opening, due financial mismanagement and labor exploitation. Despite owing him wages for previous performances and travel, the show’s producers expected Robeson to continue working. Robeson, of course, left the show. This was right at the beginning of Robeson’s journey as a labor organizer, which would eventually land him on federal communism watchlists.
Sorry John Henry the song has no end opens and speaks back to this strange time capsule. At the start of each day at BAC, three of the project’s musicians (Dyani Douze, Eden Girma, and Khari Lucas,) set up their many devices at the center of the room—a sort of altar/machine that grew and adapted over our time in residence and will continue to grow as we build out the project. They plugged in laptops, microphones, and MIDI controllers, and, together with Jasmine Wilson and Joshuah Campbell, warmed up on an impressive assortment of instruments, like mbira, bass, electric guitar, clarinet, saxophone, and an eclectic mix of percussion.
Then, under the direction of Ian Askew, with musical direction from Joshuah Campbell, visits from dancer and choreographer Kiara Benn, and writing and dramaturgical consultation from me, we set out to make music, to sing stories, to find resonances across the long story of John Henry. Ian would say, “Can you take as much time as you need to electronically render a moving steamboat?” and soon we’d be underwater, caught in the work and the waves. From an archive of images, songs, spaces, and figures (collected by Ian in digital and physical archives, like the Harvard University and New York Public Library Theater Collections,) we made a living collage through homage and interrogation of John Henry and John Henry, and the black folks in orbit of both of those stories.
We took an archival-musical approach, working with songs the stars of John Henry were known for performing, like Robeson’s rendition of “Ol’ Man River” and Ruby Elzy’s rendition of “My Man’s Gone Now.” The latter came right at the end of the BAC showing of Sorry John Henry. Vocalist Jasmine Wilson sang the song as two sampled versions of Elzy’s voice, mixed by Khari Lucas and Dyani Douze, echoed in the background. We also took a textual-archival approach. My initial and primary role on the show was the creation of erasure poems from the text of the stage directions of the Broadway musical. These erasure poems became a performance score and a script for monologue, dialogue, and lyrics. We took the words Bradford had written to direct (see: control) black actors on stage, and made something else—something more appropriately absurd, abstract, haunting, haunted.
Everyone on the team, all from different lineages and backgrounds, grew up with John Henry, the American folk hero (and steel driving fool) at the center of stories traced back to the early 20th century in Black America. Maybe there was a flesh and blood John Henry, and maybe there wasn’t, but black people (and others, eventually, of course) have been telling stories about him for a hundred years regardless. The stories have taken countless forms—a cautionary story about overworking, a valiant story about overworking, a story about the body’s limits, a story about the mighty mighty union, a story about union busting, a story about the collective, a story about the individual. A patriotic Disney movie, an episode of SpongeBob Squarepants where SpongeBob, as John Henry, actually wins. Bradford’s tale of jive-talking, adulterating, coke-sniffing black life and work. And now us. As Black Americans, especially those descended from enslaved Africans, how do we make sense of our relationship to work in this country? How do we sing about work in our songs? How do we sing when singing is work, how do we make our work sound like song?
Our howling, lilting, laughing rendition of this story that’s been being told for so long. As I sat on our strange and inverted stage, doing way more singing and performing than I thought I would be doing, (I’m just a writer, I insisted all month, How do I even plug in this mic?,) I crooked my neck to see the audience sitting behind me. They looked, as far as I could tell, pretty unsettled and confused.
During the post-showing Q&A, folks in the audience asked questions about the Broadway musical, struggling to understand how all that could have happened if they had never heard of it. Others wondered about the musical machine we had built in the center of the room before them. What’s with all the chords? Are we supposed to sing too? Bubbling beneath the questions, I sensed a more latent uncertainty—what was that? What is it that I am feeling right now? And I get it—as with much of what is avant-garde, the usual frameworks for engaging with, relating to, and making sense of a thing fall short. It is an uncomfortable feeling.
Many in the room were right there with us, finding their place in or near the thing, finding a way to listen and respond. Others found themselves closer, still, to the story: Early on, Ian had the idea to invite friends, acquaintances, and mentors, to meet with us a bit before the showing and learn some of our call and response songs so that they could sing with us, a revised version of the chorus from Bradford’s text. Members of the chorus spoke of the meditative, immersive, salve-like quality of the thing, washing over them like steam.
We set out to make a thing about John Henry and about John Henry and about work. In appropriately avant-garde fashion, what we made together was also about alienation—the alienation of work, the alienation of the stage, of audience. The alienation of being the subject of a capsized empire, of being already always away from home. This collaboration was a way for us to translate and transform our fears, anxieties, and ecstasies around life and social death, selling labor and making love, being black and making art, and to trace our threads backward alongside autonomous black thought that has been happening forever.
The work-in-progress showing of Sorry John Henry the song has no end was created and performed by Ian Askew, mace dent johnson, Joshuah Brian Campbell, Dyani Douze, Eden Girma, Khari Lucas, and Jasmine Wilson, with additional material from Kiara Benn and Davóne Tines. Developed in collaboration with Morgan Johnson, Gabby Preston, and Lauren Nicholson, and with ongoing support from Wake Forest University.
mace dent johnson is a queer and trans black writer from the south. They grew up in Columbus, Georgia and currently live in St. Louis, Missouri. mace received their MFA in poetry from Washington University in St. Louis in 2021, where they currently serve as the Senior Poet in Residence, teaching poetry to undergraduates. They are a Cave Canem and Watering Hole fellow. mace writes about precious objects, heartbreak, blackness, and the natural world. They also work in collage, essay, and theater.
Writer, teacher, and “performance enabler” Aaron Landsman is currently curious about a particular set of hours: 2:50-5:10. While he attaches no modifier to these numbers in his performance text Night Keeper, audience members in attendance at his recent showing of the work in the Rudolf Nureyev Studio at Baryshnikov Arts Center quickly understood his preoccupation with the after-midnight as actor Jehan Young brought down the shades in the large studio. Two women fanning themselves to ward off the late-June heat seemed particularly grateful for this respite from the day’s sun. Situated in near-darkness, illuminated only by a clip light throwing brightness against a cool stone wall, Jehan began to read Landsman’s text to a crowd assembled against a long wall while some viewers chose to sit in chairs arranged in pairs throughout the massive room:
“Maybe you’re 9 years old? Maybe 8. Maybe 10. You can’t fall asleep.”
From this position the 9 or 8 or 10 year old is privy to their parents’ television set playing a late-night talk show. From this position, more acutely, the 9 or 8 or 10 year old learns how to use restlessness as an opportunity for oblique communion. It’s an inciting moment: the discovery of a very foundational intimacy with the self mediated by the comings-and-goings of close creatures who become mysterious by virtue of their present, yet hidden activities.
Over the course of the monologue, accompanied by guitarist Norm Westberg’s exquisite live loops—built through improvisation in the rehearsal room with a few pre-mixed samples at the ready—a child’s first brush with restlessness becomes an adult’s quiet battle with insomnia, heroically reclaimed as “night keeping.” And in the in-between space of this journey, the restless child and sleepless adult/parent become conversational companions (the dialogue performed with light characterization by Jehan) as the piece toggles between observations made between the aforementioned space of 2:50-5:10 by the lone adult and more playful episodes initiated by the precocious kid.
“What was it like when you were as young as me?”
“That’s actually a really long time ago.”
“It used to be that when we wanted to reach someone we had to be in the house, attached to a wall by an umbilical contraption called the telephone.”
Sleeplessness opens the floodgates of memories temporally near and far, often blurring the distinction. For anyone who has ever been haunted by a particularly searing experience, something that happened ten or twenty years ago can feel, as they say, like yesterday. But Aaron is not so interested in recounting traumas as he is in marveling at the changes he has witnessed in himself and the world. His memories live in the lovely banal, so plain they invite audience members to recall the nights they have spent in foreign beds, been kept awake by the sounds of garbage trucks, and tracked the revolving doors of their overpopulated apartment buildings. In that way, the piece is a love letter to the city dweller. And I am that.
In Aaron’s project those memories become sites on a map, replacing chronology with association. In Night Keeper, he physically realizes this idea by creating a movement score in collaboration with Jehan that travels through the audience. During the showing that I’ve been describing, I served as Jehan’s assistant—a fellow night keeper, albeit a quiet, lurking one— bringing her chairs and striking a light to build and collapse Aaron’s short scenes. The performance ended with a short commiserating exchange between the two of us—man, this job, am I right?—preceded by a dance of smartphones constructed by choreographer Hilary Clark with the assistance of David Guzman, who taught me and Jehan the sequence the day before the work was presented to the public.
I performed this text myself in 2020 at the Chocolate Factory in an earlier work-in-progress showing, so I am familiar with Aaron’s thinking and writing. But the better verb might be whittling, as Aaron continues to sculpt the text in small fits of subtraction, generating bursts of text to be cut, cut, cut as he listens to their resonance in the room. At the top of my script, I made a little note, eavesdropping on Aaron in conversation with Norm as they discussed a contrapuntal relationship that had begun to emerge between Jehan’s delivery and the musician’s guitar. I heard Aaron say: “It brings out a sentimental quality that I think is kinda scary-good.” In the dimmed lights of the Nureyev, designed by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, I liked contemplating what makes sentimentality scary and good. In the final moments of Night Keeper, opening her gaze out to a rapt crowd of fellow night keepers (spoiler: we all keep the night), Jehan reports in tones even and poignant: “We sag with moisture. Our arms are hoops. Regrets lullaby us.” I cannot say I understand the steps of her logic, but there are traces of tears and shapes of holes in her prosaic musings. And no one’s pillow is a stranger to those marks.
Choreographed and Directed by Nami Yamamoto
Collaborators/Dancers/Puppeteers: Takemi Kitamura, Leah Ogawa, Anna Vomacka, and Nami Yamamoto.
June 4, 2022
Rehearsal Report: “If it becomes no longer in my hand and starts to take off, that’s great.”
On a summer day in June, I walked into rehearsal to find Choreographer and Director Nami Yamamoto and collaborator Takemi Kitamura warming up. I made my way to a chair, watching and observing as Nami and Takemi chatted quietly. Their deep exhales filled the spacious room with their backs on the floor and their legs on the wall. After a few minutes, fellow collaborators Leah Ogawa and Anna Vomacka entered the space and began to work through different elements of the piece. Finally, Nami stands up and walks over to me with arms outstretched for a big hug. Her shirt reads "The Future"... I smile.
Illuminated by sunlight coming through the large windows, the space is full of puppets made of clay-colored paper. There is a gigantic beach ball-sized plastic breast and several softball-sized plastic breasts off to the side; I've seen plastic breasts in a previous iteration of the work, so I jot down a note to ask Nami about this later. The puppets are showing signs of wear, and the white tape around their tiny bodies is reminiscent of an emergency room scene from a movie. Or perhaps a graveyard for the recently departed? With the number of objects in the room, my excitement started to build; I couldn't wait to see this unfold.
"It feels good to be here, to be with the dancers, finally," Nami tells me. It's been a long time coming, and after 18 months of virtual and solo practice, she is ready to be at the stage when Trooper's Brother is no longer solely hers; that point when it takes off, and she can let things go. I admire how each dancer interacts with the materials, responding to the texture, caring for them, and understanding them. Throughout the rehearsal, they take turns watching each other and offering observations, with Nami moving seamlessly between the roles of director and collaborator. Nami makes her way over to Leah as she gently places both of the puppet's paper feet between her first and second toes, holding the torso between her knees. She then picks up two small plastic breasts in the equally small hands of the puppet. Leah has been working on dribbling two balls at once, and after a few attempts, she finds her rhythm.
Trooper's Brother will be performed at Brooklyn's Roulette Intermedium in June, and Nami feels good about the headway that week. "The performance space will have three levels and be deeper than what we've been working on within the studio," Nami stated as the dancers took their places for the top of the piece. What follows are tender moments of duets, solos, and group sections that are, all at once, funny, absurd, and heartbreaking. Sounds of crushed paper and plastic balls hitting the floor punctuate the silence, and some badass rock moments of resilience. The classical interpretation of Metallica's "Enter Sandman" provides the setting for an epic duet between Takemi and Nami, moving with fast-paced synchronized chugs, giant leaps to the floor, and marching defiantly forward with intense commitment and handheld plastic boobs. The music fades out, and we get a moment of repose as Takemi ponders what to do with the two grapefruit-sized plastic breasts she is holding. Finally, she looks forward, places them on her upper torso, and slowly bashes them together. The pat-pat-pat-pat of the plastic starts subtly and builds with intensity.
At one poignant part, Anna gently places a paper puppet down on the floor and lowers herself beside it. Watching her gazing at the paper doll, careful and unsure but full of support, stayed with me. She reaches into her pocket and reveals two disc-shaped plastic boobs, the perfect size for the puppet, and places them on its torso. There is a matter-of-factness in how she does this and these intimate moments of care (perhaps the doctor-patient relationship?) are easy to pick up on. I was surprised that the work tapped into a pretty deep and mysterious place for me. This shared sorrow, best illustrated in the section with the passing of the gigantic beach ball-shaped breast between the dancers, permeates throughout. Leah takes it on first, noting the softness and lightness of the ball as she tosses it into the air. The dancers pause to watch and move closer to take turns with it. They find a rhythm, shuffling on their knees in a circle, careful not to let the ball drop.
Within this work, Nami explores the universal theme of trauma with absurdity, humor, and some heartbreak. How do we reckon with what’s been lost? We begin by acknowledging these new parts/extensions of ourselves and discover what it teaches us about resilience, our power, and our capacity. The consequences of what happened to the body and the mind push the work onward. However, things that were lost remained cared for and remembered.
Later, in the program notes for the Roulette performance, Nami shares, "If the first half of the piece is about what happened in our body, the second half is about what happened in our minds. The objects that we were manipulating begin to haunt us. The puppet becomes dissected into a piece of bundled-up paper. We obsessed about pieces of puppet parts that have no shape, no life, or no meaning anymore. The shape of our body changes with time and age. But, we are still living, breathing, surviving, and celebrating our lives."
Nami begins to run in a circle, repeatedly, arms outstretched, perhaps ready for salvation. Watching her, I remember that yes, we can do this. "We are the champions, my friends. And we'll keep on fighting till the end."
Remi Harris is a performer, choreographer, curator, and arts programmer. First trained as a dance artist, she has developed an approach that combines a cross-disciplinary perspective with an intuitive sensibility and deep love for developing art-based relationships. Remi was born in Barbados and raised in Brooklyn, and remains closely connected to and curious about her own roots.
By a Waterfall: Children of Immigrants Chart a Path to the Sacred
In 1842 there was a massive earthquake in Haiti, and legend has it that the quake created a large waterfall, called Le Saut. The area surrounding it, called Saut-d’Eau (French for waterfall), or Sodo in Haitian Creole, has become a destination for pilgrims, both Catholics and practitioners of vodou, who visit the site during the festival of Our Lady of Carmel, in mid-July.
Fifty years earlier, in the late 18th century, Haitians had mounted the only successful slave revolt in history, establishing the first independent black state in the Americas. The Catholic Church tried for years to suppress the effects of this rebellion, and French banks have strangled the nation’s economy for decades as a result of it; these tensions played out in Saut-d’Eau, where manifestations of miracles—like an apparition of the Virgin Mary in a tree—were suppressed by French priests concerned about superstitious practices. The priests promptly died, the Haitians took this as a kind of sacred vengeance, and the Catholic clergy have come to accept the pilgrimage, with its associated syncretic festivities, as a fact of Haitian life. A primary devotional activity is bathing in the waterfall.
Phyllis Galembo, a longtime observer of Haitian art and life, visited the site more than 20 years ago during the mid-summer festival, and photographed pilgrims cleansing their bodies and souls in the water. Her 2021 book, Sodo, inspired choreographer Gaspard Louis, whose BAC Open residency began in early June.
Gaspard, raised in Port-Au-Prince until his early teens, was transplanted to New Jersey by his Protestant mother, but he also went to his father’s Catholic church. “In fact,” he tells me, “I enjoyed it more than the Protestant church, because it was more fun and shorter. I didn't care much for the long hours of Sunday school. However, we were not allowed to appreciate the vodou religion, which I came to find out is the heartbeat of Haiti.”
His parents’ plans for him included safe and lucrative professions: law, medicine, or business. He always wanted to be an actor, but faced a language barrier; French and Creole were his first languages, and he came to English late. While a student at Montclair State, practicing martial arts, he was lured into performing in a dance show. The rest is history: after touring with ALLNATIONS Dance Company, based at New York’s International House, he made it into Pilobolus and spent 10 years there, finding along the way a wife, spending a few years in the business career his parents sought for him, and finally working his way back to the dance world.
He is fifty now and a father of two; he was born in the same year as Pilobolus, the company he joined as a fledgling dancer that supported him well for a decade. Now he’s director of Gaspard & Dancers and the choreographer of Sodo, the brand-new, beautiful duet he built in June in the Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine Kaye Studio at BAC, collaborating with performers Kevin Boateng and Marsha Guirlande Pierre, who dance the roles of a young couple visiting the falls to sanctify their relationship. Mahalia Stines, a Brooklyn-based Haitian Jew who practices vodou, is designing sets and costumes; he brought to her attention Galembo’s book of photographs. Daniel Bernard Roumain’s piano-and-violin score for the 17-minute piece incorporates Stines’ recitation in Haitian Creole of a text from the book, a poem by Jean Leopold Dominique.
This information does not begin to reveal the experience of witnessing the piece itself, and the process by which Gaspard fine-tunes the choreography and the performances by this dream team of dancers. Working five hours a day for 12 days, the three of them build the dance collaboratively, approaching it as a mutual responsibility rather than a top-down delivery of steps. Their movement creates a breeze in the room. I arrive in the middle of the process, on day seven, in time to watch and listen to Stines as she hovers in the studio with bags of material, feeling out the necessary textiles and props. On one edge of the performance space lies a circle of cloth on which rests an enamel bowl full of water, herbs, and berries; a simple mug; and a candle. Alongside this tableau is a little wooden chair with a cane seat. Stines sets out a dozen small battery-powered votives that are crucial to the final moments of the work.
“Let me just go make a fool of myself,” Gaspard mutters as he heads onto the dance floor to demonstrate, full out, what he wants the dancers to try. And then, as he clambers back up onto his feet, “Oh, Elizabeth, never get old.” I have 27 years on him, actually, so I know where he’s coming from; though the plastic chairs in the studio are among the best I’ve ever encountered, my body still seizes up after hours of sitting on one.
The two dancers are rarely still, taking the initiative to rehearse the complex choreography even when Gaspard is busy elsewhere. Fearless and independent, they slide, they somersault. She’s his protector, he her cavalier. They give each other space. They spiral around each other, their spines in constant, sinuous motion. She jumps onto his back; he sits on her knee. The pair direct themselves as Gaspard watches; it appears to be a joyous process.
Marsha, 25, is a compact, lively dancer, born in Trenton, New Jersey and raised primarily on the east coast of the U.S. by Haitian parents; her father insisted she learn Creole. Three years out of Montclair State, and experienced as a modern dancer with Limon and Carolyn Dorfman, she now lives in the Bronx and works as a yoga teacher and social media editor for a church. Kevin, 30, speaks Twe; his parents are from Ghana, and he lives in Dallas, commuting to rehearse with Gaspard, mostly in New York. He’s ballet-trained; his “dance mom,” he says, is Kihyoung Choi, a former member of the Korean National Ballet who now teaches in neighboring Fort Worth.
The work they are doing together is, I must confess, breathtaking. It’s clear that Gaspard chose them for who they are as people as well as for their technical prowess. “I entered into this project with a level of care and sensitivity,” says Kevin. “I wanted to be respectful of the culture and the creative process. The African and Caribbean cultures are so similar—traditions, food, how we wash our hands, our clothes….”
“My mom would put herbs in water—ferns and eucalyptus—and wash me with it,” adds Marsha. “Eucalyptus is good for your energy.” The bowl on the studio floor is, it turns out, full of ferns and eucalyptus.
During a break one afternoon, I ask all three about their history with swing dancing, with the Lindy. They look at me blankly. “I’m an immigrant,” Gaspard reminds me. But there is something about the way he has built this duet, the way Marsha and Kevin perform it, that seems, though made on exquisitely trained dancers comfortable with the intimacy of contact improvisation, at once casual and serious and social, channeling the very soul of African style
Gaspard and his dancers return to the studio in August, preparing for a tour that will take them and Sodo to Duke University in Durham, North Carolina; to Wilmington, North Carolina; and on to the Dominican Republic, and Croatia. Turning a still visual artifact—in this case a suite of photographs of a sacred site—into choreography is a process fraught with danger, but Gaspard has managed it well, and the world awaits the chance to view the finished piece.
Elizabeth Zimmer has written about dance, theater, and books for many publications including Dance Magazine and The Village Voice. She offers writing workshops for students and professionals across the country, and edits manuscripts of all kinds. She contributed to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Halifax and Vancouver from 1971-1978, covered ballet for the Philadelphia Inquirer (1997 – 2005), edited the dance section of The Village Voice (1992 -2006), and has served as a critic there and elsewhere since 1981. She taught in the Hollins University MFA dance program (2011-2019), where she met Gaspard Louis, and has studied many forms of dance.