Baryshnikov Arts Center

BAC Stories

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.


BAC Story by Amy Shoshana Blumberg

Baye & Asa

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.
Directed by 
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
confined
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.

"Lights change"
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 
thing
from his own face
even as it 
jolts 
him 
forward.
He throws the scales of justice
or is it that they throw him?
He is watching and at the ready and he knows
that this 
thing 
outside the edges of this box, 
(and maybe already seeping in at the seams)
does not
wish him well.

You will see a Black man and a white man
alone together, 
sealed up, 
breathing the same
air.
They both see a threat:
rapacious
looming
here.
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 
moments before
alone
tried and failed to find the fullness of his own extremities
but now
under the gaze of a Black man
he performs
masculine grandiosity.
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 
dance
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

these languages

are the foundation of Baye & Asa’s technique.

The rhythms of these techniques, which they first learned 
together, 

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

is palpable.

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 
collide 
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
they’ve stopped,
 one man sitting on his shins, holding the other in his lap, face up. 
They will look at one another.
And then 
continue throwing each other with a violence that is 
inherently intimate.

They entered breathing the same
stale air,

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
one another
off,
immediately pulling the other in,
heaving the other towards the ground
until
they will be in the same shape as before.
They’ll stop, 
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
they’ve stopped, 
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
HotHouse
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”
They dance.
“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.

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BAC Story by mace dent johnson

Ian Askew

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.

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BAC Story by Dot Armstrong

Milka Djordjevich

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
            WORDS
SOMETIMES WORDS ARE THE COURAGE
            TO THINK THE COURAGE
            TO THINK
TOO MUCH TOO MUCH
                                                                        “audience text”
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
in order
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
catch it?
                                    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
                        no rest
                                    “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,
                        side-left.”
            The gas is on
                        You look scared

            “Shimmy go—”
                        “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—”
                                    scared
                                    scared
                                    scared
                                    scared

            “Let’s try a round of marking time.”

drill-calling fatigue: leaders forgetting possibilities
the choices given are smaller when those in power
                        circles go
when the steps are fewer
                        mark time go
                        forward go
                        pivot go
the group is tired
                        yes head go. blah!
                        left face go
what can they do?
                        backwards go
thinking hard, I see it in their faces
compensatory movements
                        left face go
                        left face go
but push through. endurance, stress of world-making,
                        right left
what practice prepares us for
                        snaps go
                        yes go
                        backwards go
what structure, implied or concrete, constructed
                        tempo up
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
                        backwards go
new kind of virtuosity, or oldest in the book
                        hold! freeze!

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).

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BAC Story by Ellie Goudie-Averill

Lori Belilove

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.

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BAC Story by Ellie Goudie-Averill

Kayla Farrish

December 26, 2020

KF:  “The work feels like activism to me.”

Kayla Farrish is vibrant and active when she speaks.

We’re on Zoom (where else?), the green velvet couch in her Brooklyn apartment matching the cactus that frames me outside my studio in Oakland, CA. Movement spills, pops, and shifts in gesture, expression, and posture—she fills up the screen as we talk. I spoke to Kayla just after her Baryshnikov Arts Center residency ended in late November, and she was energized about her time in the studio, her cast, and how to continue her work in a sustainable way in this incalculable and constantly restructuring New Year. She was supposed to show her new work, Martyr’s Fiction, at Gibney in March of 2020 and continue working on the piece, which she had begun a couple of months earlier, at BAC directly after the show. As with most pre-COVID plans during that time, her performance was cancelled and her BAC residency was, thankfully, postponed. For her current piece, Kayla’s initial ideas centered on surrealism as a concept. Our conversation got me thinking about conversations around race and abstraction, and the conversation around race and surrealism felt intertwined, but also different to me, re-framing the question of who is allowed to make abstract work, and shifting that into the question: “Who is allowed to dream?”

KF: “Surrealism, what is that? I was curious because I love that word and the concept and felt, why do I feel so distant from what that is? I don’t really think that people in my community or family have access to surrealism. I’m thinking about the lights outside behind me, the cops that are patrolling people. When you’re thinking about survival, you might fantasize, but it’s likely in your head and it’s with a lot of barriers. When do we get to dream about pink elephants? What I grew up on is, I can only dream so far. Even when I’m making things, I’ll have this crazy vision, but will I have the resources to support that? Will people understand me? What is surrealism from my perspective-- the perspective from an African American dreamer? I feel, in my experience in blackness [and dance] that I have to be demonstrative, that I have to make sure I’m very clear... People need to understand the context and know where I am coming from. There is surrealism in imagination, but there is also surrealism in real life, like when you’re talking to someone and they say ‘racism doesn’t exist.’ And I think, ‘am I a myth?’”

Kayla grew up in North Carolina, in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area, which was home to one of the largest plantations in the US. Before our Zoom session, along with many images and videos of the work-in-progress, she shared a folder with me called “Plantation/Farm'' that contained images from her research. There were beautiful barns, and the building plans of barns and houses built by slaves to live and work in, built with pegs instead of nails and still standing strong. Her father’s side of the family were sharecroppers, working in tobacco and tending the land that they still farm today. Kayla’s family came to own the land because her great-grandfather was an only child who inherited the land and passed it down to her grandmother.  We spoke about the night terrors that her father had throughout her childhood. This brought up the idea of watching someone else dream, and how rare that experience is. In her process, Kayla began working on recounting dreams with her cast through movement and language and exploring personal history.

KF: “There are shopping centers in NC called ‘Plantation Shopping Center,’ neighborhoods called ‘Wakefield Plantation.’ These places are turned into more money, and more erasure out in the open. What are we worth if we can just vanish? It’s as if it was nothing. It’s enraging, it’s offensive. There is a surreal nature to that erasure, and to current violence. My father is the oldest of seven from his sharecropping family. In his night terrors, he would scream, he would have really physical responses. He shouted my name. He never remembered what the dream was, but it always felt so real. It was so animated and intense. I got really into nightmares and exploring horror. I wanted to explore questions with my collaborators: 'What are you confronting and what are you running from? Can we edge up on these boundaries? What is escapism? What is surrealism to you?’ It was also interesting to see where my collaborators allowed fantasy in their lives. Some people are very sci-fi, intergalactic and so far away, and some people’s dreams felt so real, like an embodiment of their stories. I’d played a role in Sleep No More, the maid Danvers, who appears in and out of the shadows, who had so much restraint, but also this incredible fantasy life that was the flip of that restraint. I really related to that.”

Martyr’s Fiction is now going to become a full-length film, featuring Kayla and her collaborators Nik Owens, Jamal Abrams, Rebecca Margolick, and Alexander Diaz, with cinematography by Kermie Konur and music by Melike Konur. Kayla had one order in mind for the live work, and now a new order is emerging for the film as things have changed through COVID. Most of her movement material is set, with some scores that are left a little more open. One scene, called “sites,” explores sites of erasure, like the plantations of NC. There is also a scene exploring contemporary escapism called “wine night.” Characters shift and change throughout the work. Production week for the film will be in the late summer or fall and then the film will premiere at the end of 2021.

KF: “At the end of my residency, I had the option of doing a live stream, but I didn’t want flat documentation. I've now been thinking of the piece more in a cinematic way. I see cinematic landscapes as a way to see into these characters. My longtime collaborator Kerime’s input and feedback adds to and challenges me in a lovely way, especially when I’m performing in the work. What’s been so remarkable about the whole process is asking ourselves: ‘Is [this work] indulgent? Is this changing anything?’ We’ve been working on a section called “three black men,” and my collaborators were not happy with me at first. We first played with horror, and it was fun, it was fantasy, and then it went into trying on stereotypes that we’ve seen growing up, becoming the monsters that people think we are. My collaborators said, “I’m a black queer man, and you’re talking about spaces I’m not allowed to exist in when I walk out the door.” We pushed it in a really safe way. I want to feel monstrous, I don’t want to feel invisible any more. It’s liberating when you take the work in the studio out into the world. Your imagination can affect the collective and I never knew that was achievable, because dreaming is supposed to be so personal. I’m excited for how the whole work will unfold. Is this a loop, is this a dream?”

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Originally from the Midwest, Eleanor 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 at Connecticut College, where she created a new outdoor work for ConnColl students this Fall. Ellie has danced professionally for Susan Rethorst, Lucinda Childs, Bronwen MacArthur, and Group Motion. She is a regular collaborator and dancer with Tori Lawrence + Co. in dance films and site-specific works. Ellie is also a dance writer, frequently publishing dance and book reviews on the Philadelphia-based thINKingDANCE website.

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BAC Story by Melissa Levin

Mallory Catlett and Aaron Siegel

Certain stories demand to be told as operas. Their drama or tragedy is so poignant as to be inherently operatic. Such is the case with Janet Frame’s 1968 novel Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room, which director Mallory Catlett and composer Aaron Siegel are adapting for the stage as an opera called Rainbird, taking its title from the lead family’s poetic last name.

I spoke with Catlett and Siegel towards the end of their BAC Space Residency. They are rigorous and thoughtful artists who are telling, according to them, a story that starts out dark and gets darker. And yet, the iterative process of collaboration they describe appears to maintain spaciousness.

Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room is a story of life and death (mostly death), trauma, anxieties, erasure, and difference. A man, Godfrey Rainbird, is pronounced dead from an accident, and then comes alive three days later in the morgue. This indigestible rewind infects his family, a wife and two children; his place of business, a tourism agency; and society at large by way of the media. No one in his life is able to process his death experience. It forces everyone to confront their own mortality, which pushes their psyches and behavior to the edge. Godfrey becomes a liability and a pariah. His difference is intolerable.

Sharing her deep familiarity with and affinity for Frame, Catlett articulates exactly why this novel begs to be an opera: these characters are mundane, but this is a mythic experience; how we deal with life and death is how we are connected to the gods.

Catlett came to Frame in graduate school; Siegel came to Frame through Catlett. Award-winning, reclusive, and prolific, she has a cult following for her poetic approach to prose and her unabashed writing on mental illness and death, some stemming from her own experiences coming of age in New Zealand. Catlett and Siegel have collaborated once before, with Catlett directing an opera Siegel had composed and written. For Rainbird, they wanted to develop something together from the beginning. Siegel is still composing and Catlett directing, but they are writing, or as they say more accurately, assembling, the libretto together, heavily inspired by the novel. It is also Frame’s agility with language that lends her text to song.

As for the music, a self-professed romantic, Siegel described finding ways to juxtapose sound to the tone or mood of a scene. He talked about creating additional meaning through sound, having the most impact on the storytelling at that moment, commenting on, and creating from, the language at the same time.

With three instrumentalists and four vocalists, Catlett and Siegel shared a searing excerpt from the opera in progress in November at the residency’s culmination. For the two years they have been developing Rainbird, they have integrally included the instrumentalists and vocalists in the process. Atypical for opera, these fellow collaborators have participated in creative decision-making, rendering ideas musically, and improvising; they therefore know the text and music intimately. As Siegel promised it would, the music aptly, viscerally echoed the narrative’s anxieties with moaning violin and plinking toy piano. The singers’ voices were achingly ethereal and transporting. The excerpt took us through Godfrey’s death and resurrection, his wife Beatrice’s confusion, his sister’s futile attempt to aim her towards religion as a salve, and his boss’ letting him go with a (paltry) “tidy sum” as recompense. It was heartbreaking.

On display was exactly what Catlett had described in Frame’s work: the characters’ (humanity’s) paralyzing inability to deal with the unknown–foremost death–and the related tendency to destroy those things we cannot explain. Also on display was Catlett and Siegel’s sonic, visual, and emotional capacity for operatic storytelling and their powerful ability to shine light on the darkness.

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Melissa Levin is an arts administrator and curator committed to innovative, inclusive, and comprehensive approaches to supporting artists and initiating programs. She is currently the VP of Artists, Estates and Foundations at Art Agency Partners, where she advises artists and their families on legacy planning. Previously, Levin worked at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council for more than 12 years, where as VP of Cultural Programs she led the program design and artistic direction of LMCC's Artist Residency programs, the Arts Center at Governors Island, and the River To River Festival. Together with Alex Fialho, Levin has curated multiple, critically-acclaimed exhibitions dedicated to the late Michael Richards’s art, life, and legacy. Levin proudly serves on the boards of the Alliance of Artists Communities and Danspace Project. She received a B.A. with honors in Visual Art and Art History from Barnard College. 

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BAC Story by Melissa Levin

Amir ElSaffar

It is hard not to extrapolate the poetry and aspirational metaphor from the 17-piece ensemble Rivers of Sound Orchestra, the vision and charge of multi-hyphenate musician and composer Amir ElSaffar. Orchestra members come together from different parts of the country and from around the world to play an innovative fusion of Middle Eastern music, Iraqi maqam in particular, and American jazz.

I had seen the group perform once before when, in my role as VP of Cultural Programs at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC), we presented the launch of their second album Not Two at the River To River Festival in 2017. (Of course we were charmed by the uncanny synchronicity of the festival, group, and album names: Rivers of Sound launch Not Two at the River To River Festival.) Outdoors on a plaza on a June evening, in a canyon of buildings in Lower Manhattan, the performance was nothing short of triumphant. Through threatening weather, the 17 musicians and their more than 17 instruments crammed onto a small stage and transported the audience with sounds they may not have even known they were hearing.

I am not a trained musician or listener, but even to my ear, complexity, warmth, connection, and depth permeate the music of this stellar group.

When I met ElSaffar to prepare to write this piece, I could hear him playing the trumpet, his primary instrument, from outside the doors of his cavernous studio. I paused to listen to a few bars before walking in. Then, we talked: about his initial discovery of music (he loved the Beatles, the Stones, and finally Hendrix, who led him inadvertently to Miles Davis); about his formal musical training; had a lesson in microtones; and then he veered me back to the group, the reason we were in the studio to begin with.

He described Rivers of Sound Orchestra’s coming together as serendipity, a result of two coincidental U.S. commissions. Though in many ways, even if unbeknownst to him, it sounded to me like he had been laying the groundwork for such serendipity to occur over the preceding years. He lived and studied all over the world, first in the U.S., in Chicago, Boston, and New York from youth to college, and then throughout the middle east, in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq, and throughout Europe, in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, and England, in part at least following a diaspora of musicians trained in Iraqi maqam or other ancient and traditional forms – a diasporic practice for our diasporic times.

ElSaffar leads the group and composes all of their arrangements. He describes a generous and generative style of leadership, relying on each individual’s virtuosic knowledge, skill, and creativity with their own instrument, to fully realize the harmonies, microtonalities, and polyphonies he writes.

Among other terms unfamiliar to me, ElSaffar had to define microtonal music, a central structure for Rivers of Sound, and he did so using the visual idea of pixels: Western music, built around western instruments such as the piano, most commonly expresses itself as what is called 12-tone equal temperament–12 parts of an octave all equal, is like a 500-pixel image. Whereas microtonal music (such as Iraqi maqam and other ancient Greek and Middle Eastern forms utilizing instruments without frets, for example) expresses additional intervals, variations, and in-betweens, more like a 1000-pixel image. Or, as he further described, relative to the other where equal temperament “approximates,” microtonal music revels in “the different shades of intonation.”

About half of the group members live in New York, and the other half are scattered across the country and around the world. Their collective expertise ranges from western classical music to experimental American jazz to Iraqi maqam, and instruments include trumpet, saxophone, violin, cello, oud, buzuk, santur, and an unconventionally tuned piano. They converge, they disperse: like the notes and rhythms in each simultaneously precise and yet free-wheeling composition. I picture them like stars in the sky, dotting the globe with individual light and lights coming together to form a constellation, a new and meaningful shape.

Many times, he refers to Rivers of Sound as a family. Indeed, his sister and brother-in-law play in the orchestra. Another musician in the group has been a friend of his since high school. Other members he has met along the way, kindred spirits, mentors, masters, technicians, and improvisers all. Their musicianship (though certainly a requirement) is second to their humanity. And, ElSaffar says that the deep friendship he has with each individual musician extends to their relationships with one another as well. He even describes electrical chemistry in the sounds certain of them create together, like “lightning bolts.”

This resonates when you see and hear Rivers of Sound perform and play music together. The music pings, vibrates, oscillates, elongates, conflates, conversates, electrifies, and lulls. A global ensemble, Rivers of Sound excavates ancient forms and pioneers wholly new ones, creating music never heard before in a universal yet secret language of microtones. 1000 pixels. You can let it wash over you, you can listen closely, and you can aspire to its example.

View Residency Page

Melissa Levin is an arts administrator and curator committed to innovative, inclusive, and comprehensive approaches to supporting artists and initiating programs. She is currently the VP of Artists, Estates and Foundations at Art Agency Partners, where she advises artists and their families on legacy planning. Previously, Levin worked at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council for more than 12 years, where as VP of Cultural Programs she led the program design and artistic direction of LMCC's Artist Residency programs, the Arts Center at Governors Island, and the River To River Festival. Together with Alex Fialho, Levin has curated multiple, critically-acclaimed exhibitions dedicated to the late Michael Richards’s art, life, and legacy. Levin proudly serves on the boards of the Alliance of Artists Communities and Danspace Project. She received a B.A. with honors in Visual Art and Art History from Barnard College. 

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BAC Story by Brian McCormick

Ellen Cornfield

Jun 6, 2019

Portal begins with an eruption — male, upward thrusting — a percussive, rolling rat-a-tat-tat of drums explodes out of the movement. Andreas Brade’s music, composed for the dance, responds to the action, from minimal and soothing to cacophonous, as needed.

The seven strong, blithe dancers of Cornfield Dance devour the space in the John Cage & Merce Cunningham Studio, fully committed to the athletic demands of the choreography, powered by their vigorous joy for the craft. It’s the kind of imprimatur that signals a master at work, and Ellen Cornfield’s reputation precedes her.

The choreographer, who danced for Merce Cunningham from 1974-1982 and taught at Cunningham Studio for 30 years, may fit diagonally on some dance genealogy tree, but she has also made her own distinct mark. There is a brand identity to the technique that is unmistakable. However, fresh eyes, like those of the students in the BAC After School program, see it on its own merits. In a visit with Cornfield during her residency, the teens watched her company rehearse. They saw, “formalism with flair, and flights of fancy. Quirky, rhythmic, gestural phrases woven into broadly abstract works with exciting choreography. Cute moments that hint at a story.”

Cornfield developed Portal, her latest work, during her BAC Space residency this spring at BAC, while also working on spacing and refinements for two other works (Close Up and Pas de Detour) for the company’s performances at the Harkness Dance Festival. In the second part of her residency, Cornfield worked with collaborators Glen Fogel, Mark Brady, and Jordan Strafer to create a video version of Portal, featuring the architecture and spaces of the BAC building. The costumes for Portal, by Karen Young, visually reflect the space and the surrounding cityscape through their patchwork design of angular shapes in a narrow range of gray shades. Cornfield described the natural light streaming down in shafts through the closed shades of the studio on bright afternoons as “magical.”

A new version of Close-Up (2017), presented at Cornfield’s BAC Space showing and reworked during her residency, was inspired by her company’s performance at the Yale Center for British Art in 2018, where the company performed the dance in five separate gallery rooms simultaneously. “Experiences have taught me to embrace the unexpected,” Cornfield said. This new version, performed in decades-old unitards, is her homage to Merce’s “Events,” which were made up of bits of material from different works put together for a unique performance. At BAC, she and her dancers rearranged the original stage work into a condensed version, presented side by side at the same time.

Cornfield said she saw her dancers perform “deeper into the work and more confidently with their own gifts and abilities,” at their BAC studio showing — a result of “the supportive physical environment and the level of saturation in the work that was made possible through the residency.”

Visit Ellen's Residency Page

Brian McCormick is part-time Assistant Professor at The New School teaching graduate courses in Media Studies, and an adjunct lecturer at CUNY Lehman College teaching Theater. He is contributing editor at Gay City News, and has written for The New York Times, The Advocate, Dance Magazine, Dance Studio Life, and BAMbill. Since 2003, he has taught for Arts Connection’s Teen Reviewers and Critics (TRaC) program, and in 2019 received the Linda LeRoy Janklow Teaching Artist award. He leads the BAC After School program, established in 2012. Brian served on the New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Awards selection committee from 2002-2012, and is currently on the Board of Directors of Pentacle/Dance Works, Inc.

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BAC Story by Tatyana Tenenbaum

Hadar Ahuvia

May 23, 2019

A soft pulsing unison is emitted from a group of dancers in a line, holding hands. I observe as Mor Mendel expertly transmits dance steps to Oren Barnoy, Raha Behnam and Zavé Martohardjono. Throughout Mor’s instruction, a chorus of syncopated voices drones lightly in the background: who was here first / they were here first / was I here first / how does it bloom.

 

Mor is Israeli but she didn’t grow up doing Israeli folk dances. However, after working with Hadar for several years, the steps appear to have deeply embedded in her body, in her muscle memory.

Hadar Ahuvia sits elsewhere at a table, pouring over a manuscript as the vibrations and textures of her dance wash over her. Much of this material has been used in her work before. When material from one’s own work becomes a new sort of trope to be complicated, referenced, and re-written, it is a serpent eating itself.

The group is learning a complicated sequence of steps and text phrases based on the Yemenite step[1]. Each spoken phrase is a slight alteration of the previous, mirroring the way meaning might be obscured through a process of transmission. A string of words connects through their feet and the poetry gains new context through repetition.

Hadar tells me that she is recovering from a hip flareup a few days ago. “I could barely walk,” she says. She is convinced it is connected to a bike accident she had a few years ago, right before she left for a trip to Israel/Palestine to do humanitarian work. Through our friendship I also know that the trip stirred deep wounds between her and her Zionist family. “Now this stuff is finally getting into my work, and [the hip flareup] comes back.” The stuff she is talking about—it’s not the conflict in Israel/Palestine per se, but rather, the embodying of the conflict within her own family and how she has begun to unwind it.

Everything You Have is Yours, Hadar’s previous work, was a performance-lecture whose purpose was to artfully illustrate how Zionism built a nation through embodied ideology. It drew attention to cultural nuances that most Americans, and especially American Ashkenazi[2] Jews, could likely miss, having low literacy on the many ethnic and cultural lineages embedded within Israel/Palestine. But it is the personal connections—the fact that Hadar’s grandfather was a literal pioneer of the Zionist Kibbutz movement, or that her mother performed in a semi-professional folk dance troupe, that make Hadar’s stakes in this information so real, so gut-wrenchingly tangible.

In The Dances are for Us Hadar attempts to foreground these personal stakes, while at the same time involving a larger group of collaborators in conversation, dance, and song. Her collaborators have varied backgrounds: some Jewish, some not. Some have relationships to folk dance and some do not. Raha takes scrupulous notes. Autumn Leonard, having just arrived, begins to get the new sequence down.

The group begins to dance a hora, a circle dance enjoyed at social occasions by Jews in Eastern Europe before and during the settling of Palestine. I enjoy watching the coexistence of many divergent physicalities. What gives a dance like this its unity and cohesion? Is it the stomping of feet? A decided posture, perfected by all? Or could it be said that a shared intention, a social contract like an invisible thread connecting hearts and minds, is enough?

Hora was practiced by Zionists before the founding of the state. It was danced by Jews who were not yet Israeli. This imagined diasporic dance provides a backdrop for Hadar’s personal narrative. She operates with dry humor, imbibing a character modeled after a male Israeli dance instructor. This alter-ego is a way for Hadar to morph; to inhabit a persona in order to subvert it.

Her story drifts between contexts and places. She starts in Hawai’i, where her Israeli family moved when she was in high school. There she pokes fun at Jews for Jesus who attempt to perform Israeli folk dance without the requisite credentials, or chutzpah. She narrates a family trip to the Gilboa mountains in Israel. She balances her reverence with the descriptive smell of cow manure. Her voice begins to change and soften as she questions the authenticity of her own memory and truth: “why this” and “why that?”

As the group dances, Hadar’s virtuosic commentary continues to shift the meaning of the repetitive steps. Her telling becomes a reparative midrash[3] for a dance whose meaning has long been incorporated into a set of truths. I pause to reflect. Isn’t that what Jewish thought does? Continually question, debate, and complicate the well worn narratives, songs, and texts—if text could be considered a dance, a kind of text of the body? I am fascinated by the deep vestiges of Jewishness inside this making.

But not all Jews are the same. I remember being taught Israeli folk dances in elementary school by one of my classmate’s mothers. As an American Jew, I was confused. Was I supposed to feel some affinity to this tradition? The Israelis I knew were nothing like me. Their bodies were erect and confident and they spoke in loud voices. I remember bristling at the Israeli exchange student in my middle school. Her voice was too loud, her spine too erect. My own Jewish body felt meek in comparison. Her confidence embarrassed me.

Through Hadar’s work I have learned that this Israeli body, this sabra[4] body, was meticulously constructed. It was made through erect, collectivist ideologies, manual labor, farming, military service… and dance. It might surprise you that dance could serve as a vehicle for such profound social transformation. However, for those who devote their lives to fine-tuning their bodies and nervous systems through somatic work, the potency of this proposal is not a stretch. This is what is so captivating about watching Hadar’s work unfold. The viewer experiences for themselves the implicit persuasion of embodied narratives taking hold.

This essay flows forth at a time when many of us with power and privilege are being asked and challenged to put words to the supremacies we have inhabited, unchecked for so long. With much reflection, I realize that my body exudes another kind of socialized confidence: a confidence accrued through White Privilege. This very real, very tangible confidence is seated in the embodied knowledge that my body will be safe, in almost any context; that my thoughts and ideas will be taken seriously, in almost any context… Does my confidence embarrass you?

“There are no equivalencies, but there are parallels,” interjects Hadar.

Israeli folk dance has many sources, some more overtly acknowledged than others. Much like our American melting pot myth, this cultural construct obscures the historical power dynamics and multi-ethnicities imbedded within it. The Ashkenazi founders of the folk dance movement modeled their music and dance on those observed from Bedouin, Palestinian, Yemenite Jews, Druz, and other peoples whose cultures emerged from thousands of years of desert dwelling. The culling of these sources was an overt effort by Zionists to affirm their “native-ness.”

Hadar is of Ashkenazi descent. Her lineage traces the very power and privilege she is trying to deconstruct. Can a performance be a part of equalizing power? There is a moment when all the performers leave the stage and Hadar plays the music of a Palestinian dabke[5]. We are left to imagine, or contemplate, the void. It is not a perfect solution, and during the showing Hadar receives mixed feedback.

There is a general consensus that this moment can’t restore power to a people who aren’t in the room. But perhaps it can deflate the confidence of a narrative that props up those in power? So what does decolonization really mean? Does it mean physically leaving? Or does it mean, as I have heard it suggested by several Indigenous scholars, restoring power and equalizing the imbalances in our social and environmental ecology?

Questions of authority continue to surface. Hadar is trying to be transparent about her own limitations—the absence of origin, pure source, or even objectivity. “We’re not searching for an authentic moment. It’s about how the dances were used.”

At one point, an archival video shows Rivka Sturman, one of the folk dance movement’s founders. I can’t help myself—I am delighted by the image of this 80-something woman, surrounded by masses, all dancing her creations. Autumn calls this the “swan song moment.” “You get to see her humanity,” says Raha. “Tenderness,” says Zavé. “I associate [Hadar] with her.”

There is still a troubling sense that the information is one-sided. “There are no images to associate with source material,” says Raha. “Any time you have one voice in documentary, that voice starts sounding ‘correct,’” Autumn points out.

In regards to the moment when Palestinian dabke music plays for an empty stage, Zavé adds that “the imagination is colonized.” They offer an alternate meditation: As we begin to conjure a source in its absence, can we instead, draw attention to our colonized minds?

Visit Hadar's Residency Page

Tatyana Tenenbaum is the daughter of a fiber artist, granddaughter of Broadway producers, and great-granddaughter of Hungarian and Ukrainian Jewish immigrants who settled in New York City/Lenapehoking. She grew up doing community musical theater. Over the past decade she has performed and collaborated with Yoshiko Chuma, Daria Faïn, Jennifer Monson, Levi Gonzalez, Emily Johnson/CATALYST, Andy Luo & lily bo shapiro, Hadar Ahuvia, the DOING AND UNDOING collective, and Juliana May.


[1] A Israeli folk dance step based on the dances of Yemenite Jews. It was observed, appropriated and codified by folk dance founder Rivka Sturman, an Ashkenazi Zionist.

[2] Ashkenazi is a term for Jews of central or Eastern Europe descent.

[3] Midrash is a Judaic practice of providing extra commentary on biblical texts.

[4] Sabra is the desert prickly pear, a symbol chosen to represent the new Jew, born in Israel who had shed the physical and psychological trappings of the diaspora.

[5] Dabke is a folk dance practiced throughout the Levant, including in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Jordan. It is also the source on which the Israeli folk dance step Debka was based.

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BAC Story by Elliot B. Quick

Morgan Green + Milo Cramer

January 9, 2018

Every day in courthouses across the country, thousands of potential jurors are asked a similar litany of questions. Transcriptions of the process pass from court stenographer to an online database, and into the hands of Morgan Green and Milo Cramer, two Brooklyn-based theater artists.

Green and Cramer spend three weeks in a rehearsal studio collaging those words and recording their own performances of the transformed texts. On one November afternoon in that same studio, those recordings are played into the ears of actors, who speak the text in front of an audience. Performance. Transmission. Transformation. Performance.

In the American justice system, voir dire (French for “to see to speak”) is the process by which a judge interrogates a jury pool in order to learn of their potential biases. Green was fascinated by the process when she was called for jury duty and sat for voir dire, watching a room full of strangers share some version of themselves in an experience that is mandatory, coldly bureaucratic, and intimate all at once. Though she wasn’t selected for the jury, she describes the experience as life-affirming: “I felt like an individual. I felt like a citizen.”

Cramer was similarly excited by the inherent drama of voir dire. He describes it as like striking “formal gold,” providing the pair with a compelling, prefabricated structure through which to interrogate both the ideals of the American judicial system and its failings. What’s remarkable about their work thus far is how much voir dire rhymes with the act of making theater: a process of truth-seeking in which individuals perform themselves in miniature in a high stakes environment.

In their workshop presentation, Robert Johanson stands at a table, speaking the text of the judge: “No one is here to judge anyone as a person,” he says directly to the audience, arousing that often-divisive dread that this might be one of those Audience Participation Shows. Eventually, LaToya Lewis, who sits in the front row while her face is live-streamed onto a television, begins to speak the collaged text of all the potential jurors, preserving the inaccuracies and failures of the transcription process: “I think that the inaudible. I think it all comes down to high inaudible.” Though the presentation is simple, faithful to the voir dire process, whatever truth was revealed in the original courtroom may be just out of reach.

On the other side of their residency, Green and Cramer point to the balance of audience participation as their most pressing decision point. They both admit that they tend to hate audience participation: “Your defense mechanisms go up,” says Cramer. In one of their presentations, Green describes watching an audience member sitting behind Lewis who saw his face appear in the live video feed and slowly shifted in his seat until he moved out of frame.

And yet the questions they’re asking about how audience participation works its way into their piece also most clearly parallel the questions they’re asking about the justice system: To what extent is participation mandatory? What is at stake when one participates? What are we honest about and what do we hide when we perform ourselves to a room full of strangers? “Maybe what my preferences and tastes are in theater go against what this piece needs to be,” says Green. “We’re open to that.”

Visit Morgan + Milo's Residency Page

Elliot B. Quick is a dramaturg, producer, director, and educator who received an MFA in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism from the Yale School of Drama. He has worked as a Literary Associate with Playwrights Horizons, Yale Rep, and Page 73, and as an Editorial Associate for The Civilians’ Extended Play. As a freelance dramaturg and director, his work has been seen at the Sharon Playhouse, the Under the Radar Festival, the Invisible Dog, Ojai Playwrights Conference, The Access Theater, The Fisher Center at Bard College, and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. He currently teaches at the Maggie Flanigan Studio and at SUNY Purchase College.

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BAC Story by Teresa Casas

Compañía Bonobo

Dec 21, 2017

A conference room. Tables, chairs. People focused on their computers working in silence. One of them stares away from the table, the computer, the room, at an indefinite point. At the back of the stage, a projection: “What makes a human being? Dignity.”

To the spectator the answer is not only obvious, but reassuring. She recognizes herself in it. It is four hours until a group of coworkers give their presentation in the context of an international conference on human rights. While the characters struggle with nerves, personal situations, and surprising revelations, both characters and spectators become aware of practices with consequences that, inadvertently but blatantly, contradict what they think they believe.

The apparent simplicity of the theatricality on stage, like the apparent simplicity of the initial question, eases the spectator into sympathy with the characters who, involuntarily, trigger laughter. Laughter, skillfully used by Compañía Bonobo, wakes us up. With nothing changing on stage, the neutral space of a conference room emerges as a microcosm that condenses and confronts the spectator with all the layers of a central question: what is dignity?

In this piece, the members of Compañía Bonobo continue their inquiry into the complex phenomenon of violence and the difficulty of identifying it when it happens in a friendly environment where there is no apparent discrimination, injustice, or inequality. What is our role in the violence perpetrated upon another? And who is ‘the other’? How is ‘the other’ constructed? With these questions in the background (like the question that the spectator reads at the beginning of the play), Compañía Bonobo’s crew goes through a creative process in which improvisation plays a key role. What they do seems impossible: turning questions into actions, theory into practice. The bodies on stage enter a silent dialogue to explore relations that are beyond language: context, intentionality, and individual histories color human encounters that, once translated into a staged scene, appear to be simple daily situations. Making visible these invisible relations is Compañía Bonobo’s line of work.

By revealing the invisible in our daily interactions, Compañía Bonobo members explore the light and shadows of human beings and their communities. In the conference room where there is a sharp contrast between light and shadow, the coworkers move between the bright light of the projector and the dark, unilluminated areas of the room. We either see them clearly in bright light as they are, or we see only their silhouette in the shadows. Or is it the other way around? Do we see them as they are in the shadows, but only see their silhouettes when they present themselves in bright light? The question of who the characters are turns into the question of who we are, and who we would be in this situation. The just and fair one? The one with strong judgment? The one with a secret past? The good-hearted emotional one? There is no easy answer; the spectator refuses to identify with any of them and is simultaneously able to identify with all of them.

With simplicity, empathy, and fine humor, Compañía Bonobo turns our attention to the invisible meaningful details of our everyday lives that perpetuate violence. Perhaps, after all, laughter is the beginning to the end of violence.

Visit Compañía Bonobo's Residency Page

Teresa Casas Hernández, originally from Manresa (Barcelona), is a New York based actress and PhD student in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research for which she was awarded the fellowship La Caixa and The Onassis Foundation Fellowship in Ancient Greek Studies. With the image of “the world is theater” she is working on the intersection between philosophy and theater with the aim to bring into philosophical discussion elements that have been banned from philosophy since Plato banned the poets from the idea city—vividness, evanescence, co-presence. As a performer, she has worked with Beth Moysés and Tatsumi Orimot.

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BAC Story by Talvin Wilks

Ain Gordon

May 12, 2017

THE DEAD WILL HAVE THEIR DUE
 
Ain Gordon and I were born a mere six months apart, I’m the elder. We discovered our shared shorthand, pop-culture lexicon while working on Necessary Beauty with Bebe Miller in 2007. We have enjoyed our “queer boy of the 70’s” adolescent simpatico ever since. But the world that Ain reveals in Radicals in Miniature is new territory for me. 

A world that as a teenager, I could only imagine through queer memoir reminiscences, my mother’s secretly stashed pulp fan fiction, and my thumbed-through copy of Faggots by Larry Kramer -- all that was available to an Ohio boy’s searching. Ain’s first hand coming of age nostalgia is at once inviting and unfamiliar. I understand the period, the questioning, the wonderment, but the land is foreign.

Through the process of developing Radicals in Miniature, what I have connected with most is the “I was there” fascination with an era, a period, a first person anthropological romp. Ain as “Childe Harold” witness creates an homage to downtown sensationalism, fleeting celebrity, desperation, an insider’s guide to kitsch, hype, camp and everything in-between, where faux celebrity lives, a teenager’s hormonal night dream.

What was most significant about the first BAC residency in 2015 was that Ain, the king of minimal, was able to design the environment from the basic elements in the studio -- tables, monitors, sound equipment, Josh [Quillen]’s eclectic instrumentation, etc... The story was the thing, the tech trappings were there for mere amplification. The elements were immediate, subtle and simple -- a set of keys, a tax return, a pen, carried profound meaning as they were connected and reconnected to a time, a date, a memory. Thanks to BAC, the indelible stamp was discovered early, the environment never changed, it was only enhanced from residency to residency to premiere.

It is the way in which Ain navigates emotion that fascinates me the most. In the early workshops at BAC, he was carefully attentive to the dramaturgical impact of the emotional “reveal,” we discussed the aspect of when and where. Too soon and the entire journey becomes an emotional deluge, too late and the reverence is imbalanced. The key is to understand the depths and challenges of emotion and memory in public, the danger of the reveal. Memory is a tricky thing. Evoking memories in public is a trickier thing. Much of the time is spent mining an endless list of potential story-tellings…which ones to keep, which ones to let go? By the time we reach the end of the first residency, we have begun to experience the ritual, the ghosts join us. Even without lights and all the tech accoutrement, the ritual has arrived, we transcend the technology. There is an immediacy in the room, the dead will have their due.

After one of the first runs in the BAC studio there is a surprise, an unexpected flood of emotion in an unexpected place, it is a brilliant gem that Ain has been reserving. We laugh because almost any moment along the way could be an emotional slipstream for Ain, he must make choices about how he is navigating his feelings, just how revealing does he want to be? Lost in the sense of loss, the wave of nostalgia, the vulnerability…the bittersweet resonance of dashed dreams, memories of the ones who leave too soon, the ones who live long past longing. This is a reoccurrence at every residency along the way, the ghosts travel with us.

Through the experience of Radicals in Miniature we are invited to witness a special time and place and can fill in our own personal radicals. Through the navigation of one life, one street corner, one happenstance, one confluence of events, we remember multiple corners in multiple places, we make a history together.

Emotions creep in, memory is a bitch.

Feelings are not for the weak hearted.

Sentimentality be damned.

Along the way, I make my own discoveries. I add my names to the list. I summon my personal radicals as I watch and witness...the dead will have their due.

Visit the Radicals in Miniature Event Page

Talvin Wilks is the dramaturg for Radicals in Miniature, which was developed during a Spring 2015 BAC Space residency, and premieres at BAC May 16-24, 2017. Wilks is a director, playwright, and collaborative dramaturg based in both New York City and Minneapolis, where he is a professor of theater at the University of Minnesota. His work blurs the lines of many disciplines forming a unique composite of performative expression. This summer will find him in process with four grand choreographic divas - Camille A. Brown, Bebe Miller, Marlies Yearby, and Jawole Zollar/UBW. Look for his new play Jimmy and Lorraine at the Ko Festival in July 2017.

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