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.
Jul 3, 2014
To know Carmen de Lavallade is to know a gentle giant, and learning about her six-decade journey to becoming an icon in the dance world, is to be well informed. Ms. de Lavallade recounts her intriguing story in her solo show, As I Remember It, which received its world premiere at Jacob’s Pillow in June, but for a special audience she opened the doors during rehearsal at BAC just weeks before the show premiered.
Carmen de Lavallade, a Los Angeles native, began her performing career with the Lester Horton Dance Theater, the first multi-race dance company in the United States. She introduced to the school her high school friend, Alvin Ailey, who was also interested in dance, and both studied with Horton for years until Horton’s death when Mr. Ailey was chosen to run the Company. By invitation, during a Company trip to Jacob’s Pillow, Mr. Ailey and Ms. de Lavallade auditioned and were cast in the Broadway-bound musical House of Flowers (1954); soon after, they formed the “de Lavallade-Ailey American Dance Company,” now the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She went on to appear onscreen in Carmen Jones and Odds Against Tomorrow, among other films, and has performed with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Metropolitan Opera, and American Ballet Theatre. Ms. de Lavallade holds the longest Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival performing career -- from 1953 with the Lester Horton Dance Theatre to 2004 with Paradigm. For her momentous return to Jacob’s Pillow, she premiered As I Remember It, described as a combination of “…powerful movement and poignant storytelling to weave a theatrical memoir about her venerable life on stage.” Of a 1993 appearance in Milton Myers’ Ain’t No Way, dance critic Jennifer Dunning of the New York Times wrote, “her performance…ought to be required viewing for today's young dancers.”
It has been long coming, but this year, BAC invited Ms. de Lavallade to complete her solo show, in the second part of a two-part residency. Her “team,” as she calls them, who helped to realize this work are: Joe Grifasi (director), Talvin Wilks (dramaturg/co-writer), Maya Ciarrochi (video designer), and Mimi Lien (set designer). Ms. de Lavallade shared some thoughts on the residency, the process, the “Open Rehearsal” at BAC and the first performance at Jacob’s Pillow.
Charmaine Warren (CW): Congratulations on your opening at The Pillow.
Carmen de Lavallade: Thank you, dear. I'm so happy that it went well. It's not finished yet. This is our maiden voyage, we're going to do some re-writes, and we’re still working on it. We have other engagements coming up at the Kelly Strayhorn Center in Pittsburg and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
CW: The first residency at BAC was in 2012, correct?
Ms. de Lavallade: Yes. Thank goodness for BAC, we could never have accomplished this without BAC because it is so complicated. With the set and the projections I have at least four or five partners that I’m working with on stage. The audience is the other partner because we are going through it together.
CW: Did you set specific goals during the first residency?
Ms. de Lavallade: Yes, but it was bit by bit, starting from absolute scratch working with Talvin and Joe. It's mainly my words but with Talvin’s help we put it together, otherwise we didn't know how to go about it exactly. It was a lot of information.
CW: How did this second residency come about?
Ms. de Lavallade: It's always been Anna Glass [the show's producer]. She's the one that approached BAC. Anna's the angel. She's the person that really put this all together.
CW: Can you talk more about the team that you brought together in the beginning: Joe Grifasi and Talvin Wilks. Why these two men and what brings them to the table?
Ms. de Lavallade: Joe was one of my students at Yale (University). He's part of my Yale family; I have a dance family and a theatre family, he's also part of that special group of people in the 70s that produced extraordinary work. I met Talvin when we were doing those “10 Minute Plays.” He's a dramaturg; he works with words but he's also a director. He knows everything about me, he's like a book, and he has chronicled my whole life. When Joe and Talvin got together, Joe was worried about the relationship. He said, "I don't know, I'm a director and dramaturgs are really just into words and dates...we are from two different worlds." But they worked brilliantly together because they are both directors. Talvin also worked with dance people and has a different outlook, and Joe is particularly imaginative, as actors can be, plus he's movement orientated. Talvin has this thing about words…he sees things that Joe couldn't see in the text. He’d say, "Well this says this here, but we can do this here." That’s how he worked; he tried to make it more poetic, so it wasn't just a linear piece. It's more like a [Samuel] Beckett piece; it pops all over because that's the way memory is.
CW: How long has As I Remember It been on your mind?
Ms. de Lavallade: Anna and I touched on it a couple of years before. But everything was kind of crazy because Geoffrey [Holder, her husband] was having his problems, I was in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and I'd just moved—it was really kind of messy. I was supposed to do a very informal version, but there was just no way, then this evolved. I'd gone to speak to Misha [Mikhail Baryshnikov], and he was very gracious, he took the chance, then it all started!
CW: With the team, the thoughts are not only yours now, so what were the next steps?
Ms. de Lavallade: All three of us [Carmen, Joe and Talvin] looked at each other and said, "where are we gonna start"? And we just threw something together. Joe threw up a set [a bar and a couple of chairs], and said, "...ummmm, now what about Lester [Horton]?" And I said, “Well, he was one of my friends.” And just like that, it came from a little thing and it kept morphing.
CW: At the “Open Rehearsal” for BAC, which was the first time you’d run the entire show, you began with “I remember growing up,” and immediately took your audience to your beginnings: watching your favorite TV shows, you talk about your mother, your many aunties, your cousin and dancer whom you admired Janet Collins, your first dance class, first teacher, and so much more. What was this recall/this journey like?
Ms. de Lavallade: It was daunting! It was also very strange, particularly my mother's story. You want to get the essence of each moment… [but] it was so much. I went to the past because nobody knows where you're from, but those things are a part of you, you can't help being who you are, that affects your choices and how you deal with things. We actually kept changing things the day of the performance. My brain was fried, but everybody was working together. It was a team effort and they were incredible. Now the real work begins. We have to do the nipping and the tucking for the next time.
CW: Were some topics more difficult than others?
Ms. de Lavallade: Oh yes, I think my mother's topic was really difficult. It's a beautiful section; very moving, but then you lighten it up with all the other stories. Of course there was my daddy's story—he’s the hero. My sisters and I think about it, we don't know how he did it, being that young, they must have been in their 30s. They were newly married during the depression, and he with three little girls by himself, boy, what a man. He was an extraordinary man.
CW: You’re known as a dancer to many, but you are also a respected actress. Did movement and acting weigh equally during the creative process?
Ms. de Lavallade: It all goes together. I don't know where one leaves off and the other begins, in fact my dancing changed because I could explore more. I was never a technical person, I was not interested in technique; I just thought you had to have it. I didn't have those big turnouts; God didn't make me that way [laughs], but I was fortunate to work with Lester Horton. When I was in the company, everyone had their knees down to the floor in splits—not me! But I'm the one he picked to dance Salome. I had certain things that I was really good at because my body was made that way, but I didn't have a turnout worth a hoot [laughs]. My knees were always sticking up when everybody had their heads on the floor. Lester was a dramatic choreographer, so was John Butler and a lot of the people that I worked with. That was my strong point; I was more the dramatic person and I work very well with choreographers who work that way.
Then there is all that text. There were times when I didn't remember things and I call for line because that's the way memory is. Actors do that very well, they say, "don't worry if you miss…make it up," and they clean it up later. It's very hard because I'm in dancer mode, and as dancers we don't make mistakes; we get into that mode and if we freeze it drives you nuts! But that can happen to the best of us. Actors deal with words and emotions, everybody gets keyed up but they find their way back. That to me is what I have to work on.
CW: You’ve worked with some pretty important people whose stories you’ve shared. How did you decide who to include and who not to include?
Ms. de Lavallade: That was so difficult. What do you cut, what do you keep? What is going to fit, what is not? I still have to make some changes, I keep saying, "Oh dear, I forgot so and so," but I want to at least mention the things that they did; pop them in. We call it “the book" because you can’t put everything in, we also wanted to keep it at an hour, no more.
CW: Are there favorite memories included in the show?
Ms. de Lavallade: Oh, you took me off guard there [laughs]. All the memories are fun. I think my favorite are of my sisters and I playing radio, we used to make up all our games. We didn't have things, but it was to our advantage, anybody growing up in that period had to invent their own games because we didn't have things, but it was fun. I also want a little more of Yale, we went through that quickly. We added poems and the Titania speech from Shakespeare [“A Midsummer’s Night Dream”] where the old woman talks about her youth. That takes things out of context...it's not linear at all…because we put one thing with something else and it makes it more poignant.
CW: Has this BAC residency revealed new ideas around the work since 2012?
Ms. de Lavallade: Thanks to BAC for this last residency because that’s how we got the set in, at least the mock up, so that when we got to the Pillow we were ready to at least set up. It was complicated, but it never could have happened without BAC. I say thank you Mr. Baryshnikov and everybody there. I know they were wondering what in the world we were bringing; they were nervous. But this was an experience for everybody, it was something new, that set/curtain is like a dream and with the projections, it breathes. At the very end when I walk through the middle, I was like a cat, it was fun. There are other things we want to add…but that's still happening.
CW: How was it to finally premiere the work at Jacob’s Pillow?
Ms. de Lavallade: We are happy and The Pillow is happy. The Pillow didn't want a travelogue, but they were very pleased. It's still a work-in-progress. Like my son said “Ma, you're in your front room.” We will leave openings until we really get it down...but I don't want to lose that flavor, I want to have that feeling like you can go and talk to somebody in this room, this audience. It's a learning process for me, a huge learning curve.
Charmaine Patricia Warren, Ph.D. is a performer, historian, lecturer, consultant, dance writer and yoga instructor. After performing for many years with major New York dance companies, she joined the New York-based, dance/theater company david rousseve/REALITY. She is a faculty member at Hunter College, Kean University, Empire State College's Center for Distance Learning and The Joffrey Ballet School's Jazz and Contemporary Trainee Program. Charmaine is a former faculty member of The Ailey School and the Alvin Ailey/Fordham University dance major program. She co-curates for Harlem Stage's EMoves, and is the lead curator for Dance @ Wassaic Project Festival. Charmaine writes on dance for The New York Amsterdam News and Dance Magazine, among other publications.
Apr 28, 2014
Each time I have experienced work being made in Baryshnikov Arts Center’s Studio 6A, it is hard to imagine that work happening elsewhere, in some other space, on some distant stage. There is so much character in the space, and the space becomes a character—for better or worse—in the pieces made here. The nature of this character extends beyond the aesthetics of the concrete and enormous windows. In this space is a metaphysical presence, a spirit of exploration, inquiry, experimentation, and discovery.
This is a playground for artists to work on their play and to play with their work. Over three weeks in spring 2014 this playground was home to the rigorous work of theatermaker Daniel Fish and his collaborators, as they tackled Chekov’s The Three Sisters.
Fish’s work is well suited for a space so conducive to process and yet so inseparable from the product. Fish, an auteur force in the American theater, made a name for himself in the early aughts by staging radical, severe, inventive productions of the canon.  As of late he has looked to seemingly non-theatrical material (novels, essays, lectures, films) as sources for building his own canon of theatrical experiments, which sometimes land rooted in non-theatrical forms (films, installations). Fish’s theater is as uncompromising and nuanced as his process. To look at the former without considering the latter (not to mention everything in between), or vice-versa, would be to undermine the other. To articulate what exactly Daniel Fish’s theater/process is, allow me to re-appropriate the decidedly non-theatrical concept of an autopoietic biological system.  In the most unsophisticated terms: autopoietic systems (meaning “self creation”) produce outputs, which directly maintain the mechanics of further yield. Fish conceives structures to generate creative output in which said output is in turn fed back into the structure and the cycle continues on loop until, according to Fish, it stops feeling like he is “trying to make it work” and the piece begins “talking to [him].” Even then (usually meaning when the piece is shown to an audience) the product is still inextricable from the process by which it was created, the action-based machineries of those processes continue to play out over the course of each performance.  It is from this indistinguishable process/product dynamic that Fish’s signature emerges.
“I miss doing plays,” Fish told me when asked why this return to dramatic text. This play in particular had been gnawing at him for a while. A prevalent theme in much of Fish’s work is the desire to recover that which has been lost, particularly regarding the American economy and the dying middle class.  “Can I approach this text the way I approach other sources?” Meaning, can he toss Chekhov into a series of experiments, tasks, gestures, technologies, obstacles, and games, gather out the output and toss it back in again? And again?  A brief rundown: Chekhov’s Russian text is processed through three different online translation services. From these three literal, English translations a working text is compiled. Act III of this text is captured via audio recording at a cold read by a full cast. Three of those actors (three women from three different generations, representing the sisters?) spend three weeks in the room with Daniel and the audio. With each cycle of playing the audio recording of Act III, passages of the text come in and out, but in real time. A sound designer feeds various characters’ lines to individual speakers, props are introduced, and physical actions are assigned. Then taken away. Then added, but with an additional caveat. Slowly, meticulously, the system begins feeding itself while yet constantly generating and progressing. What struck me while watching Fish use his process to stage a classic text was that his methods seemed to transcend the dichotomy of playing the surface or playing the subtext, allowing some other kind of hybrid action to manifest. This was exciting to watch, like going down a dramaturgical rabbit hole into Wonderland.
To participate as a performer in a Daniel Fish project is to be the fuel of this Wonderland organism. Tina Benko, representing the character Masha, is instructed to move a baby grand piano across the floor by herself all while attempting to recite the current National Debt Clock from a flat screen TV as it rapidly ticks away (her goal: recite every increase), Bowie’s Under Pressure blaring in the background. “There were some things that were good,” Fish observes after the performers, sweating and out of breath, complete a cycle of the audio text riddled with arduous physical pursuits. He asks them to try again, adding: “what happens when you snap?”
 His production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! is a thing of legend. The minimalist production, set in a simple barn, featured a communal meal of chili and cornbread prepared by the performers.
 This concept, related most notably to biological cells, has often been applied to creative processes, outputs, and experiences. See the writings of performance scholar Erika Fischer-Lichte and textual scholar Jerome McGann.
 For example, a recent Fish work titled Eternal premiered in the form of a two-channel video installation in which two actors repeated the final scene of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for two hours. A year and a half earlier, the piece’s development began with the same two actors performing the DVD commentary track of the Cassavetes film A Woman Under the Influence against the backdrop of the projected film. I won’t unpack the connective tissue here, though will say that in interviews Fish has referred to the language of the commentary (between the cinematographer and sound designer) as that of a married couple recounting their relationship as a labor of love. The final scene of Eternal Sunshine is essentially just that, and in this case recounted endlessly by two actors in… a labor of love.
 See: production of Odets’ Paradise Lost and subsequent film (Dollar General) inspired by it, a stage adaptation of Franzen’s House for Sale, and as described above, Eternal.
 To quote Artaud in his masterpiece of 1938, The Theatre and Its Double, “… thus we shall renounce the superstition of the text and dictatorship of the writer.”
Caleb Hammons is a cultural producer and curator of performance working in Brooklyn and the Hudson Valley. Currently the Associate Producer at Bard College’s Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, he facilitates Live Arts Bard, a professional commissioning, residency, and presenting initiative. Prior to his time at Bard he was the Producer at Soho Rep in NYC, and from 2008-2011 was the Producing Director of Young Jean Lee's Theater Company. He is the Co-Curator of the acclaimed Brooklyn-based performance series Catch, a past curator of Food for Thought at Danspace Project, and co-curated the CUNY/Martin E. Segal Theater Center’s PRELUDE Festival in 2012 and 2013. He was a member of the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance’s inaugural class at Wesleyan University.
May 22, 2013
Confronting the Cult of the Engendered Body
“The EXPERIENCES I accept now must question my own presumptions and help me rethink people’s assumptions.” - Octavio Campos
Having worked in various creative and educational arenas with a career spanning over 30 years, Octavio Antonio Campos is a matured, fearless artist. For his three-week residency at Baryshnikov Arts Center, the Cuban-American, Miami based performer has found himself in a place of self-reflection.
Continuously motivated by an overarching need to question and reexamine the fabric of the current socio-political climate, Campos, now in his 45th year, has started a process of reaching back into his past to reveal, perhaps, a new artistic truth about his present relationship to live performance.
Born to refugees of the Cuban Revolution, his parents were imprisoned for not falling into accordance to Fidel Castro’s leadership. Upon release, they fled to Miami, FL in the early 1960’s. In his newest creative venture entitled Triple Quince, Campos is bravely opening his memory bank to this experience among many others.
But memory is only one of the building blocks Campos is using to create this new work. Another concept that he admits has consumed him for the past few years is the idea of ‘hatred,’ which was also a theme in his 2009 work 1000 Homosexuals -- a play written by Michael Yawney. About his new work, Campos says:
"I’m always trying to transform [hate]. Look at it from another angle. Using the energy that hatred evokes, I’m attempting to defuse it, and use it to... power New York City someday, because there’s a lot of energy being expelled towards the other, all the time. I’ve been fascinated by the energy that’s behind it. I think it’s interesting to use this as a springboard to create the new work."
Age 15, Campos remembers, was a turbulent year. In Latin culture, when an adolescent turns 15, it represents a rite of passage, and while girls are thrown an extravagant party or Quinceanera, boys are thrown into a motel with a prostitute twice their age. For the teenage Campos, who had already self-identified as gay, this was quite a traumatizing experience.
Structured as three distinct chapters (each marked by a 15 years division), the new episodic performance will recount Campos’s early memories as a teen as well as his artistic occurrences at age 30 when he found himself performing tanz theatre in Berlin. He recalls the glory of the 90's after physically helping to destroy the Wall in 1989. He remembers the freedom of extacy, falling in love with Pina Bausch, love parades, and wild German performance art escapades.
Now, after having lived such a fulfilled life, he's asking himself "Who am I now?" Today, Campos enjoys the simple pleasures of kayaking, swimming, and sunbathing. Apart from his international commissions and residencies, he currently resources his work and maintains creative stability as an Artist-in-Residence at Miami Theater Center where he works as a choreographer, producer, and educator. He receives a full-time salary, benefits, and artistic support for his own creative musings. The position also allows him the freedom to travel and work remotely via satellite.
Proclaiming himself a buffon trapped in a dance-theater bodysuit; a political, gender torchbearer overtly confronting gay issues, Campos’s work addresses the current cultural moment with a performance art aesthetic and infectious comedic sensibility -- the result of years of German training in deep conversation with the complexities of his Cuban roots. Campos doesn’t aim to follow known methods of creation, so much as to subvert them and, in the process, share with his viewer what he values most about being a creator of live performance.
Whether performing a duet with a demolition truck (as seen in his 2006 work Developmentus Interruptus) or describing the 50th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Cuba's Bay of Pigs (as in 2011’s The Pig Show), Octavio Campos wants to give us very specific ideas to ponder while watching him. He provides an experience that not only demystifies his own personal questions and creative obsessions, but also reveals an emotional truth inside his audience as well.
Jaamil Olawale Kosoko is a producer, curator, poet, choreographer, and performance artist. He is a 2012 Live Arts Brewery Fellow as a part of the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, a 2011 Fellow as a part of the DeVos Institute of Art Management at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and an inaugural graduate member of the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance (ICPP) at Wesleyan University. With his creative partner Kate Watson-Wallace, he co-directs anonymous bodies || art collective, a visual performance company that presents work nationally specializing in site base performance and community building art practices.
May 2, 2012
Faye Driscoll is drenched in sweat, smeared with yellow, blue and orange paint, and riding atop collaborator Jesse Zaritt’s shoulders like a Valkyrie charging up out of a dress up box. She stares out and upwards as a synthesized beat thunders through the studio. Zaritt thrusts a wig, a cap and a hunk of velveteen up into her hands. She flings the fabric over her chest like a cloak and plunks the wig on her head.
They are tossed for fur collar, bra and a snarl of netting. Next are sunglasses, red feathers and Mardi Gras beads. Driscoll’s gaze is intense, uncompromising – her expression a twist of smile and snarl. The music fades, Zaritt backs away and she stands alone, breathing hard and twitching with kinetic energy. These are the final moments of Driscoll’s two-week residency at BAC where she’s pulled together her messy, funny, exhilarating and mystifying new work, You’re Me.
It’s the culmination of a year and a half of intermittent writing, solo improvisation and collaborative work with Zaritt as an exploration of the tumult between defining oneself as an individual and surrendering oneself to another in a relationship. If that sounds like grant-speak, a look around studio 4B will dispel any fears of post-modern tedium. The floor is strewn with orange peel, talcum powder, paint cans, cardboard, netting, yarn, fabric, fruit, fake jewels and piles of clothing. “The cleaning guy was really nice about it,” says Driscoll with a disarming smile. After its premier at The Kitchen in April, Brian Seibert of the The New York Times described You’re Me as a work in which “craft blooms into artistry.”
Driscoll has worked at BAC before; first as assistant to Resident Artist David Neumann in 2008, then as chief collaborator with director Young Jean Lee during Lee’s 2011 residency for Untitled Feminist Show, but never before on her own material. She was invited to BAC after her 2010 showing of there’s so much mad in me at DTW. The 38-year-old, critically acclaimed choreographer describes the offer as “a privilege” and a chance to work without distractions. “I was grateful I could just be wrapped up in creativity,” she says, adding that it’s easy to forget how much energy goes into the logistics of trying to make new work in New York City. “These little things pluck away at you when you’re in the midst of trying to dream,” she says. And dream she does. Driscoll’s work is often described as raw and unfiltered; indelicate moves tinged with the abandon of children run amok in the playroom. In You’re Me, she and Zaritt pull and paw at one another, stuff oranges and spray cans into their pants, crawl, moan and, startlingly, arrange themselves into Isadora-like tableaux with all the balance and restraint of a classical frieze. It’s a seductive juxtaposition - a fleshy ride into the dark (and sometimes funny) depths of the subconscious. UCLA dance professor Victoria Marks calls Driscoll a “post-millennium, postmodern wild woman” and Lee has aptly dubbed her “the choreographer of the id.”
But Driscoll saves the extremes for her work. In person she is approachable, articulate and genuine. She describes the sense of being cared for at BAC as validation that what she’s doing is worthwhile. It’s pretty simple stuff - a good floor, nice light, helpful staff and very few parameters, but it’s huge for a creative artist. “It facilitates better art,” says Driscoll.