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.
Apr 8, 2016
“We’re going to start with something that makes no sense.”
This is Mark DeChiazza advertising the work he is about to show. Not to apologize, I realize later; rather, to articulate that the world this work inhabits will not wholly reveal itself in the little bit of movement I’ll soon see.
And yet it does. Navarra Novy-Williams rolls across the stage, out of her unbuttoned white shirt, under which there is a blue shirt, and then rolls out of the blue shirt, under which there is another white shirt. Denisa Musilova tracks her movements, close by, perhaps even initiating them, her steps and Navarra’s rolling hard-synched, while upstage, Sara Gurevich tracks them both, more frenetically. The process of disrobing and tracking iterates, until Navarra has rolled everything off except her own clothes.
A body adorned with costumes--these colors signify characters--becomes a body that is uniquely itself. We strip the character out of the player and then the playing stops. Mark reminds us that this work is made of real people with real stories; that myth, narrative, opera, all targets for his grinding up and subsequent reassembly, are themselves the fixed forms into which we pour our own ideas, not the other way around.
Orpheus Unsung is a work about words from which all words have been excised. Based on and composed from a text, moving across physical space in the ways that language moves, it derives its power from work that words are tasked with performing but that movement, costume, image, and sound are challenged to do, charged with doing, representing and signifying in a spider’s web, inhabiting an idea but never fully containing it. This is what the music does, Steven Mackey’s extraordinary counterpoint and color built out of looping, alternate tuning, and an orchestral approach to the guitar, and Jason Treuting’s physiological lock into these complex rhythmic strata ranging from whisper to roar.
This is what white and blue shirts, purchased earlier from the Salvation Army store, are doing. Eurydice is white and Orpheus is blue, that much we know, but when three dancers share two garments, one of each color, in the wedding scene, what are we seeing? As they move each others’ bodies, folded together, entangled, who is doing the positioning and who is being positioned? Which body? Or which character, or which human being standing in the Baryshnikov Arts Center on a particular evening in March, taking direction?
This work meditates on the failings of words by asking mute languages to speak. We can read Ovid’s “thin story,” as Mark describes its length, but also perhaps the quality of its veiling, and understand the operations. Orpheus Unsung offers us those operations but takes up their subsequent embodiment, in culture, as a living text, a co-author. Then it radically dismantles this text, subverts every co-author who has ever played Orpheus one-to-one: a character, a costume, an actor linked to particular deeds, particular words. Here Eurydice and Orpheus are free radicals, energies that sound and bodies conjure but never ground.
This lightness is palpable in the room, a real space inhabited by real bodies but brought into weightlessness by the building of collaborative community, the “innocent place” Mark describes, “where everyone is your friend.”
“Everyone,” he continues, “needs to feel like they’re in a space that honors them.” In honoring these bodies we honor the story, in a sense, but also the process of making a story, a vessel into which we might discard our costumes, becoming free to inhabit our given space in our own clothes.
Andrea Mazzariello is a composer, performer, writer, and teacher. His work borrows from both popular and art music approaches, and obsesses over technological intervention, instrumental technique, and the power of language. So Percussion, NOW Ensemble, Newspeak, and many others have performed his concert music. He’s played shows at venues like the Knitting Factory, the Princeton Record Exchange, Galapagos, and Cakeshop. The Queens New Music Festival, Make Music New York, and the Wassaic Festival have presented his songs and spoken word. Active as an educator, he’s taught at Princeton University, Ramapo College of New Jersey, and the So Percussion Summer Institute. He’s currently Visiting Professor of Music at Carleton College, where he teaches composition, music technology, and music fundamentals.
Apr 8, 2016
I arrive in the middle of Dave Malloy’s third-to-last rehearsal in the John Cage & Merce Cunningham Studio. Eight shoeless performers flip through new scripts, lean over each other to point out lines, pass pens and pages back and forth. “Gelsey, can you take on Ishmael?” Malloy asks.
Today’s rehearsal is the first with director Rachel Chavkin, and the day’s agenda is described as “a sharing of what everyone’s learned.” The read-through is freewheeling and rough and energized. The text is familiar. “I’m just a big literature buff,” says Malloy when asked about his continued interest in adapting the canon. Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, opening on Broadway in the fall, is based on Book 8 of War & Peace, and Malloy’s resume also includes adaptations of Shakespeare, Beowulf, Shubert, and The Bible. “Especially giant epic novels I have a real affinity for. I love that amazing sense of reading something that was written two or three hundred years ago and thinking, ‘that’s a thought I had yesterday!’ Seeing how humanity doesn’t change that much. I am looking at these classics through a very contemporary lens with the hope of rescuing them from their bad reputations.” At first listen, the script is dense and Melville-forward, but seems to resist heaviness by not dwelling on the finer narrative points: “My challenge is to adapt the novel on its own terms rather than extracting story. The novel is a very bizarre beast of a thing; it has all of these tangents and digressions, a bunch of different forms, and I wanted to embrace all of that.”
Malloy plays one-handed piano, someone shakes a tambourine, electropop backtracks are started and stopped, everyone dances in their chairs. The lone upright bass sounds more like a whale than I expect it to; more eerie than on-the-nose. The group seems amused by the grandeur of the language and the energy of the music. “Dance like whirling dervishes, dance like sun-kissed Brazilians,” they sing, alongside offhand contemporary references (“She works for a thinktank,” something about Capri Sun). Tahiti, Nantucket, India, Africa, and Russia are mentioned; size and scale and scope are subjects in themselves and are referred to directly: “the ocean is so vast and history is endless.” The script does not apologize for its largeness.
Whiteness as a condition or idea seems to function as a vein from Melville’s original document to Malloy’s contemporary priorities. “One of the beautiful things about Moby Dick is that Melville paints the whaleship as this utopian democracy where all of the communities and people of earth have bonded together. He talks a lot about where everyone comes from; it’s a diverse world. That said, it is 1851 so there is of course some problematic language, all the main characters are white, only the harpooners are people of color. The book itself contains some pretty interesting stuff about race; Ahab is white and has a weird relationship with Pip, a young man of color, and there is an amazing chapter called The Whiteness of The Whale which is about how whiteness is terrifying. We have lots of actors of color and we have women playing Ahab and the three mates. What would a diverse all-inclusive whaleship look like today? All of that is bubbling up in a really exciting way.”
Malloy is building a “large-form communal music theater event” as opposed to an opera, but the generic boundary is inconsequential: “My intention is to have the majority happen as song. I’m really drawn to the sung-through form; the few things that are spoken can resonate all the more. Spoken text is good for language that we want to really pop and for cumbersome exposition. Sometimes we just need people to say the lines so we can get to the song.” Rather than storytelling and dramaturgy (which will be fore-fronted in future residencies), rehearsals at BAC were devoted to music. “I am leading it more as a band leader and less as an Actors Equity-style 29 hour workshop. We purposefully didn't hire a musical director or stage manager. I love that collaborative breaking down of barriers.”
Due to sheer volume of the source material and his commitment to attend to all of it, Malloy’s Moby Dick welcomes unwieldiness. “My experience of seeing really long theater pieces is that you end up having a communal experience. You take breaks together, you feel like you’re in a process together. We’ll have a lunch break, a dinner break, lots of beer and rum. That’s what the whaling ship was like; they were stuck in a communal experience for three years; we want the audience to feel like they’re there on the ship, experiencing this giant epic thing.”
Lydia Mokdessi is a Brooklyn-based dance artist and writer from Chicago, Illinois. She has worked with choreographers Anthony Gongora, Heather McArdle, Alexandra Pinel, Emie Hughes, Stormy Budwig, Buck Wanner, and Maida Withers, and her work has been presented by Gibney Dance, Movement Research, Triskelion Arts, Fourth Arts Block, Dixon Place, and Brooklyn Arts Exchange. She currently works with choreographers Stormy Budwig and Buck Wanner and makes duets with performer/musician Benjamin Wagner. She is editor of Culturebot and her writing has appeared in New York Live Arts Context Notes, American Realness Reading, and Movement Research Critical Correspondence. She is a 2016 Guest Curator for the CURRENT SESSIONS and co-organizer of Community of Practice, an initiative for early-career artists and writers supported by University Settlement.
April 7, 2016
In Tow is about what we carry, but it also is very much a portrait of what Jennifer Monson brings with her into the studio and how she arrives there—her past, her friends, people with whom she shares creative affinities.
Here is a list of all the people invited into this expansive project who also bring themselves, things, ideas, baggage, and skills in tow: Susan Becker, DD Dorvillier, Niall Jones, Rose Kaczmarowski, Alice MacDonald, Jennifer Monson, Valerie Oliveiro, Zeena Parkins, Angela Pittman, Nibia Pastrana Santiago, David Zambrano. Despite the varied artistic backgrounds of these individuals, all roles are shared and traversed. All the scores are dancing scores, musical scores, and designing scores. Everyone is assumed to be a novice and an expert in any and every role, position, and point of view. Research initiates and continues throughout this process; whoever comes into the room destabilizes what was there before and then what appears there then, now, next. These artists fortify and destabilize each other.
Extending creative intimacies from various moments of artistic practice into a methodology of choreographic thought is a deeply personal project. We watch these artists grapple with the questions of horizon lines, the limits of space, the exchange of one system into another, the sensations and sentiments of resonance and vibration. In this span of creative intimates and the tasks organizing their activities, how much of Monson's autobiography is a means to read what transpires in front of us—both in terms of methodology employed as well as the identities of the people in the room doing these activities? Monson does not indicate why such and such persons are present together—maybe we speculate who each of these people are and who they are in relation to Jennifer Monson. Maybe it's about comfort. Maybe it's about the dreamscape of a community. Maybe it’s about a hopeful wish for extraordinary collaboration—in self-organizing modes of proposing and expressing with others, maybe we can shift the world. They are just there together, trying to work without a predetermined aesthetic or product.
The means of production, at once personal and structural, remind us that the personal is political. In this scenario of gathering and examining, Monson attempts to make power transparent. It's not a faux democracy. She brings these collaborators in tow, and they bring themselves and what they carry. Without a common language and without aiming to arrive at something, they are simply agreeing to BE together. Whatever is established temporarily requires listening, patience and action. There is a stated attempt to dismantle hierarchy into methods of sharing. A generative and generous notion of creativity as a mode of exchange and decision-making guides this methodology of destabilization.
Improvisation-based systems and environmental systems manifest themselves as choreography. Monson maintains and disrupts her deeply embodied practice of years of work—encapsulated in her acclaimed solo, Live Dancing Archive (that premiered at the Kitchen in February 2013), as she proposed a form of retrospective, choreographed in each and every instant, from her decades of dancing and improvising. She also brings philosophies of ILAND—Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Art Nature and Dance that she founded in 2007. Her removal from the explicit context of nature and environment facilitates a return to the dance studio and the conventional stage as such—as a site for display and the imaginary. These methodologies are integrated into a form of inquiry within the social field in an effort to hold abstract time and space.
Etymologically, utopia means no place. What unfolds here? Is it dystopic utopic? In her own way, Monson is constructing and acknowledging a practice out of the social ecosystem of the dance community. This choreographic container is constructed to be porous and open, despite the fact that she has invited the artists working and thereby the identities, personalities, and materials that will build this container. Not knowing and moving towards problems without solving them is at the core of this pursuit. It's not form, rather a method. The modes of creativity, intimacy, trust, and power sharing are articulated through such frames as indeterminacy, synch of synch, larger cultural context, climate change, and improvisational strategies. Jennifer Monson continues with the emboldened attitude and courage to engage in the experimental—as defined by John Cage—setting up a series of conditions from which we cannot know the result. These structures delve into processes to excavate modes of activity and enactment. Monson speaks about how she is trying not to base anything on an aesthetic, but rather working to base this practice on something nimble enough for radical shifts.
In this forward thinking and hopeful quest, Monson now confronts: what is the relation to the public? What space are we in as people watching; what space are they in and where are its limits? Four women move in the room—this is not the entire cast. Their gender is apparent. They are more human, creaturely, and mature than some social construction of the feminine in the West. Sounds, humming, bells, fabric, the limits of a room. They share weight, share surface textures of themselves, liberated bodies, sad bodies, lost bodies, female bodies. I have to watch and keep watching to comprehend what these bodies are doing and why they do it. Despite a striking presence of gender, these bodies cease to represent. Perhaps they cease to represent concretely because they are so much in the process. They constantly learn to exist together in this space and they constantly learn to release whatever is established.
The horizon line recedes infinitely. A constant devolution of structure and rules; tasks emerge again and again. What is the ecosystem of these exchanges? We may wonder about the internal / external relations of these performers with each other and ourselves to them. Without any answers yet an appreciation, the form and the object of attention is inquiry. Inquiry is the form as well as a step or an action. Each decision each performer makes impacts the multidimensional space we occupy in In Tow. What is the chance of choice and all its indeterminacy? When there is no transparent law governing their behaviors, when sharing is attempted…bodies distribute themselves. Are they lost? Are we lost watching them? We are bodies trying to understand and relentlessly express.
Moriah Evans’ choreographic work has been presented at Issue Project Room, Danspace Project, the Kitchen, MoMA/PS1, Judson Church, AUNTS, American Realness, BAX, New York Live Arts, The New Museum, The Chocolate Factory, Dixon Place, CalIT2, Kampnagel and Theatre de l’Usine. She is the Editor-in-Chief of the Performance Journal and has been involved with the publication since 2009. During her 2011-2013 residency at Movement Research, she initiated The Bureau for the Future of Choreography. She was a 2014 Artist in Residence at Issue Project Room. In recent years, she has had the pleasure to work with Trajal Harrell, INPEX, Tino Sehgal, Sarah Michelson, Jerome Bel and Xavier Le Roy. Her 2015 piece, Social Dance 1-8: Index was nominated for a Bessie award for the category Emerging Choreographer.
Dec 23, 2015
I arrive 1 day before the showing that will culminate Brokentalkers’ residency.
They are IN the theater in that long-haul-concentrated-frayed-edge-work-mode that often takes root in the final hours before making a private process public.
Gary Keegan (co-director) is onstage facing ¾ away from me hunkered at a console on which sits a laptop running projections. Feidlim Cannon (co-director) sits in the middle of the front row, legs crossed, his forehead in his right hand. To his left is a young man named Neimhin Robinson Gunning who (in the fragment I see) will voice a man throughout his entire life all in one moment. He wears a gold lamé jacket and sunglasses. Across the stage in the shadow with his back to me is the Sean Millar the composer. I never see Jessica Kennedy the choreographer.
Feidlim asks the young man in gold to stand in the spotlight (well, once there is a spot. They are in tech mode and lights are flipping on and off. Feidlim says maybe “it could just be him.” The lights settle, the young man rises.)
My paraphrasing memory recalls him asking and answering the following:
“Where’d you have your first kiss? On a boat.”
“What age were you? 25.”
The narrative timeline speeds up but not the pace of delivery:
“I’m 31.” (Sometimes the young man speaks in German with Gary projecting subtitles- I learn later this is their first go and all are relieved they work.) “I’m 38. I’m 42. I’m bald and have a potbelly, I’m 53. I’m 60. I’m 64, 68, 72…” I remember thinking, they have crossed right through my own age and that it does sometimes now feel that fast.
A break is called so Gary, Feidlim and I head toward coffee
I ask about the genesis of the pixelated aging material I just watched. Gary says it was happening all around them, his parents, himself, his children: that it is one of the few things that happens to every community. “…and we have assumptions about how kids should feel as they grow up….how parents should eventually maybe slow down a bit…”
Feidlim says, “We’ve been working on this idea in different ways for a couple of years.” First, we interviewed senior citizens on film asking their predictions for the world after they’re gone - that became Future Forecasts. That project led to another called Frequency 783. Gary: “from these different shapes we started thinking about assisted suicide – about ‘Body Autonomy’ – and we decided to get more focused on telling a story.
About a year ago they began work in Dublin via a process “that didn’t really work for us…” “This is a second chance, a lot of material didn’t make it over here…” But it always focused on some version of an “18 year old man (Neimhin) and a “woman in her 40’s (Adrienne Truscott, the other performer, who apparently was being interviewed by Sandra Bernhard that morning). “They are the two onstage playing the two onstage or playing two who talk about the two who are onstage – both narrating and being. They play instruments but are not ‘professional’ but they are being ‘a band.’”
The residency fortuitously kicked off at a book launch party for St Mark’s Is Dead by Ada Calhoun - at which former members of the Beastie Boys and Bikini Kill played together. Feidlim describes how redolent the whole event was of an 80’s “punk” scene in New York that has now been paved over. “…it brought a tone that New York could bring to this work – we are here because it is offered by BAC, an opportunity to work on this, but this also allowed us to have a taste of New York as a starting place for the work– Adrienne led us to that event and we had made our way to Adrienne (who is New York based) for what she could authentically bring… this rubbed off on us very early in this residency and seeped into the work.”
I know the piling up imperatives the day before a showing, so I ask if there is anything else they would like said before we stop?
They both say: this time has been crucial, “…very supportive but also the people at BAC just let us get on with it.” Feidlim smiles and says, “we’ll see how we feel tomorrow.
Ain Gordon is a three-time Obie Award-winning writer/director/actor, a two-time NYFA recipient and a Guggenheim Fellow in Playwriting. Gordon’s work has been seen at BAM Next Wave, New York Theatre Workshop, Soho Rep., Public Theatre, 651 ARTS, Dance Theater Workshop, PS 122, Baryshnikov Arts Center, and HERE (all NY); Mark Taper Forum (CA), George Street Playhouse (NJ), Vermont Performance Lab, Flynn Center (VT), Krannert Center (IL), OnStage at Connecticut College, MASS MoCA, Baltimore Museum of Art (MD), DiverseWorks (TX), VSA North Fourth Arts Center (NM), Jacob’s Pillow (MA), LexArts (KY), Dance Space (DC), and others. Gordon’s Art Life & Show-Biz; A Non-Fiction Play is published in Palgrave’s “Dramaturgy Of The Real.” Gordon has collaborated with Sō Percussion at the Walker (MN), BAM Next Wave (NY), River To River (NY), Philadelphia Fringe, and more; with Bebe Miller at Wexner (OH), Helena Presents (MT), and others; with David Gordon at American Repertory Theatre (MA), American Conservatory Theater (CA) and American Music Theatre Festival (PA). Gordon was an original Off-Broadway cast member of Spalding Gray: Stories Left To Tell and toured with it to UCLA, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (OR), ICA Boston (Elliot Norton Award nom), the Walker (MN), and New Territories (UK), and more. Gordon has been a co-Director of the Pick Up Performance Co(s) since 1992.
Jun 1, 2015
It’s day seven of Robyn Mineko Williams’ ten-day residency at BAC and the long narrow blackout blinds of studio 6A roll upwards. Bright boxes of sunlight stream across the floor and Williams squints in the glare. After days of experimenting with projected imagery in theatrical darkness, she looks happy to see the sun. She asks dancers Adrienne Lipson and Isaac Spencer to repeat a section.
Choreographed in tandem with a dramatic play of projections, now it is simply two bodies working together with the weighted fluidity of molten metal. A lunge to the side is lengthened. A subtle shoulder shrug is shortened. The movement is precise; sometimes intricate, other times expansive, but always muscular.
Williams watches, then turns to her brother and collaborator, graphic designer Jay T Williams. He smiles and shrugs from a table littered with idle laptops and a projector rendered useless by the sunlight. He seems perfectly fine with his light design being temporarily nixed.
“I don’t think there’s any reason we can’t do both things,” she says, and rehearsal continues with the blinds open.
This calm acceptance of multiple possibilities seems typical for the soft-spoken 37-year-old Mineko Williams. A former dancer with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC), she is a self-professed introvert who didn’t plan on being a choreographer.
“As a dancer I wasn’t one to speak up a lot. It wasn’t my way,” she says, “I guess that’s why it surprised me to be in the front of the room and enjoying it.”
But there was never ambivalence about dancing. “Legend goes that I was bullying my mom for dance lessons when I was three,” she says, “but she made me wait until I was five.” She trained for 11 years with her mother’s teacher, Yvonne Brown Collodi at the Hinsdale Dance Academy in Illinois. After two years on scholarship at the Lou Conte Dance Studio she joined the River North Chicago Dance Company and eventually moved on to HSDC where she danced for 12 years before retiring in 2012.
In 2010 she collaborated with Terence Marling on Harold and the Purple Crayon: A Dance Adventure for Hubbard Street 2. Creating movement at first felt like a “science experiment,” she says, but after making the full length Recall for HSDC in 2012 she embraced the challenge. She has since choreographed several works for HSDC and Hubbard Street 2 and is often referred to as a rising talent in the Chicago dance scene. In 2013 she was awarded a Princess Grace Foundation-USA Choreographic Fellowship, and the following year a Princess Grace Foundation-USA Works-in-Progress Residency at BAC for the spring 2015 season.
“Movement is probably the most natural way for me to communicate,” she says. “Making dance is an extension of all that.”
The BAC residency is Mineko Williams’ first opportunity to create something that is hers alone. She hopes it will be a full-length piece or collection of related pieces, but admits everything hinges on working with people with whom she feels an unspoken connection.
“I like the rehearsal space to be a fun place,” she says, “I think that’s when magic can happen.”
So she has chosen her residency collaborators carefully. Dancer Isaac Spencer is a dear friend and a fellow former member of Hubbard Street. He now lives in Germany so Mineko Williams was thrilled that he was available. Adrienne Lipson was part of a Hubbard Street 2 workshop and Mineko Williams took an immediate shine to her ready-for-anything attitude. As for composer Robert Haynes, he and Mineko Williams have created several pieces together and both feel a real synergy with one another.
But Mineko Williams’ primary collaborator for her BAC residency is her brother Jay T whom she describes in an email as her “go to guy for inspiration” and “the one person who gets me…my aesthetic and my vision probably the most naturally and clearly.”
“He said he’d never seen me do anything that represented me,” she says, “it turned a light on in me to do more, to explore more.”
Mineko Williams says her brother’s job with the marketing firm Fision doesn’t allow him time to experiment and make what he describes as “real art.” That meant a learning curve for both of them. “He was quick to scrap ideas,” she says, “whereas in our process, finding, sculpting and discovering what works as we keep delving into the process is more the norm.”
By day ten the blinds are back down. Invited guests stand and watch a time-lapse video of the rehearsal process as it flickers by on the front of Jay T’s shirt. Haynes’ brooding pulsating score fills the room and the dancers insinuate themselves amongst the onlookers. They move in a fluid duet echoed by ghostly projections. A grainy home movie of Lipson as a baby fills the back wall. Spencer and the grown Lipson mimic with a floppy, real time duet. Then it is just Lipson. She is still, captured like a reluctant specimen under a beam of refracted light. Her movements are small and subtle, but bursts with carefully restrained vigor. The showing ends as casually as it began, but Mineko Williams and her brother look relaxed and happy. The segments are ideas – sparks of ideas – that Mineko Williams will take back to Chicago and blow into the full flame of her first independent effort.
Lisa Rinehart is a former dancer with American Ballet Theatre. She is a freelance writer and video journalist covering the arts, culture and social issues for a wide range of online and print publications.
Apr 9, 2015
Caroline Gravel talks with her hands, her body, her hair. I don’t speak French but when she speaks to me in French I have the illusion of understanding—so convincing is her sense of gesture. When I first saw Gravel’s work (in an evening at Danspace Project curated by Jenn Joy and Noémie Solomon in 2013) I was struck by that sense of conviction in her solo Ma mère est un mâle alpha. The title immediately grabbed its audience with an assertion that needs no translation and Gravel didn’t let that attention go for one moment.
In Gravel’s newest work, Bains Publics, she wants to engage differently with her audience. Her starting point—the concept of a public bath—provides a model for a shared experience without a clearly defined spectator. I was surprised to realize that the aggressive hold Gravel exerted over her audience in Ma mère est un mâle alpha is the very sense of control that she is currently questioning.
We discussed this shift in a recent studio visit and Gravel pointed out that part of this new point of inquiry is around the notion of constraint. Gravel’s movement vocabulary often employs a physical manifestation of constraint: there is a sense of pressure exerted from within her body that must contend with the space outside. In her research for Bains Publics, Gravel told me that she is interested in contending with the constraints of a theater: “How can the public feel free?” she wondered aloud to me.
For a recent studio showing in Studio 4B, Gravel positioned the audience in single chairs scattered throughout the studio with different facings. I was aware of my focus shifting between Gravel and her fellow performer, Laurence Dufour. My other choice as an audience member was to gaze at the mirrored wall where I could see both of the performers, my fellow audience, and myself. I had other choices available to me, of course, that I didn’t take: I could have scooted my chair around, for instance, or walked to a new chair, or left the studio altogether. I began to wonder if what Gravel is most interested in is the choices that we don’t make—the invisible constraints constantly acting on all of us.
One of the first things Gravel told me when I visited her studio was that she looks for authenticity in a dancer’s body. Or, as she explained to me, she doesn’t want to see a dancer moving excitedly, she wants to see excitement. Perhaps in Bains Publics, Gravel is demanding the same standards of her audience. She doesn’t want her audience to perform being present, she wants her audience to be present.
The question is how do you exact that presence from an audience? In a public bath, the heat of the sauna causes the core body temperature to rise, dilating the blood vessels and increasing blood flow to the skin’s surface. I’m not sure what the equivalent experience looks like for an audience but I have no doubt that Gravel will find out.
Lydia Bell is a cultural producer and arts administrator. She is currently Director of Programming at Artis in New York where she oversees artist commissions, public programs, exhibitions, and the Artis Grant Program. Prior to joining Artis in 2014, Lydia was Development and Curatorial Associate at Danspace Project. Lydia has also worked on projects with Eiko & Koma, Sam Miller/OAM Company, and Movement Research and spoken on national and international panels on the subject of interdisciplinary performance. She is a graduate of the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance at Wesleyan University.
Apr 9, 2015
New York–based artist Maya Ciarrocchi has created videos and projection design for Merce Cunningham, Ping Chong, Bebe Miller, and Donna Uchizono, among others, as well as for regional theaters around the country. Most recently, she designed the video projections for Carmen de Lavallade ‘s one-woman show, “As I Remember It” at Baryshnikov Arts Center.
New York–based artist Maya Ciarrocchi has created videos and projection design for Merce Cunningham, Ping Chong, Bebe Miller, and Donna Uchizono, among others, as well as for regional theaters around the country. Most recently, she designed the video projections for Carmen de Lavallade ‘s one-woman show, “As I Remember It” at Baryshnikov Arts Center.
Ciarrocchi’s video installations and single-channel works feature interviews, life-sized durational portraits, and environmental documentation; they invite viewers to contemplate assumptions about communities, individuals, and how identity is constructed. Her subjects have included coal-mining communities in West Virginia (“Overburden”), former ultra-Orthodox Jews who have left their religion (“Frei”), and, the New York dance and performance community in “I’m Nobody, Who Are You?”
She first experimented with video portraiture working on “Necessary Beauty” with Bebe Miller. Prerecorded portraits of the performers were paired and then played in conjunction with voice-over text that didn’t necessarily match the individual portrait.
Ciarrocchi found when shooting these portraits over the course of just a minute, the subjects would subtly shift their emotional response. The more vulnerable they became in front of the camera, the more viewers could begin to create a narrative. She connects this to her background in dance, and how looking at bodies moving in space creates narratives. There is a design aspect—the shapes the bodies are forming in negative and positive space and were the intersections are—and then there’s how each individual dancer embodies the same space.
For her durational portraiture, she shoots her subjects for 10 minutes, ample time to deal with the comfort / discomfort of having to look at the camera lens directly throughout. Rather then asking her subjects to stare at the camera, she asks them to consider their future viewer.
In “Gender/Power (composition II),” which Ciarrocchi developed in residency at BAC along with collaborator Kris Grey, a video installation featuring three side-by-side durational portraits precedes the entrance of the performing bodies; they appear to inhabit the same space, unaware of each other. The performance also utilizes a combination of full body video portraiture and a distillation of close-up and re-framings, postural and gestural aspects of gender performance condensed or extracted into performative actions.
While in residency at BAC, as the team began braiding the text, they returned to an original concept of the work, about transposition—of stories, bodies, and image. Ciarrocchi began to layer the portraits she had shot in a variety of ways so that parts of the image could be seem through other parts, and as subjects move, the image completely shifts. The visuals reflect and offer an unpacking of what’s being said in the text.
Both Grey and Ciarrocchi are interested in revealing how particular ideologies are lived, performed, or transcribed onto the body. “Gender/Power” examines the subject of gender and authority by making visible the personal narratives of performers who have made specific decisions to disrupt or subvert gender signifiers. At its core, “Gender/Power” is about how we make snap judgments about people because we don’t really take the time to actually look at them, beyond skin deep.
Brian McCormick’s training in performing and video arts brought him to the School of Media Studies at The New School (TNS) where he earned his MA in 1996 and joined the faculty in 1997. Around the same time, he began working with Nicholas Leichter, whose dance company he managed for 15 years. In addition to teaching media design, Brian developed and currently teaches a seminar on media and performance, and a production course on social media design & management. For over 20 years, he has been working with young people, producing a ‘zine with homeless teens, leading a creative writing and performance meet-up with LGBT poets, and collaborating with the nationally recognized Teen Reviewers and Critics (TRaC) program—for which he has taught arts criticism for over ten years, and developed a media-based workshop in partnership with SONY Wonder Technology Lab. Since 2012, he has led the BAC After School Critical Response program at Baryshnikov Arts Center. He is currently researching how performing arts organizations are using social media for arts marketing and engagement.
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.
Jun 6, 2014
In April I had the pleasure of attending rehearsals during the residency of Emmanuelle Vo-Dinh at BAC. I watched run-throughs and improvisatory constructions she was working on, and had the opportunity to speak with Emmanuelle both in rehearsal and in emails about this work, titled “Tombouctou deja-vu,” set to premiere in 2015.
Emmanuelle started working on this piece from what she called “the idea of going to an unknown place.”
It is such a privilege to see people working in the studio, before lights and costumes render work further into theatrical space, which can make it less accessible on a more intimate human scale. There is a tender easiness to the relationships the performers have with each other, blurring the line between what is on-stage interaction in performance, and what is just us being us together. At many points in Emmanuelle Vo-Dinh’s work-in-progress it was hard for me to tell when they were relating to each other because they know each other, and when it was part of the organized theatrical landscape. This ambiguity was totally charming; drawing me in towards Vo-Dinh’s interest in the “miniscule lives of the characters.” For me this was the gentle and compelling center of the work, these slack indulgences of casual behavior.
There are lots of different kinds of talking in the dance, people repeating names, or whispering to each other, or reading things off of cards (drawn from Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies) which serve as kindling for the constructions and repetitions in the dance. It bothered me not at all to feel foreign in these moments (I do not speak French) because I think I feel that way all the time when a performance is operating with some sort of beguiling or unknown methodology. Also, it fit so naturally into more palpable structures within the dance itself. Language molded casually or surreptitiously as improvisatory material, degraded, or gradually changed just as much as movement. Emmanuelle said of this she was looking for a kind of cross between the body and the voice. Watching the language fall apart becomes part of the patchwork landscape of gesture, movement through space, or fleeting scenes that occupy the 45 minutes of material.
The slanting personalities of the performers are so alluring. In her work Emmanuelle plays with recursive time, looping back spatial constructions, catching a moment and freezing it through repetition, giving a heightened experience to the viewer of how time is passing, and how or why things are important. She calls these moments ‘pistons’ in her work; they give a kind of direct visual satisfaction.
Hesitation seems exalted, like it’s been reclaimed from its in-between-state and is enacted as an entirely honest and separate way of embodying movement, which, to me, was gorgeous.
It was fascinating to see what specifically she worked on, how she honed certain moments or transitions into greater acuity. In a particular section where a microphone is passed from a man speaking to a women (through two surrogates) which devolves into sort of orgiastic floor-bound swaying, Emmanuelle focused not only on the exactitude of the passing, or the intonation but on the rhythms of things, the amount of time that is transition, the amount that is build up. Here the specificity and rigor supporting her work might reference her time studying with Merce Cunningham in the 80s in New York. When the amplified responses speed up, the passing speeds up, and the language loses meaning, until the swinging microphone and repeated responses become a swirl of strange sexualized behavior, which ends as abruptly as it began gradually. The kind of time things take seems so important.
Further viewings recommended by Emmanuelle Vo-Dinh:
Luis Bunuel’s The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)
Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent (1989)
Alex van Warmerdam’s The Northerners (1992)
Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2003)
Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012)
Silas Riener graduated from Princeton University with a degree in Comparative Literature and Creative Writing, and completed his MFA in Dance at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. He was a member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from November 2007-11. As a performer, he has worked with Chantal Yzermans, Takehiro Ueyama, Christopher Williams, Jonah Bokaer, and in Rebecca Lazier's TERRAIN. Riener regularly collaborates with choreographer Rashaun Mitchell. His work has been curated at Architecture OMI, CATCH, as part of LMCC's River to River Festival, at Danspace Project, and at the BFI Gallery in Miami. In 2013 he was invited to participate as an inaugural member of LMCC's Extended Life Dance Development Program. He is a 2014 New York City Center Choreographic Fellow.
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.
Mar 28, 2014
By the end of their residency at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, the musical comedy team Qui Nguyen and Shane Rettig had written more songs in a week than they had for six months. “It’s really hard to get together and make it happen,” said Mr. Rettig. “Here you write something. You hear something. You learn.”
He was speaking from the BAC’s 6th floor studio where, in partnership with the Sundance Theatre Institute, he and Mr. Nguyen had been plugging away on their musical-in-progress, “War is F**king Awesome,” with director Liesl Tommy and a stellar group of performers including Rebecca Naomi Jones, Sharone Sayegh and William Jackson Harper.
Studio 6A has a kind of understated urban elegance: concrete walls with large windows that look out onto city views. Inside, music stands, chairs and fold up tables, a piano, scripts, pencils, water bottles, coffee and snacks from the building’s first floor café. It was their last day of rehearsal, and in a few hours, they’d be presenting a semi-staged reading for an invited audience of fifty friends and colleagues.
“War” is a musical satire about a young woman killed in the American Revolution who is offered immunity if she’ll agree to fight in every American conflict in perpetuity. The humor is political, sometimes irreverent, sometimes piercing, sometimes raunchy---it’s a bombastic comedy, with a comic book feel. But at the core, said Mr. Nguyen, the musical is about his relationship to the war narratives he heard as an adolescent in the States. “In school the Vietnam War was always referred to as a mistake, but in my household Vietnam was necessary. I heard a different response inside and outside.”
The residency at BAC came at a critical time in the show’s development. Given simple, but essential, resources, the creative team was able to move the work-in-progress dramatically in the direction of completion. He and Mr. Rettig’s first residency for the show was last summer at the Sundance Institute in Utah. There Mrrs. Nguyen and Rettig were first paired with director Liesl Tommy, who had selected the script with an esteemed panel headed by Sundance Institute artistic director Philip Himberg. “We selected it because it seemed very fresh and to be pushing form,” said Ms. Tommy. “Also because of what Qui outlined on his to do list - what was not yet written. It seemed like Sundance could really give Qui and Shane time and space to further develop something wonderful.”
Her first impression of Qui's script? “I found it hilarious, politically subversive, and hyper theatrical. And I'd never encountered a musical where the choreography during music was meant to be fights.” Mr. Rettig’s music combined pop, hip hop and R&B, “and not cheesy musical theatre versions of those things.”
Moreover she wanted to be part of Mr. Nguyen’s satire of war ideology. Ms. Tommy is herself an immigrant from South Africa. “I really related to Qui's passion for telling this story,” she said, “Qui talked about being from a family of Vietnamese immigrants coming to the USA in the 70's and his perspective on war, fleeing war, reasons for war. I knew he had a fascinating POV.”
Lizzie Simon writes about the arts for The Wall Street Journal.
Jan 14, 2014
It's just a few days before director Cazimir Liske's showing, yet there's very, very little on stage, and conversations between actor and director still have the meditative calm of a spiritual retreat. Liske is running the ending of Illusions, his translation of the Ivan Viripaev drama at Baryshnikov Arts Center, and somehow urgency could not seem more distant. The lack of hustle-bustle is a kind of triumph of Liske's control—at an early design meeting there was talk of moving screens, of costumes that somehow illustrated time itself.
Yet while a few explosions of theatricality do pepper Liske's staging (small tricks with a microphone, a bank of hot lights that blind the audience) the room seems to drift in grey limbo, a Zen state of no-mind. Even in front of an audience, that sensation of introspection and deep quiet will remain.
Liske's journey with Illusions has been long and long. A Dartmouth student studying Italian literature, he took a sudden interest in theater, then enrolled in an English-language summer program created by the O'Neill Center and the Moscow Art Theater after Chekhov (MXAT). What was meant to be a brief adventure turned into a life's pursuit: Once in Moscow, Liske began studying with the actor Konstantin Raikin, took a degree from the MXAT Acting School, and began a busy career in Moscow as an actor and now teacher and director. Virapaev, one of the thrilling young talents in the burgeoning Russian playwrighting scene, is a friend. After performing in Illusions, first in Moscow and then at the Royal Court in London, Liske still hadn't had enough of this strange, nearly silent work, so he retranslated it and took it on as a directing project.
In some ways, despite his training, Liske works against the Russian grain. “My process,” he says, “depends much more on the author than on the director. What I've been interested in in the last year is theater that connects the audience with theauthor—rather than with the director, or even the actors.” The result is something that looks like documentary theater (direct address, simplicity, a sense of an ongoing conversation), yet is actually asking eternal questions rather than dealing with current events.
Illusions tells the intertwining tale of two octogenarian couples, Sandra and Denny and Albert and Margaret. Four actors—variously trustworthy—approach a microphone to narrate the couples' stories confidingly to the audience. Stephanie Hayes, exquisitely precise, welcomes the watchers with a 'hello,' but she measures out her affections carefully. In rehearsal she asks whether she should work in “the smiles” more. “I just happen to have the most serious bits in the piece,” worries Hayes, “Should I be smiling?”
Considering that Hayes has just described the death of one character, a woman tortured by considerable heartbreak, you can see why she might be concerned.Yet despite the story's constant emphasis on death, Liske directs his actors to attain a constant state of upward tending joyfulness. Actress Annie Purcell describes it in rehearsal as “this euphoric, ecstatic thing” —or, another time, “an unfurling feeling of love.”
Love is all over Illusions. There's no stylish irony here; the characters' central concern is whether “true” love must be requited love, a point the story's subjects return to as they ponder the fidelity of their spouses. All four characters will die preoccupied by this issue; lifelong friendships are torn apart. Viripaev's hypnotic text, particularly as translated by Liske, worries over this emotional point for almost its entire length, returning obsessively to it, striking it as the favorite chord. Sentimental melodrama is presented as minimalism, so the fact that the speakers refuse to “perform” enlarges the question about love—these non-pretending narrations make us feel as though the actor-audience relationship is on a strange new footing. Our desire for escapism and pretense and illusion is, tellingly, unrequited.
In rehearsal, the examination goes deeply inward. Conversation turns to the James Turrell exhibit at the Guggenheim (the light artist who can make a glowing light source seem like a door into the infinite) and to each performer's understanding of death. The goal for Liske, though, is that these conversations penetrate into the audience. “The thing that I find at the center of Viripaev's piece is that death is a great teacher. It teaches us that love is the path in life. There is, it turns out, a path that can bring you to less suffering. And it has nothing to do with religion, with metaphysics. It's just practical! But this is the important stuff; these are the things we ought to talk about. I mean, is there any other question we should be asking?”
Helen Shaw currently writes about theater for Time Out New York magazine and teaches theater studies and theater theory at NYUTisch. Previously, she was senior theater critic for the NewYork Sun and has contributed to the Village Voice, Performing Arts Journal, Playbill, TheatreForum, the Jewish Daily Forward, and the forward for Mac Wellman’s anthology of plays, The Difficulty of Crossing a Field. She curated the Prelude festival in 2011 and 2012, and coordinated programs at the Martin E. Segal Theater Center for approximately the same period. She also works as a dramaturg, and has assisted Martha Clarke, Lear deBessonet, and Simon McBurney. She has an MFA in dramaturgy from the American Repertory Theater Institute at Harvard University and a BA in Anthropology from Harvard.