Amanda Szeglowski and her company, cakeface, was in residence at BAC June 6 - July 2, 2022, rehearsing a new-and-yet-untitled work exploring the realm of the supernatural. This virtual interview between Amanda and myself took place during this time.
Ivan Talijancic: I’d like to start by asking you about your artistic lineage. I have been following your work for some time now and always felt that you occupy a deeply idiosyncratic place in the sphere of American contemporary performance in the US, making work that truly is unlike any other. I feel like being a “writer/director” or a “performer/choreographer” are all-too-familiar tropes, but I think of you as a writer/choreographer, where both dimensions have equal potency, which is a rare find. What was your path to finding this unique approach?
Amanda Szeglowski: I've been drawn to storytelling since childhood. I started begging for dance class when I was three and at eleven I wrote my first play. I cast all of the neighborhood kids and scheduled rehearsals in the garage, but I never actually produced it. I was having too much fun rewriting the script day after day. (Ironically that's still a big part of my process). I chose to center my education on dance, but writing always remained part of my practice. At my arts high school, I learned about the possibilities that arise when I combine the two, and that fascinated me. When I got to NYC, I worked with choreographers extensively. Though non-verbal, much of the work was using narrative in a way that I hadn't really seen before and it impacted me greatly. Then when I launched cakeface in 2008, my personal style began to crystallize.
IT: Much of the work coming out of the New York “downtown” scene takes a rather irreverent, DIY approach. Personally, one of the things that really stands out in your work is just how meticulously crafted your pieces are, which gives them a sort of a European flair. Any thoughts you could share about where this artistic rigor and discipline derive from?
AS: I've always been a detail-oriented person, but the seed, in a creative respect, was probably planted during my earliest days as a dancer. For most of my childhood I trained at a Cuban dance studio in Florida, where every costume was incredibly ornate; every detail was considered. That definitely made an impression on me. Much later, when I began making my own work in NYC, I would strategize ways in which I could pull off something that appeared to have a high production value despite a virtually nonexistent budget. I've always cared not only about the work itself, but also how it is presented. What is the world that the piece lives in, and how can I manifest it? And I try to eliminate distractions in my work as much as possible, so the message is central. This is where rigor and discipline come in. If I am hoping to make some sort of a statement, I am generally trying to do it in a subtle or exploratory manner, so the path for that kind of messaging has to be clear. My goal with everything I make is for it to be relatable. My discipline and craft work to reduce, and hopefully eliminate, any noise that might get in the way of that.
IT: You have a knack for tapping into highly idiosyncratic subject matter. The project that you are developing here at BAC delves into a mysterious, even metaphysical territory. What drew you to this material?
AS: I’m all too familiar with existential angst. It's just my personality to always be asking impossible questions and obsessing over/dreading the unknowns. The pandemic, of course, magnified things exponentially and went right for the jugular - forcing us to face the reality of our own mortality. Personally, I've found that I combat my constant fear of death and destruction by consuming media related to psychic mediums, paranormal encounters, near death experiences, children who recall past lives, etc. The more anxious and stressed out I get, the further down the Reddit rabbithole I go. It's wonderful down there.
So the inception of the project was a combination of this moment in time, with all of these anxious feelings top of mind, my "paranormal therapy" if you will, and then a spark of nostalgia, which is the foundation for all of my work. In the 70s and 80s there was a friend of the family who had "the gift" and would read my family members. She died before I was able to get to know her, but as a creative kid, I'd hear the stories and always had grand images of her in my mind. She never really left me. Then there was this perfect storm and all of the disparate pieces just came together. That happens a lot. I always have several ideas just percolating in the recesses of my mind for years and then new components reveal themselves bit by bit and suddenly the path is clear and the piece needs to be made, now.
IT: Marvelous! Having tackled this material head-on during BAC residency, what do you feel you have been able to accomplish during this time? What are some new discoveries that have emerged, and are you already thinking about what’s next for this new work?
AS: The BAC residency has been truly invaluable; the generosity of time and space has allowed me to really be "in" the work. In the best scenarios, I follow my instincts and then let the piece lead me. And I was able to do that here. Specifically, I managed to get a handle on the performers' relationships to one another, establish the embodiment of Roxy (the inspirational psychic that I mentioned earlier) as a voiceover, perhaps eventually a hologram, and I laid the foundation for the tone and flow of the piece. As for new discoveries, I had a breakthrough idea for the scenic landscape that unlocked a lot of possibilities for me. Setting the "world" in which the piece lives is always a critical step in my creative process, and being able to determine that element while at BAC was a huge leap forward.
The composer that I am working with for this project, Christina Campanella, was simultaneously in another residency developing an opera, so my focus at BAC has been writing and choreography. The next step for this work is another intensive developmental period where we can start to integrate Christina's music. Sound design will be a key component of this piece, as there will be live songs, text, and music throughout.
I enjoy when work takes me on a journey of highs and lows and this project at the moment is heavy on the high side. Dark humor is a signature quality of my work and while this piece fully embraces that vibe, I also plan to add some more poignant moments, and a sliver of hope. So expanding the emotional range is something I look forward to working on in the next stage as well. Also hearing more stories. After our showing several people shared their own paranormal experiences and I’m loving that, bring it on!
Ivan Talijancic is a time-based artist and cultural producer, working at the intersection of theater, dance, film, installation art, new media, journalism, curatorial work and education in New York and around the globe. As a co-founder of the multidisciplinary art group WaxFactory, his work has been presented at numerous venues and festivals worldwide. Ivan is currently a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s John Wells Directing Program, the artistic director of CPP/Contemporary Performance Practice summer intensive in Croatia, and a member of The Bessies selection committee. He holds an MFA from Columbia University School of the Arts.