December 26, 2020
KF: “The work feels like activism to me.”
Kayla Farrish is vibrant and active when she speaks.
We’re on Zoom (where else?), the green velvet couch in her Brooklyn apartment matching the cactus that frames me outside my studio in Oakland, CA. Movement spills, pops, and shifts in gesture, expression, and posture—she fills up the screen as we talk. I spoke to Kayla just after her Baryshnikov Arts Center residency ended in late November, and she was energized about her time in the studio, her cast, and how to continue her work in a sustainable way in this incalculable and constantly restructuring New Year. She was supposed to show her new work, Martyr’s Fiction, at Gibney in March of 2020 and continue working on the piece, which she had begun a couple of months earlier, at BAC directly after the show. As with most pre-COVID plans during that time, her performance was cancelled and her BAC residency was, thankfully, postponed. For her current piece, Kayla’s initial ideas centered on surrealism as a concept. Our conversation got me thinking about conversations around race and abstraction, and the conversation around race and surrealism felt intertwined, but also different to me, re-framing the question of who is allowed to make abstract work, and shifting that into the question: “Who is allowed to dream?”
KF: “Surrealism, what is that? I was curious because I love that word and the concept and felt, why do I feel so distant from what that is? I don’t really think that people in my community or family have access to surrealism. I’m thinking about the lights outside behind me, the cops that are patrolling people. When you’re thinking about survival, you might fantasize, but it’s likely in your head and it’s with a lot of barriers. When do we get to dream about pink elephants? What I grew up on is, I can only dream so far. Even when I’m making things, I’ll have this crazy vision, but will I have the resources to support that? Will people understand me? What is surrealism from my perspective-- the perspective from an African American dreamer? I feel, in my experience in blackness [and dance] that I have to be demonstrative, that I have to make sure I’m very clear... People need to understand the context and know where I am coming from. There is surrealism in imagination, but there is also surrealism in real life, like when you’re talking to someone and they say ‘racism doesn’t exist.’ And I think, ‘am I a myth?’”
Kayla grew up in North Carolina, in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area, which was home to one of the largest plantations in the US. Before our Zoom session, along with many images and videos of the work-in-progress, she shared a folder with me called “Plantation/Farm'' that contained images from her research. There were beautiful barns, and the building plans of barns and houses built by slaves to live and work in, built with pegs instead of nails and still standing strong. Her father’s side of the family were sharecroppers, working in tobacco and tending the land that they still farm today. Kayla’s family came to own the land because her great-grandfather was an only child who inherited the land and passed it down to her grandmother. We spoke about the night terrors that her father had throughout her childhood. This brought up the idea of watching someone else dream, and how rare that experience is. In her process, Kayla began working on recounting dreams with her cast through movement and language and exploring personal history.
KF: “There are shopping centers in NC called ‘Plantation Shopping Center,’ neighborhoods called ‘Wakefield Plantation.’ These places are turned into more money, and more erasure out in the open. What are we worth if we can just vanish? It’s as if it was nothing. It’s enraging, it’s offensive. There is a surreal nature to that erasure, and to current violence. My father is the oldest of seven from his sharecropping family. In his night terrors, he would scream, he would have really physical responses. He shouted my name. He never remembered what the dream was, but it always felt so real. It was so animated and intense. I got really into nightmares and exploring horror. I wanted to explore questions with my collaborators: 'What are you confronting and what are you running from? Can we edge up on these boundaries? What is escapism? What is surrealism to you?’ It was also interesting to see where my collaborators allowed fantasy in their lives. Some people are very sci-fi, intergalactic and so far away, and some people’s dreams felt so real, like an embodiment of their stories. I’d played a role in Sleep No More, the maid Danvers, who appears in and out of the shadows, who had so much restraint, but also this incredible fantasy life that was the flip of that restraint. I really related to that.”
Martyr’s Fiction is now going to become a full-length film, featuring Kayla and her collaborators Nik Owens, Jamal Abrams, Rebecca Margolick, and Alexander Diaz, with cinematography by Kermie Konur and music by Melike Konur. Kayla had one order in mind for the live work, and now a new order is emerging for the film as things have changed through COVID. Most of her movement material is set, with some scores that are left a little more open. One scene, called “sites,” explores sites of erasure, like the plantations of NC. There is also a scene exploring contemporary escapism called “wine night.” Characters shift and change throughout the work. Production week for the film will be in the late summer or fall and then the film will premiere at the end of 2021.
KF: “At the end of my residency, I had the option of doing a live stream, but I didn’t want flat documentation. I've now been thinking of the piece more in a cinematic way. I see cinematic landscapes as a way to see into these characters. My longtime collaborator Kerime’s input and feedback adds to and challenges me in a lovely way, especially when I’m performing in the work. What’s been so remarkable about the whole process is asking ourselves: ‘Is [this work] indulgent? Is this changing anything?’ We’ve been working on a section called “three black men,” and my collaborators were not happy with me at first. We first played with horror, and it was fun, it was fantasy, and then it went into trying on stereotypes that we’ve seen growing up, becoming the monsters that people think we are. My collaborators said, “I’m a black queer man, and you’re talking about spaces I’m not allowed to exist in when I walk out the door.” We pushed it in a really safe way. I want to feel monstrous, I don’t want to feel invisible any more. It’s liberating when you take the work in the studio out into the world. Your imagination can affect the collective and I never knew that was achievable, because dreaming is supposed to be so personal. I’m excited for how the whole work will unfold. Is this a loop, is this a dream?”
Originally from the Midwest, Eleanor Goudie-Averill is a dance artist and educator who works with dancers of all ages on technique and performance. Since graduating with her MFA in Dance Performance from the University of Iowa in 2007, she has served as a professor at Temple University, Bucknell University, and Franklin & Marshall College. She currently teaches at Connecticut College, where she created a new outdoor work for ConnColl students this Fall. Ellie has danced professionally for Susan Rethorst, Lucinda Childs, Bronwen MacArthur, and Group Motion. She is a regular collaborator and dancer with Tori Lawrence + Co. in dance films and site-specific works. Ellie is also a dance writer, frequently publishing dance and book reviews on the Philadelphia-based thINKingDANCE website.
Photos by Maria Baranova