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Facilitating Possession: Okwui Okpokwasili on Poor People’s TV Room

“Maybe that’s what I’m also trying to generate or facilitate: the potential for a body to be possessed. What have we transferred through skin? Through genetics? What of pain? What of confusion? The body has these tunnels, these secrets, these pathways that can be opened up.” In  a multi-disciplinary performance work created by dancer, choreographer, […]

Okwui Okpokwasili in Photo: Mena Burnette of xmbphotography

Okwui Okpokwasili in Poor People’s TV Room. Photo: Mena Burnette of xmbphotography

“Maybe that’s what I’m also trying to generate or facilitate: the potential for a body to be possessed. What have we transferred through skin? Through genetics? What of pain? What of confusion? The body has these tunnels, these secrets, these pathways that can be opened up.”

In  a multi-disciplinary performance work created by dancer, choreographer, and writer Okwui Okpokwasili, this is one of the multiple ways that the body and performance are discussed. The work subtly weaves together recent and historic women’s resistance movements in Nigeria with gestures of memory. Working in collaboration with director Peter Born, Okpokwasili began the process of creating Poor People’s TV Room in 2014 amid the heightened visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement, the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria by Boko Haram terrorists. Commissioned by the Walker, the Minneapolis debut of Poor People’s TV Room will be presented as part of Out There 2017. Performed by an all-female cast—Okpokwasili, Thuli Dumakude, Katrina Reid, and Nehemoyia Young—Poor People’s TV Room explores the intersection between installation, theater, and dance in an effort to highlight collective action.

The following is an excerpt from a wide-ranging conversation between the Walker’s Mellon Interdisciplinary Fellow Danielle Jackson and Okwui Okpokwasili. Using Poor People’s TV Room as a point of departure, the interview traces the choreographer’s expansive research process including the history of Nigerian protest practices and its relationship to the performance, conditions of the body, and recent works presented by Okpokwasili.

Danielle A. Jackson: I thought we might begin with you speaking more generally about how you begin your projects conceptually?

Okwui Okpokwasili: Overall, my concerns are with visibility and the nature of performance and the body and how bodies are read—how bodies can undermine or reaffirm those readings. Brown and black bodies on stage surface a kinetic architecture weighted with pain, pathologies, resilience, joy. I’m interested in the dynamics of legibility and trying to confound easy readings. So even though I may begin projects with a kernel inquiry, or question, and, even though the DNA or genetic material of that initial seed remains, ultimately the moment of encounter between performers and audience, during performance, takes precedence. My love is with brown bodies—maybe it goes back to childhood—this sense of always looking for some reflection in the larger world of an experience that might resonate with mine, and a body behaving in ways that reaffirm what I believe about bodies and at the same time challenge that belief.

For Poor People’s TV Room, I was reacting to the kidnapping of 276 girls in northern Nigeria (the Chibok schoolgirls) by Boko Haram, sparking the #bringbackourgirls movement. I applauded the attention given to these Nigerian schoolgirls who disappeared, but I also felt that we were losing a sense of who the initiating voices of this outcry were: the mothers, the women in Nigeria. That fact belies what people’s assumptions tend to be about African women. They aren’t framed within the lens of agency and self-advocacy. They’re generally framed as victims that need to be saved.

Poor People's TV Room. Photo: Mena Burnette of xmbphotography

Okwui Okpokwasili. Photo: Mena Burnette of xmbphotography

I’m Nigerian-American, and I’ve always been interested in what was visible or not visible about ideas of West African women. And that sprung into this question of whether there’s a legacy of collective action? I looked into evidence and forms of embodied protest practices that, in a sense, the women in northern Nigeria were also an extension of. There was the Women’s War in 1929, in Nigeria, where thousands of women came together to protest what they considered the violent and disruptive actions of a colonial government on their being, on their culture. As I looked into some of these forms, I saw that there were protests where women stripped themselves naked. In precolonial culture, it was fine for young girls to be bare on top, but after marriage you’d cover yourself, especially after you’ve had children. So actually older women were stripping themselves bare in order to shame the person watching them. There was also something called “sitting on a man’s head,” where the women would go to a compound in villages in Eastern Nigeria. It was considered a private space, but the women would go into the compounds of elders or people who had certain amounts of power. They would stay in their compounds, sing songs denigrating them, making fun of them, complaining to them, telling these officials “step up” or asking, “Why are you insulting us?” It was a deeply embodied action. As I was looking into all of this, Ferguson happened, the Black Lives Matter movement was taking off—again, another movement that, even in its dispersal, that’s been helmed by African-American women. I felt this resonance with these bodies, in motion, together. The events in Nigeria, around the Women’s War in 1929, were sometimes referred to in Igbo language as the “Grand egwu.” “Egwu” means “dance,” so this collective action is linguistically linked to the language of dance, or performance.

The first thing that I did was build a collective song with the help of my partner, my collaborator, Peter Born. It was a 50-minute song that I sang in a solo, and we constructed an environment that was encased in a box that was covered in plastic, and there was a projection on the floor, a series of trailers from Nollywood movies, creating a shifting source light. I wanted to see if I could, within my own body, resonate with multiple voices. So I built this song that was meant to evoke a collective cry or a shout-out.

Jackson: Women spearheaded these resistance movements, and the performers in Poor People’s TV Room are all women.

Okpokwasili: Yes, that’s right. It was a female thing!

Jackson: Is that an outcrop of your research? There’s also an intergenerational component to this piece.

Okpokwasili: We span at least three decades. Late 20s, early 30s, mid 40s, and 60s. I wanted to have some sort of generational spectrum. I feel there are certain things that are carried and marked on the body that, even if you’re not speaking to those things directly, they surface, and working with these women is also about finding these compelling singular individuals. Our resident elder [Thuli Dumakude] has a full performance life. She’s won an Olivier Award and been on Broadway. She’s created her own singing groups and bands. She was a part of the company that organized the entertainment for Nelson Mandela’s inauguration. She left South Africa and returned to vote in the country’s first democratic election in 1994. The younger women have multidisciplinary practices and bring powerful and singular vocabularies that come from their individual work as movement makers.

Maybe you’re right in saying that having this group of women is also another outcrop of this initial generating seed that began with the research I was doing into the Women’s War. A lot of my discursive thinking and expansiveness is activated by my ongoing collaboration with Peter Born. I think as a director, as a kind of co-facilitator of the work, he and I can engage in conversations around what the form and structure of these investigations should take and try to find ways to explore together the kind of vocabulary that we need. He has a very expansive way of considering what can happen in the theater.

Poor People's TV Room. Photo: Mena Burnette of xmbphotography

Poor People’s TV Room. Photo: Mena Burnette of xmbphotography

Jackson: I was present for when i return who will receive me, performed in June 2016 as part of the River To River Festival at Fort Jay Magazine on Governor’s Island. It was a performative installation on a two-hour durational loop. You presented fragments from Poor People’s TV Room there. How will the Walker iteration differ?

Okpokwasili: The Walker iteration is actually going to be in the theater proper. All of the women in Poor People’s TV Room were also in when i return who will receive me. Peter and I have been writing a narrative to facilitate a feeling, tone, and mood, so in that sense it’s similar because the River To River performance was about generating a kind of energetic field in the room. It will be different in that it has a specific beginning, middle, and end, and it’s in a space that you come into and have a very clear and stable physical or architectural position to.

Jackson: You reference the Women’s War of 1929 and the #bringbackourgirls movement, but often with your performances the research isn’t immediately recognizable to an audience.

Okpokwasili: I don’t know that I want it to be.

Jackson: You don’t want to make documentary work, but you don’t want these histories to be forgotten either.

Okpokwasili: Right. The work has its own engine and its own demand. I want to have all of my attention focused on addressing the demand of the work rather than any polemical or didactic concerns that might have started me on my journey. I’m really concerned about how bodies can resonate in a space and leave a deep imprint. I think if the concerns are only with getting a particular story out, or at least getting a story out only in the text, then I lose something about what the impact would be. I am working in a medium where dance is a part of my vocabulary, and I feel a very unique and amazing thing that [dance] can facilitate is some kind of body transference, where you can feel like you are in another person’s body.

Bodies can get really weird and strange and confusing but still compelling. We don’t necessarily know why a body is moving the way it’s moving, or where it’s going, or how it began, or why it’s ending the way it is, but we can see that a moving body can create a kind of vortex, and we can be spun in, even in our confusion. There’s something about that that’s a kind of critical space in performance. I’m always concerned also with memory and with the idea that some things may surface on a cellular level, or in the skin. There’s something about the River To River/Fort Jay piece that started to feel like a shrine. We come into this ritual and we may not know or understand why it’s using this particular language. You go into church and you don’t always understand the liturgy, you don’t understand exactly why or what everything means, but there’s another understanding, of occupying sacred space, of the need to listen intently. It is a space where all strangers are family in a moment and come together and commune over non-literal language designed to open up a channel to a spiritual awakening. And of course, there’s music, a critical centripetal force.

Jackson: Energetic forces are always present in your work. The first piece I saw you perform was Bronx Gothic at New York Live Arts. In Bronx Gothic you are already on stage when the audience enters. You stand in a corner shaking to the point of exhaustion and your shadow is projected onto the wall. I paid close attention to your movements. Most of the audience didn’t seem aware that the performance had begun. Fifteen minutes later, everyone tuned in. I left Bronx Gothic feeling a change in my body—a feeling that I haven’t been able to fully articulate in words. Affect was so present.

Okpokwasili: That’s what I want. I want some change! Even if it’s not like, “Oh, I went to this performance and now I’m different for the rest of my life.” I want some granular shift that is so deep inside that I will never be able to know what that shit was or locate where it happened, but I felt that shit!

Okwui Okpokwasili in Poor People's TV Room. Photo: Mena Burnette of xmbphotography

Okwui Okpokwasili in Poor People’s TV Room. Photo: Mena Burnette of xmbphotography

Jackson: Poor People’s TV Room, where did the title come from?

Okpokwasili: It comes from a novel, Foreign Gods, Inc. by Okey Ndibe, that I was reading. There was a wealthy and corrupt government official in a village in Nigeria, who, when pressed about what he was doing for poor people in the village with his ill-gotten gains, talked about how he provided them with a TV room. He called it the poor people’s TV room. It was an air-conditioned room on the outer edges of his home where people would come in and sit and watch reruns of basketball highlight videos from the late ’80s. That made me think of questions I had when I went back to Nigeria and visited my parent’s home village and saw the disparity in wealth and the lack of labor protections and labor laws. There’s also a nod to something that I think is amazing—Nollywood, which is the second largest movie industry in the world. Africans, particularly Nigerians, are starting to take narratives into their own hands; instead of pirating western popular movies, they’re like, “Well, we can do this!” Considering that electricity can be hard to come by in Nigeria, or at least inconsistent, to think that they’re generating millions of movies a year and finding ways to work around a spotty electrical infrastructure—how they’re making that happen is pure fucking genius! So, there’s also a bit of that.

Jackson: In a recent interview with Jenn Joy, you had an interesting moment where you discuss the idea of possession, sustaining a tie between the living and the dead, and how the body functions within that.

Okpokwasili: Maybe that’s what I’m also trying to facilitate: the potential for a body to be possessed. What have we transferred through skin? Through genetics? What of pain? What of confusion? The body has these tunnels, these secrets, these pathways that can be opened up. Or maybe I just want to be possessed, as an audience member? Again, that’s maybe connected to the vortex. What’s flashing through my head is Maya Deren and her film Divine Horseman: the Living Gods of Haiti, which brings up questions. Who owns the body? Who can claim the body? What does it mean to have a god inhabit your body?

Of course there is a desire as a performer, as a choreographer, as a maker to find an engine to facilitate instances of possession and dispossession. It’s weird: I want to claim and hold on to something and then I want to let it go. I want to be in a state of dynamic coming together and letting go, coming together, and falling apart.

Possession is a big thing!

Poor People’s TV Room, a Walker commission, will be performed January 19–21 as part of Out There 17.

DaNCEBUMS Margaret, Karen, and Eben on Faye Driscoll’s Thank You For Coming: Play

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Margaret Johnson, Eben Kowler and Karen McMenamy of DaNCEBUMS share their perspective […]

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Photo: Maria Baranova

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Margaret Johnson, Eben Kowler and Karen McMenamy of DaNCEBUMS share their perspective on Faye Driscoll’s Thank You for Coming: PlayAgree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

All artifice at every point, Thank You For Coming: Play exists between dance and theater. Play looks at the structure of the performance, how every part functions: the director, the audience, the performers, the set, the theater. Play begins as an on-stage installation, and transitions to an extended pre-show overture before kicking off a play within a play: the origin story of Barbone. Five performers plus Faye embody dozens of characters – even themselves – to tell Barbone’s story from birth, to death, and after. The story was an absurd and over-acted farce, with tropes that hit close to home. Our audience didn’t laugh very much, but there was a lot of humor in the text and performance.

Play’s obsession with fabricating and consuming narrative raises questions of agency and control. The show opens up with the premise of co-creating the story. We are greeted by a dreadlocked witch who tells us “the story has not yet been written.” So we pitch in. When Barbone’s play starts, we learn that the story has been written. Scene by scene, we notice that none of the characters are self-aware about how the stories they tell themselves create their identities.

We see Faye interact with the story at multiple levels, seeming to be herself the entire time. She manipulates the set, interrupts and augments the narrative, and incites the audience to sing along. From the front row she pulls the strings. She even interjects herself into the climax of the show, sharing her feelings, then SPOILER kills Barbone. Who has the power to fabricate their own narrative, and who only gets to consume?

Here’s how Thank You For Coming: Play rates based on DaNCEBUMS’ Standard Performance Criteria:

Hardness

The play within the play was prepackaged, easily digestible, and entire scenes can be described in one or two sentences. The choreography closely matched the text – which makes Play not so hard for the audience. The stop motion movement demanded finite muscular control, combined with the fast switching between modes of performance and character; and the rigorous  detail in the facial expression, choreography, and vocal work all made Play hard for the performers.
3/5

Danciness
This is making us question what danciness is. Even in the more dancerly sections, we still felt that the performers were gesturing towards dance. A kind of meta-dance: dancers, playing actors, pretending to dance. Is that danciness? Their performances were hyper-embodied, and obviously choreographed. One thing is for sure, we’ll be thinking about this for a while.
[alien emoji]/ 5

Musicality
Music was used as a emotive and narrative tool. In a memorable solo, the movement felt unhinged from the music. Music was often used as a sound effect, and there was not much movement as an expression of music.
2/5

Buminess
Play was kind of like a show we made in our garage, and a show we planned to do but didn’t. Bedazzled costume pieces were used as all kinds of things (we even spied some hot-glued jewels). Using the audience as performers is kind of like using found objects for sculpture. And there were butts, also known as bums.
5/5

Relevance
Referenced current events – very relevant. There was a topical interruption that abruptly shifted the play’s emotional landscape. The line “getting all the likes,” is timely – but is that relevant? It’s the second part of a series, so very relevant if you are interested in seeing the last installment! If relevance is an experience that resonates with you where you are, the mad lib text is that – it mirrored the audience’s own stories back to us.
4/5

Pizza
A rollercoaster of pizza and not pizza.The extended intro was not pizza. The songs Barbone felt pizza. The “rage” song was pizza. Loneliness and mad-libs section were serious, not pizza. Costumes were pizza, very visually stimulating – like toppings.
1 and 5/5

TL;DR
Overheard in the audience: “My participation will be tremendous. I will participate in this play bigly.” You may participate, but who is pulling the strings?

Thank You For Coming: Play continues at the Walker through Saturday, January 14, 2017.

Ways of Playing with Faye Driscoll

This week, choreographer/director Faye Driscoll will return to the Walker as a part of the 2017 Out There festival of theater alternatives. Driscoll’s work is well-suited to Out There: often characterized as daring, original, and imaginative, she’s been called a “post-millenium, postmodern wild-woman.” Her newest work, Play, is the second in a trilogy called Thank You For Coming that proposes […]

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Thank You for Coming: Play. Photo: Maria Baranova

This week, choreographer/director Faye Driscoll will return to the Walker as a part of the 2017 Out There festival of theater alternatives. Driscoll’s work is well-suited to Out There: often characterized as daring, original, and imaginative, she’s been called a “post-millenium, postmodern wild-woman.” Her newest work, Play, is the second in a trilogy called Thank You For Coming that proposes performance as a shared political act, where performer and audience co-create reality. The first piece of the series, Attendancecaptivated Walker audiences in February of 2016; this second installment is co-commissioned by the Walker.

 Driscoll describes Play as an investigation into the consumption and fabrication of personal stories that make our lives coherent, yet broader definitions of play permeate her work well beyond this particular piece. The word “play” itself is dynamic and multifaceted, offering a relevant frame/perspective through which to view Driscoll’s work.

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You’re Me. Photo: Sally Cohn

To amuse oneself by engaging in imaginative pretense

Multiple elements evoke the “playful” feeling people describe in Driscoll’s performances, and humor is a prominent theme. In a conversation last year with the Walker’s Director and Senior Curator of Performing Arts Philip Bither, Driscoll said that she views a visceral response such as laughter as a cue that there is something interesting happening within the material. Achieving that kind of impulsive physical response is what interests her, rather than intentionally striving to make work that is humorous. Within this approach, audiences may find themselves laughing in reaction to any number of things, including those that might just be strange, uncomfortable, or unnerving. In an interview with Feministing she describes playing with a darker form of humor in her work:

“It rides the line of the deep pain from being alive, being human, and trying to connect to other people. For me it’s often an edge-that feeling of laughing and getting opened up and getting stabbed in the heart at the same time. I try to ride that line a lot.”

Driscoll’s creative process is rich in the search for these potent physical and emotional responses. With the help of imaginative games and improvisational scores, her performers construct distinct physical and emotional states that give them their dynamic presence during performances. One such game, which she developed along with her collaborator Jesse Zaritt for the piece You’re Me, involved the two performers standing across from each other attempting the impossible task of becoming the other person. Through this somewhat absurd and insistent process a third presence emerged: a warped middle-ground between Driscoll and Zaritt whom they named “Chad,” with the practice cleverly referred to as “chadding.”

Some of her games are performed live in the work, as with the puppeteering in her piece 837 Venice Boulevard. In a section of the piece, performers manipulated each other from behind as if one were a puppet, illustrating whatever the puppeteer wanted to say, or what the puppet might want to say but can’t — hinting at the subtle and not-so-subtle role manipulation can play in our interpersonal relationships. Both puppeteering and “chadding” reflect her complex humor in how they can be simultaneously amusing and raw. Through the rigor of these experiments both on and off the stage, Driscoll’s work shares an imaginative pretense that is nevertheless anchored in substantive inquiry.  

Thank You for Coming: Attendance. Photo: Maria Baranova

To be cooperative

Addressing the vulnerability, authenticity, and overall complexity of human experience in performance is a recurring interest for Driscoll. Within her work audiences are confronted with questions about how our individual human experiences overlap with others, reflecting the complex nature of our relationships. The scenes that are played out on stage are metaphors for our broader social experience, using live performance as a tool for digging deeper into various qualities of human interaction. Her research begins with the unique histories of her performers, drawing on them with a range of writing exercises and improvisational scores.  Through these kinds of exercises she fosters an ongoing interest in how the chemistry between people can be made palpable on stage. For 837 Venice Boulevard  she explains how the text comes from a very personal place for each person, and how the improvisations, games, and writing are her way to explicitly develop it with them.

Driscoll’s work also seeks to incorporate the audience in these relational dialogues. She strives to build a shared world/culture/alchemy between choreographer, performer, and audience. Anyone who experienced Thank You For Coming: Attendance can likely testify to this effort, wherein the format and presentation of the piece actively asked the audience to engage rather than simply watch. Her next piece in the Thank You For Coming series continues this effort. 

Play picks up the flag thrown by Attendance and deepens, complicates, and continues that our personalities not only change but activate in response to other people.” -Columbus Underground

Thank You for Coming: Play. Photo: Maria Baranova

To fiddle or tamper with

There is undoubtably a certain “capriciousness” in Driscoll’s work. A profile in the New York Times describes it as “a sense that any preconceived contract between audience and performers could be rewritten at any moment, in any way.” Such is the case with Thank You For Coming: Play, where she doesn’t stop with the initial interest in how narrative and stories function, but takes a step further to wonder how we dislodge them—seeking the tension in exploring unknown territory for both her and the audience. This same tension is often achieved through a kind of ambiguity, either in the narrative or the presentation. Through uncertainty and unexpected turns within the work, she opens up the opportunity for a multiplicity of responses. As an audience member, Driscoll hopes you won’t just sit back and be entertained—throughout the work you’ll notice your own way of perceiving and the assumptions that come along with it.

“I often use text to seduce the viewer so they might think, ‘I know what is happening and who those people are,’” she wrote in a feature for Dance Magazine about using text in dance. “Then I flip things on their head so that the viewer is left in the uncomfortable attempt to relocate him or herself.”

It’s about playing with the way we enter and act in the theater, with a social construct we’re familiar with. Sometimes her pieces are unpredictable in content, where at times the movement itself displays momentum thwarted, actions being cut-off before they are allowed to complete themselves; other times it’s a new kind of non-proscenium presentation that plays with our expectations.

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837 Venice Boulevard. Photo: Steven Schreiber

To put on or take part in (a theatrical performance, film, or concert)

Driscoll’s works are often called “plays” rather than “dances” (or “highly theatrical” dances). She attributes this characterization to her inclusion of elements that are more culturally associated with theater, such as facial expressions, singing, and speaking. Her performers are encouraged to take advantage of these performance tools in addition to their dance vocabulary when they’re investigating ideas or images for a piece, which become iconic components of the spirit of playful exploration that she’s known for. Driscoll’s own theatrical talents have been aided by her collaborations with theater artists like Young Jean Lee, Cynthia Hopkins, Jennifer Miller, and Taylor Mac (she choreographed Lee’s Church and Untitled Feminist Show, both commissioned and presented in previous Out There Festivals by the Walker).

Driscoll has described these collaborations as a way to step out of her usual way of working and try out a variety of palettes, taking inspiration from the differences in how directors realize their vision. In both pieces of Thank You For Coming, she includes herself as an active director throughout the performances— handing out costumes, giving feedback, or welcoming the audience.  She’s also notably unafraid of using props, which tend to show up in unexpected configurations to support the scene at hand. With her anything-goes approach, what she uses can vary wildly from moment to moment—even what you assumed was the stage may suddenly become a prop.

Driscoll is diving head first into her theatrical tendencies with Thank You For Coming: Play, which one critic described as “replete with dance, song, caricatured accents, incredible costumes, a movable and deconstruct-able set and truly versatile performers.” With this new work, the subject of play seems to be an apt frame through which to view the diversity of Driscoll’s choreographic skill, complete with all the bold and lively elements that have enchanted audiences thus far.

Thank You For Coming: Play will be performed Thursday through Saturday, January 12 – 14, 2017 in the McGuire Theater as part of the Walker’s annual Out There theater festival.

Overnight Re-view: DaNCEBUMS’s Eben Kowler and Karen McMenamy on YOUARENOWHERE

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Eben Kowler and Karen McMenamy of DaNCEBUMS share their perspective of […]

Andrew_Schneider_YOUARENOWHERE Invisible Dog, Coil festival 2015

Andrew Schneider in YOUARENOWHERE. photo: Maria Baranova

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Eben Kowler and Karen McMenamy of DaNCEBUMS share their perspective of Andrew Schneider’s YOUARENOWHEREAgree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

YOUARENOWHERE takes place in the present, literally. The protagonist is a melancholy and frenetic leading edge Millenial. Born in 1981, he could also be a Gen-xer. We meet Andrew Schneider in a white void, his presence is switched on. He sings us a 50s pop song and then speaks directly to us, the audience.

Part physics lecture, part mental breakdown, part series of personal anecdotes, part rupture in space-time. The narrative jumps around forward or backward a few seconds or minutes, in a “time is a flat circle” way. The atmosphere is permeated with a sense of inevitability, the protagonist already knows what is going to happen because it’s happened that way before. Simultaneity, destiny, chance, and his own singular existence and death are what keep this guy up at night.

We can’t get into it much more because this is a very spoilable show. Instead, here’s how YOUARENOWHERE rates based on DaNCEBUMS’ Standard Performance Criteria:

Relevance
Schneider has a lot of hype. There are SO many write-ups about his work and this show in particular. In this case hype=relevance. The lighting evoked the red, blue, and green pixels of televisions. Bright white lights recreated the glow of cell phones, and laptops. Any reference to screens, screen culture, and screeniness is relevant. He seemed pretty melancholy, which fits the post-2016 vibe. Relevant.

However, after the awe of the tricks wore off, neither of us felt like the content resolved in an impactful way. 3/5

Buminess
There were two bum-y elements, costuming and a nosebleed Schneider gets toward the end. The pants Schneider wore looked like they came from his closet, which made him feel human in an otherwise stark environment. Having a nosebleed and making no attempt to clean it up, or being totally unaware of it, is bum-y in a rock-n-roll, no-fucks-given way.

Other than that, YOUARENOWHERE is precise and professional. High-quality. 1/5

Pizza
This show was engaging from start to finish. There were a few surreal glitches and precisely executed tricks that felt very magical. Minus one pizza point for reminding me of my intro physics lecture. 4/5

Hardness
The physical feat of YOUARENOWHERE is enough to give full points for the “Hardness” category. Schneider rapidly moved around the stage and switched in and out of various modes of performance. Additionally, Schneider and company pulled off some insane moments of coordination which we won’t spoil here. 5/5

Musicality
Comprised of effects ranging from deep sonic rumbles to the familiar ding of a fresh IM, the soundscape was tightly integrated with every element of the piece. The performance was fast paced and the performers never missed a beat. There was even a song in the first act. 5/5

Danciness
A mid-show Robyn dance break was the danciest section of the show. Throughout the performance the treatment of the space was very choreographic, every movement had purpose and intention. Movement and the space affected each other, which is danciness. 4/5

TL;DR
When we were paying for parking we talked to another audience member for a minute. He said the show reminded him of one time in college when he tried mushrooms. And that seemed accurate to us.

YOUARENOWHERE continues at the Walker through Saturday, January 7.

Before Pictures: John Killacky on Douglas Crimp’s New Memoir

Douglas Crimp is a prodigious New York intellect. In his curation and critical writing of the late 1970s, he identified a group of emerging visual artists, (i.e. Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, and Sherrie Levine) appropriating popular culture images in subversive critiques. They were often referred to as the “Pictures Generation” after Crimp’s 1977 exhibition, Pictures, […]

Douglas Crimp's 2011 Artforum feature on Trisha Brown, via academia.edu

A spread from Douglas Crimp’s 2011 Artforum feature on Trisha Brown, via academia.edu

Douglas Crimp is a prodigious New York intellect. In his curation and critical writing of the late 1970s, he identified a group of emerging visual artists, (i.e. Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, and Sherrie Levine) appropriating popular culture images in subversive critiques. They were often referred to as the “Pictures Generation” after Crimp’s 1977 exhibition, Pictures, at the Artists Space gallery.

In 1987, he edited a special issue of October magazine entitled “AIDS: Cultural Analysis, Cultural Activism.” His contribution to this groundbreaking collection illuminated the engaged art strategies of various ACT UP collectives: “Their work demands a total reevaluation of the nature and purpose of cultural practices in conjunction with an understanding of the political goals of AIDS activism.”

His discursive essays brilliantly analyzed Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film, In a Year of 13 Moons, in October magazine, and Trisha Brown’s “wholly new lexicon of ordinary movement performed with effortless directness” in Artforum. Critically acclaimed books include Our Kind of Movie”: The Films of Andy Warhol and Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics.

Crimp’s latest, Before Pictures (2016), tenderly chronicles his initial years in New York City (1967–1977). Interwoven personal and professional stories create a vivid historical narrative of post-Stonewall Manhattan. Moving there after college, Crimp, “would have to learn how and where to be queer all over again” as gay sexual culture exploded around him.

Early jobs included reviewing for ARTnews, organizing the papers of society couturier Charles James, and working as a curatorial assistant at the Guggenheim Museum, while hanging out with Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling, and Joe Dallesandro. His first curatorial effort was an Agnes Martin exhibition in 1971 at the School of Visual Arts Gallery, where he was an adjunct professor.

In this hybrid memoir, the author revisits his nascent critical thinking about Agnes Martin, realizing he had been wrong to reduce her aesthetic to mathematical minimalism. He also reconciles his contradictory views on Ellsworth Kelly’s “highly intelligent and accomplished painting,” and shares details of a failed liaison with the artist.

Sexual trysts, both casual and loving, are a crucial part of his education with the West Side piers, Greenwich Village trucks, backroom bars, and outdoor public cruising as backdrops. His drug-enhanced years dancing at Flamingo, 12 West, and Paradise Garage are reverently described: “What is extraordinary about it (disco) and also show how it is symptomatic of a wider experience of pleasure in our society…”

Crimp’s burgeoning cinephile-self attended Anthology Film Archives and his balletomane obsession with George Balanchine’s neo-classicism—“in which sharp angles replace soft curves, legs turn in as well as out, feet are flexed as well as pointed, and extensions are stretched to the breaking point”was nurtured in the upper balconies of New York City Ballet’s State Theater.

As his career progressed, Crimp sojourned downtown from Spanish Harlem to Chelsea, then to Greenwich Village, Tribeca, and finally landing in the Financial District, where he presently lives. Photographs and luminous descriptions of his various apartments function as framing devices for each of the chapters, with Crimp serving as a cultural anthropologist and architectural historian.

The final chapter discusses Crimp’s career-defining Pictures exhibition, hailed by New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl as “a movement-initiating, instantly legendary group show.” That same year, 1977, Crimp became managing editor of October magazine, and under his stewardship for the next thirteen years, it became required reading in the art world.

However, Before Pictures primarily focuses on art and life in the formative decade prior to 1977. Back then he was convinced “with sufficient insight a critic could—even should—determine what was historically significant.” Reflecting back on these early years, he reconsiders: “Coming to the understanding that my knowledge of art can never be anything but partial has been liberating. It has allowed me to write about what attracts me, challenges me, or simply gives me pleasure without having to make a grand historical claim for it.”

Douglas Crimp is a pivotal figure in contemporary art and AIDS cultural activism. Before Pictures fills in his backstory. Utilizing lived experiences as a primary source, he is his own archive. In reaching into his past, he fully embodies the present, and history benefits from this erudite and compelling storytelling.

Before Pictures in available for purchase in the Walker Shop. John R. Killacky is Executive Director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont.

Overnight Re-View: Penelope Freeh on Soft Goods

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on Karen Sherman’s Soft Goods, which makes its […]

Joanna Furnans, Krista Langberg, Jessica Cressey, and Ross Orenstein in Karen Sherman’s Soft Goods (2016). Photo: Sean Smuda

Joanna Furnans, Krista Langberg, Jessica Cressey, and Ross Orenstein in Karen Sherman’s Soft Goods (2016). Photo: Sean Smuda

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on Karen Sherman’s Soft Goods, which makes its world premiere on the Walker stage December 8–10, 2016. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Soft Goods, conceived and directed by Karen Sherman, directs the eye to what is usually unseen in performance. Light is shed upon what is deliberately kept in the dark, specifically the tech folks who make performance happen. But she also draws our attention to elements that support and allow them their day in the sun: power cords, hanging lights, Genie lifts, a tool box, a puff of smoke…

Soft Goods was created collaboratively over several years at multiple residency sites where tech needs could be experimented with in rehearsal. This is a very unusual opportunity in the performance world, and utterly necessary here. Dancers and technicians are equalized, and we are treated to insider banter, jokes, and hijinks as the piece escalates.

Sherman is known for her keen wit and clever direction, and she brings these fully to bear here. Even more impressive, however, is how the work uses those platforms to reveal touching and ultimately blatantly sentimental celebrations of performance and life itself.

Work is underway when we enter the theater. Nothing is overtly theatrical; we watch the quotidian. The piece formally begins when the house lights dim and the stagehands take center stage, bantering as they work, at once readying and breaking down a show.

Enter The Dancers, a moment that is repeated to great effect, a superheroesque face-off, sublime and ridiculous. The suitcases are my favorite.

Tension ensues between the crew and cast as each vie to do their jobs, which necessarily involves claiming stage time. An exaggerated technical jargon moment among the crew reminds us that these folks bend over backwards for directors, designers, and performers. It is a subtle and touching moment underneath the comedy, reminding us that the frame is as important as what’s inside.

The culminating moment of the show is a sustained section of dance that takes place entirely behind a cyc [or cyclorama, a large curtain wall], the dancers only appearing in silhouette against a sidewall and occasionally coming into view to change a costume, take an oxygen break, or demand a prop. Random and ridiculous objects fly over the cyc, and the crew attempting to wrangle the stuff of stagecraft is hilarious, the overt exaggerations utterly rooted in truth. Philip Glass’s In the Upper Room, famously used by master choreographer Twyla Tharp, is blasted here as accompaniment, a sly wink to iconic, ballet-centric dance history.

The end envelopes us in smoke, the smell of which takes me back. I am 13, sitting backstage and watching a dance from the wings. I have friend trouble at school, but in that moment I am safe and content to be a watcher, a smeller, inhaling my future and knowing that, as far as school was concerned, I’d be okay.

Soft Goods is many things. Like the above, it is memory and safekeeping. Another is a 360-degree celebration of all of the people and stuff that give performance life.

Listening for Pauline (In Memoriam: Pauline Oliveros 1932–2016)

America lost a treasured and transformative artist on November 24, 2016, with the passing of Pauline Oliveros, composer, performer, and tenacious humanitarian. The art world lost a vital creator of new music, a renowned electronic music innovator and composer, the creator of deep listening and other experimental practices, a genius inventor of sound making software, […]

New Music America: Pauline Oliveros, "Commissioning Booth," Nicollet Mall, June 12, 1980

Pauline Oliveros performing Commissioning Booth, Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, 1980. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

America lost a treasured and transformative artist on November 24, 2016, with the passing of Pauline Oliveros, composer, performer, and tenacious humanitarian.

The art world lost a vital creator of new music, a renowned electronic music innovator and composer, the creator of deep listening and other experimental practices, a genius inventor of sound making software, and a fearless champion on issues of gender, race, ability, and sexual orientation.

I lost a beloved mentor who shaped my artistic sensibility and my core approach to living on this planet. In the words of Diamanda Galas, “The word ‘innovator’ pales in the face of Pauline’s aloneness as tribal leader, compass of the fallen, and challenger of trespass. A mighty soul has died.”

I invited Diane Willow, artist and professor at the University of Minnesota, to share stories of Pauline as a way of memorializing her legacy. Diane and I were introduced to one another by Pauline when Diane and her partner Jo. E. moved to the Twin Cities from Boston. It seemed only right to collaborate with Diane on listening for Pauline.

Eleanor Savage: My first encounter with Pauline was working on Njinga the Queen King, a collaborative theatrical project she created with her life partner, writer/director Carole Ione (IONE) in 1993. The Walker Art Center co-commissioned the work. At that time, I was the Walker’s Associate Director of Events and Production, and I was charged with getting the show up and running in Red Eye Theater’s space. This work wove together the story of Njinga, who ruled 17th-century Ndongo—now Angola—as a “king” because tribal custom forbade her to rule as a woman. The story was synthesized through song, dance, Pauline’s score and electronics, traditional Kongolese music arranged by Titos Sompas, and Brazilian music arranged by Nego Gato.

Pauline Oliveros and Ione Njinga, workshop performance "the Queen King," Red Eye collaboration, September 10, 1993

Pauline Oliveros and Carole Ione,  workshop performance of Njinga the Queen King, Red Eye Theater, September 10, 1993

I developed an instant art crush on Pauline. She was a kindred spirit in her unapologetic butch lesbian persona and fierce feministic stance. She had no qualms about taking a screwdriver to incredibly expensive electronic devises to “see what would happen if.” She was playful and had a spirited sense of humor. She talked about and modeled the integration of artistic practice with day-to-day life. And she introduced me to her deep listening practice, sharing ideas of listening versus hearing, integrating consciousness, compassion, and quantum physics: “listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what one is doing.”

Pauline taught me the art of listening.

“We listen in order to interpret our world and experience meaning.” —Pauline Oliveros

Diane: My introduction to Pauline was through a cassette tape recording of the The Well and the Gentle. My partner Jo.E. gave this to me, music for a Boston-to-Montreal drive, just as we were getting to know one another. Literally carried away by the sounds, I had to pull over to the shoulder of the road, reorient myself, and wait until I was no longer driving to fully experience her entrancing work. Transcendent is the only way that I can begin to describe my experience.

Eleanor: Shortly after the Njinga project, Pauline and composer Ellen Fullman invited me to Austin, Texas to design lights for a film shoot for a collaborative video and audio recording session for the Suspended Music Project. Fullman’s Long String Instrument was installed in The Candy Factory, which was literally a former candy factory. This instrument is made from rows of stainless steel and bronze strings, 100-feet-long, stretched taut between wooden resonators that amplify the sound. She plays it by walking along the length of its strings and rubbing them with rosined fingers.

pauline-and-accordianPauline had setup her Expanded Instrument System (EIS), an evolving electronic sound-processing environment that provides improvising musicians individual performance control over a variety of parameters during live performance. Pauline and the Deep Listening Band (Stuart Dempster and David Gamper) and Ellen with the Long String Instrument, performed Pauline’s Epitaph in the time of AIDS (Parts 1–4) and Ellen’s TexasTravelTexture (Parts 1–4).

After a full day of filming, with the usual stops and starts and take after take, Pauline announced that she wanted to play through Epitaph all the way through before we left. Everyone was exhausted, but it is impossible to say “no” to the ever-loving but indomitable Pauline Oliveros. I perched against a wall on a stack of platforms to listen. The long tones were hypnotic and I slipped into a waking dream state. I remember the feeling of movement in the air around me as if the room were filled with currents of energy. When I opened my eyes there was nothing visible. This was one of my first experiences with the way that deep listening expands the boundaries of perception.

Diane: Nearly two decades after first hearing her music, I invited Pauline to participate in the studio-based symposium I curated, Digital Dialogues: Technology and the Hand by MIT Media Labs. Jo.E. prompted the invitation by asking me whom I would invite if I could invite anyone. My immediate response was Pauline Oliveros. We had attended her mystifying performance at Mobius in Boston, involving cabbage leaves and the live transmissions of radio signals that were bouncing off of the moon.

Pauline accepted the invitation to travel to the Haystack School in rural Maine. Exquisitely perched upon granite outcroppings edging deep-water seas, the spaces designed for working with paper, metal, and clay were hybridized with all manner of digital technology that we hauled from MIT. This symposium brought together two creative communities with little permeability at the time: artists and researchers whose creative palette was digital and material based artists from the extended Haystack School community. Pauline was a wild card invitee.

My most vivid memory is of her compositional strategy for an improvisation including all of the sounds made as we transformed a meeting space, with rows of chairs facing a podium to be occupied by one, into a circle formed by everyone in the now open space. Hands accustomed to being immersed in mud and those that were habituated to keyboard coding were joined as Pauline conducted the circle. I could never have imagined friends and colleagues from the Media Lab holding hands in a circle sending tactile and vocal pulses meant to supersede the cognitive with this intuitive transmission of energy. Only Pauline could have catalyzed that.

oliveros-brahms

oliveros-beethoven

Postcards by Pauline Oliveros and Alison Knowles: Postcard Theater (1976)

Eleanor: In 2009, I did a Deep Listening Retreat with Pauline (and her ongoing partners in crime, IONE, and Heloise Gold) at the Rose Mountain retreat center in New Mexico. Pauline introduced and lead the assembled cohort in an exploration of many ideas and scores found in Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice. This immersive experience included several days of silent retreat. The beginning of this extended “no talking” time was followed by a meal. Everyone went into an odd reverential state as we ventured into silence, not looking at one another, defaulting to a quietness as well as silence. This was disrupted by a loud clatter from the end of the table where Pauline was sitting. She was trying to hang spoons off her nose and cheeks. We erupted into to laughter and joined in the fun. A spontaneous score emerged of clinking, clattering, and giggling. Pauline later talked about how not talking does not mean you can’t communicate and about the world of difference between silence and quiet.

Diane: In September of this year, Pauline was in Minneapolis where Jo.E. and I now live. She and IONE had stayed with us literally days after our move from Cambridge, Massachusetts over a decade ago (and introduced us to Eleanor). This more recent visit was made possible by the funding generosity of the Winton Chair at the University of Minnesota. She was the embodiment of this fund’s paradigm-changing directive, “an individual who challenges established patterns of thought.” Pauline brought together artists and musicians, dancers and cultural theorists, art historians, biologists, computer scientists, and architects for her Deep Listening workshops and Participatory Performance. Her reach was consciously boundless, always creating space for the emergent. Not one to be defined by disciplines nor social demarcations of separation, she composed contextual experiences that unified.

Eleanor: I am so grateful to have visited with Pauline and IONE during her September trip to the Twin Cities. In hindsight, it was a true and rare gift to see her before she left the planet. Pauline has touched so many lives. She was a virtuosic artist and thinker, a brilliant instigator and connector, and a beloved friend. She forged an extensive community of listeners during her 84 years.

Dear Pauline, we love you and will forever be listening for you, for ourselves, for humanity, and for the universe. Our hearts are with you IONE.

Diane and I invite you to share your listening stories for Pauline Oliveros.

The Heart Chant (2001)

By Pauline Oliveros © 2001 Deep Listening Publications

Stand together in a circle with feet about shoulder width apart and knees a little soft.

Warm up your hands by rubbing palms together until you feel the heat.

Place your right hand over your own heart. Place your left hand on the back of your left hand partner (back of the heart).

After a few natural breaths sing/chant/intone “AH” on any pitch that will resonate your heart. Sense the energy of your own heart and that of your partner over the course of several breaths.

Can you imagine that the heart energies are joining together for healing yourself and others?

Can you imagine heart energies traveling out into the universe as a healing for all victims and toward the end of violence?

When The Heart Chant ends, gradually release your palms and bring them forward parallel in front of you. Sense the energy between the palms as if there were a sphere or ball that can be moved around.  Then bring your palms to your own center, fold them over and store the energy.

Bringing Backstage into the Spotlight: Karen Sherman on Soft Goods

In the theater world, a raft of technicians—often clad in black and hidden just out of view of audiences—bring the work of dancers and theater artists to life on stage. They break down staging and sets and wrangle lighting units, adjust sound levels and manage “soft goods,” all the cloth elements used in productions, from drapes and curtains […]

L to R: Joanna Furnans, Krista Langberg, Jessica Cressey, Ross Orenstein in Karen Sherman's Soft Goods (2016)

Joanna Furnans, Krista Langberg, Jessica Cressey, and Ross Orenstein in Karen Sherman’s Soft Goods (2016). Photo: Sean Smuda

In the theater world, a raft of technicians—often clad in black and hidden just out of view of audiences—bring the work of dancers and theater artists to life on stage. They break down staging and sets and wrangle lighting units, adjust sound levels and manage “soft goods,” all the cloth elements used in productions, from drapes and curtains to scrims and masking. Their technical skill is matched by an ability to recede from view. In her new, Walker-commissioned dance/performance work, Minneapolis-based artist Karen Sherman looks at another type of “soft goods,” bringing the humanity of these crew members—and their vulnerabilities and mortality—into the spotlight in an arresting examination of labor, life, and loss. A longtime stagehand (including for many Walker productions) and independent dancer and choreographer, Sherman explicitly interweaves the two for the first time in Soft Goods. On the eve of the work’s December 8–10 world premiere, she sat down with scenic designer Kate Sutton-Johnson, who served as dramaturg on the show, to discuss Soft Goods, the tragedies that sparked it, and the challenges of crossing between worlds as performer and technician.

Kate Sutton-Johnson: Can you give us some basic background about Soft Goods? When did you first conceive of the idea that would ultimately become this new work?  

Karen Sherman: I’ve been a stagehand for as long as I’ve been a dancer/choreographer—since the early ’90s. The fact that I’ve worked both sides of the stage for so long has always informed my work in both fields: as a technician I understand where artists are coming from, and as a choreographer I know how to realize my work from a technical standpoint. But until recently I’d never considered making a show explicitly about this dual perspective.

I often backdate the project to 2012 when two technician friends of mine died within about a week of each other—one from alcoholism and one from suicide. One had been dead for a week before he was discovered, and the other’s body wasn’t found for four months. Production work requires you to disappear so expertly, and it struck me that these guys managed to slip away unnoticed even in death. The week we found out I was working a load-in at the Walker, where I’d first worked with both of them. We were hanging lights and trying to talk about it all, but there was no time and space to process the loss because, well, we had a show to install. The irony of that struck me. I began thinking about all of the death imagery in technician culture—the long hours; never seeing daylight; wearing black all the time; drinking too much and not sleeping enough; listening to disembodied voices over your headset; being entombed in booths, wings, dark cavernous spaces; thinking about the load-out as you load-in, which is thinking about endings even as you’re building and creating… I thought how spending so many hours steeped in that mindset influences how you experience the world outside of work—and yet the hours are so demanding there rarely is a world outside of work.

I’d long been aware of this, of course. I had a technician friend commit suicide more than 20 years ago. Her memorial was held in the theater where she worked and was mostly attended by production people, so of course afterward everyone went up the street to a bar, even though it was the middle of the day. She had hanged herself with electrical cord, and I remember one of the guys saying admiringly that she’d gone out like a true electrician. I was shocked by the deification, but I recognized the tendency, particularly in young male stage electricians, to revere self-brutality. Yet they are also a smart, literate bunch in the business of creating things, so they can appreciate artful gestures—as hers was. Still, the exaltation was chilling. So Soft Goods looks at the reality of the hazards but also the fetishizing of them in the industry. I’ve been careful not to pathologize the field—people struggle with depression and alcoholism in every profession, and to the degree the show is looking at those issues, we’re simply using the images and tools of our work to do so. The reason I called it Soft Goods was to get at this idea. “Soft goods” is an industry term for stage curtains, but here I mean it as a reference to the humanity, vulnerability, and mortality of the crew. They are the soft goods.

Karen Sherman. Photo: Aaron Rosenblum

Karen Sherman. Photo: Aaron Rosenblum

Sutton-Johnson: I hadn’t thought of a double meaning for that term. I love that. I totally agree about the fetishizing of destructive habits inside the industry. I see it all the time, and I’m not entirely outside of it myself. It’s easy to fall into this kind of boundary-less mode, working an absolutely absurd number of hours for example. It becomes normalized to neglect your family, friends, and your own health. And there’s a strange pride in the sacrificing. Maybe it’s the neglect of what we need that proves how truly indispensable we are to the work. All of this is quite dangerous, actually, as we both know. So, yeah, this world you’re cracking open, I certainly recognize it.

Sherman: The indispensable thing is huge. In both dance and production you’re given the message that the project can’t happen without you (which is why you have to miss out on so many things or why you push yourself so hard), and yet it’s also implied that you could be replaced at the drop of a hat. It’s a very cruel dynamic.

To address this through tangible means, we’ve partnered with Behind the Scenes, a charity that provides financial assistance to production personnel struggling with illness or injury. I approached them about starting a new grant designed specifically to help alleviate the costs of mental health and substance abuse counseling. They’re launching it in conjunction with the show. We’ll be raising money for it, and the Walker is generously donating $1 of every ticket sold to the fund. It’s like the real-world social service version of the project.

Sutton-Johnson: Wow, awesome. Can you talk a little bit about how this piece was created with the ensemble of performers?

Sherman: I’ll do my best! First off, we’re calling it a dance but it’s really more of a dance/play/performance/exhibition of manual labor. The performance itself is structured like a live load-in, tech, and rehearsal for a show that never happens. We couldn’t make it in a rehearsal studio because we needed access to gear, equipment, lights, which as tools of the trade contextualize the human beings. Plus, the movement and choreography of the gear is part of the larger idea of “dance” in the show. So we made it almost entirely in production residencies in fully equipped theaters. Production residencies are rare in the dance world but we were very fortunate to have several partners who offered them, including the Walker, Alverno Presents, Concordia University, and LUMBERYARD.

Sherman Soft Goods sidearm cartphoto by Gene Pittman

An equipment rack, built by Walker lighting supervisor Jon Kirchhofer, in Karen Sherman’s Soft Goods (2016). Photo: Gene Pittman

I went in with a long list of images, ideas, and themes, and it was just a matter of figuring out how to manifest them. Rehearsals consisted of a lot of experiments in examining how the two worlds could overlap. For example, the crew had five minutes to verbally describe how to hang a stage curtain—no gestures or acting out the task—while the dancers wrote down whatever words, phrases, or images stuck out to them. Then the dancers had five minutes to create choreography based on their notes. In another example, the dancers had a trio that moved through the room with each dancer orbiting around the other. They taught it to the crew—just where they went in space and in relationship to each other, subtracting any “dance.” Then crew used that pattern while executing very basic tasks. We each made “memorials” using only lighting cues, shutter cuts and bodies in space. We used the IATSE [International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees] vocabulary test prep sheet to create text and original movement (there’s a move called “trim chain”). There was a lot of this culling from each others’ work and worlds.

Sutton-Johnson: Oooh, the “trim chain” move. Nice. I may have to learn that one to be ready for when you’re auditioning set designers for performance roles. Hey, it could happen, right?

Sherman: Maybe it already is happening and you’ve already been hired! 

Sutton-Johnson: Ha! So, speaking of casting, there are distinct roles that the performers play that reflect their real-life identities. Did this make the work harder or easier? What were you looking for when you cast the piece?

Sherman: Well, there are 10 core people in the project—dancers, technicians, designers, administrators. Everyone performs in the role they usually perform in their working life, and to some degree they may be performing as a version of themselves as individuals. But the great thing about live performance is that we get to point to, yet free ourselves from, our real lives. So in this show people are being somewhat true to their nature but only to the degree that it is being shaped and mediated by the story we’re telling. I’ve asked the performers to represent external identities, ideas, and certainly stereotypes to a greater degree than I typically do. They’re representing points of view that they don’t necessarily align with and are stand-ins for ideas about sex, gender, and power in our professions. In terms of what I was looking for in casting, I was pretty open-minded. But I was looking for a sensitivity to and awareness of the emotional, psychic hazards of living your life in a theater. Everyone in the show has been incredibly generous, insightful, brave, and willing. I imagine they could have made this show without me.

L to R: Ross Orenstein, Andy Kedl, Zachary Humes, Krista Langberg, Jessica Cressey, Joanna Furnans

Ross Orenstein, Andy Kedl, Zachary Humes, Krista Langberg, Jessica Cressey, and Joanna Furnans in Soft Goods. Photo: Sean Smuda

Sutton-Johnson: Mm-hm, sure they could. [Audible sighing.] Well, speaking of your faint, hardly necessary presence, I know that during the creation of Soft Goods you wrestled with what your role should be inside the piece. Can you talk about that?

Sherman: The performer/technician crossover is not uncommon in the theater world, but it is rare in dance. The tech world is male-dominated and male-populated. Dance is dominated by women and gay men (though men have more power and opportunity in the field). So the fact that I’m a queer woman who is both a technician and a dancer is actually unusual. Of course, there are many variations and places on the spectrums of identity, but this project was trying to root itself in the complications of the status quo—I stayed true to a lot of stereotypes that have been my observed reality (most technicians are male, most dancers are female, most people working in either field in the contemporary touring dance world are white, etc.). Because of this, the reality of my duality had no place in the piece even as it was the locus for it. Yet presenting myself as only a dancer or only a crew member felt false. Still, there was no escaping that I was in control and directing things. So I’ve tried to acknowledge that.

Sutton-Johnson: Interesting. I’ve never heard you talk about it that way, but I completely understand what you mean. I’d like to touch again on the other two groups of performers: dancers and stagehands. Does it matter who has more power or which group the audience may identify with more strongly? Was it important to maintain a sense of balance in the piece? Is it important who controls the narrative?

Sherman: No, the identification doesn’t matter. I think there is balance between the groups, but it’s through them being shown differently than you are used to seeing them; we get to know the dancers by how little they do and the crew by how much. And let’s be honest, these are two very arcane professions that don’t hold societal power anywhere outside of a theater. They are each beautifully metaphoric for so many things—labor, power, death, race, sex, gender, loss, aloneness, suffering, isolation, self-erasure, aliveness, the body, relationship. I could make a million shows from this show. My goal was to pull them all into one piece. Which is impossible but also not. I think if you go in to this show with an agenda of what you want to see—a display of technical virtuosity, a meditation on loss, a cheeky lament on the lives of dancers, a visual poem—you will find that thing. I know that comes somewhat at my expense; I’ll want you to have all agendas and you may only have one. But that’s show biz.

Sutton-Johnson: So perhaps this has to do with my vantage point and what I’m looking for in the piece—my agenda, as you say—but I’m aware of a palpable tension throughout the piece between the stagehands and dancers. Sometimes this sense of conflict seems comical, and at other times, painful. Can you talk about the element of tension in the piece?

Sherman: Well, can you say more about your role as a designer? Someone who is neither crew nor performer but a unique role entirely? (I feel like my place in this piece is with the designers—I literally sit next to the lighting designer. In terms of the hierarchies, Designer is to Crew as Choreographer is to Dancers.)

Sutton-Johnson: Well, yeah, for me it feels a bit like a straddling act between the stagehands, the performers, and a third thing: the artistic vision. I want the performers to feel empowered and taken care of inside the process. I want the same thing for the stagehands, and I also want them to feel like the project—the artistic vision—is worthy of their best work and commitment. Demanding a lot of the crew without alienating them can be very difficult, and an absolute nightmare process is one where the crew is totally resistant. I find that I’m usually met with skepticism or at least some wariness when I step into the space with them, and so the initial impression I make on the crew is critical, I think. A make-it-or-break-it moment. Behind what I always hope is a relaxed, confident façade, I’m usually feeling pretty desperate for the crew’s help, their problem solving, willingness to hustle, focus, etc. It’s a neediness I hate, but at the same time, I have no interest in making art alone. Having to give up control comes with the territory, but it’s not easy and so, yes, clearly I’m very conscious of tension. It very well could be that I’ve zeroed in on this in Soft Goods. Perhaps I’ve even noticed it where you didn’t intend it. What do you think?

Sherman: I relate to so much of what you’ve said here, Kate: “the third thing”; taking care of people; wanting people to feel a part of the vision while also having to ask them to do things; the neediness against the difficulty in ceding control. The fact that I do both jobs complicates how crews see me as well as how I present myself to them initially when I’m “the artist.” It has sometimes worked well for me when my production background is known right away. Other times it raises suspicions. I’m sure the fact that I’m a woman complicates this even more. I think if I were a male artist/technician most crews would be more likely to right away believe that I knew what I was doing (even if I didn’t).

L to R: Andy Kedl, Zachary Humes, Ross Orenstein, Emily McGillicuddy

Andy Kedl, Zachary Humes, Ross Orenstein, and Emily McGillicuddy in Soft Goods. Photo: Sean Smuda

Sutton-Johnson: Do you feel like this piece is in conversation with any of your previous work?

Sherman: I think often my work deals with a certain amount of violence, loss, and a scrappy beauty, though the violence is usually more implied and internalized than acted out. For sure, these themes are present throughout Soft Goods and certainly within the reality of my day-to-day work as a stage technician and dancemaker. Both fields deal with self-sacrifice whether the public is aware of it (the romance of the suffering, passion-driven dancer) or not (the invisibilized stagehand who worked 70 hours that week). My work is also usually quite funny and wry. Soft Goods deals with a lot of big themes, but it’s also funny and beautiful and (deceptively) simple. I think that would describe most of the work I make. I hope.

Sutton-Johnson: Can we circle back to something you talked about earlier regarding the rather unusual tech demands associated with rehearsing this piece? The necessities of a theater space and a significant amount of lighting gear made the creation of Soft Goods a serious logistical challenge. Can you speak to that and also to how this will impact you as the piece tours and plays in different kinds of spaces?

Sherman: I refer to it as the show that eats itself. From a logistical standpoint, this is the hardest show I’ve ever made. Just finding rehearsal spaces that suited our needs, that were available when all 10 of us were, and raising the money to pay for it was extremely involved. I’m used to making a piece in a rehearsal studio over a couple of years with time to come and go from ideas. But with Soft Goods, every time we worked it would be for a solid 40- to 60-hour week. It was basically like being in constant tech, which as you know is not the most low-stress environment! Then the week would end and I’d spend months just writing grants, trying to set up the next residency, and having no hands-on creation time. It was very all or nothing. Making a show under those conditions was definitely a new challenge. The show has turned out to be quite tuned to its own poetics; how to make those resonate in different venues requires more adaptations than I’d like. We go to PS122 (New York) and Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA (Los Angeles) in 2017. They’ve co-commissioned the show along with the Walker. The Walker is one of the few US venues presenting contemporary dance of this genre that actually has a fly system, so we were always going to have to adapt it to fixed grid houses on tour. But we did turn down a few opportunities due to lack of a suitable venue. That was very hard, but it was the right thing to do. You can’t always know at the beginning the constraints you’ll have built by the end. I’ve spent years having to adapt shows to challenging conditions so prioritizing rather than sacrificing the needs of Soft Goods has been a lovely line to hold.

Sutton-Johnson: Yes, that also makes me think about how defining the limitations of the art can be the biggest challenge but ultimately the thing that feels the most freeing. Seeing the edges of it means that you finally know what in the world it is. I think that’s been my experience as an artist, anyway.

Sherman: Yes, as if the world did turn out to be flat after all!

photo by Sean Smuda

A ball of gaffer’s tape in Soft Goods (2016). Photo: Sean Smuda

Sutton-Johnson: So, big picture: what are your hopes for Soft Goods?

Sherman: Well, Kate, as you know, Soft Goods has been fraught with some pain for me because my lighting designer and our close, mutual friend, Carrie Wood, died unexpectedly in March, midway through the process. After that, every time I went back to work on the project it felt like renewed trauma. I wasn’t sure how I could even continue the piece. (I felt a related feeling after the election: how do I go back to work after this?) I eventually found my way back, but there was just so much… I don’t even know… the word ”pain” almost ties it up with too pretty of a bow. There was something profoundly fatiguing and enervating in there. A looming dread that I had shackled myself to. But recently, I could feel how the show had grown its own legs and set out on its identity. It’s cliché and hokey, but we give life to these projects and then they exist outside of us. So that has freed me, released me from much of the pain and struggle. I feel proud and moved by what we’ve made so far. And incredibly lucky to work in such a beautiful, expansive medium. I’m looking forward to shepherding Soft Goods along. It’s like my new companion. It’s very alive, which is ironic considering some of its themes. It’s also weirdly uplifting. But I’ve come to think that our work can be a place to alchemize sorrow and cruelty and turn them into energy and image, something beyond ourselves. It’s like burning off the excess to be left with a substance more pure. So I hope that for the show as well as for myself.

Karen Sherman’s Soft Goods makes its world premiere in the Walker’s McGuire Theater December 8–10, 2016. 

Meet the Artists of Choreographers’ Evening 2016

In the upcoming 44th Annual Choreographers’ Evening, curator Rosy Simas brings together a group of 11 choreographers in an inclusive look at dance being made in the Twin Cities. Simas, a well-known performer/curator/Native American activist/educator, selected works that “complement each other, dances that reflect the times we live in, and dances that will create thought provoking […]

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Left to right: Paula Mann, Greg Waletski, Taja Will, Koua Mai Yang, matt regan, Charles Campbell, Megan Mayer, Magnolia YSY, Erin Drummond, Holo Lue Choy, Laura Selle-Virtucio. Photo: Gene Pittman

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Left to right: Iris Meszaros, Deja Stowers, Jaime Ramberg, Alana Rucker, Madelyn Yang, Joelle Fernandez, Zack Nguyen, Akiko, Andy Mor, Bella Roberts, Vera Meszaros, Frankie Hebres. Photo: Gene Pittman

In the upcoming 44th Annual Choreographers’ Evening, curator Rosy Simas brings together a group of 11 choreographers in an inclusive look at dance being made in the Twin Cities. Simas, a well-known performer/curator/Native American activist/educator, selected works that “complement each other, dances that reflect the times we live in, and dances that will create thought provoking conversation among audiences.”

In advance of their performances, I asked the participating choreographers a few questions about the nature of their work, their artistic process, their influences, and their thoughts on being involved in Choreographers’ Evening. What follows is a brief introduction to each of the artists, who together represent a wide range of vital dance makers in Minnesota.

Erin Drummond

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Photo: Emma Voorhes

Where do you find inspiration?

I find inspiration in the shifting wild presence that lingers in places and moments beyond the contours of linguistic comprehension and ordinary perception. I’m compelled to tap into currents in this liminal realm to help mobilize and heal stuck, scarred aspects of our communal web.

What interests you about an “interdisciplinary” approach to dance-making?

Disciplines are only temporary designations, meant to hone particular skill sets and modes of expression. I’m interested in dancing beyond the edges as a means to liberate the needs of the art: if this little art ghost wants to live between the bridge and water, so be it. I’ll give it spider’s silk to fly there.

Joelle Fernandez

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Photo:  Julius “Juicee” Johnson

What kinds of techniques and dance forms influence your choreographic style?

Hip Hop, House Dance, Krump, Karate, and Filipino Folk Dance influence my choreographic style. While I possess a strong foundation in those dance forms, I ditch mirrors and I base my choreography off of feeling rather than appearance. My anger admittedly fuels me. There are so many injustices all over the world. As an artist, I feel a duty to use my platforms to say what needs to be said as clear as possible. I don’t want audiences leaving with their own interpretation of our personal stories. I want audiences to leave knowing exactly what we meant to say. I am inspired by real world issues, my family’s immigration story, my friends and students, and my dedication to authenticity of the styles I do and the communities I belong to.

What do you hope to learn from presenting your work at Choreographers’ Evening?

Presenting White Privilege at Choreographers’ Evening is going to be exciting. Community/authentic hip hop is rarely put on large stages. My colleagues and I will learn how the general Twin Cities population feels about not only our art form, but our message. When we performed this piece at our own show in July 2016, the audience felt healed and inspired. Performing this piece for an audience that is mainly white and not exposed to underground hip hop will be truly interesting. There is a lot of pressure for hip hop dancers all over to conform to the mainstream industry’s expectations like entertaining huge audiences to clean and happy pop music with flashy moves. There is a lot of pressure for hip hop dancers in the Twin Cities to be highly influenced by modern and contemporary dance because there’s a lot of that here, to put it simply. It is imperative to us that we stay raw and true to ourselves.

 

Robert Keo

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Photo: Clarence Chan

How do you describe your style of moving/making?

My style of moving is deeply rooted in Popping and couples with sounds from my upbringing in the Bronx or sounds that speak to my life and experience now. I usually begin with a personal point of tension or question around issues of individuality, fatherhood and marriage, masculinity, racism, and privilege, like what it means to stay true to my street dancing roots as my locale and context have changed. I think my dance is really an attempt to make sense of, negotiate, and ultimately embrace change, conflict, and complexity.

My choreography is shaped by the physical space I’m dancing in and by the audience I’m dancing in front of, which is why I’m a firm believer of not doing the same performance more than once.

What unique contribution do you hope to bring to this Choreographers’ Evening?

My personal narrative and perspective on life, which I hope other working people can relate to. For Solo Dolo No Mo, I am going to dance like nobody’s watching because I feel like I’m always on and going through the motions inherent to being in a capitalist society. Dance enables me to break away from those confines as it becomes less about mass consumption and exploitation, and more about individual meaning and expression. This performance, in particular, is a vulnerable, solitary, and rebellious act of materializing my thoughts and feelings while being present.

 

Paula Mann

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Photo: Courtesy of the artist

How does teaching influence your artistic practice and/or choreography?

This is my 44th year of dancing, and my 28th year of teaching. As a mid-career choreographer, I have survived long enough to have experienced many cycles in my work. I created my first dance at age 14, very soon after I began studying Modern Dance and Improvisation. During the post-modernist movement of the late 1970’s-1980’s, I attended N.Y.U. and was part of the downtown dance scene in New York for 10 years.

The process of teaching and creating dances are inextricably linked for me. They feed each other; when practiced together, I can tap into the creative current more readily. Both require a deep understanding of energy and out flow. Teaching is a service to others, but also engages me creatively and challenges me to fully embody the material I’m teaching. Dance making is more insular in the first stages; I have to go within, become absorbed in my imagination and then translate the ideas in some way.

How has you work shifted over your career?

My work continues to evolve over time; in the early days I was inspired and influenced by ideas and aesthetics that were different than mine. I was learning, soaking everything in. Later I began to discern and evaluate my own vision. What is uniquely mine that I can contribute? I began to look for articulation and distinction in movement more specifically.

What is unknown and perhaps unknowable?  I allow myself the freedom to experiment and investigate incongruent ideas. It doesn’t always work out. I try to blend together a story, a structure, and an idea that has meaning for me, expressed through the energy of my movement. Somehow I try to reconcile my observations of the external world with my unexplored inner material, the story beneath the story.

I’m still able to tap into the excitement, the physicality and the energy release that is dancing to me. I continue to be engaged in an emotional, imaginative and magical place. What excited me was how moving through space and time connected me to my inner self, to the depth of emotions that felt like I was experiencing the “real” reality, not just business as usual.

Over the years I’ve gotten better at making my work more specifically distinguished from the work of others, and really looking inside myself by being honest about what I have to contribute to this field.

 

Megan Mayer

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Photo: Megan Mayer

What are some key words or phrases you use to describe your aesthetic?

I obsess over minimalism, mimicry, tenderness, wry humor, loneliness, fake bad timing, exacting musicality and understatement. I like to explore internal terrain, subtlety and tiny emotional undercurrents that resonate in the body. I am an artist working with choreography, dance, experimental video and photography. I construct a unique perspective of what dance can be: virtuosity in vulnerability and a victory in a gesture. Drawn to the edges of the experience of performing: the anticipatory rapid heartbeat before going onstage, and the regretful relief after exiting, my work often reveals where that switch lives in the body. I feel most like myself when I am onstage being other people.

How do you incorporate your interests in experimental video and photography into your practice/performance?

For the Choreographers’ Evening piece, which is part of This is supposed to be my fertile window, an evening-length work I premiered in 2016, I studied photographs of Cecile Richards and tried to copy her gestures and facial expressions as she testified in front of Congress on behalf of Planned Parenthood. Videotaping myself is another way to extend and curate the frame and focus; sometimes video is part of my process of choreographing, and sometimes the choreographic process results in a fully-realized video work. With video, I have more control over framing, editing and time than I do in a live performance. Sometimes, if I’m feeling stuck choreographically, I’ll set up the camera up and improvise something seemingly unrelated to the piece I’m making. Reviewing that footage often provides a breakthrough and tells me where I should go next in the dance. In general, I use film clips and still images from film or photography as a starting point for creating movement. Photographs are useful in that they reveal movement quirks and unique physicalities and suggest what to enhance or feature. My first goal is to try to make a compelling stage picture; locomotion is secondary. When working with a group, I often photograph the performers talking casually before or after rehearsal and pore over them later. The chemistry I see amongst the cast in the photographs and who they are as individuals tells me where I need to focus.

 

Crystal Norcross

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Photo: Jenelle Abts

Describe the starting point of the piece you’ll be presenting at Choreographers’ Evening.

Well first off a little history on the dance. It started in the southwest region of the United States. Many tribes lay claim to this visually appealing dance. But is has recently sprung up across native America and is very special dance that tells stories and teachings about life. When the dance is first started the dancer will start with one hoop. She will eventually work her way up to however many hoops she desires. You will see all kinds of transformation from plants to eagles to spiritual beings.

What is appealing to you about being included in this Choreographers’ Evening?

I am so happy to share the knowledge and wisdom that this dance has. I’m happy that I can give a piece of who I am to the audience. This dance varies from each dancer. So for me to give my story and my heart to the audience brings me great honor.

 

Akiko Ostlund

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Photo:  John Lombardi

You often use the word “fusion” to describe your work – what does this describe about your dancing?

I think about the word a lot. The genre of dance I do is called ” tribal fusion belly dance,” and I am definitely trained within the genre for the first three years of studying dance. So when someone asks me what type of dance I do, there is no way around it but to use the word “fusion.” But it’s not my favorite word because it sounds less serious, less authentic, less genuine, and less sincere.

The word “fusion” describes that I am continuously learning elements from different dance styles and try to fuse them with what I already know. I am always wondering how I can do so without ending up stealing and poorly copying other dance styles.

How does your work fit into the themes of Simas’ curatorial vision for this Choreographers’ Evening?

My work is about the hassle of, not only cis women, but all femme presenting people in rape culture.

Now, that didn’t start this year, it’s not a new thing. Misogyny and rape culture, however, are still problems we face today. So I brought this piece to the CE audition.

 

Laura Selle Virtucio with Holo Lue Choy

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Her Kind with Holo Lue Choy. Photo: courtesy of the artist

You were once referred to in an interview as having “no ambition to choreograph.” How has that changed?

I have been a dancer in this community for a long time; it sometimes seems that choreography is expected of me at this stage. It has never been a goal for me. I care very much about what is being made when I’m working with a choreographer. My ideas and movement are often pulled into what someone else is making.  I have felt respected as a collaborator during much of my Minneapolis dance career. But I have trepidation about what I might be able to accomplish as a sole dance-maker. The times I’ve created work have been when a young dancer has looked to me for collaboration and mentoring. I see it as an opportunity to support an individual voice and to practice craft. That process I have enjoyed immensely. So, with this iteration of Her Kind, the work is my structure, but Holo and I have co-authored the details. Three dancers have contributed their voices while performing this work in the past and now Holo will share her voice. There is a parallel journey that these dancers have had in doing this particular work to my own journey working with the choreographers who have shaped my career. I hope to reflect back what I’ve experienced: a community that makes room for diverse voices and that challenges one to overcome fear.

 

Deja Stowers – BLAQ

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Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Where does this piece fit in the general trajectory of your creative work, and what are the most important questions driving your work right now?

My work is derived from real life experiences. I am interested in reliving and processing these experiences for artists in order to learn from them. I am most interested in how Black people in “America” are surviving and thriving in a world that was built by us but not for us. I explore the homelessness and displacement of my people but also soak in the vastness of what it means to be Black. How we stretch and shrink in the presence of joy and heart filled laughter. It is important that in BLAQ’s process we live through both. BLAQ is a company uninterested in performance but is drawn to “observance.” I believe that the observers are just that, observers. They play a role just by being in the room. WE SEE THEM. But our process is not packaged for them. It isn’t a message in a bottle. and it most importantly isn’t a truth that is open for critique. Though my work is geared to evoke social change and is in fact a social gathering, everyone has the right to give or get what they want from the process. BLAQ is process-based. The product is the process not to be bought and sold, but kept sacred and respected.

 

Taja Will

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Photo: Kari Mosel

What’s important about using dance as your platform for creative expression?

I create performance with the moving body, which for me includes extensions of the body including voice and the spiritual practice of presence. I move to know the viscera of my own human body and its likeness to others, I move to listen to its intelligence, I move to research and I move to communicate. The body is my vehicle, my language for relating.

Talk a little about your practice and how it frames your choreography.

My practice is based in somatic modalities, energy medicine and structured improvisation. I work from a place of inquiry or research, in Bruja I am curious to excavate my ancestral lineage from my cellular intelligence. As an international adoptee I’ve lost my understanding of homeland and genetic resonance. This theme has informed much of my work and I still don’t feel complete with this research. The solo evolves as more of a soul’s journey, less of a human experience. I am using my spiritual practice and somatic movement research as a centerpoint to communicate with the unknown lineage held by my body. In performance the research is framed by an aesthetic of spontaneity, improvisation itself and the audience as witness to something that is immediately personal and somehow universal.

 

Magnolia Yang-Sao-Yia

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Photo: Bruce Silcox

How does your identity as a Hmong woman influence your choreography?

Not all my work engages in the Hmong identity, but my identity as a Hmong woman, Asian-American woman, and woman of color will always affect, nurture, and define the lens that I have in order to navigate through this world. The term woman is the identity that most confines and defines why I choose to address patriarchy in the many spaces I occupy. In this piece specifically, it is important and relevant to have Hmong women occupy and claim the performance space, and to make our presence known and extant considering the demographics of the Twin Cities. My choreography is always an extension of me and my experiences, and a reaction to our times. It’s time to make our stories and histories be seen as relevant.

Describe your relationship to social justice in your work.

I would have never came to a social justice approach to my work if it wasn’t for my mentor, Ananya Chatterjea. All dance is political. Nothing is apolitical. Therefore, intentionality and craft is really important for me in order to get my message across in the way that I want it to come across. Personal interpretation is inevitable, but if I can engage my community and audience members through the images and energy I am producing, then I have also engaged them in social justice work. Social justice is the continuous force that drives my passion for thinking, making, helping, loving, creating bridges among our differences, and my work is the outlet in which it is being manifested.

Choreographers’ Evening 2016, curated by Rosy Simas, takes place on November 26 at 7 pm and 9:30 pm in the Walker’s McGuire Theater.

The Walker’s 12-Year Adventure with Jérôme Bel

In advance of our November 1–4 Jérôme Bel: Bookend Festival, performing arts curator Philip Bither reflects on the Walker’s decade-long commitment to this French conceptual choreographer’s work and development.  Since it began in the early 1960s, the Walker Performing Arts department has committed itself across artistic platforms and years (often decades) to key transformative artists. These artists’ […]

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Jérôme Bel. Photo courtesy the artist

In advance of our November 1–4 Jérôme Bel: Bookend Festival, performing arts curator Philip Bither reflects on the Walker’s decade-long commitment to this French conceptual choreographer’s work and development. 

Since it began in the early 1960s, the Walker Performing Arts department has committed itself across artistic platforms and years (often decades) to key transformative artists. These artists’ embrace of constant evolution and self-challenge significantly impacted their art forms—in the process changing how we think about the live arts. Whether it be Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, or Meredith Monk in the 1960s and ’70s; Philip Glass or Mabou Mines in the ’70s and ’80s; Bill Frisell, Eiko & Koma, John Zorn, or Bill T. Jones in the ’80s; Ralph Lemon in the ’90s; or Cynthia Hopkins, Jason Moran, Sarah Michelson, or Young Jean Lee in the ’00s, each of these artist-Walker relationships, many of which continue to this day, share important DNA. They began when the artists were lesser known. The commitments encompassed residencies, presentations, commissions, new scholarship, and sometimes even exhibitions and acquisition. Looking back, they form something of a spine for Performing Arts at the Walker, allowing us (curatorially) and our audiences (experientially) to go deeper with these artists, engendering heightened understanding of their ideas, their artistic processes, and the impact they were having on their art forms and on our larger world. All of the relationships are based in deep connections between staff and artists, fueled by curatorial admiration, empathy, and passion.

Our ongoing history with French choreographer Jérôme Bel is emblematic of these affiliations. Since 2005, the Walker has been the most consistent home for Bel’s work in North America. When I first experienced his work in 2003, I was not only moved by its freshness and intelligence, but also taken with the contradictory tendencies he was somehow able to balance within himself. A dance conceptualist/philosopher noted for his intellectual rigor, he is also an unapologetic populist and humanist. An artist aiming to radically subvert dance and theater, he frequently proclaims his love of both disciplines and regularly creates structures for compelling movement framed by a brilliant understanding of theatrical time. While gaining respect in the halls of academia and in the thin air of contemporary art’s upper curatorial altitudes, he had a common-man’s disheveled, self-deprecating personality and a wickedly droll sense of humor. He invents works with strict frames and hard-and-fast rules, but within them he allows for great individuality and personal freedom. He refuses to subject human emotion to derision or even suspicion but instead creates work that elicit joy, discomfort, compassion, and ennui. Like most past Walker-connected performance innovators, his work is not universally praised—it spawns apostles and fierce antagonists in equal measure.

Roma, Auditorium Parco della Musica 02 / 06 / 2004 - LA FRANCIA SI MUOVE - Festival di Danza Contemporanea Nella foto: 'THE SHOW MUST GO ON' di Jerome Bel Ph Riccardo Musacchio & Flavio Ianniello

Jérôme Bel, The show must go on. Photo: Mussacchio Laniello

Several years ago, in the early stages of planning our 2016–2017 season, we decided to raise our commitment to Jérôme Bel to a new level. We borrowed the notion of a mid-career retrospective from our visual art colleagues, but befitting ephemeral art, we conceived of it as a retrospective with an elastic sense of time. We sought to devise a sort of festival that would “bookend” the four past Bel works the Walker had shown—The show must go on (in 2005), Pichet Klunchun and Myself (in 2007), Cédric Andrieux (in 2011), and Disabled Theater (in 2013)—by presenting Bel’s newest large-scaled work as well as a remount of an important early signature work. With these two works, we aimed to close the circle while filling in essential gaps for our audiences. To allow greater depth, we added in the middle an evening-long curatorial conversation with Bel including a showing of one of his most revered dance films.

Preparing for his visit this week, a few memories of our past Jérôme Bel works came to mind. When I first saw a tape of Bel’s The show must go on in 2003, I was totally intrigued, but not entirely sure what I was seeing. It felt like a new, almost dangerous but electrifying type of proposition by a theatrical artist to the audience. Several leading US presenters (Chuck Helm at the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, and Cathy Edwards at New York’s Dance Theater Workshop) joined us to build a tour for this large-scale work (more than 20 people traveling from Europe), which would be the first US exposure to Bel’s work.

When I met him in Paris a few months after locking in the tour, Jérôme remained reluctant, convinced Americans would hate his work. I reassured him, but privately I wasn’t all that sure. We planned to present The show must go on in the opening months of the then-new McGuire Theater in April 2005, but when construction got delayed, I moved the performance to the Pantages on Hennepin Avenue, where I thought the historical theatrical trappings and more commercial setting offered an even healthier friction between space and content. While we struggled to attract full audiences, the nearly 1,000 folks who came out over two evenings connected directly with the tension, intensity, radicality, and ultimately humanistic experimentation. Jérôme was surprised but thrilled that Americans responded so positively.  The total emptiness on stage at the start (as the DJ played “Tonight” from the soundtrack of West Side Story) and the other forms of minimalism and statis provoked people in different ways—nervous chuckling, shout outs, at one point two well-dressed couples out for a night on the town, jumped up in the aisles to create their own dance, the men whipping off their shirts and twirling them over their heads.  It was a wild couple of nights.  These many years later, The show must go on continues to tour the world, sometimes being re-cast and remounted by communities themselves.

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Pichet Klunchun and Myself

Our next work with Bel two years later was called Plichet Klunchun and Myself, a piece that proved a creative and educational revelation. Thai master traditional dancer Klunchun demonstrated and explicated aspects of Thai traditional dance to Bel on a bare stage, then Bel in turn danced and attempted to explain some of his minimalist movement constructions to Klunchun. Sincere, open, and funny, the work felt like a deceptively simple lecture-demonstration format, but Bel had shaped it with theatrical flair and nuance. It offered audiences both a newfound understanding of Thai traditional dance and new respect for how obscure some of the tenants of post-modern dance can be to those outside its sphere. A simple, explanatory exchange in Bel’s hands was transformed into elegantly compelling theater, independent from elaborate staging or high-end technical design.

In 2011, as part of another mini-festival we organized centered around Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s final legacy tour, we hosted Bel’s Cédric Andrieux, a portrait of the former Cunningham dancer performed in a movement-storytelling manner by Andrieux himself. Per Bel’s concept and shaping, Andrieux told and danced the story of his life, much of it built around his time with Merce, openly revealing how baffling he found Cunningham’s and Cage’s concepts at first, but sharing how after months it all clicked in for him. The autobiographical evening, shaped with Bel’s deft humanistic hand, offered audiences a new kind of window of understanding into Cunningham’s ideas.

Photo: Herman Sorgeloos

Jérôme Bel’s Cédric Andrieux. Photo: Herman Sorgeloos

Finally, in 2013, we invited a new large-scale work by Bel which seemed to represent the start of another major shift for him. Disabled Theater was a collaboration with Zurich’s Theater Hora, a company made up of accomplished actors with physical and cognitive disabilities. The work created a stir within the visual art and contemporary dance worlds across Europe, with responses ranging from rapture to critique. When I traveled to see it, I found it to be a deeply moving appreciation of the beauty, worth, and compelling individuality of each human. Many local audience members had as positive an experience as I had had, while for others it raised questions of representation, agency, and portrayal. While both Bel and detractors of the work shared the values of inclusiveness and of the importance to give voice and visibility to people with disabilities, the difference was in strategy and approach. It is a work that continues to resonate and represents a dialogue that continues to unfold, informing his latest creation that we will offer, GALA.

Having presented Bel’s works from 2003 to 2013, this “Bookend” festival covers unseen works from 2015 and 1995. GALA and the self-titled work Jérôme Bel showcase the longevity of Bel’s career and the diversity of his approaches. GALA is an unapologetic celebration of community within a rigid framework that is made fresh and new by the citizens of every city it visits. By contrast, Jérôme Bel, being remounted more than 20 years after it premiered (with its original cast), is startling in its sparseness and its efforts to strip away all but that which is essential for a dance performance—body, light, and sound—and present these elements in their most literal sense. Controversial to this day, Jérôme Bel functions as what fellow French choreographer Alain Buffard called “a minimalist manifesto applied to dance… It foils any attempt by the dancer and, likewise, the spectator, to interpret it emotionally. As a result, the subtle simplicity of this choreographic device allows for a critical reading of what is being done and undone in front of us.” I look forward to sharing with the Twin Cities the Jérôme Bel “Bookend” Festival of performances, discussions, and film screenings by one of the most inventive and debated artists of our time.

Jerome Bel's GALA

Jérôme Bel’s GALA. Photo: Herman Sorgeloos

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