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A Quiet Kind of Boldness: Beth Gill’s Abstract Storytelling

Choreographer Beth Gill practices a subtle form of risk-taking. Her work certainly doesn’t elicit the kind of responses that have sometimes characterized the proposal of radical new ideas: there’s no booing from the crowd, storming out of the theater, or scathing reviews. Yet, she demonstrates a quiet kind of boldness, with each new work supported by […]

Beth Gill, New Work From the Desert (2014).

Beth Gill, New Work From the Desert (2014). Photo: Alex Escalante

Choreographer Beth Gill practices a subtle form of risk-taking. Her work certainly doesn’t elicit the kind of responses that have sometimes characterized the proposal of radical new ideas: there’s no booing from the crowd, storming out of the theater, or scathing reviews. Yet, she demonstrates a quiet kind of boldness, with each new work supported by its own distinct thread of critical inquiry. When the Walker began putting together the artists who would produce commissioned work for Merce Cunningham: Common Time, instead of Cunningham look-alikes they sought choreographers who honor Cunningham’s courageous trailblazing in their own unique way. While the tone of Gill’s work inhabits a very different world than Cunningham’s, her distinct creations nonetheless meaningfully contribute to the continuation of dance, albeit in a more understated way.

Her current body of work is part of a new era of abstraction in post-modern dance. Cunningham, in a daring departure from the emotionally-charged narratives of Martha Graham, set out to prove how dance could still be relevant, compelling, poignant, and exquisite without dependence on “meaning.” He brought the tremendous value of pure abstraction—which at the time was well-established in visual arts—to dance. The impact of his assertion was strengthened by the rigor of his abstraction; in some cases he sought to remove nearly all traces of his personal taste and motives by leaving even the most basic decisions about what a gesture should look like up to chance. Since Cunningham’s ideas first changed the way people thought about dance, countless artists have continued the discussion of what place meaning and abstraction have in contemporary performance. Gill is among choreographers who question the dichotomy of meaning versus abstraction by reclaiming the pursuit of meaning within abstraction. Her work has an undoubtedly abstract inclination with its compelling formal choreographic structures and ineffable visual environments. Yet, as with her last work Catacomb, she offers a tantalizing liminal space full of character and drama.

Beth Gill, Catacomb (2016). Photo: Brian Rogers

Beth Gill, Catacomb (2016). Photo: Brian Rogers

What Gill refers to as “abstract storytelling” allows the audience to experience all the depth and connective potential of meaningful storytelling in a space free from literal description. She maintains the multiplicity that abstraction allows, inviting the audience to explore their individual interpretation of the work, but without losing the possibility of experiencing something shared. In practice, this means using imagery and symbolism to foster association, creating spaces where there’s plenty of room to roam, but with concrete ideas to anchor you along the way. Gill is explicit about privileging the audience in her creation process, always attentive to ensuring they feel cared for and considered. She develops a special kind of direct communication with the viewer by meticulously considering the visual component of what she’s making and noting how the imagery can trigger personal associations. The results are rich and mysterious visual and temporal worlds, often described as immersive and disorienting. As New York Times critic Siobhan Burke, in naming Catacomb one of the best in dance of 2016, describes, “I remember less about the details of the work itself than I do about the moment it ended—a startling return to reality. What had just happened? Where had I gone?”

Beth Gill, Eleanor & Eleanor (201?). Photo: Paula Court

Beth Gill, Eleanor & Eleanor (2007). Photo: Paula Court

For her newest piece Brand New Sidewalk, premiering at the Walker next week, Gill is taking her visual prowess in a new direction. Instead of employing a slow-burning single structure she is seeking a coherence defined by juxtaposition. Starting with the question “what do I have?” she embarks on an in-depth inquiry of her cast members, honing in on particular vocabularies for each of them. With the creative contributions of her collaborators Jon Moniaci (sound) and Thomas Dunn (lights), Brand New Sidewalk presents a triptych of meticulously crafted domains that transform the McGuire Theater stage to the dancers’ individual logics. The format is one that she says has tested her skill set under very different circumstances, challenging her to define her sense-making through contrast. This kind of challenge in her creative process is part of how Gill confronts the idea of risk in a continual practice of personal growth and change. She aims to re-imagine herself with each project, taking inspiration from the likes of Robert Irwin, author of Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. She stresses the importance of maintaining a shifting and evolving perspective, of allowing the work to change as she does.

The ethos of attentiveness and responsiveness in Gill’s work sheds new light on the formal abstraction that Cunningham originally presented. She offers a vision of post-modern dance which challenges the idea that meaning and emotion can’t coexist with formalism and abstraction. In the fertile, mysterious environments she creates we’re challenged to wonder: How can meaning be heightened when you can’t describe it with words? How can we connect deeply to abstraction when it is carefully and receptively constructed? Whereas Cunningham was in the vanguard in his purist commitment to abstraction, her own pioneering vision comes from nuance, subtlety, and the depth of opportunity available when we consider the question of how we find meaning in contemporary dance.

Brand New Sidewalk by Beth Gill will premiere Friday and Saturday, May 5 & 6, 2017 in the McGuire Theater as part of the Walker’s exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time

Returning to the Garden: The 2017 Rock the Garden Lineup

On Monday, April 24, the Walker and 89.3 The Current announced the lineup of Rock The Garden 2017. After last year’s staging at Boom Island Park, a full renovation and reopening of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden is bringing the party home to the hillside. Eight bands occupy two stages for an unforgettable day of music […]

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On Monday, April 24, the Walker and 89.3 The Current announced the lineup of Rock The Garden 2017. After last year’s staging at Boom Island Park, a full renovation and reopening of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden is bringing the party home to the hillside. Eight bands occupy two stages for an unforgettable day of music as RTG veterans and new performers alike share their art, dedicated to a particular friend we’ve lost and all the ones we’ve yet to make. See you in the Garden.

Get your tickets before they’re gone! Walker and MPR members’ pre-sale begins Wednesday, April 26, at 10 am. Ticket sales open to the public on Friday, April 28, at 10 am.

For the latest updates and a day-of event guide, check out the festival website. Follow the action on Twitter at @walkerartcenter@RockTheGarden, and @TheCurrent, and make sure to RSVP on Facebook.


Bon Iver, Fall Creek, Wisconsin

Bon Iver. Photo: Cameron Wittig and Crystal Quinn

Bon Iver. Photo: Cameron Wittig and Crystal Quinn

In one of the band’s first festival gigs, Bon Iver took the  Rock the Garden stage in 2008, along with Cloud Cult, The New Pornographers, and Andrew Bird, and they haven’t played in Minnesota since 2011. We’re excited to have them back—this time as our headliner!

  • The insanely intricate, heavily allusionistic index of symbols that composes the album art of 22, A Million—Bon Iver’s third, critically-acclaimed, Grammy-nominated, mind-bending feast of an album—was designed by MCAD-educated designer Eric Timothy Carlson. In a recent Walker interview, Carlson commented on the project:

    Between the numerology, the metaphysical/humanist nature of the questions in 22, a Million, and the accumulation of physical material and symbolism around the music—it became apparent that the final artwork was to be something of a tome. A book of lore. Jung’s Red Book. A lost religion. The Rosetta Stone. Sagan’s Golden Record. Something to invest some serious time and mind in. Something that presented a lot of unanswered questions and wrong ways. A distant past and future. An inner journey somehow very contemporary.

  • Imagine an adult version of camp with round-the-clock musical experimentation, collaboration, recording, and lots of booze. Actually, you don’t need to imagine it because Vernon gathered 85 of his best friends for exactly that at the Funkhouse studio complex in Berlin last fall.
  • Vernon created a new instrument and named it after a sound engineer buddy. The “Messina” layers harmonies, transforming vocals and mellifluous sax tones into halting, gospel-sounding chords like a “futuristic pump organ.”

 

The Revolution, Minneapolis

The Revolution. Photo: Kii Arens

The Revolution. Photo: Kii Arens

  • The Revolution is turning Rock the Garden purple this year, and even though it would be cosmically just, we’re hoping it won’t rain. Be ready for a legacy performance that features original band members, special friends, seminal hits, and essential b-sides. Dance party, anyone?
  • The Revolution’s best-selling album: Purple Rain, of course, with the virtuosic wonder of its title track and that neo-psychedelic opus, “When Doves Cry.” It peaked at number 1 on the Billboard 200, displacing Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A.
  • Flashback to the band’s 1980s heyday as Prince and The Revolution filmed Purple Rain at First Avenue, creating arguably the most fantastic music movie ever. The producers scheduled four weeks for the shoot but the band was so tight it only took one.

 

Benjamin Booker, New Orleans, Louisiana

Benjamin Booker. Photo: Neil Krug

Benjamin Booker. Photo: Neil Krug

  • Drawing on a passion for eccentric soul, R&B, and blues—from William Onyeabor’s 70s African psych-rock to Freddie Gibbs and Pusha T—Benjamin Booker integrates disparate influences with his characteristic garage-punk intensity. While he didn’t play a live show until 2012, his star rose quickly as an opener for Jack White and after playing Letterman and Lollapalooza.
  • Booker’s sophomore album, Witness, arrives on June 2. In an essay describing the inspiration behind the title track, the artist shares his thoughts on race relations in contemporary American society.
  • Rolling Stone once described Booker as “Howlin’ Wolf’s scrawny, bipolar little cousin [who] discovered a fuzzbox. A Pop-Rocks-and-soda cocktail for anyone who’s ever wished for a younger, edgier version of Tedeschi Trucks Band.”

 

Car Seat Headrest, Leesburg, Virginia

Carseat Head Rest. Photo: Anna Webber

Car Seat Headrest. Photo: Anna Webber

  • Led by Will Toledo (of Bandcamp fame), Car Seat Headrest released its first proper studio album, Teens of Denial, in May 2016. However, the album is actually the band’s thirteenth, and there is still over twelve hours of Toledo’s self-recorded music on Bandcamp available for streaming.
  • Car Seat Headrest was The Current’s number-one New Artist of 2016, with the song “Drunk Drivers” reaching number 5 in the Top 89 tracks of the year.
  • The New Yorker described Toledo’s emergence onto the indie-rock scene via the internet a “modern, indoorsy version of what it means to be young, testing your limits and pursuing ambitions in public, leaving the rough-draft version of yourself available for all to see. At its core is a sense of discovery.”

 

Dead Man Winter, Duluth, MN

Dead Man Winter. Photo: David McClister

Dead Man Winter. Photo: David McClister

  • Dead Man Winter is the solo project of Dave Simonett, frontman of Trampled by Turtles, who played Rock The Garden in 2012. His debut album, Furnacewas recorded at the legendary Pachyderm studio in Cannon Falls, Minn., host to the likes of Kurt Cobain, Soul Asylum, PJ Harvey, Superchunk, and Mudvayne.
  • Simonett enlisted a number of Minnesota music luminaries to help film the video for his single “Destroyer,” including Haley Bonar, Chastity Brown, Jeremy Messersmith, and Doomtree’s Lazerbeak and Sims.
  • Dave Simonett’s Instagram is the most Minnesota thing ever. We’re all him listening to the Twins’ spring training games on the radio, scarfing down Glam Doll doughnuts, ice fishing, cracking jokes about “craft” beer, and hitting the slopes at Lutsen.

 

Margaret Glaspy, Red Bluff, CA

Margaret Glaspy. Photo: Ebru Yildiz

Margaret Glaspy. Photo: Ebru Yildiz

  • Margaret Glaspy made one of last year’s strongest debuts. Rough, catchy guitar, personal lyrics, and beguiling vocals combine the “self-scrutinizing intimacy of Elliot Smith and the imaginative melodic intonations of Joni Mitchell” (Pitchfork).
  • After getting her musical start in second grade playing the fiddle, a teenage Glaspy branched out into other instruments: guitar and trombone.
  • Though fearless in taking on her musical career, she admits she does fear some things, namely “heights, avocados, and small spaces.”

 

Bruise Violet, Minneapolis, MN

Bruise Violet. Photo: Aaron Lavinsky

Bruise Violet. Photo: Aaron Lavinsky

  • Named after a Babes in Toyland song—and following in the tradition of Babes, who played a blazin’ reunion show at Rock the Garden 2015—Bruise Violet is an up-and-coming grunge/punk female powerhouse, self-billed as “sugar, spice, and a kick in the teeth,” and “Broadway meets Bikini Kill.”
  • Last summer the trio made an appearance at the Walker for Summer Music & Movies, thrashing out a cover of Beyoncé’s Don’t Hurt Yourself.
  • We’d like to congratulate band members Bella Dawson and Emily Schoonover on their imminent high school graduation! That’s right, Bella and Emily are 17 years old, and drummer Danielle is 20.

 

Dwynell Roland, Minneapolis, MN

Dwynell Roland. Photo: Samantha LeeAnn

Dwynell Roland. Photo: Samantha LeeAnn

  • Dwynelle Roland’s name is ubiquitous in the Twin Cities hip hop scene, as he was born in North Minneapolis and began rapping at the age of 13. His work is produced by Travis Gorman, who was just named best hip-hop producer in City Pages’ Best of 2017.
  • Making the rounds as an opener for P.O.S.—who lit up Rock the Garden 2012 with collective Doomtree—Roland has been sharing his latest EP release, The Popular Nobody.
  • Roland is a humble rapper, more interested in making relatable music than lofty “alpha claims of skill, wealth, and toughness.” He works as an HVAC technician in his off hours.

 

Tesseract : A Parallel Universe Through the Fourth Dimension

Curatorial Assistant Mary Coyne considers the politics and beauty of exploring the fourth dimension in Charles Atlas, Rashaun Mitchell, and Silas Riener’s Tesseract, a co-commission by the Walker Art Center and EMPAC (Experimental Media and Performing Art Center) that premiered at the Walker March 16–18, 2017 as part of Merce Cunningham: Common Time. Can formalism be […]

Eleanor Hullihan and Ryan Jenkins in Tesseract in the Walker’s McGuire Theater. Photo: Gene Pittman

Curatorial Assistant Mary Coyne considers the politics and beauty of exploring the fourth dimension in Charles Atlas, Rashaun Mitchell, and Silas Riener’s Tesseract, a co-commission by the Walker Art Center and EMPAC (Experimental Media and Performing Art Center) that premiered at the Walker March 16–18, 2017 as part of Merce Cunningham: Common Time.

Can formalism be a type of politic? I returned to this question while witnessing three performances of Tesseract, a collaboration between film artist Charles Atlas and choreographers Silas Riener and Rashaun Mitchell. Through an edited 3D film and live performance/live video component, Tesseract expands the limits of its media by adding additional dimensions: a film, typically two dimensions, becomes three, the live performance, usually three dimensions, becomes four. Tesseract is about geometry, or rather using geometry as a method for establishing an alternative futurism that exists in parallel to our current reality.

In geometry, the tesseract is the four-dimensional analogue of the cube; the tesseract is to the cube as the cube is to the square. Just as the surface of the cube consists of six square faces, the hypersurface of the tesseract consists of eight cubical cells. In other words, the tesseract requires an assumption of four dimensions. I viewed Tesseract after conversing, as many of us have lately, about what type of work “should” be made, shown, and viewed right now and how art can be political simply by existing. Tesseract is political in the ways in which the best theories are, by creating and applying a methodology that offers an alternative to lived experience.

During a visit to EMPAC in the fall of 2015, I witnessed a brief glimpse into one of these other worlds: a green screen, on which an immense set constructed of brightly painted triangular prisms that formed a type of façade, against which Silas and Rashaun constructed one section of choreography for the 3D film, Tesseract ▢.  A small snippet into what would become the cohesive filmscape of Tesseract, the experience remained with me, much like the feeling of reading a page midway through a book before starting from the beginning: enticing but without scaffold. Nevertheless, that production still from memory—the work hatching in the tesseract-like structure of the Grimshaw-designed building in mist-covered Troy, New York—offered a key to the logic of the completed work.

From left to right: Rashaun Mitchell, Cori Kresge, Melissa Toogood, Silas Riener, Kristen Foote, and David Rafael Botana. Photo: © Mick Bello / EMPAC

From left to right: Rashaun Mitchell, Cori Kresge, Melissa Toogood, Silas Riener, Kristen Foote, and David Rafael Botana. Photo: © Mick Bello/EMPAC

In Tesseract ▢ we are invited through a peep hole. The changing framing of the screen heightens this perception. We haven’t fallen through the looking glass, the viewers don’t ever quite enter the surrealistic words in which the dancers inhabit, but rather we have a sense that we are getting a sneak preview at the future—one that is at once dystopian and utopian, cold and austere even as it is bright and glimmers with a lack of pain or loss. Following the logic of the tesseract, it’s a world that also exists in tandem, a parallel universe to the world we currently inhabit. And it is this simultaneity that offers a sense of comfort. In the film, as in the live dance component, Atlas, Mitchell and Riener are able to expound upon the balance of the body and technology, without sacrificing the humanness of dance.

Tesseract ▢ opens with the body, and more importantly, with human touch. The camera pans out on the face of Melissa Toogood, a stunning mover (who had also danced with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company with Mitchell and Riener). Toogood’s eyes are set within black squares of makeup, similar to those juxtaposed on her and the other five dancers’ costumes. Hands appear, stroking her face, caressing. There is a care here, even though a context, or a relationship, isn’t offered. The connection between the dancers through this sequence (as the choreography builds in energy, the camera framing and re-framing groups or solos between and black and white painted panels) creates a somehow comfortingly human world—can the future be that scary when painting is still involved?

The flattened rectangle takes form in another scene, which may be the key sequence of Tesseract ▢. The six dancers recline against a mirage-like desert or moonscape in which a futuristic city shines in the distance. Each dancer is paired with an orange three-dimensional object—a cube, a cone, a sphere—to which he or she is uniquely wedded. Geometric protrusions on the dancer’s unitards almost suggest objects and bodies to be one of the same species. Despite the oddity, there’s a sense of care here too, a pervading calm, a humanity even as the dancers’ bodies appear more and more like the shapes with which they are paired. It’s a visual of Jean- François Lyotard’s “collection of materials” as the definition of humanity, but one where once collected, the assemblage has been pared down, reduced, leaving a kind of unknown essence.

Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener. Photo: © Mick Bello / EMPAC

Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener. Photo: © Mick Bello/EMPAC

It’s this form of utopia that Tesseract offers, one where bodies can take on the auspices of other objects or species. The film culminates in a sensual pas de deux, a courtship dance of strange birds-of-paradise. Mitchell and Riener, half clothed in the rope-like décor that surrounds them, demonstrate their individually unique yet compatible movement styles: Mitchell’s preciseness, exuding a quiet strength, and Riener’s beguiling and fiery movements, supported by a technique that maintains its strength even as both fall into playful exchanges with each other and with the viewers. It’s this technique allows an experience of witnessing a private moment between two beings, not men, not dancers. The portal through which we are gazing, the fourth dimension of the tesseract, lets us into a world not yet realized and only beginning to be actively sought within our own. A fourth dimension removes the possibilities of binaries, creating a space for bodies to exist outside of gender. Tesseract is this utopian world, one that equalizes without essentializing.

Tesseract ◯, or the live performance and video second act, follows the logic of the geometrical form, adding yet another dimension to the work. The dancers enter in a square formation lead by Mitchell, pausing at each corner of the stage, sharply changing direction and running to the next corner. Down to the gauzy white flared pant suits (which also share a kinship with Suzanne Gallo’s kimonos for Cunningham’s BIPED [1999]), it’s a futuristic version of Trisha Brown’s Glacial Decoy (1979). The choreography again balances between stark and formally playful. Where there isn’t eye contact there’s touch, a closeness that seems innate with dancers who have worked and trained closely together for extended periods of time, a calmness in knowing where everyone else on stage is (and why) at any given time. The silent observer to this play is Ryan Jenkins, Senior Video Technician at EMPAC. Costumed in a bright pink jumpsuit and glittering silver shoes, Jenkins embodies the camera, quite literally becoming another body within the choreography. Even his donning of the rather awkward and seemingly heavy Stedicam occurs center stage with the assistance of technical producer Davison Scandrett, a reveal of the façade, a fourth wall (or fifth wall) moment. After establishing the structure of the dance, and ensuring us that the world that existed within the frame of Tesseract ▢ can exist here, mediated only by a barley visible scrim, the action folds out onto itself again, with Mitchell guiding Jenkins, the human-apparatus onstage. Jenkin’s movements are from here out choreographed, while the video footage he captures live is mixed by Atlas in real time and projected onto the scrim downstage of the dancers. Even when Jenkins is off stage, hidden cameras offer alternate views of the movement on stage including close-ups and aerial shots.

Charles Atlas, Rashaun Mitchell, and Silas Riener's Tesseract in the Walker's McGuire Theater.

Charles Atlas, Rashaun Mitchell, and Silas Riener’s Tesseract in the Walker’s McGuire Theater. Photo: Gene Pittman

In Tesseract ◯, the artists picked up Cunningham’s oft-repeated adage of “there are no fixed points in space,” a key structure to his work from Suite for Five (1956) to Ocean (1994). For Cunningham, this exploration of “space time” is arguably his trademark as a choreographer; even more than using chance to construct his work, his use of the stage (and non-stage) space—the temporal structure through heightened moments of stillness and silence—is arguably his most lasting impact on choreographers working today. Atlas, Mitchell, and Riener’s live performance gives form to Einstein’s concept of “space time” or (x, y, z, t). Time—the real-time aspect occupied by all live performance and underscored by Atlas’ live video mixing—is added to the structure established in the film. Where the dancer’s relationships to the objects in the film was firmly established, Tesseract took up this approach by constantly provoking a viewing of the dancers as objects that will be seen from different vantage points. The dancers themselves are the geometric forms, turned, and observed from different angles.

There’s more to unpack in Tesseract. There’s a moment near the end of the live performance when Eleanor Hullihan crosses the scrim, inches away from the front rows. Mitchell remains on the stage, unwilling to let her remain on “our side.” There’s a vulnerability in Hullihan here and when, after a few moments she recedes to the wings and then back to the downstage side of the scrim, there’s a collective relief that she’s found her way back. Atlas, Mitchell, and Riener have offered a view of a future, and it’s one that I’m looking forward to realizing, living in, and finding refuge in.

A Medium for Engagement: On the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s Events

“An Event offers the experience of Cunningham’s genius at full strength. You feel with unmistakable force the shock of his creativity, his capacity to illuminate.” —Dance critic Dale Harris, 1978 In 1964, during its first world tour, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) was engaged to perform in Vienna at the Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts (Museum […]

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing Event #32 in the Walker Art Center galleries, 1972. Photo: James Klosty, courtesy the artist

Merce Cunningham Dance Company dancers Douglas Dunn and Chris Komar (foreground) and Susana  Hayman-Chaffey perform Event #32 around Philip Ogle’s untitled sculpture in the exhibition Invitation: 7 Young Artists, Walker Art Center, March 12, 1972. Photo: James Klosty, courtesy the artist

“An Event offers the experience of Cunningham’s genius at full strength. You feel with unmistakable force the shock of his creativity, his capacity to illuminate.”

—Dance critic Dale Harris, 1978

In 1964, during its first world tour, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) was engaged to perform in Vienna at the Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts (Museum of the Twentieth Century). When company members arrived, they found that the museum had neither a theater nor a portable stage. Forced to improvise, Cunningham invented a new format he called an Event: a collage of excerpts from existing dances which could be performed without special décor or lighting and did not depend on conventional stage exits and entrances. The flexibility of this format meant that Events could be performed in virtually any setting or circumstance; as Cunningham noted, this allowed for “not so much an evening of dance as the experience of dance.”

After Museum Event No. 1, as the Vienna performance has become known, MCDC presented more than 800 Events in parks, plazas, gardens, outdoor theaters, museums, galleries, gymnasiums, and railroad stations all over the world, including several at the Walker. From March 30 through April 9, visitors to the galleries of Merce Cunningham: Common Time will have another chance to experience this unique format when former company members present Walker Cunningham Events.

In the following text, excerpted from her essay for the Common Time exhibition catalogue, art historian Hiroko Ikegami reflects on an Event presented at the Walker in June 1972.


The earliest known video recording of an Event was made at the Walker Art Center on March 12, 1972, while MCDC was in Minneapolis on a weeklong residency. The company was planning to perform the repertory dance Canfield (1969), but for reasons that are unclear they instead danced an Event that included most of the Canfield choreography. It was performed in the Walker’s lobby and three adjoining galleries in which were installed three separate exhibitions: a survey of work by Italian sculptor Mario Merz (Gallery 1); a group show entitled Introduction: 7 Young Artists (Gallery 2), and Bill Brandt: Photographs (Gallery 3), a traveling exhibition of work by the British artist.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing Event #32 in the gallelyr alongside Mario Merz's Fibonacci Igloo (1972, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, March 12, 1972

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing Event #32 in the gallery alongside Mario Merz’s Fibonacci Igloo (1972), Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, March 12, 1972. Photo: James Klosty, courtesy the artist

The video, which is about 30 minutes in length, does not seem to record all of Event #32, as it was later titled, but it captures dancers walking into a gallery space and placing themselves, either individually or in a duo or a group, around a variety of artworks made in 1972, including Philip Ogle’s Untitled, a wood sculpture that hung from the ceiling; Leland Bjorklund’s Durations: X, comprising ten pieces of square canvas painted with tar and bronze; and Merz’s Fibonacci Igloo, an iron structure covered with rectangles of stuffed fabric and studded with neon numbers. The dancers are dressed in simple long-sleeved T-shirts and sweatpants, suggesting that no special costumes were prepared for the performance. Spectators are either seated or standing along the sides of the staircases between the galleries, leaving space for dancers to move from one area to another.

Scattered throughout the three galleries, the audience members cannot see everything that is going on. The majority of them seem unaware of a series of complicated and beautiful movements performed by Carolyn Brown and Ulysses Dove in Gallery 3, where Gordon Mumma plays an [unidentified] oriental instrument. Although not visible in the video, David Tudor can be heard playing electronic music while John Cage recites diarylike prose—most likely his own writing (as he did when he read from his essay “Indeterminacy” during the 1965 MCDC dance How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run). Parts of the sentences sound like a conversation in a medical clinic: “‘Do you have diabetes?’ ‘Don’t know.’ Disturbed, I looked up ‘diabetes’ in dictionary.” These restrained acoustic elements resonate not only with the abstract and unemotional movements of the dancers but also with the minimalistic vocabulary of many of the artworks on view. Although independent from the choreography, music in Events is always live and at times improvisational, collaborating with other factors presented in the performance.

As the Event proceeds, the dance increases in speed and intensity, and the dancers’ movements begin to rhyme with the sculptural objects. Often, the angular lines and balanced poses made by their trained bodies resemble shapes of abstract sculptures. When a male dancer stands next to Dustin Davis’s Wall Rope, which consists of three human-size plexiglass cylinders with strings around them, he looks like he could be the fourth cylinder of the sculpture. When a group of dancers make a circle in the gallery, they look like a sculptural object in their own right, and when several dancers lie down on the floor or lift a female dancer above their shoulders, their bodies appear to be an extension of the wooden bars that comprise Ogle’s hanging sculpture. Cunningham, who always claimed his dance movements were just movements and did not refer to anything else, probably did not intend or wish for this effect to happen. Yet, the correspondences between art and movement in this Event are more than just an insignificant coincidence, as they offer spectators an opportunity to actively grasp their experience by making an association between different genres.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing Event #32 in the gallery alongside Mario Merz’s Fibonacci Igloo (1972), Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, March 12, 1972. Photo: James Klosty, courtesy the artist

Merce Cunningham Dance Company dancers Carolyn Brown and Susana Hayman-Chaffey perform Event #32 in the exhibition Bill Brandt: Photographs, Walker Art Center, March 12, 1972. Photo: James Klosty, courtesy the artist

The role of spectators actually seems to be more important in Event #32 than in previous Events. As the performance progresses, their number increases. Seated or standing, they now surround the dancers in the gallery spaces, as if constituting a part of the presentation. Although the limited space keeps them from wandering freely around, they seem focused and engaged by the dynamic interplay between dancing, live music, spoken word, and artworks. In fact, the spectators become an indispensable actor in this interplay, as they are positioned to synthesize various sensorial elements into the “experience of dance.” In 1964’s Museum Event No. 1 in Vienna, the connection between dance, music, and visual art was somewhat unclear to the audience, who did not know that they were able to come and go as they wished. In contrast, Event #32 cleverly used the gallery’s architectural settings and provided the audience with not only the physical space to move about but also the mental space in which they were free to associate one artistic element with another. By the time of MCDC’s 1972 engagement at the Walker, the Event scheme had matured into an open, flexible format in which artistic dialogue among different genres could occur and spectators could create their own experiences.


Excerpted from Hiroko Ikegami, “A Medium for Engagement: On the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s Events,” in Merce Cunningham: Common Time (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2017).

 

Danny Sigelman on Kneebody + Daedelus = Kneedelus

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, artist, DJ, musician, and writer Danny Sigelman shares his perspective on Kneebody + […]

Kneebody and Daedelus. Photo: Chris Clinton

Kneebody and Daedelus. Photo: Chris Clinton

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, artist, DJ, musician, and writer Danny Sigelman shares his perspective on Kneebody + Daedelus = Kneedalus last Friday night at The Cedar. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

It was a double dose of experimental, electronic and progressive jazz music at the Cedar Cultural Center this past weekend as the Twin Cities were treated to a reunion of sorts between producer Daedelus and the bicoastally-founded 5 piece, Kneebody. Having not performed together since unleashing and touring behind their 2015 collaboration entitled Kneedelus, saxophonist Ben Wendel acknowledged the special moment with a big smile and expression of appreciation for the rare opportunity the Walker Art Center and The Cedar presented to a full house Friday night.

Heavily sideburned and dressed in a formal shirt and tailcoat, Alfred Darlington AKA Daedelus found his way to his perch of laptop, mixers, and gizmos to set the tone for the evening’s series of performances.

Darlington wasted no time indoctrinating the audience with straight hip hop beats and a steady wash of tones and burbling bleeps. Manipulating the sound patterns and dancing atop his arsenal of electronic devices, he wildly gesticulated, physically animating the thick and dense layers of sound. Daedelus continued to test the highs and lows of the house sound system, ultimately pulling away from the obscurity of descending melodies and introduced a familiar voice: Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life. Chopping up the Purple One’s voice made for a respectful tribute to the hometown hero before Darlington craftily returned to the head-bobbing norms of thumping bass, with counterpoints of malfunctioning video game noises and a barrage of space lasers.

Virtually strangling his brilliant box of glowing orange buttons, Daedelus’ sound collage progressed into more spare, bird-like sounds and eventually made way for the five gentlemen that make up Kneebody to join him in the cacophony on their own respective instruments. To wild applause, the assembled musicians that make up “Kneedulus” made a grand transition, demonstrating the shape of music to come for the evening with just a taste of their famous joint effort.

Giving props to Daedelus, Kneebody bassist Kaveh Rastegar remarked, “Imagine tonight is going to be like a great sandwich. You just heard some peanut butter, that would make us jelly. Soon you are going to hear the whole damn sandwich!”

Currently on tour in support of Anti-Hero, released this month, Kneebody brought more timbre and a different sound to the proceedings. Swelling horns, jagged rhythms and angular bass and drums created a bed of grooves during the new record’s lead off track, “For the Fallen”.

The post rock excursions and thick tones from keyboardist Adam Benjamin stretched out amid the rhythmic foundations aptly provided by drummer Nate Wood and Rastegar, allowing for ample solo opportunities from saxophonist Ben Wendel and trumpeter Shane Endsley, who built on his own sound with several boxes and pedals of his own.

Oceanic ebbs and flows in Kneebody’s music from the electronically affected instruments, pulsing math-rock bass and drums laid way for much improvisation. Often devolving into chaotic interplay between each musician, massive downbeats and the more crunching rock of “Yes You” from Anti-Hero, Kneebody performed with a fresh tightness. The beautiful arrangements displayed the group’s precision as they managed to continually rejoin each excursion by stopping on a dime, in unison. Kneebody then wrapped up their own set with the somber tribute to an old friend (“For Mikie Lee”), once again capitalizing on their knack for composition and sweet melodies.

After a short break at The Cedar, the audience reconvened for an extensive grand finale from the joint effort, Kneedulus. Daedulus returned to stage to bring the sounds back to outer space, with giant echoes and atmosphere for the dub-like “Loops”.

Swirling repetition, affected trumpet and urgent drum breaks recalled On the Corner-era Miles Davis that continued to venture into more of an Acid-Jazz impulse. The dual rhythms between Daedelus’ clapping beats and Wood riding the beat stretched beyond typical structure and gave room for an effective drum solo that roused the audience with applause. Benjamin laid a heavy groundwork with his Fender Rhodes during “The Whole” allowing for incredible face-melting from his band mates.

“We’ll see if you can recognize this one,” suggested Wendel.

Interestingly the ensemble brought the vibe down as Daedelus triggered the familiar acoustic guitar arpeggiations that took some time to sink in. Once Kneebody introduced the delicate melody and theme to Elliott Smith’s “Angeles”, the producer brought Smith’s sampled vocal from the heavens and into the chorus, making for a sentimental moment in an otherwise musically frantic night.

The evening was a true test of musicianship; in essence we found an overall tribute to music, the spirit of composition, and improvisation as a whole. It was a truly gratifying experience to witness such vitality and camaraderie on stage.

Kneebody and Daedelus performed at The Cedar, in a concert copresented by the Walker Art Center, on Friday, March 24, 2017.

Simplicity of Movement, Directness of Address: Remembering Trisha Brown (1936–2017)

“Dear Sue, I would like to dance at the Walker again. Sounds simple doesn’t it?” So begins the late American choreographer Trisha Brown in a 1973 letter to Suzanne Weil, then director of the Performing Arts department at the Walker Art Center. A few weeks later, Weil writes back: “I would like you to dance at […]

Trisha Brown, _Accumulation_, Walker Art Center, 1978

Trisha Brown, Accumulation, Walker Art Center, 1978

“Dear Sue, I would like to dance at the Walker again. Sounds simple doesn’t it?” So begins the late American choreographer Trisha Brown in a 1973 letter to Suzanne Weil, then director of the Performing Arts department at the Walker Art Center. A few weeks later, Weil writes back: “I would like you to dance at the Walker again—how’s that for being as simple as you are.” Their exchange is direct, straightforward, a bit playful. Reading it some 40 years later, I’m struck by how the tenor of the correspondence seems in some particular way to capture an essential quality of Brown’s work. Simple.

This is an assertion, perhaps, in opposition to much of the scholarship or reviews on her choreography, and, indeed, there is no denying the rigor of her movement vocabulary or the depth of her embodied and intellectual experiments. Trisha Brown was never simple in the banal way: an idea easily understood or a concept without difficulty. Rather, her choreography had an ease to it—the left arm rises, the elbow bends inward toward the face, and then the arm falls back down—and a pulse to its structure, which meant, if you watched closely enough, you could glean a part of what she was proposing. As her choreography shifted from the arch simplicity of her early pieces—in which the title of the work often articulated exactly what was to transpire (Man Walking Down the Side of a Building)—to her more intricately choreographed productions for the stage, her work was always marked by a directness of address. In Accumulation (1971), and its subsequent development as an ensemble work, Group Primary Accumulation (1973), and then finally Accumulation with Talking Plus Watermotor (1978), she created a choreographic structure in which movements (and spoken ideas) were added incrementally, making the process of choreographic creation eminently apparent. Here is the first move, here is the second, and then, watch closely, we will do them both again, and then add a third. Hers was a dance practice that sought to reveal itself; her simple never lacked.

November 9, 1974 Loring Park, Minneapolis

Trisha Brown, Group Primary Accumulation on Rafts, November 9, 1974, Loring Park, Minneapolis. Photo: Boyd Hagen

Brown’s letter continues as she muses to Weil what she might present. In later letters between the two, she mentions she might show some of the new work she’s been exploring since leaving behind the “equipment pieces”—works like Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (1970) or Floor of the Forest (1970) in which contraptions like harnesses or horizontal scaffolds allowed performers’ bodies to invert the rules of gravity. Since creating Accumulation a few years earlier, Brown writes, she has kept returning to that idea of revealing the choreographic apparatus to the viewer through the dance itself. A new work, Group Primary Accumulation, will be presented soon in New York, she writes: “Are you interested in this piece for Minneapolis?” This initial correspondence, though, details an entirely different idea: “I have mulled over a piece titled manscape or humanscape for 2 years now. The piece consists of 100 people lined up abreast across the stage. To begin, the person on the right steps forward & says I am 100 years old (and is) the next person steps forward & says I am 99 years old (and is), etc. down the line to a one year old.” That’s the dance: so simple and straightforward—and poignant now as I reread this letter in light of her passing.

Since beginning her career in the 1960s, Brown returned many times to the Walker. She first came in 1971 as part of Grand Union, the experimental performance collective often described as one of Judson Church Theater’s key progeny (the core group of which included Trisha as well as Barbara Dilley, Douglas Dunn, David Gordon, Nancy Lewis, Steve Paxton, and Yvonne Rainer). Like Judson before it, or even Black Mountain College, Grand Union has proven important to the development of contemporary interdisciplinary art, collapsing, as the group’s members did, distinctions between dance, theater, play, sculpture, and visual art. If, often, their version of that collapse ended up looking a bit like a mess, it was a particularly glorious one. In November 1974 she returned as a solo artist—this is the visit to which her letter alludes. Eager to explore the full array of performance venues the Walker could offer, Brown and her three dancers (Carmen Beuchat, Caroline Godden, and Sylvia Whitman) performed in the galleries, on the stage, and in Loring Park, a public park adjacent the center. For the next several years, the Walker’s programming was to be punctuated by visits from Brown.

In 1978 she presented a series of solos, and, then, in ’79 she premiered Glacial Decoy. A Walker commission, Glacial Decoy is pivotal in her oeuvre as it marked her near complete shift to the stage and to using the various theatrical trappings of such spaces (sets, elaborate costumes, lighting). Robert Rauschenberg, a longtime friend and a frequent collaborator with other noted choreographers like Merce Cunningham, created the décor and costumes: long, sheer, white nightgowns. Glacial Decoy was to be the last work created for the all-women iteration of the Trisha Brown Dance Company (indeed, as the piece premiered at the Walker, she had already auditioned male dancers to join the company), and those white gowns, in retrospect, seem to not-so-obliquely critique classical histories of women dancing in white: Swan Lake, Giselle, or La Bayadére. Throughout the 1980s, ’90s, and into the 2000s, she and her company presented works like Set and Reset (1983), a piece which in 2008 was performed by students in the Dance Department at the University of Minnesota and retitled Set and Reset/Reset, as well as her last piece, I’m going to toss my arms—if you catch them, they’re yours (2011).

Trisha Brown, _Line Up_ (Trisha Brown, far left), Walker Art Center gallery, 1974

Trisha Brown, Line Up (Trisha Brown, far left), Walker Art Center, 1974

Brown’s time at the Walker was always one of active exchange, not simply sharing her work but reaching out to the community to teach workshops, invite local dancers (like Elizabeth Gerran) to join her company, and train students and dancers to perform works from her repertory (Set and Reset/Reset as well as PLANES, from 1968, which was remounted in 2008 at the Walker). This legacy of community engagement and co-learning marked not only Trisha’s time here but is intrinsic to her legacy as a choreographer. The logic of her practice has always been that of the gift. It is dance offered in the spirit of generosity, surprise, perhaps unknowingly, and, like the act of unwrapping a gift, there are layers to uncover. If you catch them, they are yours. For nearly 40 years, Brown kept the promise of her letter’s simple assertion: I would like to dance at the Walker again. Her last visit, and her last performance, came in 2008.

Dubbed the Year of Trisha, 2008 included a gallery exhibition, stage performances by her company, and restagings of some of the notable pieces she had presented at the Walker. Conceived of by then-Visual Arts Curator Peter Eleey and Philip Bither, the Director and Senior Curator of Performing Arts, the exhibition So that the Audience Does Not Know Whether I have Stopped Dancing focused on Brown’s drawings, long a part of her larger arts practice. For its opening, she performed It’s a Draw/LiveFeed (2002) in the Walker’s Medtronic Gallery. Dressed in a black shirt and pants, she held charcoal in her hands and between her toes, moving her way across an expanse of white paper, leaving pigment traces of her dance behind.

Trisha Brown, _Floor Drawing/Performance_, 2008

Trisha Brown, Floor Drawing/Performance, Walker Art Center, 2008

The drawing produced from her performance, and indeed her oeuvre of drawings more broadly, reveal the trace of her movements, whether the small gesture of moving pen across paper or the sweeping act of spinning in circles across the floor-sized canvas. The word “trace” references an ephemeral act—the footstep that preserves the memory of the absent walker. Traces are also quite material. We have the drawing to hold on to. A trace is also, of course, an imprint, a mark, which once made creates a shift, a change. Trisha Brown has left just such an imprint here at the Walker, in contemporary art more broadly, and, most keenly, in dance.

She writes on white paper with a black pen. Her handwriting is rushed, the words drawn out as her cursive spreads across the page. Her letters, though, are short, as though eager to get on to the next letter and the next. Like her drawings, like her choreography, the archived letter—preserved now in a plastic sleeve—articulates yet another trace of her presence. And, if we let her, it articulates, across the decades, a philosophy of dance.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Camera as Body: An Interview with Charles Atlas, Rashaun Mitchell, and Silas Riener

Co-commissioned by the Walker and the Experimental and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC), Tesseract is the creative product of  longtime Cunningham collaborator and visual/media artist Charles Atlas and former Merce Cunningham Dane Company dancers Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener. A live dance-technology hybrid featuring seven dancers and 3-D video, Tesseract—performed March 16–18, 2017—weaves together dance, sci-fi narratives, and live film segments edited […]

Kaleidoscope2_Production shot

Charles Atlas, Rashaun Mitchell, and Silas Riener, Tesseract (2015) production still; Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York

Co-commissioned by the Walker and the Experimental and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC), Tesseract is the creative product of  longtime Cunningham collaborator and visual/media artist Charles Atlas and former Merce Cunningham Dane Company dancers Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener. A live dance-technology hybrid featuring seven dancers and 3-D video, Tesseract—performed March 16–18, 2017weaves together dance, sci-fi narratives, and live film segments edited by Atlas in real time. Toggling between the corporeal and the digital, this revolutionary work disorients one’s sense of space and time in playful and unpredictable ways. In a 2015 interview with  curator Victoria Brooks, first published in the catalogue for the Walker-organized exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time, the collaborators discuss the film that preceded the live version of Tesseract, creating work for cinematic, theatrical, and museum contexts, breaking the rules of 3-D filmmaking, and the legacy Cunningham left for the world of dance film.

Victoria Brooks: Can we begin by discussing the differences in approach between choreography to camera and choreography onstage for a live audience? Your new work, Tesseract, will incorporate both, and the conditions of production of each part will certainly be inscribed into how we’ll experience the work in the end—not necessarily in an overt way, but in the differences in the affective relationship of the dancers’ bodies as they are mediated by the camera and presented to the audience live. Of course the influence of Merce Cunningham has been key for each of you in the development of your work—Rashaun and Silas as dancers with the Cunningham company, and Charlie through your extensive collaborations with Merce over several decades.

Charlie, if we could start with you, would you talk about the early years with Merce and how the two of you developed a new language that enhanced the relationship between the camera and the body beyond the technical?

Charles Atlas: In 1973 or 1974, Merce invited me to work with him after having seen some of my Super 8 films. We were going to make video, but he didn’t know video and I didn’t know video. So I learned it from a book—Spaghetti City Video Manual, actually. Then I taught it to him. Before we ever made our first piece, we spent practically a whole summer working every day with a camera and a student dancer, putting the camera at different levels and seeing what the camera did to the body. At that time, we were working with a three-camera setup with live switching. We started out with cameras on tripods, and in a way, that was a good place to start because it’s easer to choreograph for. It’s a fixed space, and you know where the cameras are. Once you start moving the cameras, it starts to be different. That really informed my way of approaching a collaboration. The project with Rashaun and Silas has followed a very similar process. And it just occurred to me that one thing that’s similar to the way we are working and the way Merce worked is that it’s completely natural to work without music.

Brooks: I suppose that’s one of the central themes of the exhibition Common Time. Even the phrase “common time” suggests three separate tracks—the music is one track, the movement another, and the décor a third, and they move in tandem with one another. Maybe you could say something about whether or not that influences your approach here.

Rashaun Mitchell: I think working without music is kind of a given for us. It allows us to observe the rhythmic structures that emerge in the work we’re making, and having that clarity is probably good for us in terms of figuring out how the camera will best capture the choreography, what strategies can best support the inherent choreographic structures.

Atlas: With Merce, I always worked without music, so I edited on the movement. Since then, I’ve worked with music, and music is so demanding on editing that you end up really editing on the music. Hopefully, it works on the dancing as well.

Mitchell: I think that having the experience through our work with Cunningham of coming onto the stage without ever having heard the sound or dealt with the elements of the production, and having to just go with that—I think we’ve digested that. It’s in our bodies, it’s in the way we work now. And I think it’s allowed us to be pretty flexible about the filming process.

Atlas: One thing that’s different is that there’s a certain amount of indeterminacy in your work that was certainly never in Merce’s work.

Silas Riener: We were actually really careful to try and protect that flexibility in Tesseract, especially because once you put a camera in a space, everything wants to become the same every time. The structure of a shoot, of communication between us, the dancers, and the crew, and the desire for identical takes and continuity—all of that doesn’t leave much space for indeterminacy.

Atlas: The great thing about this project is that we had enough time to develop it and work on it. In the Cunningham way, we rehearsed with cameras for weeks. So the camera people really knew the dance even though the dance did change. But I think with more time rehearsing with the camera, you can go with the feeling of the piece—it doesn’t have to be so fixed.

Riener: I was thinking about your earlier comment about our shared histories and individuated histories with Merce. There was always a lot of watching and spending time with the work, and that put a deep sense of shared space and shared time into the choreography and the collaborative model. There was always a central space where you watched the dances over and over and over again. That physical history of deep, repetitive practice is something that Rashaun and I take for granted, because we understand those working models. And we like to work!

FOG1

Charles Atlas, Rashaun Mitchell, and Silas Riener, Tesseract (2015) production still

Mitchell: Also, that daily work toward specificity allows for a greater flexibility in the end. For this project, it was really important that we work with dancers we knew, for the most part—people that we could rely on and know that when we threw things at them they were going to absorb them quickly and respond accordingly. If I needed to say, “OK, the camera has moved over here so now you have to reorient your ‘front,’” that would be understood and easily executed.

Brooks: Certainly the production conditions of this project—the long period of development but very limited time with the dancers in front of the full 3-D rig and with the film crew—has meant that everyone has had to be very flexible with changes once we started filming. The constant calculation of convergence adds another layer. In 3-D, it’s the angle from the eye of the viewer to the object on-screen that the camera is focused on, and that needs to be checked for each shot. This added a significant amount of shoot time. Plus, we only had one rig, so you couldn’t get multiple angles at the same time.

Atlas: If you have multiple cameras, you’re not repeating. The dancers don’t have to do it over and over.

Mitchell: That helps with creating one condition that is really essential when you’re dancing—to be able to feel a sense of time and progression, and to be able to respond to that. With the 3-D process it’s been the opposite. You go out there and do a thirty-second take and you barely experience doing that thing before it’s over.

Atlas: In the Cunningham films I did, the sequences were long, and the dancers did get to dance.

Brooks: So the process is really constrained by film time. And of course, you’re not only dealing with the bodies of the dancers but also those of the production team as well as the equipment itself. All the time it takes to rebalance the two cameras, change the lenses, rehearse the dolly moves, or choreograph the movement of the Steadicam operator—it’s an intensive work flow.

Riener: A Steadicam is a mobile camera rig whose weight is distributed through the operator’s vest. Because the apparatus is able to move smoothly with the operator, it behaves much more like a dancer.

Brooks: The first scene that you shot in the summer (which for our work flow purposes is titled “Fog”) was with a Steadicam. However, we had a seventy-five-pound, dual-camera 3-D rig, so the Steadicam operator had to carry a huge amount of weight and learn the choreography of the dancers and be directed to precisely move around them. He had to keep the camera in a dynamic relationship with the two dancers for a seven-minute straight take, but of course there were limits to his strength. This heavy rig would keep moving even when he had stopped. Charlie, did you find the limitations in this balance between the dancers’ bodies, the technician’s body, and the massive apparatus to be challenging?

Atlas: I have to say I never took that into consideration conceptually. I just thought, “It has to be possible to do this.” At a certain point, I did think of wanting to have a crane. But if you use a crane, a shot takes forever to do because you have to rehearse the boom and the crane and the dolly—it’s like three people.

Mitchell: A crane would have given us the possibility of viewing the floor from above, and other unusual perspectives, and we did discuss it, but in the end we decided against it, for time and budgetary reasons but also because using a crane would have created an artificial relationship to the choreography. One of Charlie’s main goals was to create camera movements that were propelled by choreographic or energetic surges. The camera is a dancer rather than a distant observer.

Riener: But the reliance on a body to be able to guide the camera rig brings in the vulnerability that I think is a big part of dancing. I don’t mind that.

Mitchell: It was really confusing for me once we started with the Steadicam. I felt like I had just wrapped my mind around the idea that when you make dance for camera, the dance is seen from a fixed position. You only get to look at what the frame is telling you to look at, and the dance somehow orients itself around that. When we started working with the Steadicam I felt like it completely changed that because everything could move in relation to everything else. It was like there were these two planetary bodies rotating around each other.

Brooks: I think what’s beautiful about the footage you got from that shoot is that you feel the body because the camera is a body. It’s a completely different experience from watching a film shot from a fixed viewpoint, where you’re constantly thinking about what is off-screen. With this situation, you are much closer to being there.

Atlas: Looking at the footage of “Fog” in both in 2-D and 3-D, I feel like it only works in 3-D. In 2-D I feel as though I want it to go faster because it doesn’t have the added spatial quality, so you have to substitute something for that.

Riener: It’s good to hear that from you, Charlie, because the spatialization of things is something we think about all the time. I think of space as an agent in the dance. You can create something completely different depending on whether you impose distance between two actions or close in on one of them. Space is a sort of meaning buffer that generates its own layer on top of the movement. But this is all skewed by the camera because the way the eye of the camera looks at bodies and the space in between them is completely different from how the human eye sees them.

Duet1_Production shot

Charles Atlas, Rashaun Mitchell, and Silas Riener, Tesseract (2015) production still

Mitchell: That kind of intrusion into the choreography is what is most exciting to me—having something that changes a thing that you think you know already. It’s a duet, but now it’s a trio. That kind of transformation of the choreography is what most excited me about working with you, Charlie—being able to see how what we had made could grow or take on a new life.

Riener: That ties us back to Merce. Charlie can see the phrase points and changes in a dance because he has that education through watching Merce’s phrase-driven world—a meticulously organized segment-by-segment view of the world through his dances. I think about Merce’s way of constructing dances all the time, and it has primed me for thinking about how events follow each other. Charlie and Rashaun and I deeply understand the way a dance can be structured from studying and performing in or filming Merce’s dances.

Atlas: I really remember the third piece Merce and I did in 1976, Squaregame Video. Merce sat with me in the back, where I was editing, and we went over every take because I couldn’t tell what a good performance was. Dancers see things in a completely different way. They see technical things, or things they know are really hard to do but look easy.

Mitchell: But it’s interesting for us to see it through your eyes, because I think you see energy, and you see an expression of space and time.

Atlas: Over the years I think I internalized Merce.

Riener: In this film, there is also a choreographic connection to Merce’s work that is more apparent than in some of the other things we’ve done recently. We’ve been working in more intimate spaces with improvisation and indeterminate ideas, structures, and movements, some of which we felt wouldn’t show up as well on film. I think the camera wants an energetic scale that approaches a kind of virtuosity that we sometimes want to shy away from in our work, or that we’re critical of. But it was pretty clear from the beginning that everything needed to be more amped up, more exacting.

Mitchell: There’s a linearity to the movement that I think we’ve avoided in the past, just because we associate it with Merce’s physical choices.

Atlas: You mean shape?

Mitchell: We actually had 3-D geometric shapes built for one of the sets because, as we became more sensitive to the demands of the camera, we found ourselves having to deal with shape in a more direct way than with other works we’ve made. It was a kind of surrender.

Riener: And as soon as you start making shapes, you’re in a territory that’s already been well traversed by others. I felt like Merce was really in the room for those times. But we also went toward it because it’s what the camera wanted.

Mitchell: We really tried to create as wide a spectrum of movement in this piece as we could, but those “Merce-y” moments are definitely in there.

Atlas: It also helped that the concept of this piece was that each of the six chapters was conceived as a different world, because then we could make different rules for each world.

Brooks: Maybe you could just explain those different worlds—what your approach was when you first started collaborating, and how this is being structured as you’re going on.

Mitchell: When we first started talking, I said I wanted this new piece to be about what I was already working on. At the time, I was making a piece dealing with science fictional elements concerning space travel and time travel and evolution, and that led us toward creating a series of different worlds or settings.

We don’t really work with narratives so much, but there are lots of mini-narratives in our work, which get so overlaid that they become diffused and abstracted. With the film process, we didn’t have time to think about that sort of thing, so our process became more of an investigation of form, structure, time, and space as they relate to 3-D technology. So we decided to construct different worlds with really distinct visual elements and different rules in terms of the vocabulary of movement. For example, one scene deals with slow time; others are concerned with circularity, symmetry, disorientation, and so on.

Charles Atlas, Rashaun Mitchell, and Silas Riener, Tesseract (2015) production still

Charles Atlas, Rashaun Mitchell, and Silas Riener, Tesseract (2015) production still

Riener: In our approach to making a film for the first time, I think we created what I like to think of as versions of camera fantasies. What would it be to make a 3-D film? What’s the craziest thing you could do, or what’s the most beautiful thing you could do, and how can you make the entire space express this body that is moving inside of that?

Brooks: We’ve all been watching a lot of 3-D Hollywood blockbuster movies, which for the most part are big-budget action or fantasy. The differences in the filmmakers’ use of convergence and parallax in these movies has been an ongoing conversation throughout this production—how 3-D effects appear to have shifted from a focus on the spectacle of everything flying out of the screen at you (negative parallax) to a beautiful depth that creates a window behind the screen plane (positive parallax), as in the most recent film we watched together, Mad Max Fury Road. How have these cinematic experiences influenced you?

Atlas: Well, I’ve been watching films forever. I never went to film school, so watching movies was my education. I had always wanted to make a 3-D film, but it always seemed like a fantasy. When I realized I was actually going to do a 3-D project, I started watching 3-D films in a different way, and I was surprised at how much they broke all the rules that I thought were supposed to be the rules.

Brooks: Can you talk more about these rules of filmmaking? Was there a particular set of parameters you followed in this project?

Atlas: I think it just comes down to camera space, really. If I was being really strict, we wouldn’t have done a lot of the things we did, so I think their [Silas and Rashaun’s] intuition about what would work for 3-D was right on. A lot of exploitation of deep space, and lots of layers of space, both in the sets and the movement.

Mitchell: I think for us, a lot more happens in much less time in these scenes than we are normally used to in our work—that kind of camera time is a really different experience than choreographic time. The camera doesn’t really want you to see change that happens over time. But in terms of space, I think there are lots of rules. If I’m choreographing for live performance, a lot of what I am interested in is seeing the space around the thing that’s happening. I think that gets lost with the camera. In yesterday’s shoot I was really interested in the floor space and how much of a problem it was for Charlie that the screen wasn’t filled up with bodies. I kept thinking, “But I love space! I want to see space!” And yet that space seems to deaden the energy. I think when you’re in live performance there’s something about the visceral liveness of it that creates the energy around the space.

Atlas: I think a good solo performer onstage commands the whole space. You feel the person alone in that space.

Mitchell: And you feel your own breath and the person next to you.

Atlas: And that doesn’t translate on camera.

Mitchell: So trying to figure out how to create that same level of energy within the confines of camera space was a big challenge.

Atlas: One of the big problems of filming dance is that when you watch a great dance performance you really have a kinesthetic feeling in your body, and when you translate that into 2-D you have to add something to replace that energy. The goal is still to give the audiences that kinesthetic response, but there’s a different way of doing it.

Brooks: To bring you back around to the accompanying live piece, which you will be working on throughout 2016 and 2017, how do you feel that your approaches are going to shift from the camera to the stage? As the 3-D film and the performance are related and will be presented together, what do you see as the friction between those two parts?

Charles Atlas on set of Tesseract

Charles Atlas on the set of Tesseract

Atlas: I think it’s an open question. We know we’re doing a piece that’s going to be on the same program as the film, but it can be as different as we want, or related in some way, or in no way. But we do know this: none of the things we made for the camera are going to be OK for the stage.

Riener: We are definitely interested in departing from that kind of framed idea, but a lot of the physical explorations we’ve begun will probably continue to evolve for the stage performance.

Mitchell: It’s going to feel completely different, hopefully.

Riener: I have an instinct for it to be a little more cohesive or concentrated, as a counterpoint to the multiplicity of ideas and visual images in the film.

Mitchell: There’s also a question about how the performers should relate to the live cameras on stage versus to the live audience. I’m not sure how to deal with that yet. That’s going to be the next big challenge.

Riener: I think we understand how to make live dance, but what are these other bodies [the cameras and their operators] in the space going to be doing, and how are they going to render the choreography, and how is that going to be mixed in relation to what we’re doing without them?

Mitchell: I’m also worried about the scale of things. When you’re looking at a giant screen and something is popping out at you in 3-D, and then the next thing you see is a small body in the back of the space, what is that effect?

Atlas: That’s something we really have to look at, and that’s one of the reasons to put up a scrim, at least for part of it. If we have the scrim in the front of the stage so that we can project images onto it, then we can play with the scale of what is projected in relation to the dancers live onstage.

Brooks: All of you have worked within a cinematic context, a theatrical context, and a museum context. This new project seems to address all of these conditions of viewing. At the premiere, the two parts (the 3-D video and the live performance with 2-D cameras) will be presented together as an evening work. Later, you plan to edit the 3-D materials for the cinema, on one hand, and for the museum on the other. But in a museum, viewers experience moving images in a completely different way than in a cinematic or theatrical presentation. They might enter the work in the middle of a scene, or only stay with it for a few minutes, or watch it multiple times.

Riener: Rashaun and I are always responding or reacting to the kind of opportunity and, particularly, the kind of space and time that a project presents. So we packed it all in for the film component. Certainly any eventual theatrical performance or museum performance is going to take its sensibility from how and where the viewer will experience it.

Mitchell: When we were working with Merce, we mostly performed in giant proscenium spaces where you would look out and not see another body. You were performing to a sort of vacuum, or to an idea about an audience. And then the same work would be seen in a museum setting for an Event. It didn’t feel right to perform it in the same way. You had to think about scale. You might actually make eye contact with the audience because they were right next to you, so you wouldn’t want to project far out into the rafters in the same way.

Atlas: I remember when the company moved to Westbeth and they started having studio performances. It was so weird for the dancers. They didn’t know where to look.

Mitchell: We did so many of those at Dia: Beacon. We had a really small stage and people would be two feet away from us. And yet we were clothed in the same performative material. I think Merce’s material works on both scales. But we as individuals, as performers, had really different challenges.

Brooks: Maybe we can circle back around to sound, which I know is a very open question at the moment. Will you proceed in the way Merce worked—the music or sound and the choreography are produced separately from each other, without necessary coordination?

Atlas: For the film, I think the sound is going to have to really relate directly to the picture. Either someone agrees to make sound that I can manipulate, or someone scores sound for the film.

Riener: There are so many different rhythms that the camera and the cutting will provide, and there are a lot of different kinds of rhythms in the dancing as well. I imagine that the sound will have to be somewhat fuller for the film than it would need to be for live performance.

Atlas: These decisions are very intuitive. But we don’t know much yet.

Mitchell: We really don’t. We’re starting at the beginning.

Exploring Visual Dimensions of Tesseract with Silas Riener and Rashaun Mitchell

One of the most technically ambitious dance recordings ever made, incorporating 3D film, live performance and on-the-spot video-mixing by Atlas. —The Art Newspaper on Tesseract Two years in the making, Tesseract brings together video artist Charles Atlas with dancer/choreographers Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener in a collaboration that pushes the boundaries of space, time, and energy. Co-commissioned […]

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Kristen Foote, David Botana, and Cori Kresge, during the 3D filming of Tesseract. Photo: Mick Bello, EMPAC

One of the most technically ambitious dance recordings ever made, incorporating 3D film, live performance and on-the-spot video-mixing by Atlas.

The Art Newspaper on Tesseract

Two years in the making, Tesseract brings together video artist Charles Atlas with dancer/choreographers Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener in a collaboration that pushes the boundaries of space, time, and energy. Co-commissioned by the Walker Art Center and Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC), Tesseract is a two-part work: a stereoscopic 3D “dance video” by Charles Atlas (Tesseract ▢) and (Tesseract ◯), an on-stage performance by six dancers, filmed live and edited and projected in real time by Atlas.

Part dance, part 3D film, and part science-fiction, the show is divided into six chapters that display a different world, visually and energetically, with unique rules dictating the type of movements for each section. The resulting experience is a densely layered, visually stunning alternative universe drawn from numerous influences and collaborations. In advance of the work’s March 16–18 Walker performances, we asked Silas Riener and Rashaun Mitchell to provide commentary on a selection of film stills, performance images, and behind-the-scenes photos from the making of Tesseract in order to provide a glimpse into multiple dimensions of the work.

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Melissa Toogood. Photo courtesy the artists

This image shows Melissa Toogood in a section we call “The Desert.” We envisioned a desert landscape and the bodies and objects as topography of this moving landscape—a kind of evolution of form. The entire section was shot on a green screen, knowing we could create different backgrounds in post-production. This helped create a hypothetical world, perhaps partly inspired by Edwin Abbott’s story Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, where the body would have cartoonish geometric outgrowths, like appendages but in spherical, conical, or cube forms with costumes constructed by the completely inimitable Yvette Helin. The movement material is drawn from an improvisational score that takes its cues, timings, and types of movement from looking at the natural world at a geological scale: glacial cleavings, tectonic shifts, and the slow but constant tides of the world.

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Melissa Toogood, Cori Kresge, Silas Riener, and Rashaun Mitchell. Photo courtesy the artists

This section was shot on a rubber padded floor, which completely changed the quality of movement we were able to do. We could throw ourselves around because of the springiness and protection provided by the floor.

The manic atmosphere made Charlie [Atlas] think of wigs, bringing a kind of bizarre dressed-up/dressed-down feeling. We wanted to be both easily identifiable and fantastical, but also faceless and unknown. The makeup artist covered all of our facial features, while the movement of the wigs obscured us further. The movement score proposes disorientation. We work to constantly disrupt our own intentions, to locate a space in between. We throw, release, and stiffen multiple parts of the body into competing and surprising falls and redirections. Attempts to support one’s self towards verticality are premature or too late. The Steadicam operator, Ryan Jenkins, weaves his way around and through us, upside down and around, reinforcing this sense of disorientation for the viewer.

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Left to right: Rashaun Mitchell, Cori Kresge, Melissa Toogood, Silas Riener, Kristen Foote, and David Rafael Botana. Photo: Mick Bello, EMPAC

Gestural sequences for this scene were created out of representational movements derived from mini-narratives, woven together. The textile drops are by Fraser Taylor, originally made for Rashaun’s piece, Interface (2013). The recycled graphic, two-dimensional images were set in the space to create the sense of multiple three-dimensional rooms or pockets in the space that display and conceal secret stories. This is the most playful, character-driven scene choreographically. We wanted to evoke a kind of childlike story-time—an Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland-inspired world.

EMPAC: Tesseract

Photo: Ray Felix, EMPAC

In this image, Cori Kresge is performing live while her movements are simultaneously captured by a camera offstage and manipulated live by Charles Atlas. In this particular moment, she appears larger than life, with trails of different colors coming off of her as she moves.

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Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener. Photo:  Mick Bello, EMPAC

This is a photograph from a set-up that never made it into our “duet” scene of the film. We were imagining a kind of technological jungle, with structural forms appearing part natural outgrowth of a forest ecosystem, and part complete hyper-color explosion of chords and connective tissue. We played with movements that appear part robotic, part animal. The material is tubular crinoline, which is also used for “Chinese finger traps,” and was originally sourced by our friend, artist Ali Naschke-Messing, for our earlier piece, PERFORMANCE. For this film, the material was recycled into corsets constructed by Julia Donaldson, reminiscent of peacock plumage, and inspired by kamata, worn by the Dinka group in South Sudan. We had a lot of fun filming this scene, at one point almost collapsing the theater’s hanging pipes when the vines got tangled during a circular run in the choreography.

EMPAC: Tesseract

Photo: Ray Felix, EMPAC

This is the full cast of the live work, including Steadicam operator Ryan Jenkins, capturing the dance from his perspective and projecting it into the action as it happens.

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Left to right: Victor Lazaro, Ryan Jenkins, Horoki Ichinose, and Cori Kresge. Photo: Mick Bello, EMPAC

This is a production shot from the filming of a section of the 3D film, featuring Hiroki Ichinose and Cori Kresge dancing and Steadicam operator Victor Lazaro with Ryan Jenkins.  The 3D Steadicam rig was huge, weighing about 90 pounds. The ring of lights illuminating the fog in a room of blackness, combined with continuous circling choreography for the dancers, was very disorienting. No one ever knew where front was. It’s a miracle the shot happened at all. Everything about this scene is slippery, including its own success. By the end of the second or third take, we had to wrap the scene because the Steadicam operator’s back gave out. The vulnerability of the human body next to the durable machine was never so poignant. This is the most virtuosic shot of the film, for both the camera and the dancing.

Charles Atlas on set of Tesseract

Charles Atlas during rehearsal. Photo: Mick Bello, EMPAC

Tesseract by Charles Atlas / Rashaun Mitchell / Silas Riener will be performed March 16–18, 2017 at 8 pm in the Walker’s McGuire Theater, in conjunction with the exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time.

Paul Harding on Mbongwana Star with ZULUZULUU

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, Paul Harding from Foreign Currency on KFAI shares his perspective […]

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Mbongwana Star. Photo: Courtesy the artists

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, Paul Harding from Foreign Currency on KFAI shares his perspective on Mbongwana Star with ZULUZULUU. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Mbongwana Star brought the remarkable cacophony of Kinshasa to the Cedar Cultural Center Friday night.

Opening up was the local emerging ZULUZULUU, which struck me as an insightful pairing. Their layers of frequently gritty analog-sounding synths offered a spaced out, soulful counterpoint to the guitar-driven Congolese headliners. A sound equal parts pioneering and archetypal of the Minneapolis black sound, they foreshadowed the sonic thickness, complexity, and sense of locale that Mbongwana Star would also deliver. Both groups used multiple independent vocal parts to create depth and intricacy, reaching occasional feverish heights.

My sense of the elusive saga of Mbongwana Star took a new turn before they took the stage, when the Cedar’s Director of Operations told me their guitarist had spent the two previous nights in the hospital recovering from malaria. It was still unclear whether he’d be able to perform at this first show on their U.S. tour. Almost 6 years ago, visa problems prevented Coco Ngambali and Theo Nzonza and their band at the time, Staff Benda Bilili, from playing here. They founded that group homeless and paraplegic from childhood polio, launching into meteoric international recognition, and eventually disbanded.

Only when they took to the stage was it clear that their guitarist was able to perform, and also that Mitchell Sigurdson of Black Market Brass—called the night before and having rehearsed with them all day—would play with the band too. He added even more to their already surprisingly full sound given the simple instrumentation. Coco and Theo sang and danced excitedly in their wheelchairs alongside yet another singer, the two guitars, bass, and drums. Their energy swelled into a clamorous rhythmic force.

Mbongwana Star takes the Kinshasa sound further into the future. From Congolese rumba, through soukous, and the rumba funk sound of Staff Benda Bilili, they carry forward elements into a visionary arena. With the bubbling trance-y chaos of Konono No.1 and the groove of a Koffi Olomide tune (after a six minute prelude) with just as many individual voices fighting for your attention, they drove home their unique sound to an exuberant crowd.

Mbongwana Star and ZULUZULUU performed on Friday, March 3, 2017 at The Cedar.

Patrick Marshke on Music for Merce: Night Two

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, musician and composer Patrick Marschke shares his perspective on Music for […]

Music For Merce, Night two. Photo: Gene Pittman

Left to right: George Lewis, Zeena Parkins, Christian Wolff, Fast Forward, David Behrman, Joan La Barbara, Philip Selway, Quinta, Ikue Mori, and John King performing night two of Music For Merce, February 24, 2017, in the McGuire Theater. Photo: Gene Pittman

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, musician and composer Patrick Marschke shares his perspective on Music for Merce: A Two-Night Celebration. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

It would be easy to interpret “Music for Merce” as an answer to the question “whatever did happen to Indeterminacy?” It could have easily been a night of  “Music After Cage.” Those angles would have completely made sense within the context of Merce Cunningham: Common Time, but unlike the incredible archival materials found in the gallery or the jarringly pristine performances of Cunningham’s choreography throughout the exhibition, this night of sound making went beyond documenting a time and place, beyond putting Cage or Cunningham on (yet another) pedestal, and transcended what could have easily been billed as historical performance. The night captured what (for me and hopefully some of you) is incredibly special about experimental and improvised music: the performers completely embodied what self-actualization can look and sound like and epitomized the idea that virtuosity can be more about perceiving an incredible amount of love/compassion in the environment an artist creates rather than simply being about how skilled a performer is at a thing.

So what does sonic self-actualization look like?

For George Lewis in his piece Shadowgraph, 5 it was quadraphonic signal processing of Joan La Barbara’s tactile vocal iterations, Fast Forward’s literal kitchen of instruments, and Zeena Parkins’ sometimes extended harp techniques with subtle accompaniment by Ikue Mori’s own digital sound palette and thoughtful and subtle piano played by Quinta. Sounds whirled around, sometimes with clear correlations to what was happening on stage, other times not (a theme of the night). It sounded like what one would expect “sonic research” to sound like. What set this piece apart from the novelty of 4.1 surround sound and Lewis’s digital effects was how perceivable the performers’ listening was (another theme of the night): compassionately listening to their own sounds, Lewis’s sounds, and each others’.

The love that Zeena Parkins has for the sound of the harp is palpable. Captiva for Acoustic Harp and Processing, performed with assistance from David Behrman on the processing component, framed Parkins’ incredibly physical playing with distinct electronic landscapes. The work had a sense of direction and narrative that differentiated it from the improvisation/indeterminacy of the rest of the night.

Behrman remained at his computer for his piece Long Throw. Electroacoustic music is tricky in many ways, a primary reason being that one has access to any and all sounds: an infinite palette of sorts. Another being how to compellingly incorporate acoustic instruments. The instrumentalists in Long Throw seemed secondary to Behrman’s sonic landscapes at times, but rather than detracting from the work, the disparate and patient iterations contributed to feeling of sonic time lapse before evaporating into silence.

Ikue Mori’s subtle laptop keystrokes completely contradict the intense kinetic and frenetic sounds that her laptop produces — a sonic arsenal that is nearly impossible to keep track of, all somehow being individually triggered by the same interface one would answer an email with. The depth and complexity of timbres are astounding, which made for a bit of a shocking entrance by Christian Wolff’s slightly acontextual clapping. The duo took a moment to calibrate, but eventually the prepared piano and electronics blended and morphed into a cohesive whole.

Earle Brown’s December 1952 / November 1952 stood out as the only purely acoustic performance of the night and the only piece by a composer outside of the group. The work deserved a bit more context, either as a program note or a simple glimpse of the piece’s stark graphic score, which is interpreted by performers simultaneously. It was the most “historical” of the performances of the night, one whose sparseness was welcome.

Fast Forward’s graphic score Octopoda (for four arms) ended up being a bit indiscernible from Shadowgraph, with the only thing setting it apart being Philip Selway’s first appearance of the night. Selway seemed uncomfortable, as did his ocarina tooting ‘xylosynth’ and the queasy jangling of a coat rack tucked to the back of the stage. Perhaps this unease was made starker next to Fast Forward’s performative and aural confidence with his mass array of metallic objects being perpetually sent down Lewis’s quadrophonic rabbit hole. Forward’s take on indeterminacy invites the audience to chuckle a little, warming up a medium that can be a little more distant than it means to be.

Each individual performer’s voice had come into focus at various points throughout the night, particularly in the kaleidoscope of the large group improvisation at the end of night, but the individual personas never clouded the communal joy that perpetually radiated from the stage.

In a time when ‘individualism’ has been commodified to the point of parody it seems especially poignant that art collectivism and community is a thread that ties Music for Merce together. It pops up in the program, where many of the artists appear in each others bios and discographies. George Lewis literally wrote the book on the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and David Behrman is a founding member of the Sonic Arts Union. Notice the empathetic listening and generous sonic support that is inherent in improvised music of this caliber. Then notice the collective aesthetic of Cage, Cunningham, and Rauschenberg that is currently enlivening the Walker galleries. It keeps going — all culminating in the realization that when an artist’s work so clearly comes from a place of compassion and love it becomes natural to extrapolate that love and compassion out onto others, enriching an arts community person by person — a truly inspiring model for what a community/society can look like, all stemming from experimentation and exploring the fringes of sound/art. It could feel like a bit of a stretch, but for me, Music for Merce proved that experimental/improvisational music isn’t a fixation on the individual, but in fact a model for a society in which individualism strengthens rather than stifles community.

Music for Merce: A Two-Night Celebration was presented  February 23 -24, 2017 as part of the exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time, on view in the Walker galleries until July 30. 

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