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Jeff Bartlett on Out There’s 25th Anniversary

In celebration of Out There’s 25th anniversary, we invited theater professionals from near and far — Jeff Bartlett, Wendy Knox, Young Jean Lee, and Mark Russell–to share their perspectives on this annual festival of boundary-crossing performance. “OK this all sounds great,” said Robert Stearns, “but what should we call it?” The four of us there […]

Linda Carmella Sibio, Energy and Light and Their Relationship to Suicide, Out There 8 (1996)

Linda Carmella Sibio, Energy and Light and Their Relationship to Suicide, Out There 8 (1996)

In celebration of Out There’s 25th anniversary, we invited theater professionals from near and far — Jeff Bartlett, Wendy Knox, Young Jean Lee, and Mark Russell–to share their perspectives on this annual festival of boundary-crossing performance.

“OK this all sounds great,” said Robert Stearns, “but what should we call it?”

The four of us there in Robert’s office sometime back in ‘87 or ‘88—Robert and Steve Waryan from the Walker staff; Sandy Moore and me from the Southern Theater—were silent for a bit. We’d gathered for the latest in a series of planning meetings for our upcoming proposal to The McKnight Foundation’s newly-created Arts Partnership Program. A few months prior, The McKnight in its characteristic forward-thinking philanthropic wisdom had announced (at the Walker auditorium, as it happens) a program to encourage larger arts organizations and smaller ones to find ways to work together. McKnight envisioned the mutual benefit that might accrue if the experience, resources, and connections of the “major” institutions could combine with the flexibility and, it might be said, more adventuresome spirit of some smaller ones. The smaller organizations would increase their knowledge and connections; larger ones might get to try things they otherwise wouldn’t. The arts community at large would benefit from imaginative new arts programs.

When we at the Southern first heard about the program, we were all over it. “Let’s see if the Walker wants to partner with us!” Sandy and I said to one another. In those late 1980’s the Southern was a fledgling presenting organization with aspirations toward a more national presence. Robert at the Walker was entirely receptive to the idea; he’d been dreaming of a way to produce a few events of a perhaps riskier nature, suitable to a smaller seating capacity, outside the Walker auditorium. It seemed to all of us a match made in heaven, and we embarked on a series of meetings to work out the details.

By the time of this meeting, we’d come a good long way. We’d hammered out the central vision: the series would present new performance work broadly seen as in some way “experimental’ (defined very broadly or more accurately, not precisely defined). Work that was “not exactly mainstream,” as former Southern board chair Diane Waller used to say. The series and the work it presented wouldn’t be genre-specific and in fact would resist categorization. We’d present primarily nationally known artists but would also find ways to bring attention to locally based artists whose work fit the same criteria (or lack thereof).

We’d worked out the division of labor between our two organizations: we’d figured out the budget, we knew how the proposal to McKnight would get written. We were cautiously optimistic we might even stand a chance of getting the grant. We were almost there… and then Robert had to go and ask that pesky question about the name.

So we pondered. We shifted uncomfortably in our seats. We mumbled some stuff about what the name should convey—you know, like, it should tell people what it is but not be all specific and literal. Descriptive yet open to possibilities, y’know?  Except, no, we didn’t know. We couldn’t come up with nuthin’. And so we sat.

Until, in one of the most brilliant moments of inspiration I’ve ever had the privilege to witness, the young Steve Waryan piped up: “What if we just call it Out There?”

There it was, no question. Oh man, it was brilliant! It said it all! It included everything while naming nothing. Evocative, challenging, mysterious, illuminating. Specific yet general. Adventurous. We considered a moment or two … there were likely a few cautious nods with perhaps the random affirmative-sounding grunt … and over a couple minutes we collectively realized there was not one single way this was not the perfect name for the series we’d just spent a few months dreaming up. Out There it became, and Out There it has remained.

Dan Hurlin, _A Cool Million_, Out There 3 (1991)

Dan Hurlin, A Cool Million, Out There 3 (1991)

I don’t think one of us, maybe not even McKnight, would have dreamed it would last a quarter-century (and still going strong).  But why not? In some ways it’s no big surprise that it has.  It’s a truly excellent series, built on a solid conceptual foundation, with tons of viable material to present. Now solidly ensconced in the Walker’s beautiful McGuire Theater, Out There has rightfully earned its place as a real staple in the Twin Cities’ January performing arts season.

Memories? They could fill a book. John Woodall’s exquisite Gim-Crack (1990), a marvelous and magical painting-come-to-life-onstage, remains one of the most memorable pieces I ever saw on the Southern stage. Its memory lives on too… If you know where to look you can still see the areas on the Southern’s back wall that John’s production team darkened down when I wasn’t looking.

Or how about the first real time Twin Cities audiences were moved to reverential silence by Ruth Mackenzie’s magnificent singing voice? The first public dance duet by Joe Chvala and Karla Grotting, subsequently of Flying Foot Forum fame? Or the meeting on the Late Night Showcase stage between Joe and Karla and Savage Aural Hotbed, from which grew the landmark Berserks and a years-long artistic partnership?

Other highlights come to mind: Dan Hurlin’s one-man tour de force A Cool Million (1991) followed a decade later by his expansive and sprawling tractor-ride-across-the-prairie in The Shoulder  (1998). John Jesurun’s media-saturated Everything that Rise Must Converge (1990) featuring audience seating inside the Southern’s proscenium and the total bifurcation of the space by a giant rotating wall. The dozen or so actual homeless folks who became a fixture during the year of LAPD Inspects (1998). Linda Carmello Sibio, an honest-to-goodness schizophrenic, screaming absurdities at the top of her lungs from the top of a giant jungle gym under the arch. And her blood-curdling cries from the dressing rooms, too! (Except those weren’t part of the performance. But we invited her back two years later anyway, which maybe shows how crazy we were!)

Crazy? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Visionary? I’d like to imagine that as we sat in Robert’s office those many years ago we dreamed of setting a twenty-five-year-plus trajectory in motion. But I don’t think we can take that much credit. The true credit belongs to each and every person who’s worked onstage and off to make this rich body of work come to life.

And to Steve Waryan for his brilliant flash of inspiration. It was really truly Out There.

Performers from Out There 2 (1990): Bad Jazz (Kevin Kling, Michael Sommers, Loren Niemi); John Jesurun; John Woodall; Giles Denmark; Christopher Friday and David Lindahl; Gerry Girouard; Steven Kale Kagan; Gene Larche; Ruth Mackenzie; Earl Norman and Patrick Pelini; Julie Ann O’Baoighill; Peter O’Gorman; Savage Aural Hotbed

Performers from Out There 2 (1990): Bad Jazz (Kevin Kling, Michael Sommers, Loren Niemi); John Jesurun; John Woodall; Giles Denmark; Christopher Friday and David Lindahl; Gerry Girouard; Steven Kale Kagan; Gene Larche; Ruth Mackenzie; Earl Norman and Patrick Pelini; Julie Ann O’Baoighill; Peter O’Gorman; Savage Aural Hotbed

Frank Theatre’s Wendy Knox on Out There’s 25th Anniversary

In celebration of Out There’s 25th anniversary, we invited theater professionals from near and far — Jeff Bartlett, Wendy Knox, Young Jean Lee, and Mark Russell–to share their perspectives on this annual festival of boundary-crossing performance. Once the leaves drop from the trees here in Minnesota, we’re on that slow march into the long, dark, […]

Ping Chong, Elephant Memories, Out There III (1991)

Ping Chong, Elephant Memories, Out There 3 (1991)

In celebration of Out There’s 25th anniversary, we invited theater professionals from near and far — Jeff Bartlett, Wendy Knox, Young Jean Lee, and Mark Russell–to share their perspectives on this annual festival of boundary-crossing performance.

Once the leaves drop from the trees here in Minnesota, we’re on that slow march into the long, dark, dreary period of endless twilight that only delivers us into the madness of the holidays, and then it all comes to a halt with the arrival of January. In addition to the brightness that comes with heaps of snow and mind-numbing temperatures, for 25 years, the Out There series had held the promise of a sometimes delightful, sometimes intriguing, sometimes mind-blowing, sometimes puzzling, but always fascinating mid-winter adventure. Thanks to the Walker, January held out promise, an anticipation, once we get through the holidays. For years, you could look forward to January, knowing that each weekend of Out There would take you someplace new, would introduce you to someone (interesting) from out of town, and, for many years, also spotlight one of our local pals alongside people from all over. Looking over the history of the Out There series, I realize how lucky we have been and how the series has impacted our local performance scene.

As a theater artist who has been working in the community for about as long as the Out There series has existed, it’s worth observing how the Twin Cities performance scene has evolved during this time and considering how Out There has affected our scene and how the Twin Cities has impacted the artists who visited us during the annual Out There adventure.

Ron Vawter, Roy Cohn/Jack Smith, Out There IV (1992)

Ron Vawter, Roy Cohn/Jack Smith, Out There 4 (1992)

Personally, I think of the artists who have come through here on an Out There ticket who I might never have seen (Rachel Rosenthal, Ron Vawter, Improbable Theatre) as well as those who have visited on an Out There ticket and subsequently returned, hung around, spent time here working with Twin Cities artists (Ping Chong, Eiko and Koma, Dan Hurlin, Roger Guenveur Smith). In the early ’90s, the Twin Cities was a bit on an incubator for new performance work. There were many theaters producing new work (Brass Tacks, Illusion, Red Eye, Frank) we well as many venues that presented performance-based work that didn’t fit into the box labeled “theater”: Intermedia Arts/UC Video, Film in the Cities, the Walker. Additionally, there were funders who were supporting the hybridizing of forms, and the convergence of these elements with the active visual art, music and dance communities led to the development of a local performance scene that was deserving of the reputation that was quickly established. Out There has had a significant hand in feeding that reputation.

An example is in 1997, when I had the opportunity to work with a roster of local artists whose assignment for the Out There series was to take a piece of highly identifiable text and riff on it. The resulting performances were hugely varied, endlessly fascinating, and still memorable. Among the performances were Laurie Carlos, performing a piece from Fiddler on the Roof with her own approach to breath and movement; Brian Sostek advising us of our Miranda rights; Alex Alexander playing her keyboard and giving us the “Serenity Prayer”; Maria Asp, delivering the “to be or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet while frosting a cake; Carolyn Goelzer actually making that flight attendant spiel interesting; Charles Schuminski, reading the bible, stuffing his face with candy (and perhaps strapping a watermelon to his body with Saran Wrap, or was that another piece?); along with several others.

Three Women at the Fore: Carolyn Goelzer, Mary Ellen Childs, Laurie Carlos, Out There 10 (1998)

Three Women at the Fore: Carolyn Goelzer, Mary Ellen Childs, Laurie Carlos, Out There 10 (1998)

The inclusion of local artists alongside those who came from far-off places was something that energized the local community, and it is an aspect I have missed in recent years. While Out There provides a wonderful opportunity to see the work of artists from New York, LA, Austin, etc., using one of the weekends of the series to present a local artist had a dual effect. It served as a reminder of the incredible variety and quality of work that is being produced here at home, and simultaneously spotlighted these local artists up alongside those whose work is recognized outside of our community. The late night showcase that followed the performances of these local artists was also a bonus, featuring short pieces by a number of other artists.

Congratulations to Out There and the Walker for a fascinating quarter of a century and for its many contributions to making the performance scene in the Twin Cities as rich and diverse as it is. And many thanks for the delightful January adventures that you have taken us on for the past 25 years!

Young Jean Lee on Out There’s 25th Anniversary

In celebration of Out There’s 25th anniversary, we invited theater professionals from near and far — Jeff Bartlett, Wendy Knox, Young Jean Lee, and Mark Russell–to share their perspectives on this annual festival of boundary-crossing performance. In 2006, I had never toured a show before, but I’d heard all about touring from friends in the […]

Young Jean Lee, Untitled Feminist Show, 2012. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

In celebration of Out There’s 25th anniversary, we invited theater professionals from near and far — Jeff Bartlett, Wendy Knox, Young Jean Lee, and Mark Russell–to share their perspectives on this annual festival of boundary-crossing performance.

In 2006, I had never toured a show before, but I’d heard all about touring from friends in the New York downtown theater scene. I knew which were the best venues to tour to and who were the most important presenters to know. Nearly everyone I spoke to mentioned Philip Bither and the Walker Art Center. More than one person described Philip as “the perfect human being.” So when I finally met him and he invited my show Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven to be part of his 2007 Out There festival, I was beyond thrilled that my very first tour ever was going to be at this famously dreamy venue.

Young Jean Lee, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, 2007. Photo: Frank Hentschker

But it turned out that having your first tour be at the Walker is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because the venue is luxurious, the staff is top-notch, the audience is from heaven, the snacks in the green room are abundant, and Philip is a perfect human being. And a curse because it spoils your company for every subsequent tour. To this day, the Walker’s audience remains one of my favorites in the world: savvy, open-hearted, generous, fun, and extremely rock-and-roll.

In 2008, Philip commissioned my next play, Church, and gave me my first American commission. Church had two successful runs in New York, but presenters didn’t want to touch it because of its religious subject matter. Philip, undaunted, brought it to Minneapolis for 2008’s Out There, where it was a hit. Although this was my production’s only tour, in the years since, Church has become my most produced play around the country, with a wide range of companies creating their own versions. I will always be grateful to and full of admiration for Philip for his willingness to present Church when nobody else would. Commissions are now a major source of funding for my shows, and I know that his early faith in me, before most people knew about my work, definitely opened the doors for other theaters to invest in me. And that’s Philip. He’s unafraid to take a risk on someone or something unknown, and I think that is a real gift to audiences at the Walker–and to artists around the world.

In 2010, we approached Philip about partnering with us on Untitled Feminist Show, and he commissioned the show and gave it its world premiere at Out There in January 2012. It was by far my most challenging work to date, and when my team arrived at the Walker, we were all petrified. We had no idea how this crazy naked dance theater piece without words would land on an audience. We had never presented it in its full form and had our fears about whether or not it would come together.

Young Jean Lee, Church, 2009. Photo: Ryan Jensen

As soon as the performers entered the theater, the atmosphere in the room was electric. The crowd screamed and cheered like it was a rock concert. It was unreal. Here we were, ragged from this intense development process, unsure if anything we made would work, unsure how it would work, and in front of our first audience, and it was completely explosive. The love and generosity in the room were palpable as the performers rocked the house scene after scene. When the lights came up at the end, my collaborators and I were sitting there, in shock. We all burst into tears and started hugging each other and saying, “What?! What?!” It was the one of the most joyous moments in my life as an artist.

I am so grateful to Philip and to the Walker for all they’ve done for me, as well as for friends such as Elevator Repair Service, Radiohole, NTUSA, Big Dance Theater, and many more. From that first Songs tour in 2007, Philip has treated me like a valued artist who deserves respect, support, and resources. Walker audiences have challenged me, uplifted me, and continually surprised me. The Walker has served as an artistic home and launching pad for touring that sustains my company to this day. I can’t wait for my next visit.

Fully Awake: Olive Bieringa on Deborah Hay

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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, Olive Bieringa shares her perspective on Friday night’s performance of Fire and  No […]

Deborah Hay, No Time to Fly, 2012

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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, Olive Bieringa shares her perspective on Friday night’s performance of Fire and  No Time to Fly by Deborah Hay and Saturday’s As Holy Sites Go/duet. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

“The waiting might continue, and you feel like you’re failing and yet there’s no spite or malice, it’s done out of love and a striving for some kind of authenticity.”
Michèle Steinwald on Deborah Hay

No Time to Fly
Performed by Jeanine Durning

She enters through the side exit just as the last audience members are getting settled.

Dressed in a sequined jacket, black shorts, leotard, and black shoes. She has a wireless microphone. No hat.

The stage is open, with a flat cyclorama across the back of the space lit in low blue light. Lighting booms stand on the edges where the wings would end except there are none, creating a smaller space within the stage.

She begins by activating the whole space, visiting locations, she moves across the space, she serenades a boom, she stands by the screen half obscured by the side lighting, she comes directly downstage to us, a little soft shoe tap, she stands in the dark corner. Her barely audible murmurings have us lean in and listen with our whole bodies.

She sings a melody, swinging her arms contracting collapsing through the front of her body then snaps an erect spine, sits bones and skull reaching. Intentionally awkward transitions in and out of the floor. She is thinking her way through every shifting position. One moment she is leaning forward over her legs. Her arms held wide, hands like paint brushes tapping the floor.

An aria has begun again, she is singing it, do we know it, is it just made up for this moment? There is no other music or sound in the space. Rhythm of arms and legs in different time zones, rhythms evolving show show show time.

The breath, the effort, the murmuring we hear it.

Up against the back wall in the other corner of the space … sliding down, down, down, hand indicating and urging the pelvis in to the inevitable splits.

Her hand wipes her brow.

We wait.

She moves through the space, attacking it with her arms, feeling the solidity of her legs, the squeak of the shoes.

There are lots of gestures.

Dance references, jazz ballet, tap dancing, that hop skip–or is that a skip hop that I remember from watching Deborah dance this same solo in 2010 at St. Mark’s Church? What is transmitted through the scoring process that so many have danced that is similar? What is the directorial process for this particular evening?

I can feel the multiple layers of attention being held in the whole body of the performer. The timing is everything. The complexity holds us. The audience is so focused. A series of interruptions lead to elegant descents into awkward positions on the floor. Balanced on knees, head and back of hands. She begins speaking gibberish in a deep foreign tongue. Like a member of the Japanese mafia out in the alley or talking on a far away TV screen. More aria, this time almost falsetto, again corrupted into a descent and awkward stillness on the floor.

What’s the motor in her movement? Obviously the scoring of complex images. But what else? The song? The words? One limb cycling to rev up the core and move her across the space like a ship through the water?

She comes downstage to soft shoe again and declare, “Strictly speaking, I believe I have never been anywhere”–a quote from Beckett–and immediately begins humming a melody while her head is dropped and hands are half inserted in her pockets.

She travels behind the screen making a loud repeating sound with her mouth and tongue into the microphone and then comes out hop slide, delicate toe walking, arms wide to present herself to us her audience. And then there is something indicated on her head by her two hands, like a Javanese court dancer, the roof of a temple? More loud interruptions into slow descents and stillness, another interrupted melody now face down on the floor murmuring.

We come out as we entered yet changed.

She is murmuring in standing with back turned, talking to spirits we cannot see.

She fakes an exit.

Lights leaving dancer in silhouette in the middle of the stage.

The subtle shifting lighting designed by Jennifer Tipton through is extraordinary.

Fire
Performed by Ros Warby

She appears in a spotlight in a bold white leotard, white headband, black shoes and wireless microphone. Long limbs extended and then the movement begins. Fast limbs releasing, pelvis bounces, head bobs, sounds through the microphone, a Foley of her own body’s movements, knees out, plié, butt clasps, neck held tight, brain escaping.

Directly to us “who are you? Where are you from?

She holds a an invisible box between her hands, the bottom hand drops out.

“What do you want?”

FIRE!”

A lot of marked songs, as if she was singing along with headphones, half remembered, half forgotten, fully improvised, fully embodied including guitar solos. Through the complexity of this embarrassing score we can see her, her timing, her humor, her physical skill, her commitment.

Abrupt cut as she walks toward the audience.

The limbs are a lot to manage. The awkward plié, maybe it’s the super awareness inside of the action that heightens the dance “moves” making the human into an odd animal. The recognizable dance vocabulary arrives and dissolves from unknowing locales. Cunningham arrives. Ros pitches and arabesques and balances.

So curious if the dancers intentionally forgot the score for a moment and let themselves ride. Would we feel let down? Abandoned? Would it be delicious counter to all this nervous system attention, just for a moment?

The audience is absolutely silent.

Facing backwards she begins an extreme lean to the left, reaching with her elbows to the ceiling as she extends upward. A wordless version of “You Are My Sunshine” becomes audible. And then she turns back to us: “Who are you? Where are you from? What do you want?” Again her sounds illustrate her movement, like the sound track for a martial arts movie, and then we are with the corp de ballet. Just for a moment. Arms crossed, elbows delicately reaching skyward as hands rest on the front of her shoulders. We wait. Her mouth becomes a mud pool. Hands illustrating her sounds. Bubbling and gently grotesque. And then she is jogging almost in place but slowing gliding across the floor, looking at the world, its different landscape features, as she travels through it. It shifts our location and the scale of the world we inhabit with her. CUT.

“Hon, I want you to wake up and look at the stars. There really beautiful tonight.”

A moment passes.

“Oh hon, I’m so glad you got up. Are you ready to come look at the stars?”

Repeat.

Her head is lowered her hands exposed and suddenly she’s peering through a telescope and then it’s gone.

“A heavy oval stone with a fine white oval shape lining the rock cradled in a red boat leaving shore” and she pushes off into the waters and departs upstage.

Because of the nature of Deborah’s scoring we taken on a surprising journey, it could go anywhere as long as it’s well performed.

As an audience we are super engaged trying to figure out the inner logic. What is driving this activity on stage? It is inspired and deeply considered work.

The complexity of the scoring leads to an intensity of presence, sometimes a marking or gestural quality in the movement, a fully awake nervous system. So much is being processed that sometimes the movement or the image only needs to be indicated, it shimmers before us, sometimes clear, sometimes only hinted at before the performer is pursuing something else. What is important is the “how” not the “what.” All perceptual systems fully engaged.

As Holy Sites Go/duet

In the program notes its says this work was originally a trio based on the solo No Time to Fly. This duet version was performed for the second time on Saturday night at the Walker.  Having watched No Time to Fly the night before it was kind of like watching an expanded rerun.

Again the performers enter just as the audience is getting settled. The stage is bare except for the lighting booms on each side and a cyclorama across the back of the space. Jeanine wears shorts, black top, and her shiny shoes. Ros, all in black; pants, black top with a very short ruffle cardigan. Both with wireless microphones.

Jeanine begins activating the space as she had the night before, visiting the cyclorama in the back of the space, the unlit edges of the space. It was exciting to have one performer begin and not know when the next would start. One waiting and watching as the other moved through the space. This occurred several times throughout the piece.

We hear the singing but now it’s two voices instead of one. Challenging to improvise a song and develop one’s own melody when someone else is doing the same thing next to you. Sharing sound space is not the same as sharing physical space. The singing becomes entangled. What does the duplication bring us?

The dancers circle the space coming together upstage or downstage. They start up a rhythm, keep it going, chase it, evolve it, be it, drop it.  A vague obtuse musicality manifests. The effort of keeping something going … sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s, well, effortful, and sometimes it’s so slippery it changes before you ever knew what it really was. The repetition begins shifting the humans into animals.

They are never directly social with one another, even when they came close, but highly aware of each other’s every moment, every breath, every sound. They stand side by side like a deconstructed party without music. They are more direct with us than each other. What if the formality of the relationship fell apart? What if the audience was no longer the front?

They stand far apart. They scan the space looking at different features of the unseen landscape. They make something out of nothing over and over again. We scan back and forward from one to the other like at a tennis match.

Their side-by-side angular descents into the floor were like two mating insects working the negative space. At one point Ros crosses below the horizon of her forearm with her gaze. Time shifts as she moves from above to below. Sometimes they descend, accompanied by quiet murmuring invoking other beings in the space. It was always a mystery where they ended up on the floor in relationship to one another, and how they would find from the waiting, the initiation back into ascending, to their more common uprightness.

One moment they both arrive miraculously downstage in unison pointing upward to quote Beckett again–“Strictly speaking I believe I’ve never been anywhere”–before the discontinuity cuts the action and our world is altered yet again. We are chasing rabbits just for the pleasure of it.

At the very end they stand turn to each other for the first time, settle, and then turn to us.

Fade to black.

It was interesting to notice how familiar I became with the vocabulary of the piece from seeing the solo the night before and then seeing the duet. In retrospect for me the solo was stronger. I was less interested in the loose symmetricality that occurred throughout the duet. I was curious about other spatial configurations. I am drawn to awkwardness and imbalance. I would be curious to see a trio version but imagining what it would look like is also fun.

Ros’s performance of Fire on Friday night was so strong and her range so dynamic that I was more excited about that earlier work than the detached cool of this later duet.

The question of performativity in Deborah’s work is an interesting one. I have seen several versions of people performing her solo commissioning project. For example last year I had pleasure of seeing Karen Schaffman perform Fire and Eric Geiger performing Art and Life at the Bryant Lake Bowl. Her earlier works were mostly created and performed on community dancers. About ten years ago she began working with rock stars of the dance community, and all of sudden everyone started noticing her work. Lots of formal recognition ensued with awards, funding, touring opportunities. The truth is the work was always good, and this weekend at the Walker, with veteran performers Ros Warby and Jeanine Durning, was no exception. The work is especially good from the inside. I say that from having danced in her group work titled Lamb, lamb, lamb in 1994 at Danspace, New York.

I missed seeing Deborah on stage!

I’m curious now that her rock star phase is over where she will go next.

She pursues a quietly radical path.

 

Unfolding Still: A SpeakEasy for Deborah Hay

A SpeakEasy is an informal audience discussion facilitated by a Walker tour guide and a local performer or choreographer. Today’s edition highlights themes shared during a conversation on Saturday, December 8, about Deborah Hay’s As Holy Sites Go. As Holy Sites Go concluded the Walker’s Deborah Hay Celebration, a week of events recognizing the career […]

A SpeakEasy is an informal audience discussion facilitated by a Walker tour guide and a local performer or choreographer. Today’s edition highlights themes shared during a conversation on Saturday, December 8, about Deborah Hay’s As Holy Sites Go.

As Holy Sites Go concluded the Walker’s Deborah Hay Celebration, a week of events recognizing the career of this dynamic performer and choreographer. A former dancer in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Hay was a founding member of the Judson Dance Theater, which formed in New York in 1962. Bolstered by that community, she embarked on decades of dance exploration with “trained” and “untrained” performers. Thereafter, through a series of solos, Hay honed her choreographic process, begun with a series of questions and developed into a script that guides the performer, who makes decisions and enacts this exploration, in real-time. The questions posed by Hay resonate beyond the performing context and linger long afterwards.

Discussing her work Beauty, she offered the query “What if where I am is what I need”? Specifically considering the performing context, this question has relevance for both performers and audience members. As Hay’s dancer’s open themselves to the disparate possibilities of a moment, so, too audience members are tasked with being open and aware in following that course, wherever it may lead. For a few of us, this exploration ultimately led to the Walker’s Balcony Bar for a post-performance SpeakEasy discussion. Themes and concepts shared in that conversation are featured in this post, and additional questions and thoughts are welcomed in the comments section below.

To be Holy and Secular

“…perhaps our life is still governed by a certain number of oppositions that remain inviolable, that our institutions and practices have not yet dared to break down. These are oppositions that we regard as simple givens: for example between private space and public space, between family space and social space, between cultural space and useful space, between the space of leisure and that of work. All these are still nurtured by the hidden presence of the sacred.” – Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces

How might the theater function as a ritual site? Is it a type of holy space, reserved for a unique form of attentive, hushed experience? As Holy Sites Go is performed in silence, broken by brief vocalizations, subdued percussive accents, and the occasional soft shush of shoe against floor. The audience contributes to this score, perhaps unintentionally, through the squeak of a chair or a stifled cough. Already perhaps self-aware given the desire to maintain quiet, the audience is further drawn into the performance by the lighting, which remains on seats throughout the majority of the evening. For some, this may cause discomfort, drawing attention to each small shift, making one aware of one’s body or persona in the theatre. Yet for others, this opens up a communal engagement. One audience member recalled leaning forward and noticing that movement echoed row after row. This notion of community brings to the fore a precious undercurrent in this viewing experience. A generosity is requested of both performers and audience members, asking us to allow each moment to unfold as it may, to be patient as the performers strive to find the next impulse, to be actively present as they seek something “genuine” that lies behind habit, convention, beauty, or reason. This is perhaps the secular holiness of the theatre, the focused energy of audience and performers coalescing in this space during this limited time.

To Succeed at Achieving Nothing

One audience member brought forward the concept of “achievement” in contrast to Hay’s movement aesthetic. Throughout the piece, she noted that dancers followed impulses, yet almost as soon as these were recognized, they were discarded, overridden by the next impulse and a reconfiguration of the current moment. In this sense, the actions were without consequences, nothing was achieved or fulfilled, for achievement exists in a linear trajectory of progress and Hay demands that we sever this moment from before/after, that we focus on the emerging now. As this process unfolds, it is hard to resist layering emotion or narrative onto the evolving vignettes.  SpeakEasy participants shared diverse interpretations. Periods of prolonged stillness with bodies collapsed to the floor, then reanimated to begin the next scene, reminded one viewer of reincarnation. Others saw moments of interspecies communication, fighting, sexual seduction, twinspeak, or soaring through a clear blue sky.

To Be Here

One line was uttered during the performance by each dancer, a comment from Samuel Beckett’s The End, “Strictly Speaking I believe I’ve never been anywhere.” But, what is it to truly be somewhere, anywhere? What is it to fully embody and experience this moment? A number of audience members shared a feeling of expanded time, of time not as a quick succession of seconds, but rather time in the form of eons, in the slow periodicity of erosion. Described by Hay as a “continuity of discontinuity,” As Holy Sites Go does not build a forward momentum from beginning towards climax and resolution. Instead, each movement is presented for consideration on its own and we are invited to strive to stay with it, to experience this hour moment by moment in this space together.

Thank you to local performer, choreographer, and author Judith Brin Ingber for joining me to lead the SpeakEasy for As Holy Sites Go. The next SpeakEasy will be held on Saturday, January 12, when we will discuss Rude Mechs’ The Method Gun. This will be the first performance of 2013’s Out There Series. We hope to see you then!

Dig Deeper

Feminist Movement: Deborah Hay, Artistic Survival, Aesthetic Freedom, and Feminist Organizational Principles by Walker assistant curator for the Performing Arts Michèle Steinwald

Deborah Hay: The Outlier as Insider, by Michèle Steinwald, as told to Julie Caniglia

Talk Dance producer/host Justin Jones’ interview with Jeanine Durning on working with Deborah Hay

Deborah Hay: Beauty Through Time and Leaving it Behind

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on Wednesday night’s Talking Dance: A Lecture on the […]

Deborah Hay, No Time To Fly, 2010. Photo: Rino Pizzi

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on Wednesday night’s Talking Dance: A Lecture on the Performance of Beauty by Deborah Hay. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Wednesday night’s … I’ll call it a lecture demonstration … had Deborah Hay talking about the process for her 2002 solo that became known as Beauty. She gave us the work’s chronology, its initial hiccups (different title and costume) and led us into a performance/reading of an article she wrote about it all (which is in the guise of a set of inspired instructions as though we, the audience/reader, are the performer). As Hay maps Beauty’s geography with marker and large white paper on an easel, two videos of her performing the work play simultaneously, one from each incarnation.

My task here is to offer my take on what I saw and experienced while also attempting to contextualize the works that will be performed this weekend as part of Hay Days.

Well, Deborah Hay is a force, a creature perhaps with all the instinct that that implies, but she is also a very deliberate wordsmith, intentionally spinning language into a just-barely-discernable tumble. “What if every cell in my body has the potential to perceive and surrender beauty simultaneously?” This is the question/premise that Beauty is based upon. Holy shit.

I am amazed by the question, by the thought behind it and the thoughts behind those, thoughts that go on to elaborate: “Onstage you shimmer. Shimmering is time passing: here and gone, here and gone, here and gone, here and gone, here and gone…”

What we have here is a sensibility aligned with a dance practice that offers choreographies highly crafted, scored and improvised based upon specific questions that ultimately require a performer to empty and be foolish.

As life and luck would have it, I saw Beauty in London in 2003. It was performed at the end of a day-long symposium with Yvonne Rainer and Deborah Hay. I will not dig for my notes from then now but, for all I know, they are the same as what I took tonight: quick scratches in an attempt to capture, well, anything. All her words are golden and honed to capture the imagination. They give permission and allow for individual interpretation. Her words come at the end of a long day of dance as ever-present: for her, for me, and for the me of 2003.

She is practical and enigmatic.

My best guess is that this weekend’s dances (Beauty will not be on view) will have undergone great discipline and rigor to arrive in this world. There is a great brain behind, beneath, and above it all. There will be informed bodies, intelligence, and raw sensory perception.

I am sorry to say I will miss these events, but you go. Go to spark your questions about what you think dance is and see what, actually, it can also be.

Any artist who, ten years later, still talks and writes about a dance and “performs” that lecture globally, is vital. She’s interested. She is asking more of us. “It helps us as dancers to be writing papers.” So, while I sadly can’t see these works this weekend, I will write about what I think about when I imagine what I would’ve seen.

Dance can be practiced in all kinds of ways. There are many pathways in fact, and therefore many to diverge from which, guess what, she encourages us to do!

“The world opens when you depart from the path.”

In other words, “detach from the blueprint.” It is good to have one and even better to leave it behind. It’ll always be waiting.

Deborah Hay: “Genius Rug-Puller”

The other night, I was telling my husband about this show that he will be going to see next weekend, and after we chatted about it for a while, he seemed unsure and said, “Is it going to be old?” I responded, “Maybe, I don’t know.” I didn’t think much of this conversation until I was […]

The other night, I was telling my husband about this show that he will be going to see next weekend, and after we chatted about it for a while, he seemed unsure and said, “Is it going to be old?” I responded, “Maybe, I don’t know.” I didn’t think much of this conversation until I was watching the video Dancers Discuss Working with Deborah Hay. In it, dancer/choreographers Miguel Gutierrez, Michelle Boulé, and Luke George describe their experiences working with and learning from Hay. The content of my conversation with my husband seemed insignificant until, at different points in the interview, both Gutierrez and Boulé used the qualifier, “for a person of her age.” Rude! Right?

Well, maybe. In dance, when people retire at 30, it’s important to note that choreographing and performing at 70 is rare. It is rude, however, when age suddenly equates irrelevance. But you should know: Deborah Hay is not irrelevant. Her age, much like her work (and its success), is a testament to her philosophies and practices and only adds to the list of reasons she is more relevant than ever. Deborah Hay, along with the members of Judson Dance Theater, changed how dance is made, taught, learned, and created. She has continued to explore new ways of creation, of thinking, of understanding, and in this interview with her dancers, it is clear that she continues to have a very real and relevant influence on how artists of a younger generation approach their work. It goes beyond the notion that to understand where art is today, we must understand where it has come from. It’s about seeing how a person that has been working/growing/experimenting for 50+ years continues to influence and impact the trajectory of the field of dance.

Even in just her process and approach to creation, dancers are faced with new (or old) methods of exploration.  From Hay’s influence, artists create and express contemporary ideas in a new (or old) way.  The process of fusing old and new/ young, is what keeps the form moving forward.  They’re not reinventing the wheel, just mobilizing in different directions.  Dancer/choreographer Miguel Gutierrez makes this point in his very simple and succinct reflection on working with Hay:

Once you’ve been in her world, it’s really hard to get out.  Suddenly, you think, “how could you think of dance in any other way?”

Earlier in the video, Gutierrez refers to Hay as “this genius rug-puller.” Not only is that notion reinforced in the stories that these three dancers tell about working with Hay, but it’s apparent because I feel like I had the rug pulled out from under me regarding my own (inaccurately) preconceived notions about what Hay Days might be like. So, yeah, that’s pretty genius.

Hay Days: A Deborah Hay Celebration will feature a lecture and two different performances December 5-8, 2012.

Feminist Movement: Deborah Hay, Artistic Survival, Aesthetic Freedom, and Feminist Organizational Principles

Deborah Hay has liberated contemporary dance on many levels, from her early days in New York to her international influence today. Not in the least from within the design of how she chooses to disseminate her choreography. In my opinion, her multiple inventions and innovations for transmitting her aesthetic through community building are in line […]

Deborah Hay has liberated contemporary dance on many levels, from her early days in New York to her international influence today. Not in the least from within the design of how she chooses to disseminate her choreography. In my opinion, her multiple inventions and innovations for transmitting her aesthetic through community building are in line with the women’s rights movement and the principles that guide a feminist organization. While “questioning authority” by dismantling the presenter-performer (or choreographer-dancer or teacher-student) relationship or restricting access only to women were never goals of her Solo Performance Commissioning Project, Hay designed a unique structure that worked for the most part independently of a mainstream system (depending on some of the participants’ funding sources) in keeping with feminist organizing. Hay provided an alternative not only in the content of her solo choreography but also in the transmission of it. As a result, she has influenced generations of dancers and infiltrated several dance communities globally through coalition building at a grassroots level.

I first met Deborah Hay in 1994 as a student of the European Dance Development Center in Arnhem, Netherlands. Her teaching deeply inspired me at that time (you never forget the first time you dance her instruction “invite being seen”) and her influence has since transformed my career path as a dance activist. In preparation for this writing, I interviewed Hay during the Tanz im August festival in Berlin, Germany where she performed her 2010 solo No Time to Fly. While I have never participated in a Solo Performing Commissioning Project personally, I have supported many of Hay’s productions and followed her achievements closely since 2002. My involvement with Hay led me to draw on my observations over the years to compile this research paper.

Hay redefined the hierarchical structure of a typical dance workshop, a master class, and the remounting of repertory choreography in order to empower a new generation of solo dancer/choreographers and further her own research. Hay did this by creating the Solo Performance Commissioning Project (SPCP). Established in 1998 and running for fourteen years, the yearly SPCP was an eleven-day intensive choreographic residency where Hay taught and coached the participating performers of any gender in the practice and execution of her most recent solo work. A unique quality of the SPCP, is that the participants are self selected and must raise the substantial commissioning fee and residency expenses entirely through donations and grants from within their community. Participants may not use their own funds in order to be accepted.

In the performing arts field, the commissioning process can mean differing levels of investment and artistic ownership depending on a production’s financial arrangement with the producer, creative leader or artistic team. In the design of the SPCP, commissioning entails an artist purchasing the rights to perform a solo work according to Hay’s contract, more on that later, in perpetuity. The fee to commission Hay’s last solo within the SPCP program was roughly $1,750 (1,100 GBP) which included housing and one meal per day. Additional meals and transportation were separate.

From a founding member of the Judson Dance Theater in the 1960s in New York City’s modern dance scene, to touring as a dancer for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Deborah Hay has always pushed the boundaries of contemporary dance. In a move unparalleled in the New York centric world of modern dance, she moved to Vermont to establish a commune called Mad Brook with fellow dance makers in 1970. She had symbolically burned her belongings, literally ridding herself of everything she owned, in order to simplify her life and get back to basics. All she had left was her body and her community.

In order to contribute to the cost of living at Mad Brook, Hay raised $187/year, her share, for the land trust. This was when and where her solo dance practice and current choreographic research began. She gave herself the task of dancing every day in her studio. Hay recalls, “My practice for those years was to listen for the dance, perform it, and surrender it simultaneously for one hour everyday. I wanted to include some form of movement practice in my life although I was quite certain that I had, at the same time, made a decision to live off the land in community with others at Mad Brook despite the fact that this was never agreed upon as a goal. After six and a half years, without it being my intention, I could identify a sensation of faith based on the fact that a dance was there, for me, everyday, without my having to look for it”. Hay continued to pursue a professional touring career and sent over 7,000 letters to presenters with very few resulting in invitations.

In order to raise her portion of the lodging and supplies, she began to work in different communities offering workshops in the form of performances with no audience only participants. Hay’s Circle Dances applied the findings she was experiencing in the studio in solitude to a group process. Hay describes the instigation of the Circle Dances as “how do I get twenty people I never met before to dance together for one hour without teaching anything? This research was when I started noticing the whole body as the teacher, noticing the people around you, which are the initial seeds of my work today.” In 1976, Hay moved to Austin, Texas. She left the communal life due to disenchantment. “I was looking for a collaborative community,” she says “Mad Brook was and still is anarchistic.”

Throughout Hay’s career, she sought an environment that would value group process and artistic freedom. Hay left Vermont during the period of second-wave feminism in the United States. In Myra Marx Ferree and Patricia Yancey Martin’s book Feminist Organizations: Harvest of the New Women’s Movement, they write, “The women’s liberation groups that grew out of the student left and new women’s rights organizations such as the National Organization for Women gradually defined themselves as part of a single larger movement that they came to call feminism. The term feminism thus was expanded and rejuvenated, to cover a multitude of movements… Some of the activists involved claimed to have invented a unique type of organization, a feminist organization, which they defined as embracing collectivist decision-making, member empowerment, and political agenda of ending women’s oppression.” When talking with Deborah Hay about the strategies and structure that went into the design of the SPCP, she mentions survival often. Ferree and Yancey identify that “Feminist organizations question authority, produce new elites, call into question dominant societal values, claim resources on behalf of women, and provide space and resources for feminists to live out altered visions of their lives.” By changing the words ‘women’ and ‘feminists’ to ‘artists’ or ‘dancers’, the parallels in oppression between popular culture and the arts, especially dance, in which the power presides within the male-dominant capitalist society of art market and production commodification, in contrast with the alternative that Hay and the SPCP have offered the field of experimental dance. Although, Hay’s work has never limited the access to male dancer/choreographers, her sensibility is truly liberating and raises the awareness of possibilities and choices through a feminist consciousness within the context of her dance explorations.

When asked ‘what is dance?’ Hay answers, “Dance is how you choose to see movement. In every conceivable way, it keeps me interested in being on this planet. It is how I feel politically active, not on the street waving signs, but in the studio. This is a way to survive. If I thought about it financially, I wouldn’t have done it. I had to mastermind my survival. There wasn’t an alternative. People say: You are such an example, not compromising, only on your own terms. I think it is really deep, what makes an artist an artist. It is not like I had a choice. It is like having a rope around my neck. I envy people with a lot of interests.”

After settling in Austin and building some infrastructure as the Deborah Hay Dance Company, a board of directors and advisors, non-profit status, and small but loyal gathering of interested dancers and non-dancers who would gather for three months to workshop and perform her group choreography, Hay was ready for a new challenge and to start a new chapter in her research. She asked herself “what do I make that will attract dancers” and she thought of the next generation of choreographers and anticipated their potential angst when making a dance.  “What if I gave them a dance and the excitement of practicing in the studio?” SPCP was born. At first however, she bounced the idea off some dancers from within the demographic she hoped to serve and got a weak response, but she felt that it would have been an opportunity that she would have jumped on if offered at the beginning of her career. “This was not for dance students but for practicing artists to commission the piece not take a workshop,” Hay justifies. In stipulating that each participating artist must fundraise for their access to the intensive from their community, whatever community means to them, each artist really has to articulate where they are in order to raise the money. Typically the American artists accumulate between 50 to 400 patrons, each contributing $5 or more sometimes through bake sales and yard sales in order to raise the necessary amount above any foundation grants, where as the European artists rarely need more than one or two government cultural council grants to cover their expenses. Upon starting the commissioning process, either on the second night or occasionally the first if energy permits, the participants share their stories of how they got to SPCP. Hay remembers, “the Americans are envious of the Europeans, however the Europeans are jealous of the Americans’ excitement of their ability to raise the money.” When Hay bounced the early notion of SPCP off some young dancers, it seemed inconceivable to those individuals their capacity to raise any money but she has noticed that the sentiment has changed and dancers find confidence in achieving this financial goal through voicing their needs and reaching out to their community. In Susan Stall  and Randy Stoecker’s article COMMUNITY ORGANIZING OR ORGANIZING COMMUNITY?: Gender and the Crafts of Empowerment, we learn that “the women-centered model begins with organizing community–building expanded private sphere relationships and empowering individuals through those relationships.” To bring the funding process full circle, Hay insists that the donor “community, whether family, friends, local, state, or national granting agencies, corporations, become the patrons for each dance. All patrons receive program acknowledgment every time the solo is performed by any of the participating dancers.” The funding credits in any of the future program notes can fill several pages, listing the donors in order of country, with the section for the USA always being the longest. This “empowers artists to ask for what they want, what will benefit them, their community, it can be a big shift, asking for what they feel they deserve. That was the type of person I wanted to work with, someone who would step up, step up to their choice” remarks Hay.

The starting point to all Hay’s choreography is a question. An example coming from her solo No Time to Fly (2010) is: “What if the question ‘what if where I am is what I need?’ is not about what I need but an opportunity to remember the question ‘what if where I am is what I need?’” During the SPCP intensive, Hay would introduce the choreography with the new group of dancers on the first day in the studio by reading the written score out loud. The dancers wouldn’t understand the question or the directions they had just been handed. However, that first day Hay would teach the entire dance and they would start immediately practicing the performance of the choreography. Each day began at 9 am and ended at 6 pm with a two-hour lunch break in the middle. The dance studio would always remain open in the evenings and impromptu gatherings, discussions, and/or presentations of previous works would often occur. The communal living aspect of the intensive would lend itself to artist directed collective decision-making about the nights and what interests and needs arose from the group. Starting around the fourth day in the studio, each dancer would eventually receive individualized coaching by Hay, at least two times as a solo throughout the process, witnessed by the others. Hay intentionally would mix up the arrangements of groups, solos, more groups, in effect that no one performer would sit for too long. On day six, the score would be reread out loud and the dancers would start to find access on how to take hold of the generous choreographic directions. On the last day, Hay notes when reading the score for the third time as a group, “they can see how the language informs the work.” During the intensive, there is time built into the schedule to discuss the dancers’ questions and develop language to express their experiences of discovering the possibilities in the score. The observing dancers do not however provide personal feedback to one another as everyone is learning from Hay’s coaching and the specificity of her language and feedback in association with the written score.  Hay makes the distinction that “the feedback is about how they are performing and not what they are doing.”  By creating a learning environment with open and inclusive access to knowledge and experiences, Hay’s principles are aligned with “co-mentoring [which] is rooted in a feminist tradition that fosters an equal balance of power between participants” as described in the article Feminist co-mentoring: a model for academic professional development by Gail M. McGuire and Jo Reger. Hay’s artistic practice is about perception and the observer is as important in creating the context for the dance as the performer in this state of awareness. Hay elaborates, “when you are alone on stage with this intangible material or in the studio, you have to work fully to be supported by the space, you cannot rest, nothing can be taken for granted. As a group, you can see the tangible material, served by how you are seeing, so it feeds the process. There is an unspoken sense of gratitude for the collective work ethic. It is not about being nice, it is about getting what you can get, it is about survival.” Finally on that day, artists have the opportunity to perform their solos simultaneously in smaller groups. To complete the legality of the commissioning process, each dancer receives a contract that includes the rules for their eventual adaptation of the solo choreography and their responsibility to the choreography and the community for future public performances which can only occur after a minimum of three months of daily practice of the piece. Choreographer and feminist scholar, Ann Cooper Albright acknowledges in her book, Choreographing Difference: The Body and Identity in Contemporary Dance, “daily practice also structures a physical identity of its own making. Simultaneously registering, creating, and subverting cultural conventions, embodied experience is necessarily complex and messy.”

Having cultivated a deep solo performance practice from her early days in Vermont, Hay admits, “my challenge is to define what can the material I gather do to serve the curiosity and interest of the artists doing the dance? How do I trick these people to practice for at least three months minimum? How do I create a form that keeps opening with their interest?” Hay has written three books chronicling her dances and has published several articles about the questions she has developed to inform her performance and to ‘trick’ her into being curious and interested in choreography. She writes on her website that “What I mean by my choreography includes the transmission from me to the dancer, of the same set of questions I ask myself when I am performing a particular movement sequence that ministers shape to a dance. I will not talk about my movement choices here, except to say that as an aspect of my choreography they fall almost exclusively into three categories: 1) impossible to realize, 2) embarrassing to do, or, idiotic to contemplate, 3) maddeningly simple. These movement directions are not unlike my questions that are 1) unanswerable, 2) impossible to truly comprehend, and, at the same time, 3) poignantly immediate.” She has always remained open to possibilities and the individual performer’s choice in the moment as an endless resource for discovery. In the foreword to Rebecca Walker’s anthology To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism, Gloria Steinem writes, “the greatest gift we can give one another is the power to make a choice. The power to choose is even more important than the choices we make.” Plus given the excitement of new frontiers, Laura Mulvey expresses in her foundational feminist theory critique of film about her goal of destroying beauty through its analysis, “the alternative is the thrill that comes from leaving the past behind without rejecting it, transcending outworn or oppressive forms, or daring to break with… expectations in order to conceive a new language…”

Each SPCP participant commissions the solo by Deborah Hay but is empowered to create their own solo adaptation, and own the resulting piece. One such participant, dancer/choreographer Ros Warby of Australia, notes, “Through her courageous choreographic and performance practice, remarkable language and immediate presence, Deborah has touched and stimulated the most essential places in my artistic expression, encouraging the integration of every aspect of my performing self with my dance.” Another affirmation from SPCP participant Kathryn Johnson, “Deborah has taught me to notice the physical presence of my favorite things about being a human being, and that they themselves, not representations of them, can be the material for choreography because I am an agent for their physicality. To me, this really is an invention that I have never seen or felt before.” These adaptations will be part of Hay’s artistic legacy, which have reached communities internationally through the SPCP participants and have continued to be a lesson of how to let go of the outcome. What is adaptation? Hay writes, “I keep amending the meaning of adaptation over the years. After seeing four earnest adaptations in a program, I changed the language to make sure that their artistic and aesthetic choices needed to be present. There have been other experiences of seeing adaptations where I don’t see my choreography when ego and adrenaline are present in the work. Or when following instructions so closely the dancer is not situated in their experience of the dance, still obeying the teacher’s instructions.” The evolution of the SPCP, aims to relieve the performer of the burden of creating a unique solo choreography while providing each individual the tools to fully embody their performance and express their choices in the moment. A successful adaptation depends on what Hay describes as “the unforeseeable and imponderable factors that make up the performer’s virtues of fidelity, sympathy, and streaming perceptual challenges” of her choreographic instructions. As the article COMMUNITY ORGANIZING OR ORGANIZING COMMUNITY? confirms, “The goal of a women-centered organizing process is “empowerment”–a developmental process that includes building skills through repetitive cycles of action and reflection that evoke new skills and understandings.”

The structure of the SPCP, similarly to feminist principles in community building which emphasize “the importance of cooperative, egalitarian relationships for learning and development” has grown into a network of grassroots presenting through artist-centric platforms around the world. From COMMUNITY ORGANIZING OR ORGANIZING COMMUNITY?, “Small groups create an atmosphere that affirms each participant’s contribution, provides the time for individuals to share, and helps participants listen carefully to each other. Moreover, smaller group settings create and sustain the relationship building and sense of significance and solidarity so integral to community.” The participants have presented their solo adaptations in their local communities and invited others to travel and join their events. Economically, this has contributed to the sharing of choreographic principles by Deborah Hay without the draining process of her touring and funding the expensive endeavor. bell hooks contributes,“Whenever we chose performance as a site to build communities of resistance we must be able to shift paradigms and styles of performance…” Hay has engineered a vehicle of dissemination and execution that values process over product and encouraged performers to explore their role as dancer and choreographer through her work.  This is unusual for a choreographer to remount work and tour it in this way.  Generations have grown and Hay’s influence on the field has risen to garner the attention of leading internationally renowned choreographers such as William Forsythe and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, who now seek out her training for their dancers and her contributions to their artistic projects.

In evaluating the SPCP for its progressive philosophy, SPCP can be closely compared to feminist organizations which are describes as “centered around five main principles that we believed to be guiding forces in the implementation of feminist thinking to a community agenda. Inherent in… a community based on feminist ideology were the following: (1) greater availability and access of resources, (2) genuine value and respect for human diversity and self-determination, (3) caring and compassionate members, (4) increased value placed on personal connections and collaborations, and (5) political empowerment. These values are interconnected and interactive and therefore, it is important to focus on all of them as we pursue our ideal feminist community setting” in Dorcas Liriano’s article, Fostering feminist principles in our community: how do we get there?  The SPCP models values that parallel those in feminist organizing and community building, however with experimental dance makers. The hope is that they are to become fully engaged in a creative process that provides tools for generative and personal movement research based on Hay’s practice techniques and explicit language. The empowerment that is built into the funding support and the consciousness and responsibility that is taken to ensure that each participant has a community to return to and share the work and their achievements with, are thoughtfully calculated. Hay’s wisdom and skill for creating a network of supporters who have surrounded her many research platforms, informs the generous experience inherent in the SPCP environment. Hay is able to counter the mainstream systems of dance training and choreographic transmission and create deep access to her process while, in my opinion, honoring the second-wave feminist motto of “the personal is political.”  So Hay doesn’t need to wave signs in the street to affect change for the next generation of dance innovators around the world.

I wrote this research essay as part of my studies at the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance and invite any feedback you may have. Thanks!

Walker Art Center is a NPN Partner of the National Performance Network (NPN). Michèle Steinwald was supported by the NPN Mentorship and Leadership Initiative to attend ICPP. Major contributors of NPN include the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts (a federal agency), MetLife Foundation, and the Nathan Cummings Foundation.  For more information: www.npnweb.org.

All These Engines Working Hard: A Review of DIRTY BABY

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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, filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Thursday’s performance of DIRTY BABY. Agree […]

Ed, Ruscha, The Uncertain Trail

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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, filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Thursday’s performance of DIRTY BABY. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Painter Ed Ruscha, one third of the collaborative visual-musical-poetic project DIRTY BABY, off-handedly remarked during the after-show Q&A on all the engines that made Thursday night’s performance at the McGuire Theater possible: not only his collaborators Nels Cline and David Breskin, but the other nine musicians who joined them on stage. Throughout the 90 or so uninterrupted minutes of DIRTY BABY, a sprawling two-part exploration of both the Iraq War and the long narrative of how America came to be—and came to be in Iraq—there were many other types of engines at work.

One of the most remarkable things about Dirty Baby was how it held many different narratives together in a constellation of meaning: David Breskin’s ghazals, Nels Cline’s music, and the “censor strip” paintings of Ed Ruscha that evoke the many black lines of redaction (he calls them “dumb blocks”), but which make us want to know even more what’s behind them. These are all themselves engines of narrative, not only the narratives made by these three artists, but the historical and cultural ones that they drew upon, played with, and subverted over the course of the evening.

Nels Cline’s music oscillated between audible references of music history (blues, folk metal, film noir soundtracks, punk, post-Bitches Brew Miles, guitar duets equally at home in Appalachia and Abyssinia, and more) and torrents of noise that, while having their own historical reference to post-Cage music making, seemed intended more for visceral affect rather than historical effect.

These snatches of musical history, however, are much more than the sum of their parts and in many ways share a affinity with the Cindy Sherman exhibition a few floors down. Both are highly referential, but such that conventional historical narratives are explored and questioned without being reduced to a kind of superficial pastiche. This isn’t a question of authenticity or truth, but rather the kinds of cultural and intellectual spaces opened up for viewers and listeners, a way for us to not only think about the conventions and narratives that give meaning to the world, but at the same time reflect upon our own role in creating and sustaining them.

In much of the “conventional” music, for lack of a better word, I kept getting an image of music made while riding the rails, hobos and drifters with guitar or harmonica as companions for the endless pulsations of the journey. The railroads and their accompanying engines were a symbol of progress in the 19th century, though much of it built on the backs of forced Chinese labor; in the Depression era, it became an unofficial means of transport not only for the destitute, but also the exploratory, already well-worn narratives of adventure seeking.

This is just one narrative of the many embedded within DIRTY BABY, which spent much of its time examining and exposing the underside of “progress,” showing that it’s not always in a single direction, and that it’s often not the right direction for those who fall victim to the edge of progress. Breskin’s poetry touched on a lot of these different themes, some more general (marriage, religion, language itself) as well as specific, that of American manifest destiny, the Iraq War, and the more general “War on Terror.”

Ed Ruscha, David Breskin, and Nels Cline. Photo: Peak

It was somewhat ironic to see and hear all this on stage, since the piece was never intended to be performed; in fact, it’s only been performed one other time. A big reason for this is logistical: the Walker needed to rent lots of gear (both Cline and fellow guitarist Jeremy Drake each had five guitars between them); there’s a whole lot more stuff in DIRTY BABY than can be performed in one evening (the group did about half the total project); and the challenge of making all of this music in a live setting, though Cline more than ably served as both lead instrumentalist and conductor. It was incredible to see the interactions between the musicians and how they negotiated the free-form, improvised, written-out, and conventionally rhythmic sections, as well as having Ruscha’s paintings projected on the wall behind them.

The only part I think I would’ve enjoyed more on record than in live performance is David Breskin’s poetry, though less about the poetry and more about his performance of the poetry. He took on an air of distanced irony not only about the live event (giving the audience a somewhat snarky and patronizing “what to expect” explanation of the performance) and some of his own poetry (his delivery made the poems sound Seussian at times, which seemed to undercut their weight). His persona, unfortunately, made it hard to feel invested in his words, rich as they were. To be fair, I’m not sure any poetry could be delivered in such a visceral way that it could compare to the music made by Cline and the other musicians. This was the only aspect of the night’s performance, however, that seemed to veer down the wrong track, just one piece in the vast and stimulating complex of narrative engines that make up DIRTY BABY.

For more on DIRTY BABY, read the Walker’s recent interview with Nels Cline and David Breskin.

Backstage Haiku- Nels Cline

Audio line check. Man, that’s a LOT of backline for Nels Cline tonight!    

Audio line check.

Man, that’s a LOT of backline

for Nels Cline tonight!

 

setting monitor levels for Nels Cline

 

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