The Green Room: From on stage, back stage and the theater seats, the Performing Arts blog illuminates the intersecting worlds of dance, theater, and music.
Falteringly, haltingly, Kyle Abraham begins to move. His body, his being, seems to reject itself, a pained, primordial entity adjusting to the uncomfortable feeling of his own skin. Blending deep-seated emotion with controlled technique, Abraham pulls from his own experiences and personal history to tap into a relatable, intimate agony – the clash of the [...]
Falteringly, haltingly, Kyle Abraham begins to move. His body, his being, seems to reject itself, a pained, primordial entity adjusting to the uncomfortable feeling of his own skin. Blending deep-seated emotion with controlled technique, Abraham pulls from his own experiences and personal history to tap into a relatable, intimate agony – the clash of the individual with rigid social exhortations. In Live! The Realest MC, he takes inspiration from the Pinocchio fable to explore the concept of being “real,” within the context of masculine expectations, heteronormativity, and the performance of identity in hip-hop. Upright and sparkling in gold Abraham provides a marked contrast to the cool black tracksuits of his company members. As he begins to walk, he welcomes us to follow him on this journey.
Now in its third year, the Walker Art Center’s SpeakEasy program regularly invites audience members to participate in open post-performance conversations facilitated by Walker visual arts tour guides and local members of the performing arts community. In conjunction with this weekend’s performances by Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion, we offer this pre-performance blog highlighting a few themes connected to the work. We hope that you will join us after the show on Saturday, March 16, in the Walker’s McGuire Theater Balcony Bar for a discussion led by choreographer Blake Nellis and Walker tour guide/choreographer Ray Terrill.
Placing the work
Drawing from his conservatory training and youth immersed in the emerging hip-hop culture of Pittsburgh in the late 1970s, Kyle Abraham creates interdisciplinary work that “delve[s] into identity in relation to a personal history.” This weaving of diverse media and material is manifest in works such as Pavement, which incorporates opera, the early writings of W.E.B. Du Bois, and the 1991 film Boyz N The Hood, as well as Live! The Realest MC, with its mixture of dance, projections, and monologues.
Speaking of his interest in the work of visual artist and Walker Art Center regular Kara Walker, Abraham reflected upon identity and influences: “I am inspired by how she is able to create such provocative situational environments in her work with a willingness to evoke anger, laughter, and a whole swelling of emotions…her work deals with historic references, representation, and stereotypical content that make me reflect on my position in life…and more so in this country, as a gay black American man who grew up in an urban environment marginalized by race, poverty and sexual orientation.”
Abraham’s background provides fodder for Live! The Realest MC, a piece that both confronts issues of hypermasculinity and comically questions what being “real” in hip-hop may be. Yet behind this humor and orbiting this piece are a variety of rigid expectations and potentially cruel consequences, what Amy Villarejo has termed the “terror of the normative.” The story of Live! The Realest MC began to develop in the early solo piece Inventing Pookie Jenkins, but took on a greater significance in the context of recent suicides connected with bullying and homophobia. Abraham explained, “I began to think about a time in my life when I prayed that I could go unnoticed. Hoping that if I get my voice to sound like the other male students around me, I wouldn’t be found out. I just wanted to be a robot… a puppet…”
Being “real” in this sense becomes convoluted, not simply the assertion of some genuine selfhood, but, a “yardstick” that measures one’s relationship to a variety of notions of authenticity. To “be real” morphs into an imperative to fall in line and the individual must decide how to respond.
Although brought into dramatic relief in relation to expectations that one resists, the individual in society is continuously engaged with the demand “to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet” (T.S. Eliot). Embedded within myriad sets of relationships, the self is developed and performed through quotidian practices and in contrast or kinship with others. In this regard, for Joanne Finkelstein, the “controlled body” becomes a “passport to sociability.” If one knows social codes, and can successfully adhere to them, doors may open, even if merely for a performance that comes at a great personal price.
When does hip-hop become intertwined with identity or a lifestyle and how is this relationship performed? When is it personal, taking a set of concepts and practices into one’s own definition of self, and when is it public, portraying a role to be understood by others or assuming qualities and practices from demeanor, to speech or consumption? Abraham’s work pulls meaningfully from specific roots, yet the aforementioned questions apply to any range of accepted or desired roles. Where does the “real self” end and the “performed self” begin? Given that one is born and lives in situ and in relation to others, is the notion of such divisions simply an illusion?
When asked in an interview for New York’s Amsterdam News how race may factor into his dance life, Abraham replied, “It is inevitable that the work of any choreographer will come from a place of their individual journey. My personal story is growing up as a middle-class, Black, gay man from a spiritual family upbringing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Whether I chose to create a work about my life experiences in a literal fashion [or not], the work is inevitably a derivative of all that I am.”
While “placing” Abraham’s work may mean providing a context for it in terms of histories, norms, and social forces that have shaped his experiences, the work is not limited by these parameters. Speaking of the larger relationship between audience and art, Abraham broadened the scope: “the same great thing can be said about dance as it can about the visual arts… I want my work to have an individual effect. It’s not imperative that people walk away seeing or feeling the same thing. Art, in all forms to me, is about evoking something…either with in yourself or within those who stumble upon your vision.”
In an interview with Tom Michael for Walker magazine, Cynthia Hopkins described becoming aware of her own human fragility while on a trip to the Arctic with Cape Farewell, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness around climate change to spur cultural shifts leading to sustainable practices. Without markers of scale, distance became difficult to gauge, [...]
In an interview with Tom Michael for Walker magazine, Cynthia Hopkins described becoming aware of her own human fragility while on a trip to the Arctic with Cape Farewell, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness around climate change to spur cultural shifts leading to sustainable practices. Without markers of scale, distance became difficult to gauge, perspective shifting along with realizations of both the enormity of the landscape and, in comparison, the frail nature of one’s own life. In preparation for this weekend’s performances of This Clement World–and Saturday’s post-performance audience discussion, SpeakEasy, which takes place in the Balcony Bar–here’s a look at key issues at play in Hopkins’ work.
Where is she coming from?
Part documentary, part folk music-infused theater, part call to action, This Clement World addresses the global issue of climate change through a relatable, human-scaled lens. Hopkins frames her multidisciplinary performances as storytelling based in alchemy. Starting from a point of disturbance, she forces confrontations with personal demons and sociopolitical crises, plumbing this darkness to emerge bearing a message of hope, through theatrical productions that educate, stimulate, and entertain.
Through shifts from personal to global, Hopkins reveals a portrait of the human being in the world – unique and beautiful, but also responsible to the future, capable of change, and accountable for decisions. Describing influences in an interview for Bomb magazine from Bertolt Brecht to Tadeusz Kantor and Laurie Anderson, Hopkins situates herself in a lineage of theater practitioners who not only comment on social issues, but also self-reflexively draw attention to the act and allure of theatre-making itself. This Clement World entices through music, storytelling, and beautiful footage of the Arctic, but Hopkins also pushes back – directly addressing the audience about climate change and even questioning her own metaphors.
Where are we going?
Hopkins draws from her own struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction to develop addiction as a metaphor for reliance on fossil fuels – a dependence on that which is causing our own slow, progressive destruction. This comparison brings forth both the challenge of weaning ourselves off fossil fuels and the possibility of self (and social) transformation through actively, diligently developing different practices. Her metaphor also manages to add a physical, bodily component to the climate issue. As a population becomes accustomed to the ease provided by fossil fuels, the more that is consumed, the more normalized the behavior becomes, the more we want, the more we need. Addressing climate change in this regard means assessing our own personal addictions and culpability. It means changing daily habits, overhauling systems, and perhaps altering other fundamental patterns – a consumer economy based on disposable commodities and the disproportionate over-use of resources by a relatively small proportion of the global population.
Underlying Hopkins’ metaphor is the luxury of inaction. Focusing on various other immediate crises, climate change may appear as a distant issue, a problem that we can get to later on. In A Conversation on Climate Change, the Walker brought together specialists to focus on the science surrounding this issue and the ramifications that are already being observed – changing weather patterns, melting Artic ice, the increase in instances of extreme weather. As Hopkins notes, this is a pressing issue and a significant time to be alive, for what is or is not done now will have considerable consequences for future generations.
Who is speaking?
In This Clement World Hopkins both relates her own experiences and becomes a variety of characters – an alien, a visitor from the future, and the ghost of a Native American woman murdered during the Sand Creek massacre in 1864. Each character provides a distinct perspective, a means of interfacing with the audience and another tactic for getting the point across that something needs to be done. In particular, although the ghost does not speak, her emergence brings forth one thread of a long history of environmental destruction intertwined with violence, where those with the least power endure the most. Turning from the grand suffering of the plant and future generations to the immediacy of violence, climate change might be viewed as the crest of a building wave poised to engulf individuals and whole communities. As this issue is addressed – or not – how will victims be represented, how might their stories be told, and by whom? In a conversation with Walker web editor Paul Schmelzer and meteorologist Paul Douglas, Hopkins highlights other aspects elaborated by this character – the interdependence of humans and the natural world, as well as the impermanence of a way of life, the inevitable change, by necessity or choice, of unsustainable practices.
What’s at stake?
According to a UN report, the world population is set to increase from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050. This anticipated change means that if only small actions are taken, such work could easily be off-set by population growth alone. The concern goes beyond necessities such as water, energy, food, or land, to include the perpetuation of consumption habits. Isolating just one piece of this issue is telling – the United States currently houses less than 5% of the global population, but uses roughly a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel resources. At A Conversation on Climate Change, the immediacy of the issue and the need to do something now was brought to the fore, leading to the question of how to tackle such a massive personal – personal action, or perhaps a movement? More realistically, it was proposed that the incentive to change will likely come not from rhetoric of doing right by future generations, but rather profits to be made from solutions to impending, global crises.
Tackling climate change will likely lead to an array of debates around initiating and managing large-scale practices, yet the urgency to do something remains potent, for in this instance, both action and inaction have consequences.
See you this weekend…
Cynthia Hopkins, The Clement World, March 7-9, 2013
Join us after the show on Saturday, March 9, in the McGuire Theater’s Balcony Bar for a SpeakEasy — an informal post-performance audience discussion. This week’s conversation will be facilitated by Walker Art Center tour guide Barbara Davey and choreographer Jennifer Arave.
The conversation is on-going…
Please share thoughts, comments, and questions below!
A SpeakEasy is an informal audience discussion facilitated by a Walker Art Center tour guide and a local performer or choreographer. Today’s edition highlights themes shared during a conversation on Saturday, January 19, about She She Pop’s Testament. This SpeakEasy was led by tour guide Mary Dew and local arts and culture guru from Salon [...]
A SpeakEasy is an informal audience discussion facilitated by a Walker Art Center tour guide and a local performer or choreographer. Today’s edition highlights themes shared during a conversation on Saturday, January 19, about She She Pop’s Testament. This SpeakEasy was led by tour guide Mary Dew and local arts and culture guru from Salon Saloon Andy Sturdevant.
It is not the horizon of death, but the final segment of the journey there that is the focus of She She Pop’s Testament. In a deconstruction/reconstruction of King Lear the company invites their real fathers onstage to explore shifting intergenerational relationships spurred by imminent questions of elder care, inheritance, and a lifetime of unresolved emotions. The vignettes are at times comic, personal, and absurd, yet they cross specific circumstances to speak to common, but uncomfortable, realities. What will you give me; what have you given me; what do I owe you? These seemingly materialistic questions offer a frank means of dealing with the logistics of aging, and ultimately, the process of dying. What becomes apparent in Testament is the communal nature of this transition to the last stage of life, the end that faces not an individual alone, but a family. Following the Saturday evening performance, a group of audience members gathered in the Walker’s balcony bar for a SpeakEasy discussion. Themes from that conversation are highlighted in this blog, and additional thoughts and questions are welcomed in the comments section below.
Impenetrable, strong, stoic. The image of a father conjured by Testament‘s opening scenes was for some a father of another era, a distant hero figure, a provider. Audience members ruminated on the histories of these fathers, who grew into adulthood in 1960s Germany. SpeakEasy participants wondered if, as the rigidity of family roles softens, perhaps future generations will not have such a distance to cross in re-meeting their fathers later in life. Yet possible alternatives for today’s children do not resolve the challenges faced by the adult children on-stage. As fathers shed sweater vest armor, we see evidence of the body’s slow deterioration. They are exposed – physically and emotionally. While She She Pop uses humor to address the peculiarities of this power shift from strong-minded parent to care-giving child, one recalls that King Lear is a tragedy and the relationships on-stage will eventually end in death. Instead of dwelling on this end-point, we are reminded to savor these last years of life, even though they may be comprised of unglamorous, deeply painful, and humbling moments.
Confronting the living prelude to death is an intimate experience – caring for a sickened body, watching a person slowly fade, attempting to prolong this time, knowing it is limited. Coupled with the intensity of approaching realities is the desire to postpone them, to avoid considering what end of life caregiving entails, but also to seek resolution, to neatly tie up a lifetime of tensions before the ability to do so runs out. For She She Pop, this came in the form of statements of forgiveness, which revealed the underlying absurdity and utter humanity of parent-child relationships. Audience members noted that forgiveness turned quickly to accusation as both generations found themselves reiterating a laundry list of past disputes.
So often hidden from view, this variation on King Lear brought the challenges of aging to the fore, accompanied by an array of material, emotional, logistical, and physical complexities. As performers dressed in their father’s clothes and donned paper crowns, the image arose of kids playing dress-up. While we grow to adulthood, in some areas we may remain as children – unprepared to meet the uncertainties of the future, afraid, and wishing that parents could fix challenges beyond all our control.
More on Testament:
Read Shanai Matteson’s opening night blog on her experience watching Testament with her father and sister.
Join the conversation:
Our next SpeakEasy will be held on Saturday, January 26, when we will discuss (M)imosa/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church. We hope to see you then!
A SpeakEasy is an informal audience discussion facilitated by a Walker Art Center tour guide and a local performer or choreographer. Today’s edition highlights themes shared during a conversation on Saturday, January 12, about Rude Mechs’ The Method Gun. This SpeakEasy was led by tour guide Barbara Davey and local arts and culture guru from [...]
A SpeakEasy is an informal audience discussion facilitated by a Walker Art Center tour guide and a local performer or choreographer. Today’s edition highlights themes shared during a conversation on Saturday, January 12, about Rude Mechs’ The Method Gun. This SpeakEasy was led by tour guide Barbara Davey and local arts and culture guru from Salon Saloon Andy Sturdevant.
How far are you willing to go?
With often-undeterminable goals and circuitous paths, a life in the arts can be a journey involving sacrifice, abnegation, and risk. But, does the pursuit of art demand something more than the standard difficulties of economics? Does it require obsession, actively pursued discomfort, or an adherence to method that verges on malady?
The Walker’s 25th Out There series began with Rude Mechs’ The Method Gun, a performance that delves into the process of theater itself, following a fictional company left behind by their famous guru as they struggle through the process of seeing her vision through to the end. After the Saturday evening performance, a group of audience members gathered in the Walker’s balcony bar for the first SpeakEasy of 2013. Themes, interpretations, and questions shared during that conversation are highlighted on this page. Additional thoughts are welcome, using the comments feature below.
In his opening-night blog post, Andy Sturdevant brought to the fore a historical undercurrent of the play — the intentional exposure to psychic risk and personal vulnerability connected with various theater methodologies and language. According to acting teacher Lee Strasberg, “the actor acts a fiction, a dream.” Responding to imaginary stimuli, the actor is faced with the task of manufacturing emotional purity, conveyed as fiction to a waiting audience. The acting process hereby involves seeking out the root of an emotion and, from this core, returning to the surface to reveal the intensity of inner experience through a stance, a look, or a gesture. Given this challenge, how does one prepare? In this quest for the essence of an emotion, is it necessary to evoke or relive angst, trauma, or tension? Is the façade alone enough?
While risk was explored as an underlying theme, for some audience members, the weaving of vignettes skimmed a larger set of questions. Risk involves not only methods enacted, but also the risks one takes in staying or leaving. In this regard, it is not merely a matter of what one would undergo for art, but additionally what one would sacrifice to stay with a teacher.
Through dream logic and absurdity, The Method Gun brought to the fore the peculiarities of performance and preparation. Yet Rude Mechs mixed satire with homage, ending in a broad tribute to the role of teachers, whose lessons are to be cherished, burned, or reinterpreted as these past relationships are recalled anew in the present.
Join us in the balcony bar on Saturday, January 19, for a SpeakEasy on She She Pop!
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!
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
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, October 27, about BodyCartography Project’s Super Nature. Described with roots akin to “a documentary on the Animal Channel … about humans,” BodyCartography Project’s Super Nature takes the [...]
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, October 27, about BodyCartography Project’s Super Nature.
Described with roots akin to “a documentary on the Animal Channel … about humans,” BodyCartography Project’s Super Nature takes the audience from an extended exploration of interpersonal awkwardness to a primordial forest. Emerging from the mist, audience members gathered in the Walker’s balcony bar for a SpeakEasy conversation facilitated by Walker tour guide Mary Dew and choreographer Rosy Simas. Themes from that discussion are highlighted in this blog and additional interpretations, questions, and musings are invited in the comments section below.
During the first half of Super Nature, performers surged, fell, undulated, posed, stumbled, and regained their footing only to collapse upon themselves. Peculiar nuzzling shifted to become inappropriate and slightly sinister, only to return to its original awkward state. Working against the grain of the pretty or virtuosic, Super Nature invited audiences to marinate in discomfort, the performers pushing themselves into the territory of the physically and aesthetically ungainly. The emotional impact of this action was raised, and audience members commented on a sense of disquiet, a feeling of being alienated within one’s own body, and a disconnect between the propriety of the costuming and the intimate invasiveness of the partnering. This unease was heightened for some at a visceral level early on as performers punctuated movements with continuous short, shallow exhalations. Expressed responses of physical anxiety, or the impetus to mimic, are perhaps instances of the kinesthetic empathy between performer and spectator which has been an area of exploration for the Body Cartography Project in recent years.
Midway through the performance, the bright colors of animalistic dancers in retro apparel transformed into the subdued tones of a forest wrapped in fog. Partially nude performers hidden by branches became a slowly moving grove of trees, setting a scene described by one audience member as a “dream forest.” Alongside this costume change to partial nudity and animal prints, there seemed to some to be an alleviation of anxiety as the performers shifted from awkward individuals into a primal pack.
Through carefully chosen angles, nudity was seen to highlight the musculature of the human body as well as presenting vulnerability and the removal of another set of social boundaries. Exploring the human animal in its society and settings turned to investigating the biology of this being, as a papaya projected onto the torso of a performer became viscera probed by curious fingers. This study of the body’s systems brought out the choreographers’ involvement with Body Mind Centering, an experiential study of the physical body in its relationship to consciousness. Describing this influence, Walker Art Center Assistant Curator for the Performing Arts Michèle Steinwald wrote of the simultaneous attention to “the micro (the body) and the macro (the community)” which enables performers to both ground themselves and to connect with audiences through sympathetic physical responses and recognitions.
A Rorschach Test
Multiple connections arose between Super Nature and visual art, from moments of contorted statuesque stillness to a comparison between dance and abstract painting, wherein viewers are invited to create their own interpretations or narratives. The set design of simple ropes strung diagonally across the stage enhanced the depth of the space and, when manipulated, became an array of associations, the bars of a zoo, sinewy umbilical chords, a net ensnaring the performers, the facia of a great organism, and a representation of the communal interconnectivity of individuals. One participant likened watching abstract dance to developing an interest in experimental music; first there is noise, but as one learns what to listen for and how to hear, there arise points to grab onto and a deeper experience develops. In this sense, we are offered a Rorschach test, a chance to open ourselves to see what we will and to explore that experience. As our post-performance discussion progressed, a distinction arose between the initial question of “What are you supposed to take home?” to the more personal reflection “What are you taking home?”
Join the conversation by adding your thoughts in the comments section below!
Attend the next SpeakEasy discussion on Saturday, December 8, in conjunction with Hay Days: A Deborah Hay Celebration.
Come to Art School! The Walker is hosting a series of monthly lectures exploring various disciplines in contemporary art. Next up: photography on Sunday, November 18!
Read Michèle Steinwald’s essay Sourcing Dance Through the Body: BodyCartography Project’s Creative Process.
Learn about the elements of dance from the Perpich Center for Arts Education.
Listen to Justin Jones’ interview with BodyCartography Project choreographers Otto Ramstad and Olive Bieringa on the Walker Channel. Also check out Justin’s primer on watching experimental dance for MN Playlist!
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, September 22, led by choreographer Anat Shinar and tour guide Jack Bardon. Join us for the next SpeakEasy on Saturday, October 27, for a discussion about [...]
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, September 22, led by choreographer Anat Shinar and tour guide Jack Bardon. Join us for the next SpeakEasy on Saturday, October 27, for a discussion about BodyCartography Project’s Super Nature. Coming up next, the Walker presents Voices of Strength: Contemporary Dance & Theater by Women from Africa, October 10-13.
Instructed to join hands, the audience forms a communal gesture that encircles the stage. Our collective gaze fixed upward, we are engulfed by a shifting spectrum of colors and a low bass that vibrates around and through our bodies. But how does each of us come to know this performance? What of it exists in the world and what comes into being only in our minds? It is an experience shared by all – differently. Following Miguel Gutierrez’s And lose the name of action, a group of audience members gathered in the Walker’s Balcony Bar to discuss these diverse impressions and interpretations during the first SpeakEasy of the season. Themes from that conversation are featured in the paragraphs below and readers are invited to add thoughts, questions, and responses using the comments function on this page.
Presence & Non-Presence
Beginning with a pseudo séance and continuing through moments of seemingly possessed ecstatic dance, And lose the name of action is imbued with specters. The nature of ghostly being is in essence to not be, to perform and embody in a diaphanous presence this non-being. A ghost references a realm beyond, but such phantoms also bring to our attention the ephemeral and faltering nature of being in this world. Flooded in an instant by distractions, self-doubt, critical reflections, memories, judgments, or questions, there are myriad barriers to being fully present, as well as a variety of interpretations as to what “fully present,” if possible, might be or mean.
A soloist falls, seemingly out of control, through a series of precise stumbles and suspensions as another performer describes her actions, making noticeable the gaps between language and action, explanation and feeling, being and analysis. With this piece, Gutierrez not only brings these divisions to the fore, he questions and seeks to bridge the mind/body dichotomy so ingrained since Descartes. Rather than privileging the mind, Gutierrez focuses on the body in the world as the seat of consciousness.
As the dancers writhe, seemingly entranced, the question arises as to how the body might be used to actively seek heightened mental states – through rigorous, meditative practices, or the contrary, ecstatic, Dionysian exhaustion. It is perhaps in such instances where cause and effect overlap, the body both creating and reflecting the activity of the mind. The edges of psychic and physical comfort present a kind of thrill, enjoyed with the knowledge that one can control deviation from and return to a reliable norm. The loss of such a base presents an extreme alternative experience, perhaps the most ghostlike of all, where intensely felt struggles at the margins, viewed from the perspective of a stable center, might appear incomprehensibly otherworldly.
Time & Resolution
Two dancers work out a sequence of choreography in the corner while another performer crawls diagonally across the stage. Time is simultaneously slow, constant progress and a series of fading moments. It could be 9 pm or 2 am. Time distorts and one senses only a constant now. Dancers rush by and sit amongst the audience, who are lit throughout the performance. It is in turns comical, invigorating, and exhausting.
A sense of timelessness surrounds the idea of ghosts, yet in presence, they are associated with the ephemeral, with a subtle half-seen motion that disappears as soon as it is noticed. This transitory quality is echoed in the nature of dance itself – fleeting movements of the body, traces across the stage. Although passing, these moments hold weight, just as our own humble and short-lived gestures, which maintain such import as they transpire, are revealed to be mere traces as well.
The evening begins reflecting on the process of learning without a teacher and as an audience we are left to piece together unresolved fragments, to make our own meaning and to become accustomed to this process. Anxiety in the face of such uncertainty makes the source of Gutierrez’s title particularly fitting. Hamlet, after asking “To be or not to be” explores the possibility of suicide, but is stopped by a dread of the unknown afterlife. He comments that the paralyzing effects of the fear of an action’s potential results might “make cowards of us all.” In Gutierrez’s work, there is a call for an embodied, engaged form of presence which, when it falters, perhaps causes our simple impulses to lose their boldness or intensity And lose the name of action.
Join the conversation!
The above blog shares a few impressions voiced by audience members at our post-performance discussion. Additional comments, ideas, and questions are welcome in this on-line forum, using the comments feature below.
“The body is in the musical space, interacting with the instrument.” – Vijay Iyer Vijay Iyer’s interest in embodied cognition makes his performance particularly appropriate for the SpeakEasy program’s first venture from dance and theatre discussions to the realm of music. Now a regular piece of the Walker’s performing arts programming, these Saturday evening post-performance [...]
“The body is in the musical space, interacting with the instrument.” – Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer’s interest in embodied cognition makes his performance particularly appropriate for the SpeakEasy program’s first venture from dance and theatre discussions to the realm of music. Now a regular piece of the Walker’s performing arts programming, these Saturday evening post-performance discussions offer audience members the opportunity to share interpretations, questions, and responses in an informal setting, the conversation facilitated by a Walker Art Center tour guide and a member of the local performing arts community. This week’s discussion was led by musician Jeremy Walker and tour guide Mary Dew. As is customary for the program, highlights and themes from the SpeakEasy are captured in this blog and offered for continued reflection and discussion through this online format.
What role does the body play in the experience of music?
From the audience perspective, does it wash over you, allowing you to forget your own presence as you are engulfed, or does it heighten that presence, pulling your attention as the body leans forward? What is the experience for the musician whose physicality becomes channeled into a point of contact with the instrument? Wrapped into this interaction, Vijay Iyer reminds audiences that this crafting of music is not solely a mental or mathematical construction, the mind here is not an “abstract machine, but…something physical, grounded in bodily processes and experiences.” In introducing the Walker Art Center’s two-day Vijay Iyer festival, Performing Arts Senior Curator Philip Bither spoke of “reaching out,” a notion particularly apt for live music where artists reach towards and beyond frontiers and audiences members extend themselves to meet, to be absorbed, and to follow.
Play & Mastery
The physicality of a musician can be viewed as a commingling of immense control and release. Energy is focused to generate a specific desired sound while reactions flit across the face as artists react to and engage one another. As one audience member noted, the face reveals the joyful element of “play” contained in the idea of “playing music.” Behind this lightheartedness is ease, a comfort and knowledge so deep that, despite the piano’s many component parts between finger and string, music seemly flows directly from the body of the musician. This connection bespeaks an underlying intimacy with an instrument, a central element of public persona and private life, an object that a musician touches more than almost anything else. Perhaps this is one way of speaking of “mastery,” a relationship, knowledge, and command that are so finely honed as to appear effortless, like play.
To discuss Iyer in this manner is not intended to downplay the incredible difficulty involved in his work. Pamela Espeland described his music on bebopified as “cerebral, mathy, and dense, full of complex, asymmetrical time signatures and polyrhythms, unexpected harmonies, glittering cascades of notes, percussive chords, and extravagant beauty.” The music is impressive, made even more so upon learning that Iyer is self-taught. Historically a badge of honor denoting drive and persistence, what does it mean to be self-taught in an environment when many new musicians are emerging from university programs? This is an interesting question for jazz more broadly as highly-trained musicians begin to create work in established educational settings while listening to and influenced by self-trained jazz greats. Does this education teach rules and limits, does it encourage and enable? Considering this historical arc, where is jazz going?
What is jazz today?
In his essay “Uncertainty Principles,” Iyer posed the question of what jazz is today, given that “musicians associated with jazz are responsible for endless creative manifestations that defy categorization.” But jazz, while expansive, is simultaneously specific, connected to intricate histories involving musical developments, individual innovators, and the history of race politics in the United States. As Iyer noted “there is a vast legacy of knowledge associated with jazz, which we in this community understand and cherish more than anyone else.” In this context, there is a complex balance between unrestrained and specific aspects, so how does one navigate this to conceive of a working notion of what “jazz” is?
Perhaps rather than seeking a set of definable qualities, “swing” or a certain stance, one can consider jazz, as Jeremy Walker suggested, “a process of adaptation and assimilation.” In this sense, it might not be easily recognizable to a newcomer. As one participant commented, for some, “if your ear isn’t tuned to it, you can’t hear it.” The music’s expansive nature poses new challenges for audience members as well as musicians, layers of appreciation that can be delved into where the more one listens, the more one is able to hear. Regardless of the degree of background knowledge, Iyer invites the listener to an experience and as Pamela Espeland emphasized “You don’t have to ‘understand’ jazz (whatever that means) to receive that experience and enjoy it.” One only needs to come prepared to be open and ready to reach.
Join us in the Walker’s balcony bar on Saturday, March 23, for a SpeakEasy conversation for The 802 Tour!
“The past is a grotesque animal And in its eyes you see How completely wrong you can be” — Of Montreal “The Past is a Grotesque Animal” In memory, life and fiction overlap. Moments once experienced from an already embedded and imperfect vantage point are subject to further manipulation; key details [...]
“The past is a grotesque animal
And in its eyes you see
How completely wrong you can be”
— Of Montreal “The Past is a Grotesque Animal”
In memory, life and fiction overlap. Moments once experienced from an already embedded and imperfect vantage point are subject to further manipulation; key details are sharpened while others are forgotten. One’s past, although completed in time, evolves through these reinterpretations and recallings, ever newly infused with the emotions and interests of the present. Mariano Pensotti draws on this concept and Of Montreal’s song “The Past is a Grotesque Animal,” for his play of the same name, explaining that the “past arises in this play as an animal glimpsed in our dream jungle. An animal that changes shape each time we remember it. A grotesque animal.”
Following the final performance of this show and the Walker’s Out There series, a group of audience members gathered in the McGuire Theatre’s balcony bar for a SpeakEasy, an informal conversation about the evening’s performance. This week’s discussion was facilitated by Erin Search-Wells of SuperGroup and Walker Art Center tour guide Florence Brammer. Themes and comments from that conversation are highlighted through this blog and continued commentary in this online forum is encouraged.
“I author my own disaster” — Of Montreal
Pablo steps out of his front door to find a package containing a severed hand. As we follow his life through Pensotti’s play, we witness Pablo’s increasing unbalance and demise, all initiated by a seemingly random event. For many of Pensotti’s characters, singular moments or actions spur narratives that take years to unfold. We visit each person on significant and mundane dates over a decade. Hopes arise, disappointments are accepted, and what resonates is perhaps not the grandness of life or the simple beauty of the banal, but rather a bitter critique, life presented as a pathetic series of mishaps and responses strung together through time. Beyond a dramatic tool, the severed hand comes to represent disconnect, frustration, and incompleteness.
Yet what emphasis ought to be placed on the “accidental” nature of life’s events? Can hope be found in this play through the agency of individuals to determine outcomes or meanings? While unexpected events can turn the course of a life, perhaps Pablo’s tragedy is not in having found the hand, but in his Hamlet-like indecision over how to cope with his situation. The characters we follow struggle with taking ownership over their lives, yet the unforeseen nature of events does not overpower the impact of each choice. At times they make bold decisions, at other times they seem to flounder, uncertain of what to do and desiring only to maintain a veneer of normality despite internal turmoil.
Pensotti does not present us with a “beginning” or “end,” we are instead offered a series of snapshots between 1999 and 2009, during a time when his characters range in age from 25-35. This phase in life provides an added significance, described by Pensotti as the period during which “one stops being who one thinks one is to become the person one is.” Through this process, we see the push and pull of influences; lives driven by a combination of events and responses, wherein characters never fully arrive, but rather navigate a constantly altering terrain.
We want our film to be beautiful, not realistic – Of Montreal
Though the stories told abruptly shift location, characters, and date, “The Past is a Grotesque Animal,” offers a series of throughlines for the audience to follow. A rotating stage divided into quadrants allows a broad array of locations as a stage crew quickly alters the sets out of view of the spectators. This movement not only creates the illusion that the action for any one group of characters never stops, it also provides a visual representation of the continual and constant march of time. As we follow stories and minor moments through a decade, we are nevertheless reminded of the larger trajectory of time, mortality resting as a final endpoint for characters that would ultimately disappear from a stage continuing to spin like the earth on its axis, ad infinitum.
As actors shift characters from scene to scene, they take turns embodying the role of a narrator who summarizes and contextualizes the action. Pensotti likens this element to a “voice-over that could give sense to the scattered fragments of a film that is lost forever.” In the present, the past takes on a clear progression invisible to those engulfed by the flow of on-going events. Diverging from the standard, removed narrator, commentary occasionally comes from within a scene, by a character spewing a tense internal monologue for the audience while engaging in pleasantries within the vignette. Beyond memory itself as an amalgamation of reality and fiction, we are herein presented with another nuance – the division between internal and external realities. The common ground of polite social discourse through which the characters interact is itself shown to be fiction, with a very different “real drama” taking place within the mind of the character.
Things could be different but they’re not - Of Montreal
Pensotti’s comment that “we are what we narrate” has manifold implications – the fiction of who one tells oneself one is, the reality that is the outcome of one’s action, or the stories one tells oneself through memory about both. As the stage makes its final rotation, each quadrant is shown to be empty – a set of place-holders waiting to be created, populated, and transformed as well as a reminder that conditions, norms, and practices could “always be otherwise,” and yet they are not, leaving the open-ended question “why?”
Lightsey Darst’s article on the Walker’s Out There Series
SAVE THE DATE:
The next SpeakEasy will be held on February 18 to discuss Bill T. Jones’ Story/Time.
___________________________________________________________________________________ SpeakEasy: An informal audience discussion following Saturday evening performances. Throughout the Out There Series, conversations will be facilitated by members of SuperGroup paired with with Walker Art Center Tour Guides. This blog incorporates participants’ comments and questions, offering an opportunity to continue the discussion in an online forum. ___________________________________________________________________________________ BREATH. On a central [...]
SpeakEasy: An informal audience discussion following Saturday evening performances. Throughout the Out There Series, conversations will be facilitated by members of SuperGroup paired with with Walker Art Center Tour Guides. This blog incorporates participants’ comments and questions, offering an opportunity to continue the discussion in an online forum.
On a central television, a face fades in and out, barely discernible, barely there.
Neither absent nor present.
Introduce the narrator, a new face, clear on the screen.
To our upper right, we see his hands and the notebooks that cover his desk.
To our upper left, another pair of hands follow the story, creating a visual map of data.
The narrator begins sharing newspaper clippings of disappearances, but this weighty subject soon turns to humor and a story starts to unfold. The initial facts and visuals seem straightforward, but as the contradictory accounts mount, the screen becomes filled with overlapping lists, names, connections, financial reports, and dates. From a clear timeline, our reference points devolve into a mystery, telling a history to be deciphered, sorted, reinterpreted, and never fully known.
“Are you my friend Horatio?”
- Heiner Mueller, The Hamletmachine
As he lays dying, Hamlet asks Horatio to tell his story. But what story could he or would he tell? Lost to him are so many musings and monologues, personal confessions, motivations, and internal struggles. The historian is left to create order out of remnants – to establish a beginning, follow a progression, and explain the resolution. What Mroué reveals is the messiness of lived history, the scattered and unfinished nature of human experiences, and the absurdity that can occur when this confusion bumps up against official attempts at explanation.
In Looking for a Missing Employee, Mroué highlights the mediated nature of the consumption of history. Our charismatic narrator tells us of his work following newspaper articles; he has compiled the information for us, and kindly serves as our translator. Never looking directly into his eyes, but at his face on a screen, the gap between the audience and the person creating this story is brought to the fore. Questions arise – why these newspapers and not others, what is or is not translated, where is the line between occurrence and artistic fabrication? This is a theatre piece based on “true” events, yet throughout the evening, the veracity of the documentation presented is called into question. Was it foolish to place faith in these newspapers, to believe our historian-narrator?
As Mroué emphasized in an interview with Walker Senior Performing Arts Curator Philip Bither, he is “choosing and…editing all this material.” He states that “to edit – to cut and remove, to keep, or to use my voice in this way and not in the other way – all of this makes this pretension for being neutral impossible.” And yet as one audience member noted, there is perhaps a desire to empathize, to place trust in our narrator. “Truth” may be relative, a creation by accepted authorities drawing on established forms of evidence, yet the knowledge of the contingency of truth does not entirely efface the desire to seek the sense of stability or security that accompanies a resolved narrative. Mroué departs, yet his face lingers on the screen. Eventually, we clap, layering a clean ending onto an open-ended story.
This blog, too, falls prey to this tendency to organize disorder. The free associations, tangents, digressions, ponderous pauses, inconclusive phrasing, self-assessments, restatements, and verbal energy of animated discussions are herein ordered, themes are established, and paragraphs are formed. Assumptions of what a reader may want are intertwined with the author’s own interests, inclinations, and imperfect memories. What other form might the record of such a conversation take? What form would be most accurate? What form would be most useful?
“He cries and laughs, not from sadness or joy, like a lover who draws a line in air and then erases it”
– Al Akhtal Assaghir, quoted in Looking for a Missing Employee
Mroué differentiates art and activism, bringing forth questions of self-identification and the relative safety involved in deeming oneself artist, intellectual, or activist. While the reflective nature of art is distinct from active revolution, there are fluid borders between these roles and the selection of subject matter and the posing of questions bear a relationship to the political environment into which art is introduced. During the discussion that followed his afternoon presentation The Pixelated Revolution, Mroué spoke of being drawn to art that provokes, that shares questions rather than answers, that presents ideas that lead to conversations. This theme seems fitting for the Out There Series, for art that perhaps does not fit neatly into disciplines, art that perturbs, pushes boundaries, and ignites questioning that extends beyond an evening-length performance.
SuperGroup – Erin Search-Wells’ opening night blog.
Walker Performing Arts – Jesse Leaneagh’s blog about Mroue’s work.
Pages Magazine – review of Looking for a Missing Employee.
In Focus - interview with Mroué.
FURTHER AFIELD – VISUALLY MAPPING HISTORY: