From on stage, back stage and the theater seats, the Performing Arts blog illuminates the intersecting worlds of dance, theater, and music.
Choreographer Beth Gill practices a subtle form of risk-taking. Her work certainly doesn’t elicit the kind of responses that have sometimes characterized the proposal of radical new ideas: there’s no booing from the crowd, storming out of the theater, or scathing reviews. Yet, she demonstrates a quiet kind of boldness, with each new work supported by […]
Choreographer Beth Gill practices a subtle form of risk-taking. Her work certainly doesn’t elicit the kind of responses that have sometimes characterized the proposal of radical new ideas: there’s no booing from the crowd, storming out of the theater, or scathing reviews. Yet, she demonstrates a quiet kind of boldness, with each new work supported by its own distinct thread of critical inquiry. When the Walker began putting together the artists who would produce commissioned work for Merce Cunningham: Common Time, instead of Cunningham look-alikes they sought choreographers who honor Cunningham’s courageous trailblazing in their own unique way. While the tone of Gill’s work inhabits a very different world than Cunningham’s, her distinct creations nonetheless meaningfully contribute to the continuation of dance, albeit in a more understated way.
Her current body of work is part of a new era of abstraction in post-modern dance. Cunningham, in a daring departure from the emotionally-charged narratives of Martha Graham, set out to prove how dance could still be relevant, compelling, poignant, and exquisite without dependence on “meaning.” He brought the tremendous value of pure abstraction—which at the time was well-established in visual arts—to dance. The impact of his assertion was strengthened by the rigor of his abstraction; in some cases he sought to remove nearly all traces of his personal taste and motives by leaving even the most basic decisions about what a gesture should look like up to chance. Since Cunningham’s ideas first changed the way people thought about dance, countless artists have continued the discussion of what place meaning and abstraction have in contemporary performance. Gill is among choreographers who question the dichotomy of meaning versus abstraction by reclaiming the pursuit of meaning within abstraction. Her work has an undoubtedly abstract inclination with its compelling formal choreographic structures and ineffable visual environments. Yet, as with her last work Catacomb, she offers a tantalizing liminal space full of character and drama.
What Gill refers to as “abstract storytelling” allows the audience to experience all the depth and connective potential of meaningful storytelling in a space free from literal description. She maintains the multiplicity that abstraction allows, inviting the audience to explore their individual interpretation of the work, but without losing the possibility of experiencing something shared. In practice, this means using imagery and symbolism to foster association, creating spaces where there’s plenty of room to roam, but with concrete ideas to anchor you along the way. Gill is explicit about privileging the audience in her creation process, always attentive to ensuring they feel cared for and considered. She develops a special kind of direct communication with the viewer by meticulously considering the visual component of what she’s making and noting how the imagery can trigger personal associations. The results are rich and mysterious visual and temporal worlds, often described as immersive and disorienting. As New York Times critic Siobhan Burke, in naming Catacomb one of the best in dance of 2016, describes, “I remember less about the details of the work itself than I do about the moment it ended—a startling return to reality. What had just happened? Where had I gone?”
For her newest piece Brand New Sidewalk, premiering at the Walker next week, Gill is taking her visual prowess in a new direction. Instead of employing a slow-burning single structure she is seeking a coherence defined by juxtaposition. Starting with the question “what do I have?” she embarks on an in-depth inquiry of her cast members, honing in on particular vocabularies for each of them. With the creative contributions of her collaborators Jon Moniaci (sound) and Thomas Dunn (lights), Brand New Sidewalk presents a triptych of meticulously crafted domains that transform the McGuire Theater stage to the dancers’ individual logics. The format is one that she says has tested her skill set under very different circumstances, challenging her to define her sense-making through contrast. This kind of challenge in her creative process is part of how Gill confronts the idea of risk in a continual practice of personal growth and change. She aims to re-imagine herself with each project, taking inspiration from the likes of Robert Irwin, author of Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. She stresses the importance of maintaining a shifting and evolving perspective, of allowing the work to change as she does.
The ethos of attentiveness and responsiveness in Gill’s work sheds new light on the formal abstraction that Cunningham originally presented. She offers a vision of post-modern dance which challenges the idea that meaning and emotion can’t coexist with formalism and abstraction. In the fertile, mysterious environments she creates we’re challenged to wonder: How can meaning be heightened when you can’t describe it with words? How can we connect deeply to abstraction when it is carefully and receptively constructed? Whereas Cunningham was in the vanguard in his purist commitment to abstraction, her own pioneering vision comes from nuance, subtlety, and the depth of opportunity available when we consider the question of how we find meaning in contemporary dance.
Joan La Barbara has created more than 120 compositions throughout her career as a groundbreaking composer and performer, and she has worked with some of the most notable names in contemporary music. A pioneer of vocal exploration, she’s known for her remarkable and distinctive vocabulary of sounds and compelling sound experiments. Across her career her work contains […]
Joan La Barbara has created more than 120 compositions throughout her career as a groundbreaking composer and performer, and she has worked with some of the most notable names in contemporary music. A pioneer of vocal exploration, she’s known for her remarkable and distinctive vocabulary of sounds and compelling sound experiments. Across her career her work contains an expansive range of diversity in its form, content, and presentation—driven, at least in part, by her infectious curiosity. La Barbara—along with fellow Merce Cunningham collaborators John King, David Behrman, Fast Forward, George Lewis, Ikue Mori, Zeena Parkins, Philip Selway, Quinta, and Christian Wolff—will perform at the Walker this week in Music for Merce, a two-day celebration honoring the important musical influence of Cunningham and his lifelong partner John Cage.
Like Cunningham himself, La Barbara’s work demonstrates a deep appreciation and interest in other art forms. Whether it is working collaboratively with her contemporaries or taking inspiration from something seen in a gallery, she channels ideas from other mediums into her own work. In a recent interview, La Barbara spoke about some of these inspired works and reflected on the value of working beyond one discipline.
On Sound Painting
I’ve done a series of works that I call sound paintings. Essentially, I tend to see sound when I make it, so a lot of my scores include graphics as well as musical notation (depending on what I need). If I need to communicate particular pitch information, then I’ll use musical notation. If what I’m interested in is more a kind of gesture—a sonic gesture—then oftentimes I’ll draw a graphic into the score. When I look at works of visual art, I stand, sometimes sit, and spend time with the painting. Whether it’s looking at its form, looking at color, or just absorbing what you’re getting from it… some people will walk closer to the painting to see details, some will walk back from it. I know Philip Guston felt there was a particular distance from a painting that was the “perfect” spot. I don’t know that we can all find that perfect spot, but each of us tries to understand a work of visual art by moving to it, moving away from it—looking at brushstrokes, looking at the thickness of the paint, as well as looking at the whole structure and construct of what we’re receiving. I look at a great deal of contemporary art, but I think it is very similar with classical works of art: you’re looking at structure; you’re looking at the hue, the particular color scheme that the painter used and why; you’re looking at how the painting is structured. We do similar things when we listen to music (and sometimes when we perform): we will sometimes listen for melody, we will sometimes listen for the expertise of the musicians playing the work—so we listen to things in different ways just as we look at paintings in different ways. And sometimes we’ll sit there and let it wash over us. We’ll sit there and have an experience. I think composers like Bach and Morton Feldman are very much like that; you’re listening to a kind of overall experience and sometimes then you’re also listening to detail. These are the things I think we have in common when we experience a work of visual art and when we experience a work of music.
On the Sound Painting, Klee Alee
There have been several [of my sound paintings] inspired by very specific paintings, like the [Paul] Klee painting that I was inspired by was a work called Hauptweg und Nebenwege (Highways and Byways). What I try to do when I’m inspired by a particular work of art… it’s not exactly translating, but it’s expressing what I feel in experiencing the work of art, using the tools I have—my musical tools. With Klee Alee, what I saw was almost like a wall of color blocks, so what I created on multi-track tapes (I was working on analogue tapes at that time, but it could also done be easily in digital) was what I considered to be blocks of sound. The painting has a lot of blues and greens in it, so I was altering the vocal sound that I was making to create a kind of sound that I would consider blue or green. Not that I necessarily see color when I see sound—some people who have perfect pitch actually see colors when they hear specific pitches—but what I was creating was a kind of color wall. What Klee had done was to paint very thickly onto the canvas, and then obviously he used a sort of sharp tool to etch into the thickness of the paint. I then used a different vocal technique to, as it were, “etch” into the vocal sound blocks that I had previously made. So in a work like that I’m using a very specific technique and building a sonic painting based on an actual visual painting. In other cases, I’m dealing more abstractly and I create sound paintings that I want people to experience in the way they come and look at a work of art. [In these works] what I’m doing as the composer is to record all of the material that I want and then, in the mix (in post-production), I go in and I will mix it, edit it, layer it, so that I’m drawing the listener’s ear to a particular aspect of the overall work. In other words, I’m directing where you stand and look at the painting—I’m directing what you are actually hearing, very specifically. With that what I’ve tried to do is to create…I won’t say stasis, but I create a work where everything exists from the very first moment to the last moment. Where there’s nothing like development. It is all of the sound material that I use in that particular work, then what I do is bring certain elements forward and bring other elements into the background. So I’m directing how you hear that work.
On the Sound Painting, In Solitude This Fear Is Lived
I first saw [Agnes Martin‘s] work in around 1976. I was doing a concert in northern Italy for a gallerist, and he had some of her works. [They were] small, sometimes graphite on canvas work, and I was just completely overwhelmed with the simplicity, the focus, the kind of quiet energy that was in those works. Sometime later I picked up a catalogue that had a lot of those works in it— works from the sixties. A lot of them are very, very simple—just lines. I wouldn’t exactly call them grids, but just a lot of horizontal lines. Very, very thin, sometimes painted on canvas, sometimes graphite and paint. I wanted to do a work that was inspired by those paintings in particular, and it seemed to me that it would be a wonderful work to do with orchestra, because the orchestra is so vast in its potential but it also has the ability to make very fine, very intricate sounds—which is what I felt about her paintings and her work. She had the ability to do very large works, but she also had the ability to focus into this very delicate work. It took quite a while, but in 2010 I was commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra to write a work (they were doing a series of concerts of nontraditional orchestra works), and what I wanted to do for this piece was to place the musicians around the audience—and actually place some of the them in the audience—so that the audience was actually in the center of the orchestral sound. A lot of times visual artists will prepare the canvas by putting a wash of some sort over the canvas, so what I did was prepare a kind of wash of sound. [In addition to the musicians] I had audio speakers around the audience, and the wash consisted of breath sounds from the voice, instrumentalists breathing into their instruments, the pianist just rubbing his open palms over the strings inside the instrument, and the harpist doing the same thing. It was a very airy, non-tonal sound, which is what I feel the wash is. Kind of a way of neutralizing the canvas, so that when you start to put whatever you put on it—whether it’s color, big splashes of color, or simple lines—that it goes onto the canvas in a certain way. [After I prepared the] wash, I added one instrument at a time—and I started with the string instruments (the violins)—they just played a single note, and I separated them out so you didn’t have a section. You had them as individual soloists, and they were around the sides of the concert hall. So back and forth you would get a kind of call and response of a single pitch, being drawn or played very very delicately. Essentially what I was doing was not only placing the audience inside the orchestra, but I was also placing the audience as if they were beneath the canvas, and that canvas was actually being drawn on in space above them. The idea was [to imitate] doing individual strokes on the canvas, and the technique that I used with strings is something called flautando, which means that they just very, very lightly draw the bow over the strings to create the note—non-vibrato—so it imitates in a way, in sound, what I felt she was doing with the graphite (or the ink, or oil, whichever it was). It had the delicacy. Gradually I began to create a very very minimal melodic line that developed, but the initial gestures were as close as I could get to these just very simple gestures on the canvas.
On Sounddances and Cunningham
I also have done “sounddances,” and they were very much influenced by the work of Merce Cunningham. Because of my association with John Cage, I started working with the Cunningham company in the early ’70s [at the same time] I started working Cage. So I saw a lot of Cunningham dance over the years, and what struck me about Cunningham’s work is that as an audience member you make choices: you could look at individual dancers and the specific movements they were making, or you could take a wider view and look at everything that was going on and try to get a sense of the form. So again it’s this kind of large perspective as opposed to a detailed perspective. I was also fascinated with how Cunningham felt that whatever way the dancer was facing was forward. It didn’t matter whether they were facing upstage or downstage: wherever they were facing, they were performing their action. I thought of that as I mixed certain specific pieces. There’s a work of mine called Autumn Signal, and another work called quatre petites betes, and with each of them I thought of sound almost like characters—or dancers, or figures—and moved them around [as such]. In the case of both of these works they were done in quadraphonic sound (four speakers, around the audience), so I was able to move the sounds around. As one particular kind of sound is walking around the periphery, then different kinds of sounds were flying overhead. In the case of quatre petites betes I created a kind of clearing in a field with four little beasts, each of whom had their own language. They made their own particular statement, then countered each other and had this little battle in the middle of the field, and then flew off into the sonic atmosphere. So I don’t think traditionally as a composer. I really am very affected by different art forms, different mediums, and what I try to do is to try to use my interest and my fascination with different kinds of art—use my understanding of them, use my way of translating them—into a sound art.
On Medical Phenomenon and Inspiration
There are also pieces that I have done that are, let’s say, more traditional—that do start out with melodic ideas and then develop melodic ideas—but I’m influenced by a number of different things. I did a work called Awakenings for chamber ensemble that was inspired by the book by Oliver Sacks [of the same title], about the people who, during a flu epidemic, had fallen into a coma and were kept alive in a vegetative state. At some point their doctor used a particular medicine and it woke them up—unfortunately for only a limited period of time—and it was almost like a Rip Van Winkle thing, where they went to sleep in a particular time and woke up some 20 or 30 years later with the world having changed. They had to then experience the world that way, and then they gradually drifted back into the coma. In this work I’m using a phenomenon, a medical phenomenon, to inspire a musical work. And the way I translate it is by translating [their experience] into sound: starting from a kind of meditative or sleep state, to [moving to] a point of more discovery/energy/activity, and returning into this kind of solemn/calm/meditative state. It’s just a way of working… We could talk for hours about what inspires people: why one writes a certain kind of work. Wagner, he was enamored by Norse legends. Other composers work with texts or poetry, while opera composers deal with stories and how you tell that story both through voice and text and orchestration.
On Collaboration and Simultaneities
I’ve done a number of collaborations with other artists, and they’ve been very different one from the next. I’ve done a lot of work with choreographers. In most cases it’s been more real-time, back-and-forth exchange. But, I worked with a filmmaker one time, Aleksandar Kostic, and we applied the Cage/Cunningham principle, where I said, “OK, we’re going to work for 30 minutes, and the name of the piece is Persistence of Memory.” We did not work out the form; the only thing that I did stipulate, since he oftentimes does a lot of realistic storytelling, is I said, “I don’t want realism in this”—that I would prefer it much more abstract. And I did say what I was dealing with are extremes of weather. Extreme events. I didn’t tell him specifically what I was dealing with, but I was dealing with avalanches, cyclones, and car crashes—events that would happen and then ricochet. We performed it in Berlin in 2012, at the opening of the Berliner Festspiele. We actually put it together, in the Cage/Cunningham tradition, in the dress rehearsal. I had my ensemble with me—the seven musicians of Ne(x)tworks—and he had the film. The film was simply projected and we performed.
What was astonishing, which is something that happens very often in the Cage/Cunningham simultaneities, is that you get things happening that seem so absolutely right, seem absolutely to have to have been planned, but they weren’t. It’s a kind of magic, and I don’t know if it’s something that’s because of our perception that we deal with it that way, or if it’s this kind of magic [that happens] when two artistic collaborators are true to their own art form, their work flowing together in a remarkable way. Also, when I did an Events performance with the Cunningham company in ’76, there were a number of remarkable things that happened. Merce told me what the time was that we were dealing with, and I had planned several of my works accordingly. One of them was a work called Circular Song, which is for solo voice, inhaled and exhaled vocalizing. Just as a matter of coincidence, at the moment that I started Circular Song, Merce came out with a solo of his own. And it so remarkably mirrored the form and, for me, the shapes that he was making. It was one of those dances where he moves his foot forward and then part way back, and then another foot forward and part way back, and that mirrored for me the sound that I was making. I also had a work of mine called Thunder [performed with Cunningham’s company]—which was for six tympani and voice with electronics—and the dancers told me afterwards that it was a really remarkable influence. The work that they were doing at that particular moment in time was Summerspace (which was originally done to very sparse and quiet music of Morton Feldman), and they said when they did it [with Feldman’s music] they were sort of fawns in a field or something, but when my work was played with the same dance it was more like a jungle, because my work was so much louder and more reactive.
On Going On
I’m working right now on developing an opera. It’s inspired by the work of Virginia Woolf and by Joseph Cornell—two very different artists, obviously one dealing with words one dealing with visuals. But Cornell also worked from his dreams and kept written journals, and Woolf said that she heard her work first as music and then translated it into text—so you know it’s just this is sort of an ongoing experience I have of working. And it will go on.
In this week’s performance by CCN-Ballet de Lorraine, co-presented by the Walker Art Center and The Northrop, Merce Cunningham’s Fabrications returns to the same stage where it saw its world premiere 30 years ago. That 1987 performance culminated the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s (MCDC) three-week residency in Minneapolis and was the first of three Walker-commissioned dances from the company. Such commissions are just one component of the Walker’s longstanding relationship with Cunningham, which includes another eight residencies, a total of 17 separate engagements, and the acquisition of the 4,300-object Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection.
Since the company’s Legacy Tour in 2010–2011, Cunningham’s pieces are licensed exclusively by the Merce Cunningham Trust to a select group of world-renowned companies, including CCN-Ballet de Lorraine, whose dancers are taught the work by former Cunningham company members. Fabrications was staged for CCN-Ballet de Lorraine by Patricia Lent (pictured above), who performed in the work’s premiere at Northrop and now works for the Trust. In addition to Fabrications, CCN-Ballet de Lorraine will perform Sounddance (1976) from the MCDC repertoire as part of the Walker’s Merce Cunningham: Common Time exhibition.
“It is our hope, of course, that this residency will serve to be the pilot project for a continuing ‘second-home’-style relationship with the Walker Art Center and and the City of Minneapolis.”
—Art Becofsky, MCDC Executive Director, in a letter to the Walker’s then-curator of performing arts, Robert Stearns, April 9, 1986
Fabrications is not only an important work in the Walker’s relationship with Cunningham, but marks a unique period in the artist’s choreographic repertory. The piece has a notably stronger sense of narrative than much of his other work, which is a tone that is expressed through distinct choices in the design elements in addition to the arc of the actual choreography. The company’s long-time archivist David Vaughn has described Fabrications as somewhat “reminiscential”—Cunningham’s version of an “aging-artist-looks-back-on-his-past ballet.” The way the composition of the work moves between duets, trios, and group work hints ever so slightly towards a traditional ballet structure rather than the more chaotic and unpredictable puzzles of some of his other pieces, even though Cunningham used a process influenced by I Ching to formulate it. One reviewer for the New York Times went as far as to say that Fabrications has “a highly emotional resonance–surprisingly close to Antony Tudor’s ballets about young love, or more precisely, love recalled through the haze of memory.”
These kinds of interpretations were not endorsed by Cunningham, who was firm about stating that he does not put stories in his choreography. In early notes from making the work, however, he separates the piece into scenes whose names imply acknowledgement of the dance’s emotive potential: sorrow, anger, fear, and odiousness. Similar narrative tones in another work that premiered that same year, Shards, led critics to wonder if this marked the beginning of a new era of “emotionalism” for Cunningham. In Merce Cunningham: Creative Elements, company archivist Vaughn reflects on an interview with Cunningham after the works premiered in New York:
“Did his dances have stories? Was there, as the reviewers were saying, a new emotionalism in his work? No, he replied. His dances had no stories, never had stories, and if people we seeing a new emotionalism in his work, ‘it’s just their eyes.’ Or maybe it was there, he said, but ‘I don’t put it in the piece. My choices are made in the movement.’ Movement, he went to say, could have a strong emotional resonance. ‘Movement is expressive. I’ve never denied that. I don’t think there’s such a thing as abstract dance.’ In his dances, though, the movement was never ‘expressive of a particular thing.’”
The design elements of Fabrications were crucial in influencing the audience’s experience with the piece, following the company’s rich legacy of commissioning works from fellow contemporary artists. Cunningham’s artistic advisor for this piece was the artist Dove Bradshaw, who created the original backdrop that will be transported to Northrop from the Walker’s collections storage for CCN-Ballet de Lorraine’s upcoming performance (the company usually tours the piece with a replica). Bradshaw was appointed as an artistic advisor to the MCDC, along with William Anastasi, in 1984, overseeing the production of numerous pieces until 2012. Her experimental work with indeterminacy, chance structures, and natural forces were appealing to both Cunningham and Cage, who believed her almost scientific approach to working with time and chance resonated with what the company was doing. During her time with MCDC Bradshaw designed sets, costumes, and lighting and was responsible for all three of these elements in Fabrications. The color palette for the piece–incorporated in both costumes and décor–is a reduced-Constructivist theme of red, blue, black, and white, which contributes to the period-piece feel along with the collection of mixed thrifted and couture fabrics. The costumes were a particularly notable departure from the standard androgynous unitards: for this work, Bradshaw costumed the women in vintage WWII–style silk dresses and men in loose pants and shirts. The backdrop is an enlarged segment of one of Bradshaw’s collages in which she drew and painted on images from medical, architectural, and mathematical books. To adapt the image to the dance she added on top of her enlarged collage intertwining spirals and targets to emphasize the effect of the dancers’ twirling skirts. Bradshaw’s final touch to the set design was to impart a warm tropical feel with the lights, complementing the light flowing fabric and rich colors.
Original music for Fabrications was composed by Emanuel Dimas de Melo Pimenta, who will be arranging the sound live onstage during this week’s Ballet de Lorraine’s performance. The piece, titled Short Waves (1985), further contributes to Bradshaw’s tropical ambiance with its recorded short-wave radio sounds captured in the Amazon forest. The snippets of human voices in his recordings are often attributed as key in influencing some audience’s narrative interpretations. Throughout the dance the sound moves in and out of radio, music, and static without large swings in tempo or volume. Vaughn characterized the feeling as “like something heard from a distance.” In addition to his sound compositions–which have been performed by other legendary avant-garde musicians associated with the company like John Cage, David Tudor, Takehisa Kosugi, and Christian Wolff–Pimenta is known for working on a diverse range of projects in visual arts, architecture, intermedia systems, photography, and urbanism. His work often interweaves art with science and technology and overlaps with Cage and Cunningham in his experiments with time and space.
There was minimal communication between Cunningham and the designers while they were creating, consistent with his Artaud-inspired belief in not explicitly coordinating the various elements before their completion. The separation wasn’t as extreme as in other work, however, resulting in a notably more cohesive theatrical feel. Before the season even began Bradshaw asked Cunningham if she could use dresses at some point, which he agreed could work with one of the pieces he had in mind–so despite the absence of any explicit discussion about a narrative, there was some common understanding about the tone of this specific dance.
Fabrications is a distinctive example of Cunningham’s ability to evoke interest and feeling with calculated abstraction. Even in this work that leans uncharacteristically towards a narrative, Cunningham leaves enough unsaid that we’re not limited by a specific plot. Rather the space given by his abstraction opens our eyes to the power of a complex and multidimensional experience. However, this taste of emotionalism was fleeting for Cunningham, and as Vaughn mused, his next season (including works like Eleven and Carousal) could have been titled, “There is No New Emotionalism in My Work.”
CCN-Ballet de Lorraine performs Fabrications, along with Cunningham’s Sounddance and Devoted, by Cecilia Bengolea and François Chaignaud, on Thursday, February 16, 2017 at 7:30 pm at Northrop. Merce Cunningham: Common Time is on view in the Walker galleries through July 30, 2017.
This week, choreographer/director Faye Driscoll will return to the Walker as a part of the 2017 Out There festival of theater alternatives. Driscoll’s work is well-suited to Out There: often characterized as daring, original, and imaginative, she’s been called a “post-millenium, postmodern wild-woman.” Her newest work, Play, is the second in a trilogy called Thank You For Coming that proposes […]
This week, choreographer/director Faye Driscoll will return to the Walker as a part of the 2017 Out There festival of theater alternatives. Driscoll’s work is well-suited to Out There: often characterized as daring, original, and imaginative, she’s been called a “post-millenium, postmodern wild-woman.” Her newest work, Play, is the second in a trilogy called Thank You For Coming that proposes performance as a shared political act, where performer and audience co-create reality. The first piece of the series, Attendance, captivated Walker audiences in February of 2016; this second installment is co-commissioned by the Walker.
Driscoll describes Play as an investigation into the consumption and fabrication of personal stories that make our lives coherent, yet broader definitions of play permeate her work well beyond this particular piece. The word “play” itself is dynamic and multifaceted, offering a relevant frame/perspective through which to view Driscoll’s work.
To amuse oneself by engaging in imaginative pretense
Multiple elements evoke the “playful” feeling people describe in Driscoll’s performances, and humor is a prominent theme. In a conversation last year with the Walker’s Director and Senior Curator of Performing Arts Philip Bither, Driscoll said that she views a visceral response such as laughter as a cue that there is something interesting happening within the material. Achieving that kind of impulsive physical response is what interests her, rather than intentionally striving to make work that is humorous. Within this approach, audiences may find themselves laughing in reaction to any number of things, including those that might just be strange, uncomfortable, or unnerving. In an interview with Feministing she describes playing with a darker form of humor in her work:
“It rides the line of the deep pain from being alive, being human, and trying to connect to other people. For me it’s often an edge-that feeling of laughing and getting opened up and getting stabbed in the heart at the same time. I try to ride that line a lot.”
Driscoll’s creative process is rich in the search for these potent physical and emotional responses. With the help of imaginative games and improvisational scores, her performers construct distinct physical and emotional states that give them their dynamic presence during performances. One such game, which she developed along with her collaborator Jesse Zaritt for the piece You’re Me, involved the two performers standing across from each other attempting the impossible task of becoming the other person. Through this somewhat absurd and insistent process a third presence emerged: a warped middle-ground between Driscoll and Zaritt whom they named “Chad,” with the practice cleverly referred to as “chadding.”
Some of her games are performed live in the work, as with the puppeteering in her piece 837 Venice Boulevard. In a section of the piece, performers manipulated each other from behind as if one were a puppet, illustrating whatever the puppeteer wanted to say, or what the puppet might want to say but can’t — hinting at the subtle and not-so-subtle role manipulation can play in our interpersonal relationships. Both puppeteering and “chadding” reflect her complex humor in how they can be simultaneously amusing and raw. Through the rigor of these experiments both on and off the stage, Driscoll’s work shares an imaginative pretense that is nevertheless anchored in substantive inquiry.
To be cooperative
Addressing the vulnerability, authenticity, and overall complexity of human experience in performance is a recurring interest for Driscoll. Within her work audiences are confronted with questions about how our individual human experiences overlap with others, reflecting the complex nature of our relationships. The scenes that are played out on stage are metaphors for our broader social experience, using live performance as a tool for digging deeper into various qualities of human interaction. Her research begins with the unique histories of her performers, drawing on them with a range of writing exercises and improvisational scores. Through these kinds of exercises she fosters an ongoing interest in how the chemistry between people can be made palpable on stage. For 837 Venice Boulevard she explains how the text comes from a very personal place for each person, and how the improvisations, games, and writing are her way to explicitly develop it with them.
Driscoll’s work also seeks to incorporate the audience in these relational dialogues. She strives to build a shared world/culture/alchemy between choreographer, performer, and audience. Anyone who experienced Thank You For Coming: Attendance can likely testify to this effort, wherein the format and presentation of the piece actively asked the audience to engage rather than simply watch. Her next piece in the Thank You For Coming series continues this effort.
“Play picks up the flag thrown by Attendance and deepens, complicates, and continues that our personalities not only change but activate in response to other people.” -Columbus Underground
To fiddle or tamper with
There is undoubtably a certain “capriciousness” in Driscoll’s work. A profile in the New York Times describes it as “a sense that any preconceived contract between audience and performers could be rewritten at any moment, in any way.” Such is the case with Thank You For Coming: Play, where she doesn’t stop with the initial interest in how narrative and stories function, but takes a step further to wonder how we dislodge them—seeking the tension in exploring unknown territory for both her and the audience. This same tension is often achieved through a kind of ambiguity, either in the narrative or the presentation. Through uncertainty and unexpected turns within the work, she opens up the opportunity for a multiplicity of responses. As an audience member, Driscoll hopes you won’t just sit back and be entertained—throughout the work you’ll notice your own way of perceiving and the assumptions that come along with it.
“I often use text to seduce the viewer so they might think, ‘I know what is happening and who those people are,’” she wrote in a feature for Dance Magazine about using text in dance. “Then I flip things on their head so that the viewer is left in the uncomfortable attempt to relocate him or herself.”
It’s about playing with the way we enter and act in the theater, with a social construct we’re familiar with. Sometimes her pieces are unpredictable in content, where at times the movement itself displays momentum thwarted, actions being cut-off before they are allowed to complete themselves; other times it’s a new kind of non-proscenium presentation that plays with our expectations.
To put on or take part in (a theatrical performance, film, or concert)
Driscoll’s works are often called “plays” rather than “dances” (or “highly theatrical” dances). She attributes this characterization to her inclusion of elements that are more culturally associated with theater, such as facial expressions, singing, and speaking. Her performers are encouraged to take advantage of these performance tools in addition to their dance vocabulary when they’re investigating ideas or images for a piece, which become iconic components of the spirit of playful exploration that she’s known for. Driscoll’s own theatrical talents have been aided by her collaborations with theater artists like Young Jean Lee, Cynthia Hopkins, Jennifer Miller, and Taylor Mac (she choreographed Lee’s Church and Untitled Feminist Show, both commissioned and presented in previous Out There Festivals by the Walker).
Driscoll has described these collaborations as a way to step out of her usual way of working and try out a variety of palettes, taking inspiration from the differences in how directors realize their vision. In both pieces of Thank You For Coming, she includes herself as an active director throughout the performances— handing out costumes, giving feedback, or welcoming the audience. She’s also notably unafraid of using props, which tend to show up in unexpected configurations to support the scene at hand. With her anything-goes approach, what she uses can vary wildly from moment to moment—even what you assumed was the stage may suddenly become a prop.
Driscoll is diving head first into her theatrical tendencies with Thank You For Coming: Play, which one critic described as “replete with dance, song, caricatured accents, incredible costumes, a movable and deconstruct-able set and truly versatile performers.” With this new work, the subject of play seems to be an apt frame through which to view the diversity of Driscoll’s choreographic skill, complete with all the bold and lively elements that have enchanted audiences thus far.
In the upcoming 44th Annual Choreographers’ Evening, curator Rosy Simas brings together a group of 11 choreographers in an inclusive look at dance being made in the Twin Cities. Simas, a well-known performer/curator/Native American activist/educator, selected works that “complement each other, dances that reflect the times we live in, and dances that will create thought provoking […]
In the upcoming 44th Annual Choreographers’ Evening, curator Rosy Simas brings together a group of 11 choreographers in an inclusive look at dance being made in the Twin Cities. Simas, a well-known performer/curator/Native American activist/educator, selected works that “complement each other, dances that reflect the times we live in, and dances that will create thought provoking conversation among audiences.”
In advance of their performances, I asked the participating choreographers a few questions about the nature of their work, their artistic process, their influences, and their thoughts on being involved in Choreographers’ Evening. What follows is a brief introduction to each of the artists, who together represent a wide range of vital dance makers in Minnesota.
Where do you find inspiration?
I find inspiration in the shifting wild presence that lingers in places and moments beyond the contours of linguistic comprehension and ordinary perception. I’m compelled to tap into currents in this liminal realm to help mobilize and heal stuck, scarred aspects of our communal web.
What interests you about an “interdisciplinary” approach to dance-making?
Disciplines are only temporary designations, meant to hone particular skill sets and modes of expression. I’m interested in dancing beyond the edges as a means to liberate the needs of the art: if this little art ghost wants to live between the bridge and water, so be it. I’ll give it spider’s silk to fly there.
What kinds of techniques and dance forms influence your choreographic style?
Hip Hop, House Dance, Krump, Karate, and Filipino Folk Dance influence my choreographic style. While I possess a strong foundation in those dance forms, I ditch mirrors and I base my choreography off of feeling rather than appearance. My anger admittedly fuels me. There are so many injustices all over the world. As an artist, I feel a duty to use my platforms to say what needs to be said as clear as possible. I don’t want audiences leaving with their own interpretation of our personal stories. I want audiences to leave knowing exactly what we meant to say. I am inspired by real world issues, my family’s immigration story, my friends and students, and my dedication to authenticity of the styles I do and the communities I belong to.
What do you hope to learn from presenting your work at Choreographers’ Evening?
Presenting White Privilege at Choreographers’ Evening is going to be exciting. Community/authentic hip hop is rarely put on large stages. My colleagues and I will learn how the general Twin Cities population feels about not only our art form, but our message. When we performed this piece at our own show in July 2016, the audience felt healed and inspired. Performing this piece for an audience that is mainly white and not exposed to underground hip hop will be truly interesting. There is a lot of pressure for hip hop dancers all over to conform to the mainstream industry’s expectations like entertaining huge audiences to clean and happy pop music with flashy moves. There is a lot of pressure for hip hop dancers in the Twin Cities to be highly influenced by modern and contemporary dance because there’s a lot of that here, to put it simply. It is imperative to us that we stay raw and true to ourselves.
How do you describe your style of moving/making?
My style of moving is deeply rooted in Popping and couples with sounds from my upbringing in the Bronx or sounds that speak to my life and experience now. I usually begin with a personal point of tension or question around issues of individuality, fatherhood and marriage, masculinity, racism, and privilege, like what it means to stay true to my street dancing roots as my locale and context have changed. I think my dance is really an attempt to make sense of, negotiate, and ultimately embrace change, conflict, and complexity.
My choreography is shaped by the physical space I’m dancing in and by the audience I’m dancing in front of, which is why I’m a firm believer of not doing the same performance more than once.
What unique contribution do you hope to bring to this Choreographers’ Evening?
My personal narrative and perspective on life, which I hope other working people can relate to. For Solo Dolo No Mo, I am going to dance like nobody’s watching because I feel like I’m always on and going through the motions inherent to being in a capitalist society. Dance enables me to break away from those confines as it becomes less about mass consumption and exploitation, and more about individual meaning and expression. This performance, in particular, is a vulnerable, solitary, and rebellious act of materializing my thoughts and feelings while being present.
How does teaching influence your artistic practice and/or choreography?
This is my 44th year of dancing, and my 28th year of teaching. As a mid-career choreographer, I have survived long enough to have experienced many cycles in my work. I created my first dance at age 14, very soon after I began studying Modern Dance and Improvisation. During the post-modernist movement of the late 1970’s-1980’s, I attended N.Y.U. and was part of the downtown dance scene in New York for 10 years.
The process of teaching and creating dances are inextricably linked for me. They feed each other; when practiced together, I can tap into the creative current more readily. Both require a deep understanding of energy and out flow. Teaching is a service to others, but also engages me creatively and challenges me to fully embody the material I’m teaching. Dance making is more insular in the first stages; I have to go within, become absorbed in my imagination and then translate the ideas in some way.
How has you work shifted over your career?
My work continues to evolve over time; in the early days I was inspired and influenced by ideas and aesthetics that were different than mine. I was learning, soaking everything in. Later I began to discern and evaluate my own vision. What is uniquely mine that I can contribute? I began to look for articulation and distinction in movement more specifically.
What is unknown and perhaps unknowable? I allow myself the freedom to experiment and investigate incongruent ideas. It doesn’t always work out. I try to blend together a story, a structure, and an idea that has meaning for me, expressed through the energy of my movement. Somehow I try to reconcile my observations of the external world with my unexplored inner material, the story beneath the story.
I’m still able to tap into the excitement, the physicality and the energy release that is dancing to me. I continue to be engaged in an emotional, imaginative and magical place. What excited me was how moving through space and time connected me to my inner self, to the depth of emotions that felt like I was experiencing the “real” reality, not just business as usual.
Over the years I’ve gotten better at making my work more specifically distinguished from the work of others, and really looking inside myself by being honest about what I have to contribute to this field.
What are some key words or phrases you use to describe your aesthetic?
I obsess over minimalism, mimicry, tenderness, wry humor, loneliness, fake bad timing, exacting musicality and understatement. I like to explore internal terrain, subtlety and tiny emotional undercurrents that resonate in the body. I am an artist working with choreography, dance, experimental video and photography. I construct a unique perspective of what dance can be: virtuosity in vulnerability and a victory in a gesture. Drawn to the edges of the experience of performing: the anticipatory rapid heartbeat before going onstage, and the regretful relief after exiting, my work often reveals where that switch lives in the body. I feel most like myself when I am onstage being other people.
How do you incorporate your interests in experimental video and photography into your practice/performance?
For the Choreographers’ Evening piece, which is part of This is supposed to be my fertile window, an evening-length work I premiered in 2016, I studied photographs of Cecile Richards and tried to copy her gestures and facial expressions as she testified in front of Congress on behalf of Planned Parenthood. Videotaping myself is another way to extend and curate the frame and focus; sometimes video is part of my process of choreographing, and sometimes the choreographic process results in a fully-realized video work. With video, I have more control over framing, editing and time than I do in a live performance. Sometimes, if I’m feeling stuck choreographically, I’ll set up the camera up and improvise something seemingly unrelated to the piece I’m making. Reviewing that footage often provides a breakthrough and tells me where I should go next in the dance. In general, I use film clips and still images from film or photography as a starting point for creating movement. Photographs are useful in that they reveal movement quirks and unique physicalities and suggest what to enhance or feature. My first goal is to try to make a compelling stage picture; locomotion is secondary. When working with a group, I often photograph the performers talking casually before or after rehearsal and pore over them later. The chemistry I see amongst the cast in the photographs and who they are as individuals tells me where I need to focus.
Describe the starting point of the piece you’ll be presenting at Choreographers’ Evening.
Well first off a little history on the dance. It started in the southwest region of the United States. Many tribes lay claim to this visually appealing dance. But is has recently sprung up across native America and is very special dance that tells stories and teachings about life. When the dance is first started the dancer will start with one hoop. She will eventually work her way up to however many hoops she desires. You will see all kinds of transformation from plants to eagles to spiritual beings.
What is appealing to you about being included in this Choreographers’ Evening?
I am so happy to share the knowledge and wisdom that this dance has. I’m happy that I can give a piece of who I am to the audience. This dance varies from each dancer. So for me to give my story and my heart to the audience brings me great honor.
You often use the word “fusion” to describe your work – what does this describe about your dancing?
I think about the word a lot. The genre of dance I do is called ” tribal fusion belly dance,” and I am definitely trained within the genre for the first three years of studying dance. So when someone asks me what type of dance I do, there is no way around it but to use the word “fusion.” But it’s not my favorite word because it sounds less serious, less authentic, less genuine, and less sincere.
The word “fusion” describes that I am continuously learning elements from different dance styles and try to fuse them with what I already know. I am always wondering how I can do so without ending up stealing and poorly copying other dance styles.
How does your work fit into the themes of Simas’ curatorial vision for this Choreographers’ Evening?
My work is about the hassle of, not only cis women, but all femme presenting people in rape culture.
Now, that didn’t start this year, it’s not a new thing. Misogyny and rape culture, however, are still problems we face today. So I brought this piece to the CE audition.
Laura Selle Virtucio with Holo Lue Choy
You were once referred to in an interview as having “no ambition to choreograph.” How has that changed?
I have been a dancer in this community for a long time; it sometimes seems that choreography is expected of me at this stage. It has never been a goal for me. I care very much about what is being made when I’m working with a choreographer. My ideas and movement are often pulled into what someone else is making. I have felt respected as a collaborator during much of my Minneapolis dance career. But I have trepidation about what I might be able to accomplish as a sole dance-maker. The times I’ve created work have been when a young dancer has looked to me for collaboration and mentoring. I see it as an opportunity to support an individual voice and to practice craft. That process I have enjoyed immensely. So, with this iteration of Her Kind, the work is my structure, but Holo and I have co-authored the details. Three dancers have contributed their voices while performing this work in the past and now Holo will share her voice. There is a parallel journey that these dancers have had in doing this particular work to my own journey working with the choreographers who have shaped my career. I hope to reflect back what I’ve experienced: a community that makes room for diverse voices and that challenges one to overcome fear.
Deja Stowers – BLAQ
Where does this piece fit in the general trajectory of your creative work, and what are the most important questions driving your work right now?
My work is derived from real life experiences. I am interested in reliving and processing these experiences for artists in order to learn from them. I am most interested in how Black people in “America” are surviving and thriving in a world that was built by us but not for us. I explore the homelessness and displacement of my people but also soak in the vastness of what it means to be Black. How we stretch and shrink in the presence of joy and heart filled laughter. It is important that in BLAQ’s process we live through both. BLAQ is a company uninterested in performance but is drawn to “observance.” I believe that the observers are just that, observers. They play a role just by being in the room. WE SEE THEM. But our process is not packaged for them. It isn’t a message in a bottle. and it most importantly isn’t a truth that is open for critique. Though my work is geared to evoke social change and is in fact a social gathering, everyone has the right to give or get what they want from the process. BLAQ is process-based. The product is the process not to be bought and sold, but kept sacred and respected.
What’s important about using dance as your platform for creative expression?
I create performance with the moving body, which for me includes extensions of the body including voice and the spiritual practice of presence. I move to know the viscera of my own human body and its likeness to others, I move to listen to its intelligence, I move to research and I move to communicate. The body is my vehicle, my language for relating.
Talk a little about your practice and how it frames your choreography.
My practice is based in somatic modalities, energy medicine and structured improvisation. I work from a place of inquiry or research, in Bruja I am curious to excavate my ancestral lineage from my cellular intelligence. As an international adoptee I’ve lost my understanding of homeland and genetic resonance. This theme has informed much of my work and I still don’t feel complete with this research. The solo evolves as more of a soul’s journey, less of a human experience. I am using my spiritual practice and somatic movement research as a centerpoint to communicate with the unknown lineage held by my body. In performance the research is framed by an aesthetic of spontaneity, improvisation itself and the audience as witness to something that is immediately personal and somehow universal.
How does your identity as a Hmong woman influence your choreography?
Not all my work engages in the Hmong identity, but my identity as a Hmong woman, Asian-American woman, and woman of color will always affect, nurture, and define the lens that I have in order to navigate through this world. The term woman is the identity that most confines and defines why I choose to address patriarchy in the many spaces I occupy. In this piece specifically, it is important and relevant to have Hmong women occupy and claim the performance space, and to make our presence known and extant considering the demographics of the Twin Cities. My choreography is always an extension of me and my experiences, and a reaction to our times. It’s time to make our stories and histories be seen as relevant.
Describe your relationship to social justice in your work.
I would have never came to a social justice approach to my work if it wasn’t for my mentor, Ananya Chatterjea. All dance is political. Nothing is apolitical. Therefore, intentionality and craft is really important for me in order to get my message across in the way that I want it to come across. Personal interpretation is inevitable, but if I can engage my community and audience members through the images and energy I am producing, then I have also engaged them in social justice work. Social justice is the continuous force that drives my passion for thinking, making, helping, loving, creating bridges among our differences, and my work is the outlet in which it is being manifested.
Choreographers’ Evening 2016, curated by Rosy Simas, takes place on November 26 at 7 pm and 9:30 pm in the Walker’s McGuire Theater.