From on stage, back stage and the theater seats, the Performing Arts blog illuminates the intersecting worlds of dance, theater, and music.
Hybridity, fusion, interdisciplinarity, globalization… the 21st century is an era of mixing, collaboration, and multiplicity in which art and identity intertwine in both innovative and time-honored ways. This week the Walker presents Ragamala Dance and saxophonist/composer Rudresh Mahanthappa in Song of the Jasmine, a Walker commission and world premiere. The work, a collaboration between Mahanthappa […]
Hybridity, fusion, interdisciplinarity, globalization… the 21st century is an era of mixing, collaboration, and multiplicity in which art and identity intertwine in both innovative and time-honored ways. This week the Walker presents Ragamala Dance and saxophonist/composer Rudresh Mahanthappa in Song of the Jasmine, a Walker commission and world premiere. The work, a collaboration between Mahanthappa and Ragamala’s artistic directors Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy (a mother-daughter team), brings together music and dance, tradition and innovation, jazz and Carnatic music, India and America, and the spaces between.
I visited Ragamala’s studio in Minneapolis’ Uptown neighborhood a few weeks ago to observe a rehearsal of the piece with Mahanthappa and the musicians, many of whom had flown in from the east coast. I came away in awe of the talent, creativity, and collaboration I observed that morning—not to mention the incredible work they were creating.
As the musicians practiced at the beginning of the rehearsal, the five dancers trickled in, sitting quietly at the side of the studio and listening. Often, their arms and hands would move as if of their own accord, feeling the music and channeling the movements of the dance. Aparna and Ranee listened closely, consulting each other and their notes, approximating the intricate motions of the dance with their upper bodies as they followed along with the music. Soon, they were up and dancing: slapping the ground with the soles of their feet, spinning in unison, telling intricate stories through their whole bodies—from the sharp movements of their fingertips to the expressive brightness of their eyes. I could feel their excitement at having the piece coming together, the performance approaching… during a break, dancer Ashwini rushed over to show me pictures of the set they were working on at the Walker: hundreds of bells suspended majestically over the McGuire Theater stage.
Founded by Ranee Ramaswamy in 1992, Ragamala Dance performs Bharatanatyam, a type of traditional south Indian classical dance historically performed in the temples of Tamil Nadu. Based in Minneapolis, Ragamala has an extensive history with the Walker. In 1998, Ranee Ramaswamy performed a solo, Where The Hands Go, The Eyes Follow. Presented in one of the Walker galleries, it was four performances of a collaboration with Minnesotan poet Robert Bly, Jim Moore, Janet Holmes, Mary Easter, Coleman Barks, Janet Hirshfield, and jazz musician and harmonica player Howard Levy. In 2004, Ragamala performed Sethu (Bridge) in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden with Balinese gamelan ensemble Çudamani, and collaborated again with Çudamani in 2009 to perform Dhvee (Duality). Aparna Ramaswamy has additionally performed with Penelope Freeh as part of the Walker’s Momentum: New Dance Works series in 2004, and curated Choreographer’s Evening 2012 with Patrick Scully.
Another Walker-Ragamala connection is Jessica Fiala, a Walker guest blogger and tour guide who has been dancing with the company since 2006. In a short phone interview, Fiala elaborated on the style of Bharatanatyam: based on structured positions and movements, the foundation of the dance is a grounded stance with the knees bent and the feet turned out. Some of the poses and figures in Bharatanatyam are even likened to sculptures, echoing the positions of statues of Hindu gods. But beneath all of the structure, Fiala, explained, there is an emotional basis that informs the movement and expression of the dance, involving every part of the body from the feet to the eyes.
Ragamala artistic directors Ranee and Aparna studied Bharatanatyam with dancer and choreographer Alarmél Valli, considered a master of the dance in India. But while they are committed to the style of Bharatanatyam, their art reflects the space in which it is created—as traditional Indian dance in contemporary America. In a Star Tribune article celebrating Ranee and Aparna as Artists of the Year in 2011, Aparna addressed the importance of “[preserving] custom, but with a contemporary twist,” explaining how Ragamala aims to stay true to the tradition of Bharatanatyam, while not being bound by the tradition. Similarly, Ragamala describes itself as “[exploring] the dynamic tension between the ancestral and the contemporary… [making] dance landscapes that dwell in opposition.”
As I entered the studio, the musicians were running through the piece, stopping and starting to discuss certain phrases or make notes on their parts. Led by Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto saxophone, the band includes Rez Abassi on electric guitar, V. K. Raman on South Indian flute, Anjna Swaminathan on violin, and Rajna Swaminathan on mridangam, a type of south Indian drum. On occasion, the instrumentation was rounded out by a smartphone, which produced a drone mimicking a traditional instrument called a tanpura. The tone of the rehearsal was focused, but lighthearted; at one point when the musicians slowed down, Mahanthappa joked, “We all need to hit Dunn Bros early and often.”
The music of Song of the Jasmine is based in the Carnatic tradition, a style of classical music from south India (its counterpart being Hindustani music in northern India). The foundations of this style of music are talas, beat cycles that determine the rhythm, and ragas, musical modes that determine the melodic line (though with notable differences from Western musical modes). The mridangam drum brings everything together: the ragas, the talas, and the rhythms created by the dancers’ feet, which often beat in counterpoint to the music.
So what does an alto saxophonist with an MFA in jazz composition have to do with Carnatic music? For Mahanthappa, born in Italy to Indian parents and raised in Boulder, Colorado, both Indian music and jazz are integral to his art. A defining moment, he explained in an interview with NPR, came after a recital at Berklee College of Music, when his brother gave him a copy of Saxophone Indian Style by Kadri Gopalnath. Through alternative fingerings and modifications to his embouchure, Gopalnath had created an innovative way of playing the tonal modulations present in Carnatic music on an instrument that was not designed for that musical style. The CD, initially intended as a joke, provided a way for Mahanthappa to conceptualize bringing together his background in jazz saxophone with his interest in Indian music.
Mahanthappa’s compositions and performances likewise reflect the influences of jazz and Indian music on his work. In an interview with CapitalBop, Mahanthappa elaborated: “The core of my journey stems not only from musical interest but more from defining and describing my hybrid identity as an Indian-American. It’s always been important for me to treat both Indian music and jazz with the utmost integrity, as selling either short would be equivalent to selling my soul cheaply.”
“See the Music, Hear the Dance:” Bringing It All Together
The creative union of music and dance in the studio was evident in the steady back-and-forth between dancers and musicians as they composed, choreographed, and rehearsed. Bars of music were deleted and repeated, footwork clarified, and tempos adjusted—in one instance, Mahanthappa even revised a part of the composition to be played twice as fast, to match the feeling of the choreography. Throughout the rehearsal, Aparna maintained close communication with mridangam player Rajna, whose steady drumming united the rhythm of the music and the rhythm of the dancer’s feet.
“See the music, hear the dance” is a philosophy fundamental to the work of Bharatanatyam master and the Ramaswamy’s teacher Alarmél Valli (it is also the name of a show by Valli). Indeed, the raga in Ragamala’s name is no coincidence: literally translated, Ragamala means “garland of ragas”—i.e. Carnatic melodic modes. Music has always been an inextricable facet of Bharatanatyam, in which footwork and melodies, rhythm and danced shapes are closely connected, whether in concordance or opposition. Additionally, the term Ragamala describes a type of medieval Indian paintings, each of which is associated with a raga, as well as a specific poetic verse—an early example of art drawing from multiple disciplines. In its first performance as a dance company, Ragamala took inspiration from these paintings and their corresponding verses and melodies, bringing them to life through dance.
Song of the Jasmine carries on the tradition of interdisciplinary work by uniting music and dance in a productive meeting of minds and creativity. The piece, and the process through which it has been created, is exemplary of the immense creative potential of the 21st century and beyond: collaboration across disciplines, states, and countries; hybridity of genres and identities; and the symbiosis of tradition and innovation.
Ragamala Dance and Rudresh Mahanthappa will perform Song of the Jasmine Thursday-Saturday, May 15–17 at 8 pm and Sunday, May 18 at 2 pm in the McGuire Theater.
“Spontaneous combustion being an occupational hazard in Gotham, Burnt Sugar is how we keep it real, surreal, arboreal, aquatic, incendiary.” —Greg Tate, Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber is a force of nature. The band creates music in which jazz, improvisation, social critique, poetry, melody, culture, and life stories intertwine, fusing […]
“Spontaneous combustion being an occupational hazard in Gotham, Burnt Sugar is how we keep it real, surreal, arboreal, aquatic, incendiary.” —Greg Tate, Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber
Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber is a force of nature. The band creates music in which jazz, improvisation, social critique, poetry, melody, culture, and life stories intertwine, fusing quirk and sincerity, history and innovation, improvisation and structure—creating a distinctive hybrid groove that is both highly entertaining and remarkably profound.
Burnt Sugar has been grooving in various colorful and unique iterations since its formation in 1999, when bassist Jared Michael Nickerson and writer/instrumentalist/conductor Greg Tate got together to create “a forum for the New York area improvisational musician to compose, record and perform material which reflects the breadth and depth of American diasporan music in the 21st century.”
On display at Burnt Sugar’s April 26 Walker performance, the group’s musical trademark is the use of “conduction,” a style of conducted improvisation developed by renowned jazz musician and composer Butch Morris. Defined by Morris as “an improvised duet for ensemble and conductor,” conduction involves a system of gestures and signals that act as directives for the improvising musicians—for example, creating a “U” shape with the thumb and pointer finger indicates a repeat, and moving an outstretched palm up and down controls the volume of the players.
Taking on the conduction of Burnt Sugar’s Steely Dan performance at the Walker is Vernon Reid, renowned guitarist and founder of the Grammy award–winning group Living Colour. The collaboration between Reid and Greg Tate is not new—the two have been working together at least since 1985, when they co-founded the Black Rock Coalition, an organization that aims to create “an atmosphere conducive to the maximum development, exposure and acceptance of Black alternative music” (from the group’s manifesto).
I had the chance to learn more about Burnt Sugar through an e-mail interview with band members Ben Tyree (guitar), LaFrae Sci (drums), Karma Mayet Johnson (vocals), and Leon Gruenbaum (keyboards), facilitated by the group’s co-founder and bassist Jared Michael Nickerson. Here’s what they had to say about performing with the innovative and unparalleled Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber.
Part of Burnt Sugar’s trademark style is using Butch Morris’ conduction system “to make every performance a fresh interpretation of its constituent parts.” What is it like rehearsing, performing, and recording “conductions”?
Ben Tyree: It’s spontaneous and engaging and can really bring things out of the musicians and into the room that nobody could have imagined.
LaFrae Sci: We don’t necessarily rehearse conductions because that’s what keeps it fresh. We rehearse songs, and the conduction happens on the fly. It’s super fun and requires one keeping their eye on the ball (conductor) at all times.
Karma Mayet Johnson: Well, playing Steely Dan or James Brown or… we’ll run a form then bust out into conduction, sometimes pass the baton. Full-on Burnt Sugar conductions, where the music is conceived and built simultaneously onstage, happen(ed) more outside the context of a “set” and go more like intergalactic transmolecularization.
Leon Gruenbaum: Jazz used to be the place where one would be spontaneous—but that field of music has become rigid. Conduction allows us to embody that spirit of not knowing what is coming next—I believe when the performers are excited on stage with that feeling of discovery, it comes across to the audience in a big way.
So what happens when Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber takes on the Steely Dan songbook?
Tyree: We have fun with it and dirty it up a bit. Most of the [original Steely Dan] records were very polished and produced so it’s exciting to take the material into a live setting where we can really do our own thing with it.
Sci: I love how Burnt Sugar is so big [17 members], and when everyone brings their flavor, the collective result often casts the material in a new and compelling light for the listener, whether they are familiar with the song or what. Also, my definition of soul is to “put ones whole self into something.” Everyone in Burnt Sugar is so soulful, and the music we make becomes exponentially soulful.
There is a lot of hybrid, genre-defying, boundary-busting, creativity going on in your music. What’s it like to create something that’s uncategorizable?
Johnson: It’s indescribable.
Tyree: Well, the question can go right back to you: what’s it like listening to something that’s uncategorizable? You’re talking about a group of people who are individually uncategorizable overtly challenging personal and creative categorization from every approachable angle in a society that imposes category. The sound is only the result of a state of mind and lifestyle that we wish to convey is available to all.
Sci: Duke Ellington used to call his music “beyond category” because he was in every way. Every member of Burnt Sugar is beyond category and exceptional in some way, hence when we come together the music is too. We don’t set out to do this, it is what happens because we know how to surf up and down the musical tree from the spirituals into the future. If the blues is the roots, and everything else is the fruits, we are the whole damn ecosystem.
According to your website, Burnt Sugar is “a territory band, a neo-tribal thang, a community hang, a society music guild aspiring to the condition of all that is molten, glacial, racial, spacial, oceanic, mythic, antiphonal and telepathic.” It seems to me that Burnt Sugar is all about music, but not only music—what else is it about?
Tyree: It’s about a state of mind and lifestyle which the music is a result of. It’s also all about the LOVE.
Sci: Not only is Burnt Sugar about music, it’s […] a family, a tribe. We all enjoy each other, and we can have fun anywhere, on stage, back stage, in the airport, in the van… Everywhere.
Johnson: Paramount, a democratization of vibe, a predilection for Cosmic Funk as an ontology, and good shoes.
How has Burnt Sugar changed since 1999? Where is it going in the future?
Tyree: Who knows? Why not join us for the duration of this journey and we’ll all find out together?
It seems like the members of Burnt Sugar all have some other cool projects going on. What else should I check out?
Tyree: I would recommend Googling all of our names. We all have awesome projects. Personally, I have a group called BT3 which you’d probably love.
Sci: Every member of the band is a unique artist with a project. My own band is called the 13th Amendment. We do my arrangements of Negro Spirituals, and originals (here is a link of us live in Paris). Currently I’m in Siberia rehearsing for this.
Gruenbaum: You should check out Genes and Machines, which features my “samchillian” keyboard invention. Some of our music is based on players having repeating parts which are brought in and out in a spontaneous way with conducting cues, so each performance of a piece is an improvisation, structurally.
Johnson: #ROOTWOMAN Karma Mayet Johnson. I describe it as Burnt Sugar vocal member dropping 21st century Roots music.
Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber performs Any World That I’m Welcome To: The Steely Dan Conductions on Saturday, April 26, at 8 pm in the McGuire Theater.
Companhia Urbana de Dança, founder and choreographer Sonia Destri Lie insists, just sort of happened. At the time of its formation, she had just moved back to Brazil from Germany, where she had studied contemporary dance and delved into the world of hip hop. Back in Rio de Janeiro, she began working on a dance […]
Companhia Urbana de Dança, founder and choreographer Sonia Destri Lie insists, just sort of happened. At the time of its formation, she had just moved back to Brazil from Germany, where she had studied contemporary dance and delved into the world of hip hop. Back in Rio de Janeiro, she began working on a dance project for a fashion show, auditioning B-boys and hip hop dancers. Meeting those dancers, she explained, “was the turning point. I saw so many good dancers, and they had no idea how good they were. In Rio, there was no opportunity, no jobs, so I decided to use my contacts in Europe to try to do something.” She started finding some dancers to form a company — or, as she likes to say, they found her. Companhia Urbana de Dança fully came into existence when a festival director took notice of her work and invited her to the Biennale de Lyon, an international dance festival in France. Along with dancer Tiago Sousa, whom she had met at the fashion show, Destri Lie pulled together a group to perform in Lyon in 2006. The company has changed members extensively throughout its existence, growing through three iterations into the critically-acclaimed group it is today.
Destri Lie has two conditions for her dancers: they must be good, respectful people, and their desire to dance must come above all else. For her, big egos have no place in the company, and a good personality is more important than flawless technique. Tiago explained in an interview: “Our desire to dance is greater than any necessity. We are all intelligent and talented. We could be doing anything else, but we chose dance, and we know that it takes a lot of love and dedication.” Indeed, many of the dancers have gone to great lengths to keep dancing. Rafael “Rafa” explained that after his mother told him he couldn’t keep dancing, he sneaked out of the house to go to rehearsal. In the beginning, the only rehearsal slot Destri Lie could get was from 11 pm to 3 am in a studio that was a substantial commute away from many of the dancers’ homes. Nevertheless, the dancers’ passion and dedication have propelled the group to international recognition.
Part of the genius of Companhia Urbana de Dança is the marvelous symbiosis it exhibits, both in terms of the styles of dance performed, and the company itself. Destri Lie and her dancers each contribute something to the company, creating a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts. As she explained in an interview with Time Out NY:
Tiago Sousa said one day during this fashion show rehearsal: “Sonia, you are the only one that can understand our language, and you are the only one that can take us to a different level. If not, we are gonna be the black kids that dance from the favelas. And we are never gonna get respect! We need you, and I think you need us because we will be the reason for you to do something fresh and new. Maybe you will reinvent yourself and do not need to go to Europe again.” […] I already had two dance companies before. It was hard to get support, money and sponsors, and I did not want to go through this all over again. But I said, “Yes! Let’s try.” And here I am.
But Destri Lie is aware that the fusion of artists and dance styles that exists in Companhia can be risky, especially given the juxtaposition of her background with those of the dancers. A recent New York Times review addressed this delicate balance:
Companhia Urbana de Dança sounds like a bad idea. It is a Brazilian dance troupe composed of young people, mostly men of African descent, mostly from the favelas, or slums, of Rio. But it is led and choreographed by Sonia Destri Lie, a white woman not from the favelas. She is trained in ballet and American and European contemporary dance, yet the works are based in hip-hop, somehow refined. Exploitation, condescension: Pitfalls abound. And yet […] Companhia Urbana de Dança is so wonderful that it seems miraculous.
Indeed, pitfalls abound. Companhia Urbana de Dança dances in a delicate space in which issues such as race, poverty, violence, and gender are, through the act of performance, at risk of alternately being exploited or erased. Similarly, there is the balance in their performance between dance and narrative, with the chance that the background stories overpower the dancing.
Indeed, few descriptions of the company fail to mention the dancers’ origins in the favelas and suburbs of Rio de Janeiro. Favela is usually translated as “slum,” and denotes an informal urban settlement in Brazil, often associated with poverty, crime, and drug trafficking. Since 2008, the government has worked to decrease the rule of drug lords in favelas through the implementation of UPPs (Police Pacification Units). Recently, the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics have increased international scrutiny over crime and violence in these neighborhoods. In discussing some of the challenges of building a professional dance company through the years, Destri Lie does not deny that the dancers’ living situations often made things difficult — some of her dancers were consistently late, or couldn’t leave their neighborhoods for rehearsal because of drug-related violence, or even collapsed during practice because they didn’t have enough money for food. Tiago, when describing how he started dancing, explained, “I realized that, in my neighborhood, the guys who got girlfriends either danced or carried a gun… I chose to dance.”
But while crime, drugs, and violence, remain issues in Brazil’s favelas, the focus of popular narratives on these negative characteristics of the “morros” (“hills,” as they are often called), allows only for a narrow and stigmatizing perspective on them and the people who live there (indeed, discrimination and prejudice towards residents of these neighborhoods often makes it more difficult for them to find employment). In contrast to many prevailing conceptions, visual and performing arts have permeated some of these neighborhoods—for example, the colors of the neighborhood of Santa Marta, or faces and eyes painted on the houses in the Morro da Providência neighborhood. Favelas are where funk carioca music originated, as well as dances such as passinho, which has gained international recognition. In Morro dos Prazeres, a favela near the center of Rio de Janeiro, MTV built a high-quality soccer field to film a Brazilian TV show. There are schools, hospitals, and libraries in the neighborhoods. Cidade de Deus (inspiration for the Academy Award-nominated film of the same name) even has its own form of currency.
Companhia Urbana de Dança cannot erase the influence of its multifaceted background stories. Yet Destri Lie is cautious of creating performances that focus solely on the favela origins of the dancers. As she explained to TimeOut NY, while discussing the second group of dancers she worked with in the company (2006–2008):
I knew that to have a dance company with black dancers that came from the favelas and so on, I should be careful. Not with them, but with others: the media, the press release and so on. I did not want to use them. For me, it was just the place they came from. I wanted respect because they were a good dancers, I wanted respect because the work was good, I wanted respect because we were working hard… I did not want to have FAVELA in bold letters, not the way people use that in their Playbill. First, I wanted to be a dance company and not a social project.
The recent New York Times review concurs: “Ms. Destri Lie, with her artistry, never stresses the obstacles that her dancers have to overcome. But,” the article continues, “that, too, is under the surface.” Companhia Urbana de Dança’s works allow the dancers space to speak for themselves; to masterfully, but subtly, tell their own stories through their dance. While the pieces are choreographed by Destri Lie, each dance is also shaped by the dancers themselves — as she says, “The choreography isn’t mine, I just design it… I take their movement and make it my own, and vice versa.” And as her website describes, “Their social and cultural backgrounds fuel their inspiration and creativity, allowing for intense, genuine, and beautifully expressive movement.”
As the dancers influence the dance, so does the dance influence the dancers. Working with the Companhia dancers helped Destri Lie to revitalize and rethink her work, and through working with a renowned dance company, the dancers gained the respect not only of their families and their peers, but also of the international dance community. On the company website, dancer Feijão explains: “Dancing gave me self-respect, changed everyone’s opinion of me…. It brought up my self-esteem. At rehearsal, I found myself, I knew where to go, when I started to dance… Dance gave me the chance to get to know the world, it gave me direction.” Destri Lie, as well, described how she hopes the company can influence audiences’ perceptions, not only of dance, but of the dancers themselves: “I want them to show the world that being black, poor, Brazilian — third world — and having talent, that they could change the game through dance. And to show them as protagonists of their own transformation.”
Companhia Urbana de Dança exemplifies the innovative potential of 21st-century performance. It seamlessly fuses hip hop and contemporary dance, while simultaneously creating thought-provoking dissonance. It builds global performance with local motivations, encouraging dialogue about both dance and global issues. It is inclusive and inspirational without being exploitative — each piece recognizes the undeniable influence of each company member’s individual story while highlighting, on stage, the power of dance itself.
Companhia Urbana de Dança will perform Na Pista and ID:ENTIDADES Thursday–Saturday, March 27–29, 2014, at 8 pm in the McGuire Theater.
Sisyphus (formerly s/s/s) — the combined musical talents of Sufjan Stevens, Son Lux, and Serengeti — released its new music video, “Alcohol,” Friday at Vogue.com. Created by John Gilpin, Grey Gordon, and Hannah Riffe, the video is political-minimal-maximal-liminal-clinical-credible-odd-intellectual… a sensory overload that leaves the viewer always one split second behind. The images range from mundane to […]
Sisyphus (formerly s/s/s) — the combined musical talents of Sufjan Stevens, Son Lux, and Serengeti — released its new music video, “Alcohol,” Friday at Vogue.com.
Created by John Gilpin, Grey Gordon, and Hannah Riffe, the video is political-minimal-maximal-liminal-clinical-credible-odd-intellectual… a sensory overload that leaves the viewer always one split second behind. The images range from mundane to evocative and obscure to ubiquitous, giving rise to a mental game: how many can you recognize? (Did you spot Walker Senior Performing Arts Curtor Philip Bither with Kate Nordstrum of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and Bryce Dessner of The National? How about Walker Director Olga Viso). Restless, weighty lyrics pair with the rapid-fire images, evoking many potential associations and interpretations. “Expression repression submission,” gas masks, 9/11, Martha Stewart, self-immolation, Pope Francis, horse head masks, “he sucked out my soul with the devil’s integrity,” Miley Cyrus, the Berlin Holocaust memorial, Audrey Hepburn, the Challenger disaster, Diana Nyad’s Cuba-to-Florida swim, “depression repression obsession,” newborn babies, Taylor Swift, Elvis Presley, Afghanistan and Iraq… all coming back to alcohol alcohol alcohol alcohol. What stories do you see and hear?
Sisyphus made a cameo appearance at the Walker Friday night for the After Hours opening of Jim Hodges: Give More Than You Take. “Alcohol” is from the trio’s new self-titled album, which was inspired in part by Hodges’ work and commissioned by the Walker Art Center and the SPCO’s Liquid Music series (the group’s name is, in part, a nod to Hodges’ Untitled boulders on the Walker hillside). The album will be released officially on March 18, 2014.
Clément Layes’ Allege is based on a simple question: “What can I do, and not do, while balancing a glass of water on my head?” Each performance of Allege is a 45-minute exploration of the possibilities and limitations created by this balancing act. With water bottles, glasses, and other everyday objects, Layes subverts the structures that constrain him by […]
Clément Layes’ Allege is based on a simple question: “What can I do, and not do, while balancing a glass of water on my head?” Each performance of Allege is a 45-minute exploration of the possibilities and limitations created by this balancing act. With water bottles, glasses, and other everyday objects, Layes subverts the structures that constrain him by making a game of them, pushing them to the point of absurdity, merging research and performance, logic and phenomenology. As with the glass of water, he creates a balance with elements from his training in dance, theater, circus, and philosophy, while still refusing to be defined or confined by categories.
Allege is a performance and a question. As Layes writes on his website:
It is not an art for the future nor a culture for now. It is five hundred quotes disguised in few plastic bottles. It is not a geometric demonstration. It is not about Clément Layes, it is not a rock concert although it would be great, it is not only happening, it’s also unhappening, it is not ambivalent.
In advance of his visit to Minneapolis, I had the chance to chat with Layes over Skype to learn a bit more about his eclectic background, the philosophical inquiry in his work, and how Allege came to be.
What was your creative process for Allege? How did you come up with the ideas for this piece?
It started with some research I was doing with objects, particularly with glasses and bottles of water. I was working with a few other performers at the time, and we started practicing balancing a glass of water on our heads — which is not so easy to do! But I realized that there was very interesting potential within the structure of the glass. I wanted to explore how I could constrain myself in order to not be able to dance like we would expect a dancer to, but rather to move in a very specific way that would be defined by the constraints we had created — in the first place, the glass of water. So that’s how it developed. It wasn’t something that was planned; it was more ongoing research about these constraints and these objects.
On the topic of constraining structures: you’ve studied philosophy, and it seems to find its way into many of your pieces. How does philosophy figure into your work?
First of all, I am not a philosopher. But I have a great interest in philosophy, and for me, creating a performance is not so much something that is meant to entertain people, but rather to create some thinking in the audience. And not just conventional logical thinking — I see performance as a way to experience the world through the senses as well. I was very influenced by the phenomenological thinkers, the type of philosophy that invites one to come back to the experience of things. The question for me, particularly in performance, is how to find strategies to re-engage with the world, how to rediscover the things we actually know. By rediscovering them we also discover how the inscribed knowledge we have accumulated can be made dynamic again.
I’m also very interested in the creation of systems. This is maybe not so much about philosophy, but it’s something that is very present in bureaucratic systems and so on: we endlessly create systems that constrain us in different manners, being totally ineffective. I was curious to see what is produced on stage if I do this to a kind of extreme absurdity.
You have an eclectic background in circus, dance, theater, and philosophy: how does your background contribute to your work?
It’s a very strange path. I did theater and circus in high school, and later I pursued philosophy and circus. I was a juggler — it was my first specialty. At circus school I also did all kinds of acrobatics and trapeze, but my main interest went very soon to dance. I had been struggling in between circus, philosophy, and dance, and somehow I ended up only doing dance and attending dance school.
What’s interesting for me is that it took me around ten years to finally be able to combine these different elements of my background on stage and to make them play together without excluding elements of one or the other. And because they are so different in terms of form and aesthetics, I feel like part of the creation I’ve been doing in this performance particularly was to find ways to make those interests merge into one specific form that was satisfying for me.
In this sense I think the performance speaks a lot about categories, about how we organize categories — which to me is very complex. I started to reflect really precisely on the category of dance: what does it mean if I, as a creator of dance, place myself in the dance category? Am I not keeping myself within certain boundaries which are defined by the institutions with which I work? So now I try not to think in those terms, not to define myself while I’m working.
That actually was one of my questions—“Do you have a way to describe yourself and the work you do?” It sounds like from what you’re saying, you don’t really describe yourself as doing just dance, or theater, or circus, or art…
Exactly. I cannot escape being defined by others and particularly by institutions, because there is a need from theaters and critics and so on to define something for the audience. But in order to have the chance to create something new, I have to take care not to be defined within these frames. For example, I find that dance and visual art actually have a lot in common, but they are created in two categories that are very strongly socially divided, in terms of the practice and the people involved. In dance, we tend to be dependent on the dance studio and can only access it for a certain number of hours per week or month, and only in relation to a production. That is, dance as a practice is defined by the time frame of the rehearsal schedule. This is the opposite of practice for visual artists: they have the studio, where they can work every day without having to produce something. Now I am trying to create a space where I can work whenever it’s needed, to not only function in order to make a production, but to also be able to try out things, to research without being bound to make a piece.
One of the most important aspects of Allege is “play,” as a way to deal with these categories. I never take a very serious approach, but more a kind of childlike way of working: putting things together and seeing what happens in order to decide the next step to take.
Your company, Public in Private, also seems pretty uncategorizable. Can you tell me a bit more about it?
Jasna Vinorvski is one of the main members and a co-founder with me. The primary thing we do is create performances, but since it’s a young company, the idea is to also develop it as a collective. We have worked with performers, visual artists, musicians, theater makers, etc., but often just for the creation of a production. The next step for us is to have a group that would be linked to Berlin, or to people passing through there, doing ongoing research and thinking and discussion, on a very playful basis — it doesn’t have to be very serious or academic — about how to position ourselves as artists within the contemporary scene. Because the artistic act is not only on stage, it’s not only something that relates to the stage itself, but it’s also a way to enter into the social context in which it is happening. We are working on a project we call the “Private Theater,” as a way to deal with these questions, and to involve more choreographers and artists in our discussions.
Clément Layes performs Allege at 8 pm January 23–25, 2014, in the McGuire Theater. Stay after the performances for a post-show reception with the artist (Thursday, January 23), a Q & A with the artist (Friday, January 24), and a SpeakEasy discussion with local artists and a Walker tour guide (Saturday, January 25).
Join Clément on Saturday, January 25, 11 am–1 pm in the McGuire Theater for Inside Out There. This charmingly philosophical workshop creates theater and choreography with everyday objects. Each participant is asked to bring an object that they use daily to imagine what dreams it might imply, invite, or induce. Open to all. $6 ($4 Walker members).
On November 21-23 the Walker will present Disabled Theater, a collaboration between Paris-based choreographer Jérôme Bel and ten actors with disabilities from the Zurich-based company Theater HORA. Formed in 1993, Theater HORA took its name from a character in the company’s first production. The group has performed in numerous festivals around the world, including all […]
On November 21-23 the Walker will present Disabled Theater, a collaboration between Paris-based choreographer Jérôme Bel and ten actors with disabilities from the Zurich-based company Theater HORA. Formed in 1993, Theater HORA took its name from a character in the company’s first production. The group has performed in numerous festivals around the world, including all over Europe and in South Korea, and has won multiple awards. Theater HORA members have acted for television and performed in a professional dance video, and one HORA actress, Julia Häusermann, was awarded the Alfred Kerr Acting Prize in Berlin last May.
Jérôme Bel was introduced to Theater HORA in 2010, and initially was not interested in working with the company. Nevertheless, he watched some clips of their work and was deeply moved: “The emotion I felt was so strong that I couldn’t think. I realised that I wouldn’t be able to understand this emotion, which is unusual for me. My desire to work with them came from this first experience because I needed to understand what had happened to me the first time I saw them.” The premise of Disabled Theater is simple: it is a staged re-telling of Bel’s first interactions with the theater HORA actors.
While Theater HORA is one-of-a-kind in Switzerland, there are numerous theater companies around the world that include people with disabilities. Last January, Back to Back Theatre, a company based in Australia, came to Minneapolis to perform as part of the Walker’s annual Out There series (for more information on their work, check out this conversation between Back to Back artistic director Bruce Gladwin and Walker Web Editor Paul Schmelzer).
Minneapolis is also home to Interact, a center for visual and performing arts whose mission is “to create art that challenges perceptions of disability.” Founded in 1996, the organization provides theater and studio art opportunities for more than 125 artists with disabilities.
The day after their arrival in Minneapolis, Theater HORA paid a visit to Interact Center, where they took a tour of the studios, galleries, and rehearsal spaces, and met many of the visual and performing artists. Since Interact actors are busy with their current show and will not be able to see Disabled Theater, Gianni and Remo of Theater HORA gave brief, spirited performances of their dances that they will perform at the Walker this weekend. Interact founder and creative director Jeanne Calvit spoke about her organization and fielded questions from the HORA actors, and Interact actors asked questions about Theater HORA, communicating through translators. To wrap up the visit, everyone joined in an energetic dance party that opened up a new realm of communication to easily circumvent the language barrier.
In addition to exploring their commonalities as theater companies with people with disabilities, the meeting between Interact and Theater HORA was a chance for each group to reflect on the cultural differences surrounding theater and disability. In her travels to theater festivals and events around the world, Interact founder Jeanne Calvit has experienced how perceptions of disability and the language used to describe it vary greatly across cultures. She explained, “[The language of disability] totally depends on the culture you’re in. In America, the convention is to put the person first and the disability second: first of all you’re a theater, and it includes people with disabilities. You’re an actor with a disability, or a painter with a disability, etc. But that’s different in different countries. In Australia, for example, there’s a movement that is all about ‘We are disabled artists’— it’s an important statement that the disability is put first.”
In a prior visit to Interact, I had the chance to interview Calvit about her experiences with theater and disability, and to chat with Ana Maria, John, and Yeon, three actors who have performed in many Interact shows and who have traveled around the world with the company. Creating visual or performing art at Interact is a paid job, providing creative, fulfilling work for people with disabilities who may otherwise have few options for work. As Ana Maria said, “We’re really lucky to have this place. I’ve worked other jobs—I used to sell coffee, I worked in fast food—but this is a really supportive place; everybody cares for each other, and we’re very tight-knit. We’re all creative here—everyone is a little bit of a poet, everyone has some type of gift.” They discussed the powerful impressions Interact shows can have on the audience: “It’s really great to see people with disabilities on stage not looking disabled, but looking like a powerful figure, looking like an artist. When you see someone on stage from Interact, you just see a character that’s powerful and funny and creative and bright… you don’t see a disability.”
Calvit also had much relevant insight to share about creating art with people with disabilities. She told me about Interact’s collaborative process: the actors and staff create their plays through improvisation, allowing everyone in the company a chance to contribute. She explained the effectiveness of working with actors with disabilities through improvisation: “If we did theater in the more traditional way, giving everybody a script and saying ‘this is your role,’ it wouldn’t have the same passion because they’re not invested in it. I think anybody who works through improv is going to have a lot more success with people with disabilities. A lot of them do better when they’re thinking on their feet and they can improvise than if you just give them a piece of paper and say ‘your role is this, you need to memorize that, and I’ll tell you where to move.’” Disabled Theater, in which the actors of Theater HORA play themselves, similarly represents the spirit of honesty and collaboration that underlies the creation of these works.
Nevertheless, many audience members have never experienced the creation or performance of theater with people with disabilities, and it is natural that some ethical and moral questions and concerns may arise. In an interview with dramaturg Marcel Bugiel, Jérôme Bel responded to the question of exploitation in Disabled Theater:
Marcel Bugiel: Aren’t you afraid that some in the audience will think you’re staging a freak show, that you’re exploiting these actors and exposing their disabilities, that there’s an element of voyeurism in the show?
Jérôme Bel: That doesn’t worry me. For me theatre is precisely about being able to see what you’re not used to seeing, what’s hidden and concealed from view… The question of performance by people with learning disabilities is complicated because these days it’s highly unthinkable. You don’t know how to react when you’re confronted with them, their presence is hugely embarrassing because they’re not represented in the public domain. And for as long as that is the case, there will continue to be embarrassment and uneasiness. The only method is confrontation… this community has to be given greater visibility.
In its raw, honest fashion, Disabled Theater guarantees greater visibility of people with disabilities by placing them and their life stories on stage, necessitating that audience members confront their own preconceptions and assumptions about disability.
Calvit also shared interesting insights on concerns about exploitation, asserting: “I’m going to give a really different spin on the ‘freak show.’ When people say that, it says more about what they themselves are going into it with. If they believe that a person with a disability is like a freak, then they are going to worry about it being a freak show. But it doesn’t say anything about the people with disabilities. Many people are totally unaware of how intelligent people with developmental disabilities are—they’re just assuming that they’re clueless and that somebody is up there manipulating them like marionettes. But just from looking at Theater HORA and the people in our plays, they’re very cognizant, they’re very intelligent; they have a different type of intelligence. Do they score really high on IQ tests? Probably not. But can they improvise and do they understand theater and art? Absolutely. I know our actors, I’ve worked around the world with people with disabilities—they’re very aware of what they do.”
Jérôme Bel and Theater HORA present Disabled Theater November 21-23, 2013 at 8 PM in the McGuire Theater. Stay after the performances for a postshow reception with the artists (Thursday, November 21), a Q&A with Jérôme Bel (Friday, November 22), and a SpeakEasy discussion with local artists and a Walker tour guide (Saturday, November 23).
Erik Friedlander is not new to the symbiotic potentials of photography and solo cello composition. His Walker-commissioned cello suite Block Ice and Propane (first performed in 2009) was based on childhood memories of traveling around the United States with his photographer father, Lee Friedlander. He developed Block Ice and Propane into a live show entitled Taking Trips […]
Erik Friedlander is not new to the symbiotic potentials of photography and solo cello composition. His Walker-commissioned cello suite Block Ice and Propane (first performed in 2009) was based on childhood memories of traveling around the United States with his photographer father, Lee Friedlander. He developed Block Ice and Propane into a live show entitled Taking Trips to America, in which he accompanies his solo cello performance with a presentation of his father’s photographs and his personal recollections of his family’s travels.
Friedlander’s collaboration with photographer Mitch Epstein began in 2011, when Epstein asked him to accompany his presentation of his American Power collection at Les Rencontres d’Arles, a photography festival in Arles, France. Epstein had taken the photos for American Power between 2003 and 2008, and published the book in 2009. Friedlander composed the American Power suite in the spring of 2011 and first performed it with Epstein’s photographs in a Roman amphitheater in Arles that July.
Since their presentation in Arles, Epstein and Friedlander have created a fully realized evening-length performance of their collaborative work on American Power. In an intensive two-day residency at the Walker, Friedlander and Epstein worked with New York-based choreographers Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar on the staging and performance of American Power, crafting the world premiere to be performed on November 1. I had the chance to chat briefly with Erik Friedlander during a break in the rehearsals to learn more about his work on the music of American Power.
How did your work on American Power begin? What was the composition process like?
Mitch Epstein contacted me when he was awarded the Prix Pictet for his American Power photographs because he wanted to accept the prize in a more unusual way. We met at a coffee shop in lower Manhattan, and he gave me a copy of the American Power book and asked if I would be interested in composing some music in response to the photographs.
I loved the idea. I felt like it had a lot of potential. I took the book home and leafed through the pictures and then just kind of got a feeling, an impression, and started to compose. I wrote the music—at least the initial pieces—in a couple of weeks. I didn’t respond to any one particular photograph; I responded to the idea of power—electric power, and water power, and nuclear power, and oil—all the different kinds of power. I abstracted those ideas from the pictures and then just observed how they affected what I wrote, and went with that.
What is it like to play on stage with the photographs? How do you create a dialogue with the music and the photography?
Well, that’s tricky, I’m not sure how to exactly describe it. I am an improviser, so I’m used to responding to other musicians and to their music. My father is a photographer, so I grew up with photography; it’s something I’m pretty familiar with and comfortable with. So I watch the flow of the photographs and try to create a sort of live movie score, responding to the pictures in an active way—the music is not completely subservient to the pictures. Sometimes my playing steps forward in front of them, and sometimes it recedes behind them, so there’s a dialogue between the music and the photographs.
The solo cello performance contributes a unique quality to the project. How do you think it might be different if American Power had been composed for different instrumentation?
It’s hard for me to say because I’m just a cello player; the whole basis for my performance is my cello playing. But there’s something about the cello—you’re vulnerable to the audience when you’re solo, and I think people appreciate that. For any instrument–really, any person, any artist–if you can reveal yourself in a way that is real, the audience responds. There’s something there for them to grab on to.
You performed your Americana-inspired Block Ice and Propane suite at the Walker in 2009. How does that project differ from American Power?
In the case of Block Ice and Propane, I was picking specific pictures that suited my story, and the pictures are there to enhance the music and work with the particular pieces that I composed. American Power is more of a one-on-one interaction, a dialogue between the music and the photographs. I think my music and my performance were more dominant in Block Ice and Propane. Everything else was there to elaborate on the music.
But the way I deal with the pictures and improvise with them is very much the same, because that’s just intuitive; responding to the flow of the pictures is the same process for me for both Block Ice and Propane and American Power.
Erik Friedlander and Mitch Epstein present the world premiere of American Power on November 1, 2013, at 8 pm in the McGuire Theater. A Q & A with Friedlander and Epstein follows.
Learn more: Watch Senior Performing Arts curator Philip Bither’s 2009 interview with Friedlander about his performance Block Ice and Propane. Read Epstein’s interview with photographer Paul Shambroom on the American Power photo series.
Set against the backdrop of Fritz Haeg’s thought-provoking Domestic Integrities exhibition, Bucky Fuller Night was an evening of storytelling, discussion, and hands-on activities celebrating the life and work of R. Buckminster Fuller. From mathematicians intrigued by his concept of synergetic geometry to linguists who appreciate his neologisms like “tensegrity,” “dymaxion,” and “omni-interaccomodative,” all kinds of […]
Set against the backdrop of Fritz Haeg’s thought-provoking Domestic Integrities exhibition, Bucky Fuller Night was an evening of storytelling, discussion, and hands-on activities celebrating the life and work of R. Buckminster Fuller. From mathematicians intrigued by his concept of synergetic geometry to linguists who appreciate his neologisms like “tensegrity,” “dymaxion,” and “omni-interaccomodative,” all kinds of Bucky fans had the chance to share and discover reasons to love the inventor-designer-thinker-futurist. The October 10 event served as a prelude to Sam Green and Yo La Tengo’s “live documentary” performance of Green’s film The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller at the Walker tonight.
The night’s Bucky-centric discussion was casual and cozy, with speakers and guests settled on Fritz Haeg’s thirty-foot crocheted rug. Walker intern Will Gobeli kicked off the event by discussing Fuller’s influence on Haeg’s life and works. Haeg lives in Los Angeles in a geodesic dome — one of Fuller’s most well-known architectural inventions — and his Foraging Circle in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden is also housed in a geodesic dome.
Philosophically, Haeg and Bucky share an interest in the sustainable future of the planet, and one of Haeg’s biggest sources of inspiration from Bucky was his idea of being a “comprehensivist” (a term coined by Fuller himself), refusing to adhere to a single label like “architect” or “mathematician.” In an interview with Michael Pollan, Haeg described how he often begins lectures to students with a quote from Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1968): “Specialization is in fact only a fancy form of slavery wherein the ‘expert’ is fooled into accepting a slavery by making him feel that he in turn is a socially and culturally preferred — ergo, highly secure — lifelong position.” For confirmation of Haeg’s dedication to these principles, look no further than this illustration of his At Home in the City project: “Haeg’s practice spans a range of disciplines — architecture, performance, design, education, gardening, and ecology — and includes projects as varied as public dances, urban parades, temporary encampments, edible gardens, videos, and publications.”
With these connections drawn, Ashley Duffalo, public programs manager in the Education Department, then took us back in time with some anecdotes she found in her archival research about Bucky in Minnesota. Did you know, for example, that Bucky sat on the advisory board for an experimental city in northern Minnesota? Or that he built a geodesic greenhouse on the rooftop of the former Northwestern National Bank in Minneapolis, and spoke there about the importance of agricultural innovation?
Ashley opened up the discussion to the audience, and a former Minneapolis city planner chimed in. Inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s plans for a dome over Manhattan, he wrote to Fuller to ask how much it would cost to put a dome over Minneapolis, a city that could certainly benefit from a little more insulation in the winter. Fuller wrote back with an estimated sum of around $6 billion, and the city planner joked, “So then I had to think of an alternative, which was the Minneapolis skyway system.”
Ashley then passed the torch to Sam Green to talk about some of the reasons he loves Bucky. His film project began as a commission from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which was curating an exhibition about Fuller. Green delved into research at the Stanford archives, which, given Bucky’s propensity to document every day of his life from 1920 to 1983, had more than enough information about the man. Given an in-depth look into Fuller’s everyday life, Green discussed some of the man’s personal quirks—such as his 5-hour non-stop “thinking out loud” lectures that always started with an uncomfortably long pause, and his talent for thinking up quirky titles for his books, like Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth and Utopia or Oblivion. “He was a great self-marketer,” Green affirmed, bringing up Bucky’s oft-mentioned habit of wearing three watches while he was traveling to correspond to the time zones of his past, present, and future locations. But Bucky may have been hyperbolizing a bit in order to create a legendary character for himself — Green joked that in all his archival research, he did not find a single picture of Buckminster Fuller wearing three watches.
Of course, Green found more in Bucky to appreciate than just his personality quirks. What he admires most about R. Buckminster Fuller is his idea that the world has enough resources for everyone to live a comfortable life — if we can find a way to use them effectively.
At the end of the formal discussion, more audience members shared stories of their recollections of Fuller. A few had been witness to his “thinking out loud lectures,” and came away laughing from his tendency for both awkward pauses and non-stop speaking but inspired by his ideas and his ways of thinking. One graduate of the University of Minnesota School of Architecture told a story of Bucky and the Dean of the School of Architecture writing a prognosis for the year 2000 and burying it in a bell jar at a Minnesota construction site.
The evening ended with an opportunity to try out some of Bucky’s geometric design techniques using cardboard triangles, an activity led by artist Margaret Pezalla-Granlund. Fuller revealed his geometric genius early in life, creating in his kindergarten class an octet truss made of toothpicks and dried peas — a design which he eventually patented in 1961 (minus the peas, of course).
Buckminster Fuller — an inventor, visionary, architect, futurist, mathematician, author, designer, and environmental activist, to name a few — defied categorization. Bucky Fuller Night similarly highlighted the dynamic potentials of “comprehensivism,” connecting the world of Fritz Haeg’s intellectual, interactive art (itself quite uncategorizable) to another collaborative project: Green and Yo La Tengo’s The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller. Described by Green as “a cross between a film, a piece of performance art, and a really fancy lecture,” the “live documentary” reflects the Walker’s ongoing commitment to interdisciplinary, collaborative — perhaps even comprehensivist — work. We think Bucky would be proud.
Sam Green and Yo La Tengo present The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller on Friday, October 11 , 2013, at 7 and 9:30 pm in the McGuire Theater.