Blogs The Green Room Interviews

Tunde Adebimpe: Avoiding the Cosmic Side-Eye from Prince

In a July 2015 encore at First Avenue, TV on the Radio commemorated the 30th anniversary of Purple Rain by covering the album’s title song. Less than a year later, Prince passed away—too young, at age 57. Returning to the Walker this month, the band’s front man, Tunde Adebimpe, offers a new multimedia experience that touches […]


In a July 2015 encore at First Avenue, TV on the Radio commemorated the 30th anniversary of Purple Rain by covering the album’s title song. Less than a year later, Prince passed away—too young, at age 57. Returning to the Walker this month, the band’s front man, Tunde Adebimpe, offers a new multimedia experience that touches on similar themes: mortality, grief, and the afterlife. Commissioned by, 89.3 The Current, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music Series and the Walker, A Warm Weather Ghost combines lives music and vocals, narration, and projected drawings and animations by Adebimpe to follow a hero’s journey through a psychedelic fever dream. Here, on the eve of its May 18–20 world premiere, Adebimpe discusses A Warm Weather Ghost, his art, and his return to Prince’s hometown.

Chris Cloud: A Warm Weather Ghost is a multidisciplinary endeavor. What are your thoughts on 21st-century artists like yourself heading towards being more than just a musician, animator, or filmmaker? Why do you think this is?

Tunde Adebimpe: For me, it’s just what I’ve always done. When I’m writing a song, I’m seeing images, and, if I have the chance and the time to, I’d much rather make the video or album art for that song myself and just get it done. I think if you can wear those different hats and it makes sense to time and effort wise, you should. It’s all part of the same expression, and it’s a more dimensional presentation of the idea or feeling you’re trying to put forward.

Cloud: This has been a very collaborative project, as you’ve worked with seven musicians: Money Mark, the producer best known for his collaborations the Beastie Boys; vocalist Mia Doi Todd; and others, including Aaron Steele, Sean Okaguchi, Morgan Sorne, and Tracy Wannomae. What does the phrase “Do-It-Together” mean to you?

Adebimpe: Always get people who you admire and are better than you at what you do to help make your projects way better than you could have imagined.

Cloud: What advice do you have to artists who working on creative projects like yours?

Adebimpe: Plan, make lists, and do the things on the lists. We don’t have all the time in the world!

Cloud: Given the work’s themes, has your awareness of mortality grown as you’ve progressed in life?

Adebimpe: Yes. It’s all downhill from here, which is fine.

Cloud: During the time you’ve been working on this project, Minnesotans and the whole world experienced a huge loss with the death of Prince, a multidisciplinary artist in his own right. The last time TV on the Radio was in Minneapolis—at First Avenue in July 2015—you sang “Purple Rain” in honor of the song’s 30th anniversary. Did you reflect back on his passing and that moment during the development of this work?

Adebimpe: Well, now he’s everywhere, right? I think “What would Prince think of what I’m doing/thinking/feeling right now?” is a good barometer for how wisely you’re spending your time on the planet. I bet a lot of people are getting the cosmic side-eye from Prince right now. I will try my best, in all my actions and endeavors, to evade that side eye. Especially while performing. Especially in Minneapolis.

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

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

Kaleidoscope2_Production shot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duet1_Production shot

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

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

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

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

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

Atlas: Over the years I think I internalized Merce.

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

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

Atlas: You mean shape?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Atlas: And that doesn’t translate on camera.

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

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

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

Charles Atlas on set of Tesseract

Charles Atlas on the set of Tesseract

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collaboration and Inspiration in Joan La Barbara’s Creative Process

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 with Plato, January 2009 photo: © 2009, Mark Hahaney

Joan La Barbara with Plato, January 2009. Photo: © 2009 Mark Mahaney

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.

A selection of Joan La Barbara's Scores photo: © 2009 Mark Mahaney

A selection of Joan La Barbara’s scores. Photo: © 2009 Mark Mahaney

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.

Label text for Agnes Martin, Untitled No. 7 (1977), from the exhibition Art in Our Time: 1950 to the Present, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, September 5, 1999 to September 2, 2001. Copyright 2000 Walker Art Center

Agnes Martin, Untitled No. 7 (1977). Photo: © 2000 Walker Art Center

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.

Joan La Barbara and John Cage playing chess before a rehearsal at his loft photo: © 1976 Michael McKenzie

Joan La Barbara and John Cage playing chess before a rehearsal at his loft. Photo: © 1976 Michael McKenzie

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.

Joan La Barbara will perform at the Walker Art Center on February 23 and 24, 2017, and at MCA Chicago, February 25 and 26, 2017 as part of Music for Merce: A Two-Night Celebration.

Meet the Artists of Choreographers’ Evening 2016

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 […]


Left to right: Paula Mann, Greg Waletski, Taja Will, Koua Mai Yang, matt regan, Charles Campbell, Megan Mayer, Magnolia YSY, Erin Drummond, Holo Lue Choy, Laura Selle-Virtucio. Photo: Gene Pittman


Left to right: Iris Meszaros, Deja Stowers, Jaime Ramberg, Alana Rucker, Madelyn Yang, Joelle Fernandez, Zack Nguyen, Akiko, Andy Mor, Bella Roberts, Vera Meszaros, Frankie Hebres. Photo: Gene Pittman

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.

Erin Drummond


Photo: Emma Voorhes

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.

Joelle Fernandez


Photo:  Julius “Juicee” Johnson

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.


Robert Keo


Photo: Clarence Chan

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.


Paula Mann


Photo: Courtesy of the artist

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.


Megan Mayer


Photo: Megan Mayer

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.


Crystal Norcross


Photo: Jenelle Abts

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.


Akiko Ostlund


Photo:  John Lombardi

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


Her Kind with Holo Lue Choy. Photo: courtesy of the artist

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


Photo: Courtesy of the artist

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.


Taja Will


Photo: Kari Mosel

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.


Magnolia Yang-Sao-Yia


Photo: Bruce Silcox

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.

Beauty at the Edge of Terror: A Conversation with Pavel Zuštiak

  Born in Czechoslovakia and based in New York City, Pavel Zuštiak is a director, choreographer, performer, and sound designer. He is also the Artistic Director of Palissimo Company which he founded in 2004 and the winner of the 2015 Juried Bessie Award for Outstanding Emerging Choreographer. This weekend, the Walker will present the Midwest […]


Custodians of Beauty by Pavel Zuštiak. Photo: Maria Baranova


Born in Czechoslovakia and based in New York City, Pavel Zuštiak is a director, choreographer, performer, and sound designer. He is also the Artistic Director of Palissimo Company which he founded in 2004 and the winner of the 2015 Juried Bessie Award for Outstanding Emerging Choreographer. This weekend, the Walker will present the Midwest Debut of Zuštiak’s newest work Custodians of Beautyco-commissioned by the Walker Art Center, New York Live Arts, American Dance Institute, and Legion Arts. In Custodians of Beauty, Zuštiak questions where beauty is found and whether it needs our defense. With this piece, Zuštiak moves away from his usual large scale productions by focusing on a more minimalist approach to choreographing dance—picking away at the subject to find, perhaps, the truth of what beauty is.

I had the honor to talk to the artist himself over a cup of coffee and what follows is a series of questions and responses to get a better idea of who Pavel Zuštiak is as an artist, and how he went about creating Custodians of Beauty.

Ben Swenson-Klatt: So glad that you are able to sit down and talk! I thought we would start out with a few questions to get to know you. What inspired you to become an artist? Was there a particular moment or artist that inspired you the most?

Pavel Zuštiak: I was born in former Czechoslovakia in an area that is now Slovakia, and I was always attracted to the theater world as far as I can remember. I built my own lighting system for my homemade puppet theater when I was very young, then acted and sang on a very popular TV series starting at age nine. Early on I also studied piano—I almost went to a conservatory to study that—and then things kind of shifted; when I was 12, I started to dance by accident.

That’s actually a funny story. This was around the time when Flashdance and Dirty Dancing had just come out, so dancing was very popular and everybody was looking for studios to dance in. Slovakia has a very rich tradition of folk dancing, and every town had its own specific folk dance vocabulary and traditions. A schoolmate of mine wanted to go audition for a folk dance company, but he didn’t want to go alone and asked me to go with him. I said sure. We got to the cultural center where the audition was being held, but he messed up the dates and we ended up at a modern dance company audition instead. Everyone was in tights except the two of us! We both got in—he quit after a month—but for me it was a revelation. I was fascinated by the ability of dance to touch upon something that goes beyond words and yet can be very specific in communicating.

One particular moment made me recognize art making could be a vocation, and that was meeting Pina Bausch and seeing her work. She came to my hometown, Kosice, in Czechoslovakia in 1987 and rehearsed and performed at the cultural center where the dance company I was a part of resided. We observed her rehearsals, interacted with her, and eventually saw two of her seminal pieces, Café Muller (which she performed in) and The Rite of Spring. This experience blew me away and revealed how powerful dance and theater can be. It was truly a pivotal moment for me. Later I went to the School for New Dance Development in the Netherlands. Seventeen years ago I moved to New York, and that’s my journey.

But I would also say that very early on, because of all these different genres that I had explored, to me, in a theater performance, one is not more important than the other, so rarely I see set, music, or lighting just as a decorative element but as an element that can push the narrative of the piece.

Swenson-Klatt: You seem to be really aware of the sound and lighting, and I think you even mentioned that you are playing with scent in this production?

Zuštiak: Yeah, this is the first time. The show is titled Custodians of Beauty, so one of the very first tasks when talk

ing with designers was asking what is the most beautiful thing that you could witness in theater, musically, visually or scenically? So of course we

went through all this stuff including clichés, and someone brought up the scent of a rose.

Swenson-Klatt: And other scents,like perfumes?

Zuštiak: Yes, and I was reminded of how powerful scent can be in transporting you to a place or time in a very immediate way. This is the first show where I am playing with that, and I plan to explore that further in my next project, where I will be collaborating with a scent artist. So this is dabbling into something new.

Swenson-Klatt: Could you talk a little bit more about the collaboration you have with lighting designer Joe Levasseur, set designer Simon Harding, and sound designer Christian Frederickson, and how they are integral to Custodians of Beauty, in terms of pushing the narrative through transitions?

Zuštiak: I usually start with a question or dilemma around a certain subject or theme as an opening question or conversation, not only with the designers but also with the performers, who are equally contributing artists in the room. Out of those conversations and out of contributions from all of us, we start to look at a palette of possibilities. Ideas, scenes, and events start to emerge, and then at a certain point I end up with a series of… I call them images, but I don’t see it as a static moment. I start placing them in a certain order, looking dramaturgically at what kind of trajectory the show could have, and then I start shaping individual images or scenes, and their progression, throughout the show. In terms of my direction, often I come with an image or I come with a clear proposal or direction of a scene, and sometimes I know what function a transition or scene has and that’s my direction to designers, to problem solve. But it’s a lot of back and forth, a very organic process. I have worked with Christian, the composer, on five productions, and Joe Levasseur is the exclusive lighting designer that I have worked with since living in New York, so at this point they pretty well understand my aesthetic. I think we are also at a place where, we were joking, we can be like an old couple: we know when to fight over something and when to let go.

Swenson-Klatt: You bring up seeing the overall choreographic process as visual or image-based. Do you have a connection to visual arts or a way that the visual arts play into making movement?


Pavel Zuštiak. Photo: Maria Baranova

Zuštiak: I think there are choreographers who are creating or editing through kinesthetic feedback, and that’s how they shape and edit the work. For me, it’s seeing the work and seeing all the elements together, and I am more and more curious in reduction: how far can I push reducing expressive modes into a simple statement or gesture that would hold much more than you are seeing? Like reduction in cooking—you taste something but there is a depth—many different ingredients that went through a long process to get to that point. Or like a capsule that locks together complex layers, or a statement. I like to see how far I can push that without losing the intensity of what goes into it.

Swenson-Klatt: And the way that all the different elements that came together. In other interviews you’ve discussed the research that went into this piece, like how its title is pulled from a 2009 address by Pope Benedict XVI when he met with artists at the Sistine Chapel, as well as the influence of Alva Noë’s book, Action in Perception, and Susan Sontag’s essay, “An argument about Beauty.” Could you talk about your research?

Zuštiak: The original speech by the pope already touches on some references from history. He quotes Plato, for example, who talked about beauty as something that shocks us out of ourselves, which I find fascinating, as a way of being disarmed as an audience member, which also leads to a certain loss of narcissistic vision and makes you aware of larger issues or gives you a sense of humanity. In the show there a few moments where we are eluding to this sensibility of breaking the fourth wall, to making the audience realize that we are here in the same room, that this is something happening collectively.

I came across an article with the same title in a wonderful Dutch magazine Works That Work, published by a Slovak editor, Peter Bilak, which mentions the pope and his speech to leading art makers of the time—his insistence of holding onto beauty as something important in their art making. I was perplexed that this was high up on his agenda, although the relationship of the church and art world is nothing new. That led me to research beauty throughout contemporary art history, and I realized how problematic this subject matter is and how in certain parts of the art world, beauty has become almost taboo. Often we feel more comfortable talking about something as interesting rather than beautiful, which Susan Sontag states at the end of her article as an argument for the definition and existence of beauty: “If you are watching a sunset it would be strange to say it is interesting rather than beautiful.” I find that when we say something is beautiful we are laying our cards on the table, while when saying something is interesting we are holding them close to our chest.

Swenson-Klatt: It’s kind of like calling on people to really stand by what they believe in. I think that is an important concept to tackle especially today, when sometimes it is almost easier to not have an opinion but to instead stay on the sidelines and say, “That’s interesting.”

Zuštiak: I think the resistance towards beauty also comes from its associations, for instance as something being pretty or as something that has to be symmetrical, these preconceived ideas of what beautiful means. Who defines that? I think the question itself has also become controversial: who is in charge of the definition of what is and what is not beautiful? Although the pope is approaching the artists as custodians, the title Custodians of Beauty for me is more of a question mark, i.e. who are the custodians? Is it the audience member? Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Is it the curator, who presents the work, is it his or her responsibility? The questions that this subject raises are challenging and lack straight answers, and I found it to be a fertile ground for a new work.

Swenson-Klatt: In her article, Sontag brought up the feminine connotations of beauty, and of course in mainstream media beauty has almost become attached to the feminine. Did you play at all with gender?

Zuštiak: Yes, there is one scene that acknowledges that. I am acknowledging feminine beauty as an image or association, although the notion of beauty as the cover of a fashion magazine often relating to a product was not something I was going for in this piece. I was more interested in beauty that is at the edge of terror. You know you can be in the presence of a tornado and it can be a beautiful sight, but you are also at the edge of something that can consume you. I believe there are artworks that can produce the same effect.

Swenson-Klatt: Is there a piece of artwork that you find beautiful? That’s probably a big question.

Zuštiak: I’m sure there is. For some reason I’m going to music. I’m thinking of the work of Arvo Pärt, music I find incredibly simple yet immensely beautiful.

Swenson-Klatt: It’s a hard question! But maybe something for everyone to think about when they are approaching this piece.

Zuštiak: And by saying something is beautiful, there is also judgment, so that is part of the show, where—I don’t know how much I want to say because people should come and see—basically, it’s a subjective matter, something can be witnessed by two people but they can have polar opposite experiences. So it’s also touching on that; it’s a subjective thing relating to judgment. And that leads to perception, which leads to Alva Noë, who talks about perception as not something that happens to you but something that you do. So he is talking about perception as an active engagement with what you are seeing. And for me, not just with this show but for any show, the audience is the co-creator of the experience and it is a live thing. When that meets with what we are proposing and comes into a conversation, I feel like that’s what releases the magic of a theatrical experience, something unpredictable but alive.

Swenson-Klatt: It almost seems that by setting the context with the term beauty that you are asking the audience to be active participants and to make a decision about what they find beautiful.

Zuštiak: And I’m hoping that it’s not just about this show. I’m thinking of another performance that we did in a public space. It was called Halt! and was presented in the terminal of the Staten Island Ferry in New York City. There were three performers who were among the people that accumulated to get on the ferry, and after one of the shows I got an email from someone who came to see it, and she was saying that suddenly everything in that terminal, in her eyes, was choreographed. She said, “I left the terminal and it continued. I was on the subway and it felt like everything was a dance.” So her perception shifted and I would hope that this show could also shift people’s perception. There are many things in the show that look at subtleties, the mundane, and when you start looking at things for an extended period of time or from a different angle, you start to see things differently, so that’s also what I am hoping to achieve with the show.

Swenson-Klatt: Do you have any last words as the audience prepares for the show?

Zuštiak: I feel like non-dance audiences come to a dance show believing that there is a certain kind of experience they should be having rather than just having their experience, so I would say, go in with an open mind; have an experience first, and then start analyzing what happened rather than coming in with an analytical mind at the start of the show. The biggest compliment I received for my work was from an audience member who said, “I did not understand it but I know what it was about.” I think dance is not the best medium at telling stories but an amazing medium to tell stories in its own language.

Pavel Zustiak’s Custodians of Beauty will be performed Thursday through Saturday, October 20–22, 2016 at 8 pm in the McGuire Theater.

Alternate Senses of Tone and Pulse: An Interview with C. Spencer Yeh

For Sound Horizon, our series of free in-gallery music performances, we’ve invited critic and Tiny Mix Tapes editor Marvin Lin to share his perspective on each installment of this three-part program. While his first two pieces were informed responses to work by musicians Mary Halvorson and Vicky Chow / Tristan Perich, he concludes with an in-person […]

C. Spencer Yeh performs at the Museum of Modern Art Warsaw in September 2014. Photo: Bartosz Stawiarski

C. Spencer Yeh performs at the Museum of Modern Art Warsaw in March 2014. Photo: Bartosz Stawiarski

For Sound Horizon, our series of free in-gallery music performances, we’ve invited critic and Tiny Mix Tapes editor Marvin Lin to share his perspective on each installment of this three-part program. While his first two pieces were informed responses to work by musicians Mary Halvorson and Vicky Chow / Tristan Perich, he concludes with an in-person interview with Sound Horizon 2016’s final artist, C. Spencer Yeh, who performs three sets on April 28.

C. Spencer Yeh is one of my favorite artists, but I’ve always had difficulty recommending his music to newcomers. Not because I don’t think they’d like it, but because his reach is so broad, his skill set so expansive, his conceptual inquiries so varied that plucking just one or even a few examples from such a rich body of work is inherently incomplete. In fact, the work I’d feel compelled to recommend most would actually be a fleeting live set at the End Times Festival (curated in 2006 by Minneapolis hero Matthew St-Germain), at which the very heart of the world erupted impossibly out of Yeh’s mouth through a simple setup of microphone and electronics, opening my eyes to the seemingly infinite possibilities of the voice while reducing me to a complete sobbing mess.

I first came across C. Spencer Yeh in the early 2000s. At that time, Yeh was still making a name as Burning Star Core, a constantly-shifting, ever-evolving project that quickly amassed a daunting heap of albums, CD-Rs, cassettes, and more. But while the project was often heard in the context of the then-burgeoning neo-noise scene, Burning Star Core’s fearless adventures into musique concrète, drone, and psychedelia, coupled with Yeh’s frantic, idiosyncratic use of violin—the instrument that has largely articulated his modus operandi—made the whole project feel much more than just an anomaly within an oftentimes suffocating, reified framework.

In fact, Yeh has spent a lot of the last decade proving as much. While Burning Star Core is currently in hibernation, the Taiwan-born, New York-residing artist has since become a key solo artist and ensemble player in a variety of compositional and improvisational settings, collaborating with everyone from Paul Flaherty, Weasel Walter, and Nate Wooley to Okkyung Lee, Colin Stetson, and Tony Conrad (RIP). But it’s his solo works and performances that have best captured what he’s all about (as much as he can be “about” something), which include such ideas as sound as gesture, genre as compositional opportunity, and amplification as instrument, with physical and conceptual investigations into texture, narrative, and disassociation. Whether it’s through crafted albums like Solo Violin (Tone Filth, 2007), pop experiments like Transitions (De Stijl, 2012), or incredible vocal workouts like Solo Voice I-X (Primary Information, 2015), Yeh has expanded not only the sonic and performative possibilities of voice, violin, and electronics, but also what kind of feelings they can evoke, what kind of sensualities they can take on, what kind of provocations they can incite.

Covers for C. Spencer Yeh's In the Blink of an Eye / Condo Stress (De Stijl Records, 2011), Transitions (De Stijl, 2012), and Solo Voice I-X (Primary Information, 2015)

Covers for Burning Star Core’s Challenger (Plastic Records, 2008), C. Spencer Yeh’s Transitions (De Stijl, 2012) and Solo Voice I-X (Primary Information, 2015)

Ahead of his April 28 performance to cap off this year’s Sound Horizon series, Yeh takes time out of his busy schedule to talk music, art, and film, the latter of which he studied at Chicago’s Northwestern University and has explored through installations and video work. His answers are as thoughtful and stimulating as his art, with grace, humor, and so little ego that it’s no surprise that one of his conceptual inquiries involves his own physical disappearance.

Marvin Lin: You’ve talked about horizontal composition versus vertical composition in the past. Can you speak about how these modes play out in your art?

Spencer Yeh: In sound and music, I often think about these modes in terms of improvisation and the idea of avoiding the usual arcs or peaks or ways in which these things play out. Thinking about the idea of walking into a situation that’s already in progress and however long you may wish to engage with it, and being able to walk away without a resolution or ending (climax, stop, applause) to commemorate or validate the experience. This isn’t to say one way is better than another, because certainly something more horizontal, like A to B, presents its own frame and challenges to have fun with. However, it’s interesting to enter into an improvised music situation thinking that you’d already begun performing and that when you end, the music and sound will go on without you.

In the case of an installation, the reader may spend only a few seconds to a few hours with a work, so maybe the idea is to create a sort of vibe where the idea or experience is communicated relatively instantly. One can get deeper into the experience, spending more time with it—if the work is “good,” of course. But, putting that aside, one could consider the open-ended ability of a reader within an “art” context to be as constricting as a horizontal presentation (concert, screening)—I don’t consider it compromising, but rather having to think about engagement differently. I think about this in my personal attempts over the years to engage with narrative film in this nonlinear way, which I’ve had difficulty with—the idea that someone would want to just crack a beer and watch their “favorite scene” in Goodfellas or something, and have that experience be that. Though that gets into the idea of a complete work becoming these smaller units and therefore new shorter works with their own trajectory (thinking again about how “favorite movie scenes” get propagated far beyond their original context and become the more popularly known iteration of the original).

Still from C. Spencer Yeh's Travelogue: Cairo Egypt

Still from C. Spencer Yeh’s Travelogue: Cairo Egypt, 2015

So, this recent video work of mine Travelogue: Cairo Egypt had been screened a few times in its current form, a 30-minute video in four parts, A to B to C to D. However, the way those parts were set up and realized could easily become vertical—and effective, I think. Likewise, with the Solo Voice I-X record, ideas from that have been presented in installation environments recently and [that format] perhaps better realizes the ideas behind them. I’m thinking mostly the A-side, where you have these demonstrations of the ideas that are ideally free from duration because I’ve talked about removing the “brackets” around a phrase or voice. The modulations and variations within each vocal mode are part of realizing the idea effectively and aim to keep things from being too boring and looped: the installation may take 10 minutes before it loops, but you can get the gist within a minute or so. If you wanted to drive yourself crazy, you can hang around longer.

Lin: In your music, you’ve played with disassociation, and in your film work, you’ve played with the repurposing of cultural references. What interests you about disassociation and appropriation?

Yeh: I’ve spoken before about my disinterest in the act of appropriation as a political act instantly in-and-of-itself, but I should clarify that I wouldn’t consider myself, or my work, apolitical. It’s just that that isn’t the exclusive driving force behind working with existing or found material. I’m definitely interested in how works are put together, how visual and audio language are constructed, what expectations are fulfilled from the audience’s side—tropes, genres, narrative, what’s considered “abstract”—all that. But, I don’t think my work is about those concerns exclusively. I’m curious what the next step is in accepting appropriation as just another strategy to be folded into whatever we consider “original” strategies. I’d like to think that inquiry is just another lane of dialogue to play within, another element to consider. I think it’s funny when a politician appropriates some rock jam for their rally, and it just feels so off. I think it’s funny that for your kid’s birthday party you can take a snippet from The Revenant or whatever spectacle that cost millions to create and throw it into your budget iMovie video. I wish there was a word other than “funny” to best describe the feeling of something that elicits many emotions, oftentimes conflicting.

In the case of my Spectacle Theater movie trailers, it’s actually more interesting for me to think about the mode of being “within” the cultural references, to attempt to work within our own guidelines as well as the tradition of movie trailers, which has always been sensational and disruptive, and taking liberties with the original material and the promotional mission at hand. I hesitate to declare them all “improvements,” because of course they’re created under circumstances designed to encourage rough and weird results; it’s a particular texture and cadence for an intended audience, but the movie trailer form is accessible to most.

C. Spencer Yeh's trailer for the Spectacle Theater screening of American Hunter

C. Spencer Yeh’s trailer for the Spectacle Theater screening of American Hunter (1988)

Lin: Since you started making music, the predominant conception of the ever-nebulous term “avant-garde” has changed, as it always does. Do you feel any particular affinity with or antagonism toward narratives like these? Is there a narrative or lineage that you feel a part of or at home within?

Yeh: I guess I understand the function of these terms in various conversations, but at the same time find them to be difficulties that you can bend some thoughts on. I suppose I’ve been wrestling with this “sound art” term for a while, and it can get antagonistic on my end, but perhaps that’s because it’s also fun and thought-provoking to push against these things. Like, you could say “freak folk” to someone, and while they may cover their ears and run, they’ll know generally what you mean. I don’t think “avant-garde” immediately connects me to others who say those things any more than “mouthfeel” connects oatmeal to bacon. Maybe that isn’t a decent metaphor. Rather, maybe it’s a certain enthusiasm or belief in whatever it means to proclaim yourself a particular thing or part of a particular idea. I do think I’m within a lineage and/or narrative, but I’m not sure exactly what that is any more than perhaps those who helped define and expand that zone. I fucking hate the term “foodie,” for instance, but I’m also curious why I hate it so much. I’m not in denial that I enjoy a good meal. Maybe it’s something to do with the idea that if you appreciate food, then you certainly must believe in or practice certain things—like having a table at Noma being just the ultimate goal. I think it would be annoying if I were asked what I did by someone maybe not in the dialogue, and me [in response] being all squirrelly and weird about terms instead of just coming out and saying “experimental.” At the same time, your “experimental” is not my “experimental,” but I understand what it is about having to organize the world, at times. Maybe it’s just a sense of worth and currency, of privilege that is expected when someone proudly declares their work “avant-garde” that I can find troubling.

Lin: Much of your music is partly defined, if not in opposition to, then at least in the absence of conventional melody and rhythms. Even the reception for the uncharacteristically pop-driven Transitions was partly defined by this relationship. Do you feel like melody and rhythm still inform what you do and how you approach your music? When there’s no audience in front of you, what role do they play in your life?

Yeh: In the past, when there was no audience in front of me, I felt freer to play around with these elements, despite whatever was going on in the scene, which is how some Burning Star Core works got developed, and maybe why at first they were snuck out in limited runs (thinking about Wildcats or Amelia). I would say my music isn’t in opposition to conventional melody and rhythm so much as it is trying to achieve alternate senses of tone and pulse—these alternate senses are perhaps niche popularly, but they can be just as fulfilling and sensual and meaningful as it is for some people to hear an Aerosmithian jam. Things get weak when conventional melody and rhythm becomes like mayonnaise, and Mom panics that whatever “weird” non-conventional dish she’s making may not be pleasing to the guests and throws mayonnaise on top of everything. You know what I mean? A really spicy Thai papaya salad isn’t being made solely to give the finger to a Caesar salad, with or without grilled chicken on top.

Burning Star Core live

Burning Star Core performs live at New York’s Club Rehab, January 2008. Photo: Nikki Sneakers

The Transitions record—speaking of appropriation earlier—was partly a function of being curious how the music works and thinking about how I could construct something similar. However, that’s being done on an expert level by people fully working within the pop world and industry, and sometimes to dazzling results. For me, a lot about the project was also seeing what would happen if I put myself in a situation where I had the means to record a pop or songs record, just to see what would come out—a situation not dissimilar to the creation of vanity or private press records I felt inspired by. So on one hand, it was a bit of a detached exercise in looking at a process of creating songs and albums, but on the other hand, it was an engaged, almost psychoanalytic exercise. Like, what personal event am I writing cryptic lyrics about? I felt fully invested in those aspects, as well as trying to write something that I thought fun to listen to.

I’ve been thinking lately about what the model is for what ties together all these efforts, in sound, music, video, etc., and one thing I came up with was that I was creating in this backwards sense. Like, I came up a consumer, writing my own logical and emotional connections and systems from whatever I devoured—imagining, say, I encountered these formative works in some kind of future where our current histories and methods aren’t available. So I would go about figuring out how to achieve these results when all the available information was on the same level—like not having a sense of what the priority would be (most would instruct first that you should learn your instrument, right?).

Lin: A lot of what you do nowadays has continuity with your early work, but mythology and mystery seem to have receded into the background. Do you feel like they still factor into what you do these days? Why might that have changed?

Yeh: Basically, I started seeing terms like “personal mythology” popping up more frequently in many descriptions and text, and so I began to feel numb towards using such terms myself. The next step was then wondering what the heck I meant by using that term in the past—and I didn’t really have a good answer. I knew what it was supposed to do, which was hint towards this whole other system of thought and symbols and stories that I wasn’t willing to tell. No one I knew really seemed to be reading into and making connections about the bits of “personal mythology” that were scattered through recordings, track titles, etc., and it became clear to me that I didn’t really know what I was doing with all that in the end. But you run into that a lot—this intentionally obscuring thought that somehow that was exciting and alluring for an audience. You can wait around in the rain outside of a clubhouse for only so long before you wise up. It felt like some smoke and mirrors shit, and I had become increasingly bored or irritated with myself and this idea of not having to explain anything or to be able to talk about the work I was trying to do. Instead of keeping things mysterious and exciting, it felt unfocused and noncommittal, but I could get away with it by just waving “personal mythology” in the air. So I became more interested in trying to find connections between what I was trying to do musically and sonically, and also with other mediums, and in the process I found it led to more interesting narratives, which in turn led to even more stimulating thoughts that achieved what the past “myth and mystery” thing was attempting. All this being said, I do think there were some solid ideas at work in the past, and I don’t think that there was any better way to get on with whatever I’m doing now.

C. Spencer Yeh, 7, 2013

C. Spencer Yeh, 7, 2013

Lin: As sensual as it is, your work seems to spring from philosophical or theoretical frameworks, an investigation of sorts. How do you approach these investigations? Is there anything you’d like to explore that you haven’t yet?

Yeh: Well, one thing a few years ago I decided was to figure out how to basically “not be there” when presenting work. So, some of that goes into video or visual work, some of that goes into composition; it’s for some practical reasons, such as not being able to tour all the time, but it’s also where I find the work heading. Of course, I realize I had done a lot prior by mainly working on studio albums, which arguably is composition. I had tried performing as still as possible, performing obscured from the audience, being a slobbering maniac in front of an audience, etc. But I suppose the difference is that I’d like to go back and try all those again, but with more of an ability to know what I was trying to accomplish and why. To be secure in those decisions. I’m not ready to turn to what may be conventional methods of approach—I’m more interested in taking what may have been intuitively-developed working methods and then thinking about how they could grow or develop relative to themselves. A big part of that was to just accept that I was or wasn’t able to do certain things and finally move on from there. I suppose, though, that the investigation still seems very basic and similar to when I first set out doing stuff, which was creating stuff that I wanted to see and hear, to be a part of a conversation and see what I had to add to it.

In terms of things to explore, hmm, I’d have to break that into specific things. For example, this idea of “drone disco,” a term I’ve used forever; it would be interesting to actually try to fulfill that in this current climate of music. It would be a challenge to try to do another Burning Star Core record, to see what that would be like. I’ve been working to see what would happen with a committed investigation into other mediums, to see if there really is any reason for me to be there. Again, maybe these are bases which seemed like I’ve touched, but in the replay you see that maybe I only put a toe or two on.

Still from C. Spencer Yeh's video Baby Birds (2009)

Still from C. Spencer Yeh’s video Baby Birds (2009)

Lin: I’ve seen you play shows big and small, most often with collaborators, and the performances are often wildly different from each other. But in a solo context, you have much more control. Given your range as a performer, how much is your live show determined by the venue or context and how much is guided by your predominant interests at that specific time? What can we expect from your performance at the Walker?

Yeh: For the Walker, as I described to Doug Benidt there, I wanted to imagine that these shifts would be the times I would be allowed to occupy the space, that I have opportunity for any activity from whatever o’clock to whenever o’clock. I would be present and on view, of course, as attempting to obscure that would complicate things in a way I’m not desiring. But this framing helps me think about the verticality we discussed earlier and also pushes me to present performance in a way I usually don’t have the chance to. Thinking that I would start and immediately exist there as one would walking into the gallery in mid-performance. I feel a weight of “performance” expectation, the idea of doing A to C three times, and we’ll see where that goes in terms of how the audience (occupying the space as well) informs the decisions made. For example, if most people are just passing through, then that frees me up to do something less “linear,” something less about having to show all this shit I do within each shift. Maybe the only thing that would be cool would be an ability to just appear and disappear instantly, or to somehow start before any audience walks in. For now, though, I guess I’m aiming for maximum verticality and immersion—which currently would be organized by shift in varying approaches to the voice/violin/electronics formula—and if people would like to listen to the whole thing, they can, and maybe it would be an opportunity to hear the same saw sing differently. Or maybe it would be a passerby getting the impression that my life’s work is to imitate a popcorn maker and a bong.

C. Spencer Yeh performs in the Walker galleries at 6, 7, and 8 pm on Thursday, April 28, 2016.

Talk Dance: Luis Garay on Maneries

Talk Dance is a podcast series devoted to in-depth conversations with dance artists produced and hosted by local dancer, educator, and commentator Justin Jones. In this installment, Jones speaks with Luis Garay, whose work Maneries will be performed in the Walker’s McGuire Theater April 21-23, 2016.  You can listen to the full podcast on the Walker Channel.   […]

Photo: Courtesy the artist

Florencia Vecino performing Luis Garay’s Maneries.  Photo: courtesy the artist

Talk Dance is a podcast series devoted to in-depth conversations with dance artists produced and hosted by local dancer, educator, and commentator Justin Jones. In this installment, Jones speaks with Luis Garay, whose work Maneries will be performed in the Walker’s McGuire Theater April 21-23, 2016.  You can listen to the full podcast on the Walker Channel 

The title of Luis Garay’s 2009 solo dance, Maneries, is taken from the name of a chapter in philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s 1990 book, The Oncoming Community. “Maneries” is a concept that reconciles, as summarized eloquently by Garay in our conversation, “the universal and the particular, which is a big philosophical problem. The solution for [Agamben] is in the examples. For instance, this telephone. When I say ‘for instance,’ we are talking about this telephone in particular and at the same time when I mention an example of this telephone, I am referring to all possible telephones that existed and will exist. So an example is at the same time universal and particular.”

After our interview I went to Agamben’s text and found this passage which I think speaks to Florencia Vecino’s breathtaking performance of Garay’s solo:

…a manner of rising forth; not a being that is in this or that mode, but a being that is its mode of being, and thus, while remaining singular and not indifferent, is multiple and valid for all.

Watching a shaky documentation of the solo, I sense Florencia resisting the performance of recognizable states of being, and effort-fully inhabiting each second of each movement, in each moment. The movement at once hints to a furiously changing inner life, and is yet devoid of personality of affect. She achieves a performance that, like Agamben states, is singular in its stark presentation of a body in extreme exertion, and yet, like a cartoon face without distinct features, allows for projection and connection. Particular and Universal.

The performance is generated anew each time through a complex series of rules followed by Florencia. Garay gave some examples:

For instance, when you’re getting close to the meaning of one form, you should avoid it… We work with the body as a writing machine. So, when that writing is getting, is making sense, she has to avoid that and turn another way for instance.  But that, its a complex system. ‘Complex’ means that there are many rules at the same time. For instance, at the same time… she has to write information in the space with [her] upper body… [and write] different information with her legs… Another rule could be that she has to contradict herself, whatever that means… So, I think all the building of these rules are just trying to put her in a state in which she’s creating her own problems.

Beyond that, we talked about his love of David Lynch films (“strange, dark, mysterious energy”), his connection to the visual artists in his home city of Buenos Aires, how he started dancing (an inability to read and sing in Finnish), and about the value of Art. It was a fascinating conversation.

Maneries has had a long life for a dance work. It premiered in 2009 and has toured on and off again for seven years. Garay mentioned that he looks back to this piece like an “oracle… a resource to understand my own work.” He went on to say that, “the piece is speaking to me about the things that I wanted to do in other pieces and in the future… I always go back to it to understand the other pieces that I’ve done.” I look forward to visiting the oracle, Maneries, to peer into the future of Garay’s fascinating work.

Talk Dance: Trajal Harrell on The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai

Talk Dance is a podcast series devoted to in-depth conversations with dance artists produced and hosted by local dancer, educator, and commentator Justin Jones. In this installment, Jones speaks with Trajal Harrell, whose work The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai will be performed in the Walker’s McGuire Theater March 11-13, 2016.  You can listen to […]

Photo: © Orpheas Emirzas

Photo: © Orpheas Emirzas

Talk Dance is a podcast series devoted to in-depth conversations with dance artists produced and hosted by local dancer, educator, and commentator Justin Jones. In this installment, Jones speaks with Trajal Harrell, whose work The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai will be performed in the Walker’s McGuire Theater March 11-13, 2016.  You can listen to the full podcast on the Walker Channel 


Justin Jones: “Where do you call home?”

Trajal Harrell: “… Home for me is in many places I guess would say. I certainly call home where my mother is, my mother is in Douglas, Georgia. One of my homes is New York, and that will probably always be because I spent so many years there. Because I’m touring so much … I do have a place here in Athens that I sublet. And I also spend quite a bit of time in Vienna. … But … when you’re on the road as many weeks as I am you kind of, the internet can be your home too because that’s where you … have your continuity of relationships and friendships. … I don’t have a answer but I know that its certainly not singular for me.”


Jones: “…before we finish our interview. Would you mind just saying your name once.”

Harrell: “No, because, now I’m realizing it’s a funny question because people pronounce my name a lot of different ways you know and I answer to them all. … And you’re the first person to ask me that question … I’m reluctant to have one pronunciation.” 

Something about these two exchanges from my recent interview with Trajal Harrell speaks volumes about his mercurial choreography. Yes, he creates dances, and they are very much located in the body, but the work is as much theater and performance art and runway show and voguing ball as it is proscenium dance. The notion of identity plays strongly in his work. Who is who, Are they runway models or are they dancers? Are they characters from a Greek drama?  Are the performers themselves or are they “themselves”?

Trajal is well-known as the creator of the “Twenty Looks…” series, a collection of dances that imagine a fictional collision between the Harlem voguing balls (watch Paris is Burning now if you haven’t) and the Judson Church postmodern dance scene of the 1960s. As in a fashion collection, each piece was created with a different size (XS, S, M, L, M2M, XL). The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai  takes the idea of size and audience to another place. As he said, “the Twenty Looks… project had this important idea around the sizes of the pieces and how they were […] enlarging the audience through each size […] I really wanted to enlarge the audience even further with Ghost… I wanted to make this for a kind of mainstream audience. And I felt that none of the pieces before had gone that far. I mean mainstream is a strange word, but I’m gonna use it.”

Trajal and I also spoke about what feels new about this piece, which centers around the work of French choreographer Dominique Bagouet and Tatsumi HIjikata, two relatively un-famous artists who died young before their work was done. Trajal went on, “You know we have this fascination with people who died young somehow. But, because they were in very unknown fields, we didn’t have a kind of cultural mourning around them… I didn’t know how you take something that’s tragic or mournful in a way, and by the end get the audience to to sense, to have this great appreciation for life and the joy that we’re here together even though we mourn. And so that was very new for me.”

Though Trajal’s work is about history and springs forth from intense research, what I find fascinating is how that research influences the work. In no way does he attempt to recreate, rather, he uses his research to, as he said, “generate a language on the stage, and a movement practice… informed by operations that may be in those forms.” He went on, “Bagouet was very well-known for his very specific use of the hands and there’s a lot of that in ‘Ghost…’ We don’t try to make Bagouet movement, but there’s this sense of the hands being very important… It’s only a way to generate and get closer to what I want to make as myself.”

Though home for Trajal is not as he said, “singular,” he is an American, and I wanted to hear from him about what it meant to work so closely with the choreography and biography of two non-American artists, working outside of American culture. His response: “American culture has really exported itself into a lot of cultures… and certainly both [Bagouet and Hijikata] have been influenced by American culture and by American artistic creation. And, how do we draw those lines? How we write history and how we think about culture? I’m suspicious of that. In the best sense.”

I look forward to seeing how those suspicions manifest in The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai.

Invocation: An Interview with Rez Abbasi

Rez Abbasi’s Invocation represents a distinctly South Asian-influenced voice in contemporary jazz, thanks in no small part to notable members such as Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa. Their most recent work explores the Carnatic classical music tradition of Southern India. In advance of their performance in the McGuire Theater this Thursday, we’re sharing a recent interview between Abbasi […]

Photo: John Rogers

Photo: John Rogers

Rez Abbasi’s Invocation represents a distinctly South Asian-influenced voice in contemporary jazz, thanks in no small part to notable members such as Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa. Their most recent work explores the Carnatic classical music tradition of Southern India. In advance of their performance in the McGuire Theater this Thursday, we’re sharing a recent interview between Abbasi and Aaron Greenwald, Executive Director of Duke Performances.

Aaron Greenwald: Describe the evolution of Invocation from Hindustani music to Qawwali to Carnatic music? How do you write jazz that incorporates these South Asian influences?

Rez Abbasi: The group was formed in 2008. My concept for the trilogy came naturally as I played more with the group. The debut release, Things To Come, magnified elements of Hindustani music, in large part through the contribution of Indian vocalist Kiran Ahluwalia. The follow up, Suno Suno, emphasized Pakistani, Qawwali music, a sound that I’ve admired for most of my life. On this recording, the hybridity came from capturing a spirit as opposed to using specific techniques or theory. The trilogy, Unfiltered Universe, will be recorded this year and has its footing in Carnatic, South Indian music.

My approach to creating new jazz music while employing elements of South Asian music has changed over time. My initial, overt project came in 2003 with the album, Snake Charmer. Prior to that I had a natural inclination of doing a hybrid project but since I had never heard a viable, strong example within jazz history, was very hesitant. I was well aware of John Coltrane’s dealings and John McLaughlin’s assimilation but as much as I loved that music, never thought it actually captured the nuance of a true hybrid between Indian and jazz music. So I knew it would be a long term project. Since recording Snake Charmer, my compositions have slowly departed from an overt style of employing Indian-Pakistani music to a more natural or intuitive way. I haven’t used the sitar-guitar for example, haven’t employed tabla or any Indian percussion – Indian sounds that can be found on Snake Charmer and its 2005 follow up, Bazaar. What has influenced my compositions over the years is more affective listening and playing with Indian musicians of many types – a rote process.

For most listeners, my music will come off as modern jazz, which is fine with me. They’ll hear something that may sound fresh and really, that’s all that counts. For fans of Indian music, it’s very likely they’ll catch the nuance of a rhythm or melody or an inflection of a phrase that can be called “Indian”.

Greenwald: [Can you] talk about what each of the players in the ensemble brings to music [and] your long associations with Johannes, Dan, Vijay and Rudresh?

Abbasi: I chose this specific core band because each of them have something to offer within the framework of hybrid music, specifically Indian and jazz. For instance, Dan Weiss is a professional tabla player as well and brings an enormous rhythmic prowess to the music. In fact, all the members here are drummers; they have dealt in complex rhythms and shifty-pulse oriented music. I’ve had relations with all in various ways, however, Dan and Rudresh have been musical partners for over a decade partly due to Rudresh’s project, Indo-Pak Coalition. We’ve toured a lot and will record our second album soon.

Greenwald: What does an ensemble of this size and scope allow you to do that a smaller ensemble might not?

Abbasi: The piano and cello open up a lot of textural possibilities. I’ve studied western classical music and have a sweet spot for cello. One day I hope to write for a string quartet. With this ensemble I like the singularity of the cello because I use it akin to another voice in the music as opposed to part of a section. The combination of the piano and cello provides a mini orchestra within a jazz group. The orchestration that’s chosen for a given melody has a lot to do with what’s perceived so if a composer weighs their options well, the results can be truly breathtaking. Of course, the idiosyncrasies of the players also provides much in the sense of subtlety and scope.

Greenwald: How does your study of tabla and Carnatic music impact the manner in which you approach guitar?

Abbasi: One word: rhythm… although I’ve also been very inspired by the melodic content of North and South Indian classical and [its] influence in my playing can be heard in the way of ornamentations such as meend and gamak.

Greenwald: What are the characteristics of Carnatic music and how do they manifest themselves in what you’ve written for Invocation?

Abbasi: I find the rhythmic dexterity to be fascinating. It’s very math based and most performers of the music can account for every beat, dancers included! The mathematical combinations are worked and reworked. One of the concepts I used in the new material is the idea of expansion and contraction. For example, a Carnatic musician might play a cadence using a six note figure, repeat it with one less note, continue the process until they’re left with only the last note and resolve that on the down beat of the cycle. That can also be done backwards by adding a note each time. I magnified this process into a larger piece utilizing multiple instruments playing different roles. It’s a pretty cool effect that creates an under-movement within the movement of the tune, kind of a rhythmic layering.

Rez Abbasi’s Invocation performs Thursday, February 25, at 8pm, at the Walker’s McGuire Theater, with a special opening set from Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Indo-Pak Coalition.

Talk Dance: Faye Driscoll on Thank You For Coming: Attendance

Talk Dance is a podcast series devoted to in-depth conversations with dance artists produced and hosted by local dancer, educator, and commentator Justin Jones. In this installment, Jones speaks with Faye Driscoll, whose work Thank You For Coming: Attendance will be performed in the Walker’s McGuire Theater February 17-21, 2016.  You can listen to the […]

Faye Driscoll, Thank You For Coming: Attendance. Photo: Maria Baranova

Faye Driscoll, Thank You For Coming: Attendance. Photo: Maria Baranova

Talk Dance is a podcast series devoted to in-depth conversations with dance artists produced and hosted by local dancer, educator, and commentator Justin Jones. In this installment, Jones speaks with Faye Driscoll, whose work Thank You For Coming: Attendance will be performed in the Walker’s McGuire Theater February 17-21, 2016.  You can listen to the podcast on the Walker Channel 

Right at the start of our conversation, Faye Driscoll refers to Thank You For Coming: Attendance (TYFC:Attendance)  as “quite a live beast.” TYFC: Attendance is the first in a series of three works by Driscoll that, according to her website, “extends the sphere of influence of performance to create a communal space where the co-emergent social moment is questioned, heightened, and palpable.”  Or, as she said it more plainly to me on the phone, “I mean, I hate audience participation, so it was like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna make a work that somehow does this … sneakily’.”

TYFC: Attendance has had a rich touring schedule this past year, including stops in major US cities, Croatia, and Argentina, and I was curious to hear about how the feeling between the performers and the audience shifts from location to location.  As a dancer who has toured a bit, I know each audience (even in the same city) feels a bit different, but I wondered if this particular piece revealed anything particular about the places in which it was being performed.  Driscoll responded “I think because we’re dealing with the sensation of co-creation with the audience so directly […] there is a very palpable difference in each community that we go to.  Like when we were in Zagreb […] they went from cold … to not cold maybe?  But there was a movement in every audience we’ve gone to. […] In Argentina it was like from warm to boiling hot. Like it was almost like they were just gonna start kissing the dancers as soon as they rolled into their laps.”

Like her past work, TYFC: Attendance is a demanding, multidisciplinary work.  Watching a video of the performance in preparation for our conversation, I was astounded by the performers virtuosic abilities – not just dancing, but singing, acting, remembering.  What they do seemed to me extremely rigorous, and somehow new.  I was reminded of something Phillip Glass said talking to Terry Gross on Fresh Air; Gross plays a clip of one of Glass’ early works and then admits that she can’t even imagine what it would be like to perform one of Glass’ demanding compositions.  Glass coolly responds that in order to perform his music he had to develop a new performance practice and then goes on to say “if you think about it, for any music to be really new, there probably has to be a different performance practice to go with it otherwise it wouldn’t be new.  What makes it new is that you have to find a new way to play.”

In TYFC: Attendance, Driscoll is seeking out new performance practices.  She elaborates, “I feel like I’m carving out and discovering new forms through the making of the thing and the more that I make things I feel that I bring lots of practices into the room.”  One of the practices we talked about was what Driscoll referred to as “state work”; I thought her definition of “state work” was particularly revealing to what the incredible performers are attempting in TYFC: Attendance: “I think of it like shifting presence in the body […]  it could be emotional, it could be purely the feeling of the body itself, kind of textural and tonal.  It could be working with image.  It could be more psychological.  But it’s become a huge part of my practice because its about […] shifting the shape and changing the alchemy of the body and almost imagining we can shift the composition of our form.”  In watching documentation of TYFC: Attendance, I found the performers’ adroit ability to shift and transform their performative presence fascinating. and I think it speaks directly to what Driscoll says she’s addressing in her work: “the very performativity of being and the sociality of being and how […] who we are is made by all these little interactions and all of these […] movements of self.”

If, like Driscoll, you’re skittish about audience participation, don’t fretDriscoll assures that the piece and the performers “create an environment where we’re at once commanding and extremely gentle and extremely direct. Where there’s options at every stage and there is this sense of, even if you’ve sat there with your arms crossed the entire time, we’ve sort of wrapped you a little bit in our world.” Thank You for Coming: Attendance will be on the Walker stage, Feb. 17-21, 2016.  And, lucky for us, the Walker will present parts two and three of the Thank you for Coming series over the next few years.

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