Blogs The Green Room SpeakEasy

A Basic Guide to All Things Scaffold Room

Ralph Lemon’s new work, Scaffold Room, is truly interdisciplinary. Blurring the line between performing arts and visual arts, it exists in the white cube of the gallery but also includes ticketed, seated performances. Scaffold Room challenges the ways we usually think about and talk about art, which is part of why it’s so exciting—but it can also be […]

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April Matthis during a residency at MANCC, February–March 2014. Photo: Chris Cameron

Ralph Lemon’s new work, Scaffold Room, is truly interdisciplinary. Blurring the line between performing arts and visual arts, it exists in the white cube of the gallery but also includes ticketed, seated performances. Scaffold Room challenges the ways we usually think about and talk about art, which is part of why it’s so exciting—but it can also be difficult to describe in just a few words.

With that in mind, I thought I’d outline the different forms Scaffold Room will take in the coming week, including set performances and Refraction performances, as well as talks, discussions, and open rehearsals. Attending a combination of these events will enrich and deepen your understanding of the work as a whole.

Scaffold Room Performances, September 26–28

Friday, 7 and 9:30 pm; Saturday, 8 pm; Sunday, 7 pm

Experience Scaffold Room as a 90-minute performance within the gallery, featuring artists Okwui Okpokwasili and April Matthis, along with DJ/composer Marina Rosenfeld. These four performances are seated, ticketed, and have a limited capacity. They will have a different feel and structure from the opening kickoff event, so it’s definitely worthwhile to plan to attend both a ticketed performance as well as Scaffold Room Refraction on Thursday night.

Scaffold Room Refraction, September 25, 5–9 pm

The free opening kickoff event, Scaffold Room Refraction, takes place during Target Free Thursday Night. Refraction is a series of performances that invite a deeper examination of the performance experience, including an unpredictable mix of live music and parallel performances layered across the evening. You’ll be free to roam around the gallery space, and come and go as you please. A cash bar in the adjacent lobby will serve as a place to gather, mingle, and discuss what you’re seeing.

Related Event: Opening Night SpeakEasy Discussion, 7–9 pm

The Scaffold Room SpeakEasy takes place in Cargill Lounge, and is your chance to talk about the work with other people, or just listen in. The SpeakEasy discussion will be led by local artists Jessica Fiala, Caroline Kent, and Marcus Young.

Scaffold Room Refraction, September 27–28, afternoons

Refraction performances will continue over the weekend, with a similar format to Thursday night, but will include different parallel performances. These are free with gallery admission.

Related Event: Gallery Talk with Scaffold Room Creators, September 27, 1 pm

Local poet/performance artist Gabrielle Civil will moderate a discussion with Ralph Lemon, Okwui Okpokwasili, and April Matthis. Also free with gallery admission.

Open Rehearsals, September 19–24

Ralph Lemon and his team of artists will offer an ongoing, behind-the-scenes look at the work as it takes shape via a series of Open Rehearsals. Stop by during gallery hours any day before the opening kickoff to see the artists at work. The Open Rehearsals are free with gallery admission (note: certain times may need to be closed to the public, but feel free to call ahead to double check).

Meditation Film Installation, September 24–28

While you’re here, don’t forget to head over to the McGuire Theater to see Meditation, a 2010 film by Ralph Lemon and Jim Findlay that is now part of the Walker’s collection. Meditation screenings are ongoing, and free with gallery admission.

Kyle Abraham: Prepare a Face

Falteringly, haltingly, Kyle Abraham begins to move. His body, his being, seems to reject itself, a pained, primordial entity adjusting to the uncomfortable feeling of his own skin. Blending deep-seated emotion with controlled technique, Abraham pulls from his own experiences and personal history to tap into a relatable, intimate agony – the clash of the […]

Photo: Ian Douglas

Photo: Ian Douglas

Falteringly, haltingly, Kyle Abraham begins to move. His body, his being, seems to reject itself, a pained, primordial entity adjusting to the uncomfortable feeling of his own skin. Blending deep-seated emotion with controlled technique, Abraham pulls from his own experiences and personal history to tap into a relatable, intimate agony – the clash of the individual with rigid social exhortations. In Live! The Realest MC, he takes inspiration from the Pinocchio fable to explore the concept of being “real,” within the context of masculine expectations, heteronormativity, and the performance of identity in hip-hop. Upright and sparkling in gold Abraham provides a marked contrast to the cool black tracksuits of his company members. As he begins to walk, he welcomes us to follow him on this journey.

Now in its third year, the Walker Art Center’s SpeakEasy program regularly invites audience members to participate in open post-performance conversations facilitated by Walker visual arts tour guides and local members of the performing arts community. In conjunction with this weekend’s performances by Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion, we offer this pre-performance blog highlighting a few themes connected to the work. We hope that you will join us after the show on Saturday, March 16, in the Walker’s McGuire Theater Balcony Bar for a discussion led by choreographer Blake Nellis and Walker tour guide/choreographer Ray Terrill.

Placing the work

Drawing from his conservatory training and youth immersed in the emerging hip-hop culture of Pittsburgh in the late 1970s, Kyle Abraham creates interdisciplinary work that “delve[s] into identity in relation to a personal history.” This weaving of diverse media and material is manifest in works such as Pavement, which incorporates opera, the early writings of W.E.B. Du Bois, and the 1991 film Boyz N The Hood, as well as Live! The Realest MC, with its mixture of dance, projections, and monologues.

Speaking of his interest in the work of visual artist and Walker Art Center regular Kara Walker, Abraham reflected upon identity and influences: “I am inspired by how she is able to create such provocative situational environments in her work with a willingness to evoke anger, laughter, and a whole swelling of emotions…her work deals with historic references, representation, and stereotypical content that make me reflect on my position in life…and more so in this country, as a gay black American man who grew up in an urban environment marginalized by race, poverty and sexual orientation.”

Abraham’s background provides fodder for Live! The Realest MC, a piece that both confronts issues of hypermasculinity and comically questions what being “real” in hip-hop may be. Yet behind this humor and orbiting this piece are a variety of rigid expectations and potentially cruel consequences, what Amy Villarejo has termed the “terror of the normative.” The story of Live! The Realest MC began to develop in the early solo piece Inventing Pookie Jenkins, but took on a greater significance in the context of recent suicides connected with bullying and homophobia. Abraham explained, “I began to think about a time in my life when I prayed that I could go unnoticed. Hoping that if I get my voice to sound like the other male students around me, I wouldn’t be found out. I just wanted to be a robot… a puppet…”

Being “real” in this sense becomes convoluted, not simply the assertion of some genuine selfhood, but, a “yardstick” that measures one’s relationship to a variety of notions of authenticity. To “be real” morphs into an imperative to fall in line and the individual must decide how to respond.

Photo: Cherylynn Tsushima

Photo: Cherylynn Tsushima

Public Performance

Although brought into dramatic relief in relation to expectations that one resists, the individual in society is continuously engaged with the demand “to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet” (T.S. Eliot). Embedded within myriad sets of relationships, the self is developed and performed through quotidian practices and in contrast or kinship with others. In this regard, for Joanne Finkelstein, the “controlled body” becomes a “passport to sociability.” If one knows social codes, and can successfully adhere to them, doors may open, even if merely for a performance that comes at a great personal price.

When does hip-hop become intertwined with identity or a lifestyle and how is this relationship performed? When is it personal, taking a set of concepts and practices into one’s own definition of self, and when is it public, portraying a role to be understood by others or assuming qualities and practices from demeanor, to speech or consumption? Abraham’s work pulls meaningfully from specific roots, yet the aforementioned questions apply to any range of accepted or desired roles. Where does the “real self” end and the “performed self” begin? Given that one is born and lives in situ and in relation to others, is the notion of such divisions simply an illusion?

When asked in an interview for New York’s Amsterdam News how race may factor into his dance life, Abraham replied, “It is inevitable that the work of any choreographer will come from a place of their individual journey. My personal story is growing up as a middle-class, Black, gay man from a spiritual family upbringing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Whether I chose to create a work about my life experiences in a literal fashion [or not], the work is inevitably a derivative of all that I am.”

While “placing” Abraham’s work may mean providing a context for it in terms of histories, norms, and social forces that have shaped his experiences, the work is not limited by these parameters. Speaking of the larger relationship between audience and art, Abraham broadened the scope: “the same great thing can be said about dance as it can about the visual arts… I want my work to have an individual effect. It’s not imperative that people walk away seeing or feeling the same thing. Art, in all forms to me, is about evoking something…either with in yourself or within those who stumble upon your vision.”

Cynthia Hopkins: The Luxury of Inaction, the Ease of Destruction

In an interview with Tom Michael for Walker magazine, Cynthia Hopkins described becoming aware of her own human fragility while on a trip to the Arctic with Cape Farewell, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness around climate change to spur cultural shifts leading to sustainable practices. Without markers of scale, distance became difficult to gauge, […]

In an interview with Tom Michael for Walker magazine, Cynthia Hopkins described becoming aware of her own human fragility while on a trip to the Arctic with Cape Farewell, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness around climate change to spur cultural shifts leading to sustainable practices. Without markers of scale, distance became difficult to gauge, perspective shifting along with realizations of both the enormity of the landscape and, in comparison, the frail nature of one’s own life. In preparation for this weekend’s performances of This Clement World–and Saturday’s post-performance audience discussion, SpeakEasy, which takes place in the Balcony Bar–here’s a look at key issues at play in Hopkins’ work.

Cynthia Hopkins, This Clement World. Photo: Pavel Antonov

Cynthia Hopkins, This Clement World. Photo: Pavel Antonov

Where is she coming from? 

Part documentary, part folk music-infused theater, part call to action, This Clement World addresses the global issue of climate change through a relatable, human-scaled lens. Hopkins frames her multidisciplinary performances as storytelling based in alchemy. Starting from a point of disturbance, she forces confrontations with personal demons and sociopolitical crises, plumbing this darkness to emerge bearing a message of hope, through theatrical productions that educate, stimulate, and entertain.

Through shifts from personal to global, Hopkins reveals a portrait of the human being in the world – unique and beautiful, but also responsible to the future, capable of change, and accountable for decisions. Describing influences in an interview for Bomb magazine from Bertolt Brecht to Tadeusz Kantor and Laurie Anderson, Hopkins situates herself in a lineage of theater practitioners who not only comment on social issues, but also self-reflexively draw attention to the act and allure of theatre-making itself. This Clement World entices through music, storytelling, and beautiful footage of the Arctic, but Hopkins also pushes back – directly addressing the audience about climate change and even questioning her own metaphors.

Where are we going? 

Hopkins draws from her own struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction to develop addiction as a metaphor for reliance on fossil fuels – a dependence on that which is causing our own slow, progressive destruction. This comparison brings forth both the challenge of weaning ourselves off fossil fuels and the possibility of self (and social) transformation through actively, diligently developing different practices. Her metaphor also manages to add a physical, bodily component to the climate issue. As a population becomes accustomed to the ease provided by fossil fuels, the more that is consumed, the more normalized the behavior becomes, the more we want, the more we need. Addressing climate change in this regard means assessing our own personal addictions and culpability. It means changing daily habits, overhauling systems, and perhaps altering other fundamental patterns – a consumer economy based on disposable commodities and the disproportionate over-use of resources by a relatively small proportion of the global population.

Underlying Hopkins’ metaphor is the luxury of inaction. Focusing on various other immediate crises, climate change may appear as a distant issue, a problem that we can get to later on. In A Conversation on Climate Change, the Walker brought together specialists to focus on the science surrounding this issue and the ramifications that are already being observed – changing weather patterns, melting Artic ice, the increase in instances of extreme weather. As Hopkins notes, this is a pressing issue and a significant time to be alive, for what is or is not done now will have considerable consequences for future generations.

Photo: Ian Douglas

Photo: Ian Douglas

Who is speaking? 

In This Clement World Hopkins both relates her own experiences and becomes a variety of characters – an alien, a visitor from the future, and the ghost of a Native American woman murdered during the Sand Creek massacre in 1864. Each character provides a distinct perspective, a means of interfacing with the audience and another tactic for getting the point across that something needs to be done. In particular, although the ghost does not speak, her emergence brings forth one thread of a long history of environmental destruction intertwined with violence, where those with the least power endure the most. Turning from the grand suffering of the plant and future generations to the immediacy of violence, climate change might be viewed as the crest of a building wave poised to engulf individuals and whole communities. As this issue is addressed – or not – how will victims be represented, how might their stories be told, and by whom? In a conversation with Walker web editor Paul Schmelzer and meteorologist Paul Douglas, Hopkins highlights other aspects elaborated by this character – the interdependence of humans and the natural world, as well as the impermanence of a way of life, the inevitable change, by necessity or choice, of unsustainable practices.

What’s at stake? 

According to a UN report, the world population is set to increase from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050. This anticipated change means that if only small actions are taken, such work could easily be off-set by population growth alone. The concern goes beyond necessities such as water, energy, food, or land, to include the perpetuation of consumption habits. Isolating just one piece of this issue is telling – the United States currently houses less than 5% of the global population, but uses roughly a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel resources. At A Conversation on Climate Change, the immediacy of the issue and the need to do something now was brought to the fore, leading to the question of how to tackle such a massive personal – personal action, or perhaps a movement? More realistically, it was proposed that the incentive to change will likely come not from rhetoric of doing right by future generations, but rather profits to be made from solutions to impending, global crises.

Tackling climate change will likely lead to an array of debates around initiating and managing large-scale practices, yet the urgency to do something remains potent, for in this instance, both action and inaction have consequences.

See you this weekend…

Cynthia Hopkins, The Clement World, March 7-9, 2013

Join us after the show on Saturday, March 9, in the McGuire Theater’s Balcony Bar for a SpeakEasy — an informal post-performance audience discussion. This week’s conversation will be facilitated by Walker Art Center tour guide Barbara Davey and choreographer Jennifer Arave.

The conversation is on-going…

Please share thoughts, comments, and questions below!

The Evolution of a Symbol: A SpeakEasy for Ganesh Versus the Third Reich

A SpeakEasy is an informal audience discussion facilitated by a Walker Art Center tour guide and a local performer or choreographer. Today’s edition highlights themes shared during a conversation on Saturday, February 2, about Back to Back Theatre‘s Ganesh Versus the Third Reich. This SpeakEasy was led by tour guide Mary Dew and local arts […]

A SpeakEasy is an informal audience discussion facilitated by a Walker Art Center tour guide and a local performer or choreographer. Today’s edition highlights themes shared during a conversation on Saturday, February 2, about Back to Back Theatre‘s Ganesh Versus the Third Reich. This SpeakEasy was led by tour guide Mary Dew and local arts and culture guru from Salon Saloon, Andy Sturdevant.

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A symbol designates our most powerful feelings, beliefs, and commitments. How can a single image symbolize totally opposed world-views? For a millennia the swastika was a symbol of auspiciousness in Indian religions, but it most recently symbolized murderous hatred. Once we are aware of this, what do we see when we see the swastika? Can it be both? Can it be anything but both? A symbol has a reference, it has significance, and these change over time. The swastika has gone through several evolutions in meaning before its appropriations by the Nazis. In addition to its meaning in Indian religions, the swastika represents the octopus that created the world in native Panamanian culture, and has been found on numerous artifacts from Africa, to ancient Greece, and in European antiquity. Does the association with Nazi Germany atrophy the swastika’s development as a symbol in Western culture?

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In Saturday’s SpeakEasy, audience members discussed whether a symbol could be retrieved from the cruelty it once inspired. The play was powerful enough that the audience was willing to humor the idea that the swastika could be a positive image. The discussion showed this in two ways: an analysis of power and a conversation about the use of images in print and media. The play expanded what the audience was willing to think about, and they talked about it several ways. They talked about the ability of a symbol to change: can it ever change? Or does significance accumulate? Can it be relieved of any of its past usage, or forever be burdened by all of its appropriations? These questions were the theoretical starting points for the audience and included playful imaginings of whether an ad campaign could adopt the image of the swastika without international backlash. While the speculation was far-reaching, ultimately audience members felt that symbols are so powerful that we cannot predict how they will transform in the future (while as the play demonstrated, symbols are transformed all the time).

I Am the Real Mimosa: A SpeakEasy for (M)imosa

A SpeakEasy is an informal audience discussion facilitated by a Walker Art Center tour guide and a local performer or choreographer. Today’s edition highlights themes shared during a conversation on Saturday, January 26, about (M)imosa/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church, by Cécilia Bengolea, François Chaignaud, Marlene Monteiro Freitas, and Trajal Harrell. […]

A SpeakEasy is an informal audience discussion facilitated by a Walker Art Center tour guide and a local performer or choreographer. Today’s edition highlights themes shared during a conversation on Saturday, January 26, about (M)imosa/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church, by Cécilia Bengolea, François Chaignaud, Marlene Monteiro Freitas, and Trajal Harrell. This SpeakEasy was led by tour guide Skye Stauffer and local arts and culture guru from Salon Saloon, Andy Sturdevant.

Inspired by the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, which follows the vogue dance scene in Harlem in the 1980s, (M)imosa investigates the hypothetical question of what contemporary dance would look like today if vogue had the same influence as the Judson Dance Theater on the evolution of the art form.  Utilizing elements of time, space, persona, the four artists address the question of “what is real” while trying to convince the audience that each of them is “the real Mimosa.” The element of “real” is the dominant theme, explored through song, dance, story-telling, and costuming, challenging audiences perception of gender, sexuality, and what it means to be comfortable in your own skin. After the show, audience members gathered in the Balcony Bar to discuss what they saw. Here are some key topics:

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The house never went dark, except during a few sections. Performers were in audience, talking to people, to each other, drinking tea, eating. The audience quieted when Freitas took the stage, topless. Even as she began dancing, the lights stayed up and the other performers remained on the sides or in the audience, giving the performance a rehearsal quality, making the viewers aware that they were watching a very intimate scene of artistic and personal exploration. As the audience watched the performance, the performers watched each other, moving seamlessly between being viewers and performers. As an act was happening on stage, there was often something just as captivating happening in the audience, forcing the audience to choose what to look at and where to look. Costumes and props scattered throughout the audience brought on interactions between the artists and viewers that turned several audience members into performers themselves.

What is male? What is female?
From the very beginning, gender lines were blurred. Freitas performed topless for the majority of the show – wearing purple lingerie for one section then doing a Prince impersonation shortly after, Bengolea performed a section wearing a strap on penis then later performed in a red dress, Chaignaud seamlessly shifted between elaborate drag costumes to street clothes, while Harrell wore khakis and a sweater the entire show. The obscured gender lines were less about sexuality and orientation than they were about identity and self-actualization.

Will the real Mimosa please stand up?
In the beginning, each performer introduced themselves as “Mimosa.” In subsequent pieces they explained what made them “Mimosa” and how they came to identify with that word. At the end, they each made their case for why they are the “real Mimosa.” So who is the real Mimosa? In the film Paris is Burning, being “real” meant to inhabit a persona so fully that you could walk down the street and no one would question whether or not that’s the “real” you. In (M)imosa, the performers committed to each character, each persona, so that the audience couldn’t tell when they were in character or not. Their use of costumes, makeup, prosthetic, and so on, did not mask their true selves, but enhanced it. The performers utilized all that culture has to offer to highlight that there is not a singular definition of what is real. People have many faces, persona, attitudes, ideas and, like Mimosa, they change, evolve, and grow.

Years of Dying Together – A SpeakEasy for She She Pop

A SpeakEasy is an informal audience discussion facilitated by a Walker Art Center tour guide and a local performer or choreographer. Today’s edition highlights themes shared during a conversation on Saturday, January 19, about She She Pop’s Testament. This SpeakEasy was led by tour guide Mary Dew and local arts and culture guru from Salon […]

A SpeakEasy is an informal audience discussion facilitated by a Walker Art Center tour guide and a local performer or choreographer. Today’s edition highlights themes shared during a conversation on Saturday, January 19, about She She Pop’s Testament. This SpeakEasy was led by tour guide Mary Dew and local arts and culture guru from Salon Saloon Andy Sturdevant.

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It is not the horizon of death, but the final segment of the journey there that is the focus of She She Pop’s Testament. In a deconstruction/reconstruction of King Lear the company invites their real fathers onstage to explore shifting intergenerational relationships spurred by imminent questions of elder care, inheritance, and a lifetime of unresolved emotions. The vignettes are at times comic, personal, and absurd, yet they cross specific circumstances to speak to common, but uncomfortable, realities. What will you give me; what have you given me; what do I owe you? These seemingly materialistic questions offer a frank means of dealing with the logistics of aging, and ultimately, the process of dying. What becomes apparent in Testament is the communal nature of this transition to the last stage of life, the end that faces not an individual alone, but a family. Following the Saturday evening performance, a group of audience members gathered in the Walker’s balcony bar for a SpeakEasy discussion. Themes from that conversation are highlighted in this blog, and additional thoughts and questions are welcomed in the comments section below.

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Impenetrable, strong, stoic. The image of a father conjured by Testament‘s opening scenes was for some a father of another era, a distant hero figure, a provider. Audience members ruminated on the histories of these fathers, who grew into adulthood in 1960s Germany. SpeakEasy participants wondered if, as the rigidity of family roles softens, perhaps future generations will not have such a distance to cross in re-meeting their fathers later in life. Yet possible alternatives for today’s children do not resolve the challenges faced by the adult children on-stage. As fathers shed sweater vest armor, we see evidence of the body’s slow deterioration. They are exposed – physically and emotionally. While She She Pop uses humor to address the peculiarities of this power shift from strong-minded parent to care-giving child, one recalls that King Lear is a tragedy and the relationships on-stage will eventually end in death. Instead of dwelling on this end-point, we are reminded to savor these last years of life, even though they may be comprised of unglamorous, deeply painful, and humbling moments.

Confronting the living prelude to death is an intimate experience – caring for a sickened body, watching a person slowly fade, attempting to prolong this time, knowing it is limited. Coupled with the intensity of approaching realities is the desire to postpone them, to avoid considering what end of life caregiving entails, but also to seek resolution, to neatly tie up a lifetime of tensions before the ability to do so runs out. For She She Pop, this came in the form of statements of forgiveness, which revealed the underlying absurdity and utter humanity of parent-child relationships. Audience members noted that forgiveness turned quickly to accusation as both generations found themselves reiterating a laundry list of past disputes.

So often hidden from view, this variation on King Lear brought the challenges of aging to the fore, accompanied by an array of material, emotional, logistical, and physical complexities. As performers dressed in their father’s clothes and donned paper crowns, the image arose of kids playing dress-up. While we grow to adulthood, in some areas we may remain as children – unprepared to meet the uncertainties of the future, afraid, and wishing that parents could fix challenges beyond all our control.

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More on Testament:

Read Shanai Matteson’s opening night blog on her experience watching Testament with her father and sister.

Join the conversation:

Our next SpeakEasy will be held on Saturday, January 26, when we will discuss (M)imosa/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church. We hope to see you then!

Art Without Risk? A SpeakEasy for Rude Mechs

A SpeakEasy is an informal audience discussion facilitated by a Walker Art Center tour guide and a local performer or choreographer. Today’s edition highlights themes shared during a conversation on Saturday, January 12, about Rude Mechs’ The Method Gun. This SpeakEasy was led by tour guide Barbara Davey and local arts and culture guru from […]

A SpeakEasy is an informal audience discussion facilitated by a Walker Art Center tour guide and a local performer or choreographer. Today’s edition highlights themes shared during a conversation on Saturday, January 12, about Rude Mechs’ The Method Gun. This SpeakEasy was led by tour guide Barbara Davey and local arts and culture guru from Salon Saloon Andy Sturdevant.

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How far are you willing to go?

With often-undeterminable goals and circuitous paths, a life in the arts can be a journey involving sacrifice, abnegation, and risk. But, does the pursuit of art demand something more than the standard difficulties of economics? Does it require obsession, actively pursued discomfort, or an adherence to method that verges on malady?

The Walker’s 25th Out There series began with Rude Mechs’ The Method Gun, a performance that delves into the process of theater itself, following a fictional company left behind by their famous guru as they struggle through the process of seeing her vision through to the end. After the Saturday evening performance, a group of audience members gathered in the Walker’s balcony bar for the first SpeakEasy of 2013. Themes, interpretations, and questions shared during that conversation are highlighted on this page. Additional thoughts are welcome, using the comments feature below.

In his opening-night blog post, Andy Sturdevant brought to the fore a historical undercurrent of the play — the intentional exposure to psychic risk and personal vulnerability connected with various theater methodologies and language. According to acting teacher Lee Strasberg, “the actor acts a fiction, a dream.” Responding to imaginary stimuli, the actor is faced with the task of manufacturing emotional purity, conveyed as fiction to a waiting audience. The acting process hereby involves seeking out the root of an emotion and, from this core, returning to the surface to reveal the intensity of inner experience through a stance, a look, or a gesture. Given this challenge, how does one prepare? In this quest for the essence of an emotion, is it necessary to evoke or relive angst, trauma, or tension? Is the façade alone enough?

While risk was explored as an underlying theme, for some audience members, the weaving of vignettes skimmed a larger set of questions. Risk involves not only methods enacted, but also the risks one takes in staying or leaving. In this regard, it is not merely a matter of what one would undergo for art, but additionally what one would sacrifice to stay with a teacher.

Through dream logic and absurdity, The Method Gun brought to the fore the peculiarities of performance and preparation. Yet Rude Mechs mixed satire with homage, ending in a broad tribute to the role of teachers, whose lessons are to be cherished, burned, or reinterpreted as these past relationships are recalled anew in the present.

Join us in the balcony bar on Saturday, January 19, for a SpeakEasy on She She Pop!

Unfolding Still: A SpeakEasy for Deborah Hay

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

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

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

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

To be Holy and Secular

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

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

To Succeed at Achieving Nothing

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

To Be Here

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

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

Dig Deeper

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

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

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

The Animal Human: A SpeakEasy for BodyCartography Project

A SpeakEasy is an informal audience discussion facilitated by a Walker tour guide and a local performer or choreographer.  Today’s edition highlights themes shared during a conversation on Saturday, October 27,  about  BodyCartography Project’s Super Nature. Described with roots akin to “a documentary on the Animal Channel … about humans,” BodyCartography Project’s Super Nature takes the […]

A SpeakEasy is an informal audience discussion facilitated by a Walker tour guide and a local performer or choreographer.  Today’s edition highlights themes shared during a conversation on Saturday, October 27,  about  BodyCartography Project’s Super Nature.

Described with roots akin to “a documentary on the Animal Channel … about humans,” BodyCartography Project’s Super Nature takes the audience from an extended exploration of interpersonal awkwardness to a primordial forest. Emerging from the mist, audience members gathered in the Walker’s balcony bar for a SpeakEasy conversation facilitated by Walker tour guide Mary Dew and choreographer Rosy Simas. Themes from that discussion are highlighted in this blog and additional interpretations, questions, and musings are invited in the comments section below.

The BodyCartography Project, Super Nature, 2012. Photo: Gene Pittman

Sustained Awkwardness

During the first half of Super Nature, performers surged, fell, undulated, posed, stumbled, and regained their footing only to collapse upon themselves. Peculiar nuzzling shifted to become inappropriate and slightly sinister, only to return to its original awkward state. Working against the grain of the pretty or virtuosic, Super Nature invited audiences to marinate in discomfort, the performers pushing themselves into the territory of the physically and aesthetically ungainly. The emotional impact of this action was raised, and audience members commented on a sense of disquiet, a feeling of being alienated within one’s own body, and a disconnect between the propriety of the costuming and the intimate invasiveness of the partnering. This unease was heightened for some at a visceral level early on as performers punctuated movements with continuous short, shallow exhalations. Expressed responses of physical anxiety, or the impetus to mimic, are perhaps instances of the kinesthetic empathy between performer and spectator which has been an area of exploration for the Body Cartography Project in recent years.

Devolution

Midway through the performance, the bright colors of animalistic dancers in retro apparel transformed into the subdued tones of a forest wrapped in fog. Partially nude performers hidden by branches became a slowly moving grove of trees, setting a scene described by one audience member as a “dream forest.” Alongside this costume change to partial nudity and animal prints, there seemed to some to be an alleviation of anxiety as the performers shifted from awkward individuals into a primal pack.

Through carefully chosen angles, nudity was seen to highlight the musculature of the human body as well as presenting vulnerability and the removal of another set of social boundaries. Exploring the human animal in its society and settings turned to investigating the biology of this being, as a papaya projected onto the torso of a performer became viscera probed by curious fingers.  This study of the body’s systems brought out the choreographers’ involvement with Body Mind Centering, an experiential study of the physical body in its relationship to consciousness.  Describing this influence, Walker Art Center Assistant Curator for the Performing Arts Michèle Steinwald wrote of the simultaneous attention to “the micro (the body) and the macro (the community)” which enables performers to both ground themselves and to connect with audiences through sympathetic physical responses and recognitions.

A Rorschach Test

Multiple connections arose between Super Nature and visual art, from moments of contorted statuesque stillness to a comparison between dance and abstract painting, wherein viewers are invited to create their own interpretations or narratives.  The set design of simple ropes strung diagonally across the stage enhanced the depth of the space and, when manipulated, became an array of associations, the bars of a zoo, sinewy umbilical chords, a net ensnaring the performers, the facia of a great organism, and a representation of the communal interconnectivity of individuals. One participant likened watching abstract dance to developing an interest in experimental music; first there is noise, but as one learns what to listen for and how to hear, there arise points to grab onto and a deeper experience develops. In this sense, we are offered a Rorschach test, a chance to open ourselves to see what we will and to explore that experience. As  our post-performance discussion progressed, a distinction arose between the initial question of “What are you supposed to take home?” to the more personal reflection “What are you taking home?”

Participate!

Join the conversation by adding your thoughts in the comments section below!

Attend the next SpeakEasy discussion on Saturday, December 8, in conjunction with Hay Days: A Deborah Hay Celebration.

Come to Art School!  The Walker is hosting a series of monthly lectures exploring various disciplines in contemporary art.  Next up: photography on Sunday, November 18!

Dig Deeper

Read Michèle Steinwald’s essay Sourcing Dance Through the Body: BodyCartography Project’s Creative Process.

Learn about the elements of dance from the Perpich Center for Arts Education.

Listen to Justin Jones’ interview with BodyCartography Project choreographers Otto Ramstad and Olive Bieringa on the Walker Channel.  Also check out Justin’s primer on watching experimental dance for MN Playlist!

Comfort with Falling: A SpeakEasy for Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People

A SpeakEasy is an informal audience discussion facilitated by a Walker tour guide and a local performer or choreographer.  Today’s edition highlights themes shared during a conversation on Saturday, September 22, led by choreographer Anat Shinar and tour guide Jack Bardon.  Join us for the next SpeakEasy on Saturday, October 27, for a discussion about […]

A SpeakEasy is an informal audience discussion facilitated by a Walker tour guide and a local performer or choreographer.  Today’s edition highlights themes shared during a conversation on Saturday, September 22, led by choreographer Anat Shinar and tour guide Jack Bardon.  Join us for the next SpeakEasy on Saturday, October 27, for a discussion about   BodyCartography Project’s Super Nature.  Coming up next, the Walker presents Voices of Strength: Contemporary Dance & Theater by Women from Africa, October 10-13.

Instructed to join hands, the audience forms a communal gesture that encircles the stage. Our collective gaze fixed upward, we are engulfed by a shifting spectrum of colors and a low bass that vibrates around and through our bodies.  But how does each of us come to know this performance? What of it exists in the world and what comes into being only in our minds? It is an experience shared by all – differently. Following Miguel Gutierrez’s And lose the name of action, a group of audience members gathered in the Walker’s Balcony Bar to discuss these diverse impressions and interpretations during the first SpeakEasy of the season. Themes from that conversation are featured in the paragraphs below and readers are invited to add thoughts, questions, and responses using the comments function on this page.

Presence & Non-Presence

Beginning with a pseudo séance and continuing through moments of seemingly possessed ecstatic dance, And lose the name of action is imbued with specters. The nature of ghostly being is in essence to not be, to perform and embody in a diaphanous presence this non-being. A ghost references a realm beyond, but such phantoms also bring to our attention the ephemeral and faltering nature of being in this world. Flooded in an instant by distractions, self-doubt, critical reflections, memories, judgments, or questions, there are myriad barriers to being fully present, as well as a variety of interpretations as to what “fully present,” if possible, might be or mean.

A soloist falls, seemingly out of control, through a series of precise stumbles and suspensions as another performer describes her actions, making noticeable the gaps between language and action, explanation and feeling, being and analysis. With this piece, Gutierrez not only brings these divisions to the fore, he questions and seeks to bridge the mind/body dichotomy so ingrained since Descartes. Rather than privileging the mind, Gutierrez focuses on the body in the world as the seat of consciousness.

As the dancers writhe, seemingly entranced, the question arises as to how the body might be used to actively seek heightened mental states – through rigorous, meditative practices, or the contrary, ecstatic, Dionysian exhaustion. It is perhaps in such instances where cause and effect overlap, the body both creating and reflecting the activity of the mind. The edges of psychic and physical comfort present a kind of thrill, enjoyed with the knowledge that one can control deviation from and return to a reliable norm. The loss of such a base presents an extreme alternative experience, perhaps the most ghostlike of all, where intensely felt struggles at the margins, viewed from the perspective of a stable center, might appear incomprehensibly otherworldly.

Time & Resolution

Two dancers work out a sequence of choreography in the corner while another performer crawls diagonally across the stage.  Time is simultaneously slow, constant progress and a series of fading moments. It could be 9 pm or 2 am. Time distorts and one senses only a constant now. Dancers rush by and sit amongst the audience, who are lit throughout the performance.  It is in turns comical, invigorating, and exhausting.

A sense of timelessness surrounds the idea of ghosts, yet in presence, they are associated with the ephemeral, with a subtle half-seen motion that disappears as soon as it is noticed. This transitory quality is echoed in the nature of dance itself – fleeting movements of the body, traces across the stage. Although passing, these moments hold weight, just as our own humble and short-lived gestures, which maintain such import as they transpire, are revealed to be mere traces as well.

The evening begins reflecting on the process of learning without a teacher and as an audience we are left to piece together unresolved fragments, to make our own meaning and to become accustomed to this process. Anxiety in the face of such uncertainty makes the source of Gutierrez’s title particularly fitting. Hamlet, after asking “To be or not to be” explores the possibility of suicide, but is stopped by a dread of the unknown afterlife. He comments that the paralyzing effects of the fear of an action’s potential results might “make cowards of us all.” In Gutierrez’s work, there is a call for an embodied, engaged form of presence which, when it falters, perhaps causes our simple impulses to lose their boldness or intensity And lose the name of action.

Join the conversation!
The above blog shares a few impressions voiced by audience members at our post-performance discussion.  Additional comments, ideas, and questions are welcome in this on-line forum, using the comments feature below.

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