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A Medium for Engagement: On the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s Events

“An Event offers the experience of Cunningham’s genius at full strength. You feel with unmistakable force the shock of his creativity, his capacity to illuminate.” —Dance critic Dale Harris, 1978 In 1964, during its first world tour, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) was engaged to perform in Vienna at the Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts (Museum […]

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing Event #32 in the Walker Art Center galleries, 1972. Photo: James Klosty, courtesy the artist

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performs Event #32 in and around Philip Ogle’s untitled sculpture in the exhibition Invitation: 7 Young Artists, Walker Art Center, March 12, 1972. Photo: James Klosty, courtesy the artist

“An Event offers the experience of Cunningham’s genius at full strength. You feel with unmistakable force the shock of his creativity, his capacity to illuminate.”

—Dance critic Dale Harris, 1978

In 1964, during its first world tour, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) was engaged to perform in Vienna at the Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts (Museum of the Twentieth Century). When company members arrived, they found that the museum had neither a theater nor a portable stage. Forced to improvise, Cunningham invented a new format he called an Event: a collage of excerpts from existing dances which could be performed without special décor or lighting and did not depend on conventional stage exits and entrances. The flexibility of this format meant that Events could be performed in virtually any setting or circumstance; as Cunningham noted, this allowed for “not so much an evening of dance as the experience of dance.”

After Museum Event No. 1, as the Vienna performance has become known, MCDC presented more than 800 Events in parks, plazas, gardens, outdoor theaters, museums, galleries, gymnasiums, and railroad stations all over the world, including several at the Walker. From March 30 through April 9, visitors to the galleries of Merce Cunningham: Common Time will have another chance to experience this unique format when former company members present Walker Cunningham Events.

In the following text, excerpted from her essay for the Common Time exhibition catalogue, art historian Hiroko Ikegami reflects on an Event presented at the Walker in June 1972.


The earliest known video recording of an Event was made at the Walker Art Center on March 12, 1972, while MCDC was in Minneapolis on a weeklong residency. The company was planning to perform the repertory dance Canfield (1969), but for reasons that are unclear they instead danced an Event that included most of the Canfield choreography. It was performed in the Walker’s lobby and three adjoining galleries in which were installed three separate exhibitions: a survey of work by Italian sculptor Mario Merz (Gallery 1); a group show entitled Introduction: 7 Young Artists (Gallery 2), and Bill Brandt: Photographs (Gallery 3), a traveling exhibition of work by the British artist.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing Event #32 in the gallelyr alongside Mario Merz's Fibonacci Igloo (1972, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, March 12, 1972

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing Event #32 in the gallery alongside Mario Merz’s Fibonacci Igloo (1972), Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, March 12, 1972. Photo: James Klosty, courtesy the artist

The video, which is about 30 minutes in length, does not seem to record all of Event #32, as it was later titled, but it captures dancers walking into a gallery space and placing themselves, either individually or in a duo or a group, around a variety of artworks made in 1972, including Philip Ogle’s Untitled, a wood sculpture that hung from the ceiling; Leland Bjorklund’s Durations: X, comprising ten pieces of square canvas painted with tar and bronze; and Merz’s Fibonacci Igloo, an iron structure covered with rectangles of stuffed fabric and studded with neon numbers. The dancers are dressed in simple long-sleeved T-shirts and sweatpants, suggesting that no special costumes were prepared for the performance. Spectators are either seated or standing along the sides of the staircases between the galleries, leaving space for dancers to move from one area to another.

Scattered throughout the three galleries, the audience members cannot see everything that is going on. The majority of them seem unaware of a series of complicated and beautiful movements performed by Carolyn Brown and Ulysses Dove in Gallery 3, where Gordon Mumma plays an [unidentified] oriental instrument. Although not visible in the video, David Tudor can be heard playing electronic music while John Cage recites diarylike prose—most likely his own writing (as he did when he read from his essay “Indeterminacy” during the 1965 MCDC dance How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run). Parts of the sentences sound like a conversation in a medical clinic: “‘Do you have diabetes?’ ‘Don’t know.’ Disturbed, I looked up ‘diabetes’ in dictionary.” These restrained acoustic elements resonate not only with the abstract and unemotional movements of the dancers but also with the minimalistic vocabulary of many of the artworks on view. Although independent from the choreography, music in Events is always live and at times improvisational, collaborating with other factors presented in the performance.

As the Event proceeds, the dance increases in speed and intensity, and the dancers’ movements begin to rhyme with the sculptural objects. Often, the angular lines and balanced poses made by their trained bodies resemble shapes of abstract sculptures. When a male dancer stands next to Dustin Davis’s Wall Rope, which consists of three human-size plexiglass cylinders with strings around them, he looks like he could be the fourth cylinder of the sculpture. When a group of dancers make a circle in the gallery, they look like a sculptural object in their own right, and when several dancers lie down on the floor or lift a female dancer above their shoulders, their bodies appear to be an extension of the wooden bars that comprise Ogle’s hanging sculpture. Cunningham, who always claimed his dance movements were just movements and did not refer to anything else, probably did not intend or wish for this effect to happen. Yet, the correspondences between art and movement in this Event are more than just an insignificant coincidence, as they offer spectators an opportunity to actively grasp their experience by making an association between different genres.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing Event #32 in the gallery alongside Mario Merz’s Fibonacci Igloo (1972), Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, March 12, 1972. Photo: James Klosty, courtesy the artist

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performs Event #32 in the exhibition Bill Brandt: Photographs, Walker Art Center, March 12, 1972. Photo: James Klosty, courtesy the artist

The role of spectators actually seems to be more important in Event #32 than in previous Events. As the performance progresses, their number increases. Seated or standing, they now surround the dancers in the gallery spaces, as if constituting a part of the presentation. Although the limited space keeps them from wandering freely around, they seem focused and engaged by the dynamic interplay between dancing, live music, spoken word, and artworks. In fact, the spectators become an indispensable actor in this interplay, as they are positioned to synthesize various sensorial elements into the “experience of dance.” In 1964’s Museum Event No. 1 in Vienna, the connection between dance, music, and visual art was somewhat unclear to the audience, who did not know that they were able to come and go as they wished. In contrast, Event #32 cleverly used the gallery’s architectural settings and provided the audience with not only the physical space to move about but also the mental space in which they were free to associate one artistic element with another. By the time of MCDC’s 1972 engagement at the Walker, the Event scheme had matured into an open, flexible format in which artistic dialogue among different genres could occur and spectators could create their own experiences.


Excerpted from Hiroko Ikegami, “A Medium for Engagement: On the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s Events,” in Merce Cunningham: Common Time (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2017).

 

Simplicity of Movement, Directness of Address: Remembering Trisha Brown (1936–2017)

“Dear Sue, I would like to dance at the Walker again. Sounds simple doesn’t it?” So begins the late American choreographer Trisha Brown in a 1973 letter to Suzanne Weil, then director of the Performing Arts department at the Walker Art Center. A few weeks later, Weil writes back: “I would like you to dance at […]

Trisha Brown, _Accumulation_, Walker Art Center, 1978

Trisha Brown, Accumulation, Walker Art Center, 1978

“Dear Sue, I would like to dance at the Walker again. Sounds simple doesn’t it?” So begins the late American choreographer Trisha Brown in a 1973 letter to Suzanne Weil, then director of the Performing Arts department at the Walker Art Center. A few weeks later, Weil writes back: “I would like you to dance at the Walker again—how’s that for being as simple as you are.” Their exchange is direct, straightforward, a bit playful. Reading it some 40 years later, I’m struck by how the tenor of the correspondence seems in some particular way to capture an essential quality of Brown’s work. Simple.

This is an assertion, perhaps, in opposition to much of the scholarship or reviews on her choreography, and, indeed, there is no denying the rigor of her movement vocabulary or the depth of her embodied and intellectual experiments. Trisha Brown was never simple in the banal way: an idea easily understood or a concept without difficulty. Rather, her choreography had an ease to it—the left arm rises, the elbow bends inward toward the face, and then the arm falls back down—and a pulse to its structure, which meant, if you watched closely enough, you could glean a part of what she was proposing. As her choreography shifted from the arch simplicity of her early pieces—in which the title of the work often articulated exactly what was to transpire (Man Walking Down the Side of a Building)—to her more intricately choreographed productions for the stage, her work was always marked by a directness of address. In Accumulation (1971), and its subsequent development as an ensemble work, Group Primary Accumulation (1973), and then finally Accumulation with Talking Plus Watermotor (1978), she created a choreographic structure in which movements (and spoken ideas) were added incrementally, making the process of choreographic creation eminently apparent. Here is the first move, here is the second, and then, watch closely, we will do them both again, and then add a third. Hers was a dance practice that sought to reveal itself; her simple never lacked.

November 9, 1974 Loring Park, Minneapolis

Trisha Brown, Group Primary Accumulation on Rafts, November 9, 1974, Loring Park, Minneapolis. Photo: Boyd Hagen

Brown’s letter continues as she muses to Weil what she might present. In later letters between the two, she mentions she might show some of the new work she’s been exploring since leaving behind the “equipment pieces”—works like Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (1970) or Floor of the Forest (1970) in which contraptions like harnesses or horizontal scaffolds allowed performers’ bodies to invert the rules of gravity. Since creating Accumulation a few years earlier, Brown writes, she has kept returning to that idea of revealing the choreographic apparatus to the viewer through the dance itself. A new work, Group Primary Accumulation, will be presented soon in New York, she writes: “Are you interested in this piece for Minneapolis?” This initial correspondence, though, details an entirely different idea: “I have mulled over a piece titled manscape or humanscape for 2 years now. The piece consists of 100 people lined up abreast across the stage. To begin, the person on the right steps forward & says I am 100 years old (and is) the next person steps forward & says I am 99 years old (and is), etc. down the line to a one year old.” That’s the dance: so simple and straightforward—and poignant now as I reread this letter in light of her passing.

Since beginning her career in the 1960s, Brown returned many times to the Walker. She first came in 1971 as part of Grand Union, the experimental performance collective often described as one of Judson Church Theater’s key progeny (the core group of which included Trisha as well as Barbara Dilley, Douglas Dunn, David Gordon, Nancy Lewis, Steve Paxton, and Yvonne Rainer). Like Judson before it, or even Black Mountain College, Grand Union has proven important to the development of contemporary interdisciplinary art, collapsing, as the group’s members did, distinctions between dance, theater, play, sculpture, and visual art. If, often, their version of that collapse ended up looking a bit like a mess, it was a particularly glorious one. In November 1974 she returned as a solo artist—this is the visit to which her letter alludes. Eager to explore the full array of performance venues the Walker could offer, Brown and her three dancers (Carmen Beuchat, Caroline Godden, and Sylvia Whitman) performed in the galleries, on the stage, and in Loring Park, a public park adjacent the center. For the next several years, the Walker’s programming was to be punctuated by visits from Brown.

In 1978 she presented a series of solos, and, then, in ’79 she premiered Glacial Decoy. A Walker commission, Glacial Decoy is pivotal in her oeuvre as it marked her near complete shift to the stage and to using the various theatrical trappings of such spaces (sets, elaborate costumes, lighting). Robert Rauschenberg, a longtime friend and a frequent collaborator with other noted choreographers like Merce Cunningham, created the décor and costumes: long, sheer, white nightgowns. Glacial Decoy was to be the last work created for the all-women iteration of the Trisha Brown Dance Company (indeed, as the piece premiered at the Walker, she had already auditioned male dancers to join the company), and those white gowns, in retrospect, seem to not-so-obliquely critique classical histories of women dancing in white: Swan Lake, Giselle, or La Bayadére. Throughout the 1980s, ’90s, and into the 2000s, she and her company presented works like Set and Reset (1983), a piece which in 2008 was performed by students in the Dance Department at the University of Minnesota and retitled Set and Reset/Reset, as well as her last piece, I’m going to toss my arms—if you catch them, they’re yours (2011).

Trisha Brown, _Line Up_ (Trisha Brown, far left), Walker Art Center gallery, 1974

Trisha Brown, Line Up (Trisha Brown, far left), Walker Art Center, 1974

Brown’s time at the Walker was always one of active exchange, not simply sharing her work but reaching out to the community to teach workshops, invite local dancers (like Elizabeth Gerran) to join her company, and train students and dancers to perform works from her repertory (Set and Reset/Reset as well as PLANES, from 1968, which was remounted in 2008 at the Walker). This legacy of community engagement and co-learning marked not only Trisha’s time here but is intrinsic to her legacy as a choreographer. The logic of her practice has always been that of the gift. It is dance offered in the spirit of generosity, surprise, perhaps unknowingly, and, like the act of unwrapping a gift, there are layers to uncover. If you catch them, they are yours. For nearly 40 years, Brown kept the promise of her letter’s simple assertion: I would like to dance at the Walker again. Her last visit, and her last performance, came in 2008.

Dubbed the Year of Trisha, 2008 included a gallery exhibition, stage performances by her company, and restagings of some of the notable pieces she had presented at the Walker. Conceived of by then-Visual Arts Curator Peter Eleey and Philip Bither, the Director and Senior Curator of Performing Arts, the exhibition So that the Audience Does Not Know Whether I have Stopped Dancing focused on Brown’s drawings, long a part of her larger arts practice. For its opening, she performed It’s a Draw/LiveFeed (2002) in the Walker’s Medtronic Gallery. Dressed in a black shirt and pants, she held charcoal in her hands and between her toes, moving her way across an expanse of white paper, leaving pigment traces of her dance behind.

Trisha Brown, _Floor Drawing/Performance_, 2008

Trisha Brown, Floor Drawing/Performance, Walker Art Center, 2008

The drawing produced from her performance, and indeed her oeuvre of drawings more broadly, reveal the trace of her movements, whether the small gesture of moving pen across paper or the sweeping act of spinning in circles across the floor-sized canvas. The word “trace” references an ephemeral act—the footstep that preserves the memory of the absent walker. Traces are also quite material. We have the drawing to hold on to. A trace is also, of course, an imprint, a mark, which once made creates a shift, a change. Trisha Brown has left just such an imprint here at the Walker, in contemporary art more broadly, and, most keenly, in dance.

She writes on white paper with a black pen. Her handwriting is rushed, the words drawn out as her cursive spreads across the page. Her letters, though, are short, as though eager to get on to the next letter and the next. Like her drawings, like her choreography, the archived letter—preserved now in a plastic sleeve—articulates yet another trace of her presence. And, if we let her, it articulates, across the decades, a philosophy of dance.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

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!

FOG1

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.

Exploring Visual Dimensions of Tesseract with Silas Riener and Rashaun Mitchell

One of the most technically ambitious dance recordings ever made, incorporating 3D film, live performance and on-the-spot video-mixing by Atlas. —The Art Newspaper on Tesseract Two years in the making, Tesseract brings together video artist Charles Atlas with dancer/choreographers Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener in a collaboration that pushes the boundaries of space, time, and energy. Co-commissioned […]

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Kristen Foote, David Botana, and Cori Kresge, during the 3D filming of Tesseract. Photo: Mick Bello, EMPAC

One of the most technically ambitious dance recordings ever made, incorporating 3D film, live performance and on-the-spot video-mixing by Atlas.

The Art Newspaper on Tesseract

Two years in the making, Tesseract brings together video artist Charles Atlas with dancer/choreographers Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener in a collaboration that pushes the boundaries of space, time, and energy. Co-commissioned by the Walker Art Center and Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC), Tesseract is a two-part work: a stereoscopic 3D “dance video” by Charles Atlas (Tesseract ▢) and (Tesseract ◯), an on-stage performance by six dancers, filmed live and edited and projected in real time by Atlas.

Part dance, part 3D film, and part science-fiction, the show is divided into six chapters that display a different world, visually and energetically, with unique rules dictating the type of movements for each section. The resulting experience is a densely layered, visually stunning alternative universe drawn from numerous influences and collaborations. In advance of the work’s March 16–18 Walker performances, we asked Silas Riener and Rashaun Mitchell to provide commentary on a selection of film stills, performance images, and behind-the-scenes photos from the making of Tesseract in order to provide a glimpse into multiple dimensions of the work.

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Melissa Toogood. Photo courtesy the artists

This image shows Melissa Toogood in a section we call “The Desert.” We envisioned a desert landscape and the bodies and objects as topography of this moving landscape—a kind of evolution of form. The entire section was shot on a green screen, knowing we could create different backgrounds in post-production. This helped create a hypothetical world, perhaps partly inspired by Edwin Abbott’s story Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, where the body would have cartoonish geometric outgrowths, like appendages but in spherical, conical, or cube forms with costumes constructed by the completely inimitable Yvette Helin. The movement material is drawn from an improvisational score that takes its cues, timings, and types of movement from looking at the natural world at a geological scale: glacial cleavings, tectonic shifts, and the slow but constant tides of the world.

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Melissa Toogood, Cori Kresge, Silas Riener, and Rashaun Mitchell. Photo courtesy the artists

This section was shot on a rubber padded floor, which completely changed the quality of movement we were able to do. We could throw ourselves around because of the springiness and protection provided by the floor.

The manic atmosphere made Charlie [Atlas] think of wigs, bringing a kind of bizarre dressed-up/dressed-down feeling. We wanted to be both easily identifiable and fantastical, but also faceless and unknown. The makeup artist covered all of our facial features, while the movement of the wigs obscured us further. The movement score proposes disorientation. We work to constantly disrupt our own intentions, to locate a space in between. We throw, release, and stiffen multiple parts of the body into competing and surprising falls and redirections. Attempts to support one’s self towards verticality are premature or too late. The Steadicam operator, Ryan Jenkins, weaves his way around and through us, upside down and around, reinforcing this sense of disorientation for the viewer.

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Left to right: Rashaun Mitchell, Cori Kresge, Melissa Toogood, Silas Riener, Kristen Foote, and David Rafael Botana. Photo: Mick Bello, EMPAC

Gestural sequences for this scene were created out of representational movements derived from mini-narratives, woven together. The textile drops are by Fraser Taylor, originally made for Rashaun’s piece, Interface (2013). The recycled graphic, two-dimensional images were set in the space to create the sense of multiple three-dimensional rooms or pockets in the space that display and conceal secret stories. This is the most playful, character-driven scene choreographically. We wanted to evoke a kind of childlike story-time—an Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland-inspired world.

EMPAC: Tesseract

Photo: Ray Felix, EMPAC

In this image, Cori Kresge is performing live while her movements are simultaneously captured by a camera offstage and manipulated live by Charles Atlas. In this particular moment, she appears larger than life, with trails of different colors coming off of her as she moves.

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Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener. Photo:  Mick Bello, EMPAC

This is a photograph from a set-up that never made it into our “duet” scene of the film. We were imagining a kind of technological jungle, with structural forms appearing part natural outgrowth of a forest ecosystem, and part complete hyper-color explosion of chords and connective tissue. We played with movements that appear part robotic, part animal. The material is tubular crinoline, which is also used for “Chinese finger traps,” and was originally sourced by our friend, artist Ali Naschke-Messing, for our earlier piece, PERFORMANCE. For this film, the material was recycled into corsets constructed by Julia Donaldson, reminiscent of peacock plumage, and inspired by kamata, worn by the Dinka group in South Sudan. We had a lot of fun filming this scene, at one point almost collapsing the theater’s hanging pipes when the vines got tangled during a circular run in the choreography.

EMPAC: Tesseract

Photo: Ray Felix, EMPAC

This is the full cast of the live work, including Steadicam operator Ryan Jenkins, capturing the dance from his perspective and projecting it into the action as it happens.

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Left to right: Victor Lazaro, Ryan Jenkins, Horoki Ichinose, and Cori Kresge. Photo: Mick Bello, EMPAC

This is a production shot from the filming of a section of the 3D film, featuring Hiroki Ichinose and Cori Kresge dancing and Steadicam operator Victor Lazaro with Ryan Jenkins.  The 3D Steadicam rig was huge, weighing about 90 pounds. The ring of lights illuminating the fog in a room of blackness, combined with continuous circling choreography for the dancers, was very disorienting. No one ever knew where front was. It’s a miracle the shot happened at all. Everything about this scene is slippery, including its own success. By the end of the second or third take, we had to wrap the scene because the Steadicam operator’s back gave out. The vulnerability of the human body next to the durable machine was never so poignant. This is the most virtuosic shot of the film, for both the camera and the dancing.

Charles Atlas on set of Tesseract

Charles Atlas during rehearsal. Photo: Mick Bello, EMPAC

Tesseract by Charles Atlas / Rashaun Mitchell / Silas Riener will be performed March 16–18, 2017 at 8 pm in the Walker’s McGuire Theater, in conjunction with the exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time.

Ray of Light : Penelope Freeh on CCN-Ballet de Lorraine

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, dance artist Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on CCN-Ballet de Lorraine’s performances of […]

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To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, dance artist Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on CCN-Ballet de Lorraine’s performances of Fabrications, Sounddance, and Devoted last night. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

The CCN-Ballet de Lorraine program opened at Northrop with Devoted, a dance by choreographic duo Cecilia Bengolea and Francois Chaignaud. Wearing variations on an emerald green leotard, the nine women on pointe also had geometric face paint, corsage-like bows on their shoulders, and/or a single stocking on one leg.

Devoted was fierce and challenging, to dance as well as to watch. It opened with the dancers doing distorted chaine turns, lower backs arched and arms unhelpfully behind them like low wings. Set to music by Philip Glass, the dance was as relentless as the music, and then some.

This work placed extreme ballet tropes (running and jumping into the splits, distorted chaine turns, balancing in sous-sus for forever) alongside pop cultural clichés like the moonwalk, twerking, and breakdance-esque partial spins on the back with legs splayed then folding. The combination of these aesthetic forms was a fun surprise and well handled, formal and casual. Repetitive passages unfolded, varied, developed. The movement was athletic, leggy and wildly difficult technically, mostly due to the pointe shoes, though it’s fair to say that some technical feats are in fact easier when fully up on pointe versus demi pointe, when the calves strain with responsibility.

There was a nice dynamic shift when a quartet occurred. Three women balanced like tree-statues while a soloist glided among them. Her entirely backwards vocabulary was mesmerizing, particularly in how it navigated pointe work.

The piece ended with the music finishing and the dancers continuing, the sounds of their shoes audible, a reminder of the hardness and the work.

Next up were two works by master dancemaker Merce Cunningham. Fabrications featured a painted upstage scrim by Dove Bradshaw that had drawings resembling both mechanical objects as well as chambers of the heart. The fifteen dancers, clad in gender specific street clothes, accomplished the Cunningham style cleanly and neutrally. They let the work speak for itself, exemplifying the patience it takes to enter in.

Arms were often held in a neutral open 5th low while the legs extended, balanced, tilted, rotated. The movement resembles ballet and is indeed incredibly technically challenging, but there is a grounded difference, something about the relaxed torso, the frank expression, those arms finished with hands, just hands, not flowers of articulated fingers.

Coupling images emerged in unsentimental partnering, lifting and supportive balances. At one point all the couples did the same slow counterbalanced phrase but in different phases so that we could see all of it at once. The use of plié was magnificent, and I wished I could’ve seen its full expression had it not been for those dresses.

There was a blur of a running trio, identical dynamically fast footwork in triplicate. This was my favorite tiny moment exemplifying Cunningham’s mastery. His layering of events is just enough. There is a lot going on simultaneously but somehow the eye doesn’t get tired, it gets an education. All that movement adds up to something, and one can’t help but be moved by the sheer force of dancers doing what they do, mining the grand physicality.

Sounddance closed the show, and I am so glad I changed seats in order to view this at closer range. The work had me at hello with its decadent curtain-collage décor in pale peach. Its heavy folds and sensuous curves both framed and participated in the dance.

The ten dancers entered singly, adding in to the space with aplomb as they burst through the center curtain of the set. It’s so satisfying to watch people repeatedly enter this way, unabashedly flashy yet in the context of a Cunningham work it was business as usual, neutral and not commented upon.

This dance too had lots of coupling, with nice movement diversity and panache. There were variations of lifting and turning, each couple occupying their own timing and spacing. Groupings of dancers regularly came together for en masse sculptural moments. These blended beautifully with the drapey set, placing the bodies in relief against it for brief, baroque stillnesses.

The music by David Tudor supported and propelled this dance ever-forward with its driving electronica. The accumulating effect was one of suspense as one by one each dancer exited as dramatically as they had entered, through the drapery, flapping it wildly. The piece began and ended with a male soloist, soft, fluid, precise and young seeming.

This seminal work premiered in 1975. I felt a thrill at the reminder that, from baroque to classical to post-modern and beyond, dance is a living art, wonderfully and heartbreakingly ephemeral. I spent the whole piece thinking it was aptly titled Sundance. I have since noted my mistake but will always think of it as a piece of light, a fractured, radiating hope.

CCN-Ballet de Lorraine’s performances of Fabrications, Sounddance, and Devoted was copresented by the Walker and the Northrop on February 16, 2017 as part of the exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time, on view in the Walker galleries until July 30.

Behind the Scenes: A Closer Look at Merce Cunningham’s Fabrications

MCDC Fabrications 1987
MCDC Fabrications 1987

Jed Downhill, Merce Cunningham, Patricia Lent, Helen Barrow, Victoria Finlayson, and Karen Radford in Fabrications. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives, Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection

In this week’s performance by CCN-Ballet de Lorraine, co-presented by the Walker Art Center and The Northrop, Merce Cunningham’s Fabrications returns to the same stage where it saw its world premiere 30 years ago. That 1987 performance culminated the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s (MCDC) three-week residency in Minneapolis and was the first of three Walker-commissioned dances from the company. Such commissions are just one component of the Walker’s longstanding relationship with Cunningham, which includes another eight residencies, a total of 17 separate engagements, and the acquisition of the 4,300-object Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection.

Since the company’s Legacy Tour in 2010–2011, Cunningham’s pieces are licensed exclusively by the Merce Cunningham Trust to a select group of world-renowned companies, including CCN-Ballet de Lorraine, whose dancers are taught the work by former Cunningham company members. Fabrications was staged for CCN-Ballet de Lorraine by Patricia Lent (pictured above), who performed in the work’s premiere at Northrop and now works for the Trust. In addition to Fabrications, CCN-Ballet de Lorraine will perform Sounddance (1976) from the MCDC repertoire as part of the Walker’s Merce Cunningham: Common Time exhibition.

“It is our hope, of course, that this residency will serve to be the pilot project for a continuing ‘second-home’-style relationship with the Walker Art Center and and the City of Minneapolis.”

—Art Becofsky, MCDC Executive Director, in a letter to the Walker’s then-curator of performing arts, Robert Stearns, April 9, 1986

Fabrications is not only an important work in the Walker’s relationship with Cunningham, but marks a unique period in the artist’s choreographic repertory. The piece has a notably stronger sense of narrative than much of his other work, which is a tone that is expressed through distinct choices in the design elements in addition to the arc of the actual choreography. The company’s long-time archivist David Vaughn has described Fabrications as somewhat “reminiscential”—Cunningham’s version of an “aging-artist-looks-back-on-his-past ballet.” The way the composition of the work moves between duets, trios, and group work hints ever so slightly towards a traditional ballet structure rather than the more chaotic and unpredictable puzzles of some of his other pieces, even though Cunningham used a process influenced by I Ching to formulate it. One reviewer for the New York Times went as far as to say that Fabrications has “a highly emotional resonance–surprisingly close to Antony Tudor’s ballets about young love, or more precisely, love recalled through the haze of memory.”

Draft of the program for the 1987 MCDC performance at Northrup, including Fabrications

Draft of the program for MCDC’s 1987 Northrop performance, which included Fabrications. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

These kinds of interpretations were not endorsed by Cunningham, who was firm about stating that he does not put stories in his choreography. In early notes from making the work, however, he separates the piece into scenes whose names imply acknowledgement of the dance’s emotive potential: sorrow, anger, fear, and odiousness. Similar narrative tones in another work that premiered that same year, Shards, led critics to wonder if this marked the beginning of a new era of “emotionalism” for Cunningham. In Merce Cunningham: Creative Elements, company archivist Vaughn reflects on an interview with Cunningham after the works premiered in New York:

“Did his dances have stories? Was there, as the reviewers were saying, a new emotionalism in his work? No, he replied. His dances had no stories, never had stories, and if people we seeing a new emotionalism in his work, ‘it’s just their eyes.’ Or maybe it was there, he said, but ‘I don’t put it in the piece. My choices are made in the movement.’ Movement, he went to say, could have a strong emotional resonance. ‘Movement is expressive. I’ve never denied that. I don’t think there’s such a thing as abstract dance.’ In his dances, though, the movement was never ‘expressive of a particular thing.’”

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performance at Northrop Auditorium, 2/21/1987

Merce Cunningham observes the dancers rehearse Fabrications at the Northrop Auditorium in 1987. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

The design elements of Fabrications were crucial in influencing the audience’s experience with the piece, following the company’s rich legacy of commissioning works from fellow contemporary artists. Cunningham’s artistic advisor for this piece was the artist Dove Bradshaw, who created the original backdrop that will be transported to Northrop from the Walker’s collections storage for CCN-Ballet de Lorraine’s upcoming performance (the company usually tours the piece with a replica). Bradshaw was appointed as an artistic advisor to the MCDC, along with William Anastasi, in 1984, overseeing the production of numerous pieces until 2012. Her experimental work with indeterminacy, chance structures, and natural forces were appealing to both Cunningham and Cage, who believed her almost scientific approach to working with time and chance resonated with what the company was doing. During her time with MCDC Bradshaw designed sets, costumes, and lighting and was responsible for all three of these elements in Fabrications. The color palette for the piece–incorporated in both costumes and décor–is a reduced-Constructivist theme of red, blue, black, and white, which contributes to the period-piece feel along with the collection of mixed thrifted and couture fabrics. The costumes were a particularly notable departure from the standard androgynous unitards: for this work, Bradshaw costumed the women in vintage WWII–style silk dresses and men in loose pants and shirts. The backdrop is an enlarged segment of one of Bradshaw’s collages in which she drew and painted on images from medical, architectural, and mathematical books. To adapt the image to the dance she added on top of her enlarged collage intertwining spirals and targets to emphasize the effect of the dancers’ twirling skirts. Bradshaw’s final touch to the set design was to impart a warm tropical feel with the lights, complementing the light flowing fabric and rich colors.

Dove Bradshaw 2011.248 drop for Fabrications. Cunningham Collection. Scrim is a reproduction of Dove Bradshaw's mixed media work "Without Title" (1986). FIRST PERFORMANCE: Northrup Auditorium, Minneapolis, MN February 20 ,1987. Walker Art Center Commission. COSTUMES: Dove Bradshaw. MUSIC: Emanuel Dimas de Melo Pimenta "Short Waves" Hi-res file stored on 2015 WAC PC 050 cd.

Dove Bradshaw, décor for Fabrications (1987) paint on scrim.  Photo: Gene Pittman, courtesy Walker Art Center Archives, Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection

Original music for Fabrications was composed by Emanuel Dimas de Melo Pimenta, who will be arranging the sound live onstage during this week’s Ballet de Lorraine’s performance. The piece, titled Short Waves (1985), further contributes to Bradshaw’s tropical ambiance with its recorded short-wave radio sounds captured in the Amazon forest. The snippets of human voices in his recordings are often attributed as key in influencing some audience’s narrative interpretations. Throughout the dance the sound moves in and out of radio, music, and static without large swings in tempo or volume. Vaughn characterized the feeling as “like something heard from a distance.” In addition to his sound compositions–which have been performed by other legendary avant-garde musicians associated with the company like John Cage, David Tudor, Takehisa Kosugi, and Christian Wolff–Pimenta is known for working on a diverse range of projects in visual arts, architecture, intermedia systems, photography, and urbanism. His work often interweaves art with science and technology and overlaps with Cage and Cunningham in his experiments with time and space.

There was minimal communication between Cunningham and the designers while they were creating, consistent with his Artaud-inspired belief in not explicitly coordinating the various elements before their completion. The separation wasn’t as extreme as in other work, however, resulting in a notably more cohesive theatrical feel. Before the season even began Bradshaw asked Cunningham if she could use dresses at some point, which he agreed could work with one of the pieces he had in mind–so despite the absence of any explicit discussion about a narrative, there was some common understanding about the tone of this specific dance.

Fabrications is a distinctive example of Cunningham’s ability to evoke interest and feeling with calculated abstraction. Even in this work that leans uncharacteristically towards a narrative, Cunningham leaves enough unsaid that we’re not limited by a specific plot. Rather the space given by his abstraction opens our eyes to the power of a complex and multidimensional experience. However, this taste of emotionalism was fleeting for Cunningham, and as Vaughn mused, his next season (including works like Eleven and Carousal) could have been titled, “There is No New Emotionalism in My Work.”

CCN-Ballet de Lorraine/Fabrications by Bernard Prudhomme

CCN-Ballet de Lorraine performing Fabrications. Photo: Bernard Prudhomme

CCN-Ballet de Lorraine performs Fabrications, along with Cunningham’s Sounddance and Devoted, by Cecilia Bengolea and François Chaignaud, on Thursday, February 16, 2017 at 7:30 pm at Northrop. Merce Cunningham: Common Time is on view in the Walker galleries through July 30, 2017.

Walker Cunningham Events: Meet Participating Twin Cities Musicians

During the next three months, movement and music will merge within the Walker Art Center galleries as Events, part of the exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time, unfold. Taking place in the Perlman Gallery February 8–9, March 30–April 2, and April 6–April 9, this Cunningham piece features dancers from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and music by Minnesota-based […]

During the next three months, movement and music will merge within the Walker Art Center galleries as Events, part of the exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time, unfold. Taking place in the Perlman Gallery February 8–9, March 30–April 2, and April 6–April 9, this Cunningham piece features dancers from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and music by Minnesota-based vanguard music-makers. The nature of these works will highlight the collaborations established by Cunningham between dance, music, and art.

Below, an introduction to some of the Minnesota-based music-makers featured in Events, along with their answers to the question: Why Merce?

Wednesday, February 8: Mankwe Ndosi/Nick Gaudette

Nick GaudetteRenegade bassist and composer Nick Gaudette has been playing and performing in the Twin Cities for over a quarter century. Nick began his studies of the bass at the age of 5. Studying classical and nonclassical forms of music, Nick completed Bachelors and Masters degrees in performance from the Cleveland Institute of Music. Over the last decade, he has dedicated himself to the progression of music education. You can still catch his performances and collaboration as he regularly appears with the Cherry Spoon Collective, the Maggie Bergeron & Dance Company, as well as being a co-curator of the Hear Here! Live Music and Movement Festival.

I studied Modern Dance as a musician. To me time and space in music parallels dance. I am always intrigued by the way the body can paint a picture through movement just as a musician paints through a sonic backdrop. Having the opportunity to work within the world of Merce Cunningham in the city and community that I live within is a treat and a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Mankwe bySNixon-2Mankwe Ndosi is a Twin Cities–based vocalist, improviser, and composer focused on using an expanded vocabulary of singing to express emotion, story, and spirit guidance. Ndosi regularly makes new shapes of sound with artists of all media, and living beings of all kinds.

I look forward to new collaborations and pushing to find this moment’s song and movement with Merce Cunningham Company dancers to celebrate and stretch his life through here and now.

Thursday, February 9: Michelle Kinney/Anthony Cox/Andrew Broder

Michelle Kinney is a dedicated and lifelong improviser and composer, working in nontraditional contexts. She finds much inspiration in cross-cultural and cross-genre collaborations. As Musician in Residence at the University of Minnesota’s Dance Program, she MK headshot Airbnbmines the music and kinesthetic information revealed by the body in motion, while accompanying classes with her cello, using a looping station and electronics. She has created several scores for dance, theater, and film, and performs frequently with many collaborative original music ensembles.

The biggest inspirations I get from the Cage and Cunningham collaboration are the many ways they worked together to sublimate the ego in creation and performance, as much as that is possible. I’m fascinated by this unique career-long meditation on the ego. It closes the usual doors to ego-involved self-expression, while opening endless pathways the artist couldn’t have imagined. It’s a disciplined practice, yet it leads to results that are the definition of feral, and offers the artists and audience a glimpse into the randomness of the universe.

Thursday, March 31: John Keston/Graham O’Brien

moogfest_headshot_kestonJohn Keston is a composer, sound artist, and developer who connects musicians to each other and their audience through the insertion of a mediating layer that embraces the chaotic ambiguities of environmental and sensorial influences. His music often activates what remains immutable within traditional forms of notation. He has performed and/or exhibited at Northern Spark, the Weisman Art Museum, the Montreal Jazz Festival, the Burnet Gallery, Walker’s Point Center for the Arts, the Minnesota Institute of Art, the In/Out Festival of Digital Performance, the Eyeo Festival, INST-INT, Echofluxx, and Moogfest.

I have been hooked on the work of John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, and many other innovative composers for years. What keeps me coming back is their sense of discovery. Both Cage and Oliveros excavated sonic environments, bringing attention to sound artifacts that were otherwise ignored. I am thrilled to participate in Merce Cunningham: Common Time, not to emulate the work of Cage, Tudor, or Oliveros, but to honor them through a similar spirit of exploration.

GrahamO'BrienGraham O’Brien is a drummer and electronic music producer/composer from St. Paul. His most recent work, Drum Controller, is focused on the interplay between his unique drumming and composition styles. Currently he is performing new music written especially for live performance and which utilizes a custom-made electro-acoustic drum set concept. As he puts it, “I’m exploring ways to explore spontaneous composition using the rhythmic information of my drumming to provoke surprising response from my computer, in real-time.” Graham’s electronic music work has been released on labels includingEqual Vision, Ambledown, Doomtree, and Strange Famous.

I have lately been especially interested in the concept of “surprise” in my musical creations. If I can truly surprise myself with a combination of sounds, there’s that elusive excitement and inspiration of finding an unturned stone. It’s infectious. In my experience, one way to discover surprise in music is by introducing randomness and chance to my composition or performance concept. It was through the works of Cunningham in collaboration with John Cage that I first encountered this fundamental idea. The Cunningham/Cage/Tudor work has been one of few sources of inspirations that don’t seem to fade, because I’m reminded of the idea of childlike surprise and newness. Really, it’s exciting to be a part of an event celebrating this spirit.

Friday, March 31: Douglas Ewart/Laura Harada

Douglas R. Ewart By Byron Dean11225364_10204780180889348_73866164409500806_nBorn in Kingston, Jamaica, Douglas Ewart immigrated to Chicago, Illinois in the 1960s. He is a past chairman of the world renowned Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM); board member of the Jamaica Minnesota Organization (JMO), and current co-chair of the American Bell Association, Minnesota Chapter. The polymathic Ewart has been honored for his work as a composer, improvising multi-instrumentalist, conceptual artist, sculptor, and designer of masks and instruments. Also an educator, Ewart bridges his kaleidoscopic activities with a vision that opposes today’s divided world. His culture-fusing works aims to restore the wholeness of communities and of the individuals within them, and to emphasize the reality that the world is an interdependent entity.

I have always had a great affinity for choreographers and dancers, and have collaborated with numerous practitioners in the movement field from the formative years of my life as a sonic and visual artist. Music with dance is one of the most compelling and profound confluences. The duet format has been one of my favorite ways to practice. I am looking forward to collaborating with violinist Laura Harada. She is a highly skilled, very sensitive, and dynamic artist, and she has a wonderful spirit. I am honored to be part of this project that is paying homage to Merce Cunningham, the brilliant dancer, choreographer, experimentalist, and conceptualist. Cunningham has been an inspiration and beacon to artists in all disciplines, and people from all walks of life!

Saturday, April 1: Cole Pulice/Michelle Kinney/Eric Jensen

colepuliceCole Pulice is a saxophonist, composer, and improviser based in Minneapolis, where he works with a diverse array of groups and individuals across genre and disciplinary boundaries. Cole also works with the Twin Cities–based collective 6 Families to curate and facilitate community-driven performances and projects.

I am thrilled to participate in the celebration of Merce Cunningham’s work and legacy at the Walker. He’s artist who so gracefully pushed the limits of his medium through the development of frameworks of thinking, choreography, and performing, and well as through the frequent collaboration with artists across other disciplines. It’s fitting to be celebrating Merce Cunningham with such a varied and beautiful collection of musicians and artists.

Sunday, April 2: Noah Ophoven-Baldwin/Joe Strachan

headshot_2017Noah Ophoven-Baldwin is an improvising cornetist based in Minneapolis. As well as being a cornetist he is also a member of 6 Families, a collection of musicians located in Minneapolis. As an organizer for 6 Families, he acts as an advocate for building and participating in an arts community based in patience, kindness, and love. He appreciates the chance to learn from all of his friends/loved-ones/elders/mentors.

As an improviser I think Merce Cunningham’s work is extremely attractive to investigate. His work embraces a similar chaos that so many improvising musicians tap into as performers (and listeners). In my case, Cunningham deftly refocused how collaboration between dance and music (or visual art or architecture) exist together in space.

Thursday, April 6: Toby Ramaswamy/Adam Zahller

IMG_8230Toby Ramaswamy is a Minneapolis-based composer, drummer, and member of the musicians collective 6 Families. He has been fortunate enough to work with, learn from, and be influenced by a diverse group of Minneapolis musicians and artists.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with dancers in the Twin Cities for several years now, both as an accompanist at several schools and as a collaborator with DaNCEBUMS and Kelvin Wailey. The idea of doing a dance/music piece with dancers I had never met really interested me. I’m also a fan of John Cage’s music, and the prospect of working on a project connected to the choreographer most associated with Cage was exciting.

Friday, April 7: Patrick Marschke/Tara Loeper

16299320_10155081688611414_7140549769466536358_nPatrick Marschke is a Minneapolis-based percussionist, composer, and electronic musician trying to make all of those things into one thing. He is a proud member of 6 Families and occasionally writes about music for the SPCO, the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series, and Walker Art Center.

I think this particular Cunningham “event” and the total ambiguity of the relationship between the dance and sounds being created can be incredibly instructive in a time where we are constantly bombarded with information: we don’t really have the capacity to understand and rationalize every correlation or relation being thrown at us, and a certain clarity can come from acceptance and welcoming of chaos. This work does that in a really subtle and profound way, and I’m excited to see how they all play out.

Saturday, April 8: Davu Seru/Jeremy Ylvisaker

Sunday, April 9: Cody McKinney/Leah Ottman

codymckinneyCody McKinney is a bassist, composer, improviser, and sound artist currently residing in the Twin Cities. He has been actively composing, recording, and performing since the mid 1990s. McKinney studied jazz and improvisation at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and, later, composition and process conceptualization at the New School in New York. His work straddles “a haunted space somewhere between free jazz and musique concrète,” with hallmarks that include his “liquid mastery of rhythm” and his use of graphic and text scores with indeterminacy and fixed time. Some of McKinney’s recent works have been recorded by his contemporary trio, Bloodline.

I actually studied composition in the same room where John Cage was teaching composition 50 years earlier. The “young me” was tossing around similar questions and processes when I finally came to learn of their work. That discovery became a revelation for me; both due to the brilliance of the work itself and the realization that the zeitgeist had expanded to unknowingly defending my ideas. Perhaps no other collaboration has been more important to performing arts in the 20th Century than that of Cage and Cunningham.

Cunningham Events is free with gallery admission and has the following performance schedule in the Perlman Gallery.

  • February 8–9
    Wednesday–Thursday, 5:30 and 8 pm
  • March 30–April 2
    Thursday, 5:30 and 8 pm
    Friday–Sunday, 1:30 and 4 pm
  • April 6–9
    Thursday, 5:30 and 8 pm
    Friday–Sunday, 1:30 and 4 pm

Stillness and Spectacle: An Interview with Maria Hassabi

“I am concerned with the separation between the spectacular and the everyday, between subject and object, between bystander and viewer—while addressing the ways in which dance and the spectacle of performance are presented in theatrical and exhibition contexts.” For Maria Hassabi’s Walker-commissioned performance STAGING (2017)—performed continuously during gallery hours, February 8–12 and 14–19, 2017—eight dancers will […]

Maria Hassabi STAGING (2017) Installation view, Walker Art Center Performer name is Kennis Hawkins Photo by Gene Pittman

Kennis Hawkins performing Maria Hassabi’s STAGING (2017); installation view, Walker Art Center. Photo: Gene Pittman

“I am concerned with the separation between the spectacular and the everyday, between subject and object, between bystander and viewer—while addressing the ways in which dance and the spectacle of performance are presented in theatrical and exhibition contexts.” For Maria Hassabi’s Walker-commissioned performance STAGING (2017)—performed continuously during gallery hours, February 8–12 and 14–19, 2017—eight dancers will inhabit various locations within the Walker Art Center, including the galleries of Merce Cunningham: Common Time, creating a sculptural movement installation. Occupying a space between live performance and visual art, her art explores the tension between human form and artistic object through stillness and sustained motion. Here, in an interview with curator Aram Moshayedi, first published in the Walker-designed catalogue Merce Cunningham: Common Time, Hassabi discusses her live-installation work, her approach to institutional spaces and the body, and the relationship between the spectacular and the intimate.

Aram Moshayedi: It makes sense to begin our conversation with PLASTIC (2015), a work that you first presented at the Hammer Museum for a month in February 2015. As an “installation” of choreographed movement for four performers, it’s a work that inhabits slowness. In some sense, it relies on its performers to move almost glacially or tectonically slow. This characteristic was something that I was first drawn to when I saw you perform Intermission (2013) at the 55th Venice Biennale as part of the Cyprus and Lithuania Pavilion. Can you talk about the relationship between these two works and any conceptual ties that bind them?

Maria Hassabi: Both PLASTIC and Intermission belong to the format I call “live-installation.” This is a term I coined in collaboration with my team, Hristoula Harakas and Paige Martin, when we were asked in Venice to describe the kind of work we were presenting. In principle, live-installations have an ongoing presence in an exhibition space, and their duration is determined by the opening hours of the institutions in which they are presented. These works lack any dramaturgical arc (usually necessary in theater), as there’s no definite beginning and ending.

My works in general are characterized by their slowness, even though slow per se has never been my concern. I’m interested in creating a space where the viewer is given plenty of time to see and be, a space where even the smallest details of motion can become visible. In order to do so, I pare down my material and slow its rhythm.

Maria Hassabi INTERMISSION (2013) Installation view, Cypriot and Lithuanian Pavilion, 55th International Venice Biennale, May 28 – June 4, 2013. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Robertas Narkus. Exhibition view includes artwork by Phanos Kyriacou, Eleven hosts, twenty-one guests, nine ghosts, mixed media, 2013.

Maria Hassabi, INTERMISSION (2013); installation view, Cypriot and Lithuanian Pavilion, 55th International Venice Biennale, May 28–June 4, 2013. Exhibition view includes artwork by Phanos Kyriacou: Eleven hosts, twenty-one guests, nine ghosts, mixed media, 2013. Photo: Robert Narkurs, courtesy the artist

For a long time now I have been preoccupied with stillness and the paradox of this idea in live performance. Working with stillness, and finding a way to support it, has turned my attention toward how to move, uninterrupted, from one place of hold to another (which can result in a “tectonic” appearance). I find the only way to succeed in this un-interruption is to approach movement very precisely, with full awareness of its image. The performers need to be aware of the representations their bodies are producing at any given moment. This takes time, both for the performer to inhabit this awareness and for the viewer to observe it.

This approach results in material that is detached from more typical rhythmical patterns. I try as much as possible to avoid any accentuated rhythms in my work, as that tends to create a hierarchy among movements, and can inadvertently turn the attention of the viewer toward a search for meaning.

Moshayedi: Given that the commitment of time and the expectations of viewership are different in works presented in a theater, such as PREMIERE, would you say your interest in “the image” still applies? I ask because, in some sense, the experience of static images also lacks any determined duration.

Hassabi: Yes, definitely, it applies. When my works are presented in a theater, I’m still dealing with images and their representation. I consider dance to be an abstract art form, yet it is one that is represented by human beings. The material of dance is people. This means that dance cannot avoid representation, especially with works like mine that tend to be so static. In terms of time and expectation, I think the biggest difference between a theater work like PREMIERE and a live-installation like PLASTIC is the nature of the tension between performer and audience. The closed space of a theater contains anticipation in a very particular way—the audience and performers are locked together for a shared experience that lasts for a specific duration. In an exhibition context, performers are present at all times, while the “visitors” come and go as they wish. This removes the nervous tension the performers usually carry within a theatrical presentation, which in my works doesn’t evaporate easily. Also, in my theatrical works I tend to exaggerate the idea of seeing, theater being the seeing place, by adding lights that are very bright and are treated as another sculptural entity in the space. They also produce a lot of heat that is felt throughout the duration of the work and intensifies the shared experience within the enclosed space. This is an element that I don’t involve in live-installations, even though at the Hammer iteration of PLASTIC an idea of this was materialized in the gallery space. So works like PLASTIC and Intermission tend to be less about the tension created and rather about the constant presence of the performers in the space.

PLASTIC (2015) Installation view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, February 21-March 20, 2016. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Thomas Poravas.

Maria Hassabi, PLASTIC (2015), installation view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 21–March 20, 2016. Photo: Thomas Poravas, courtesy the artist

Moshayedi: How does the idea of an image translate specifically to your conception of the choreography and the role of the performers you’re working with?

Hassabi: When I began creating PLASTIC, for example, there were specific images I had in mind as well as concepts—rounded torsos, a falling body, an overall plasticity of the body. There were also specific images of sculptures made by other artists that were very present in my mind while I was creating the movement. One in particular came from a conversation with you while we were looking at an exhibition of three solid stainless steel figurative sculptures by Charles Ray at the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York.

For some works, including both PLASTIC and Intermission, I first make the material myself—they are solos, after all—and later on I teach it to the dancers. This gives me the opportunity to understand the images I’m thinking of and to really explore their physicality at a point when I’m not yet ready to articulate ideas very clearly to my collaborators. So I work alone for a while, and once things become clearer the collaborators come into the process. Everything changes immensely once they translate the movement I’ve created. Each physical body is very different, with its own limitations, abilities, and temperaments, and this is something I find very exciting, as it brings information into the process that I could not develop on my own. As far as the people I choose to work with, I’m drawn to them instinctively, while being aware of their technical capacities. I also pay attention to gender, ethnicity, age, and body type, as those are critical aspects of the images created. That said, some of my collaborators are consistent, such as Hristoula Harakas, who has performed in my work since 2002.

Moshayedi: This attention to both the technical ability and “look” of your dancers is an interesting one. In her book on Yvonne Rainer, Carrie Lambert-Beatty makes a distinction between Merce Cunningham’s company and Judson Dance Theater on the grounds of pace—how the pedestrian pace of a choreography by, say, Steve Paxton, or the slow-motion movement between poses in another by Yvonne Rainer, might lack the surprise, glamour, and sparkle (in Paxton’s words) of a work by Cunningham.1 How relevant is this tension today? Are there trajectories of dance that are more loyal to one lineage and theory of movement than the other?

Hassabi: I suppose there are, but honestly I’m not so concerned with historicizing my work in any way. I make the work I make. Yes, it has its influences—in fact, all the names you mention have influenced what I make today: the pedestrianism of Judson, Cunningham’s approach to time-space.

Maria Hassabi: PLASTIC (2015) Installation view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY. February 21- March 20, 2016. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Thomas Poravas.

Maria Hassabi, PLASTIC (2015), installation view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 21–March 20, 2016. Photo: Thomas Poravas, courtesy the artist

And you know, I never really found Cunningham’s work to be “glammed-up.” Yes, he had bigger production values, fancier costumes, sets, and many people on stage—for sure a different economy in terms of production. But for me, his work still always had the feeling of investigation and experimentation of form, even in the later productions.

Moshayedi: Specifically with regard to Cunningham, to what degree are you tied to his legacy and what challenges does your participation in an exhibition of this sort at the Walker pose to the way you conceive of your work?

Hassabi: I love his work. I always have, even when I didn’t enjoy being part of the audience. His work lacks any sense of entertainment or concern with being entertaining. That’s one of the things I love about it. My most direct tie to his work, at least for my approach toward this exhibition, is in relation to John Cage and his interest in silence. I find it similar to my understanding of stillness in dance.

Moshayedi: The notion of silence, or rather muteness, might also be used to describe the reticence of images. Of course, there is a relationship here to Tacita Dean’s film Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS (in three movements) to John Cage’s composition 4’33” with Trevor Carlson, New York City, 28 April 2007 (six performances; six films) (2008). This film is interesting in terms of your practice because I think that up until recently your work has been characterized within an art context according to a sculptural logic, one inherently tied to objects and the body as sculpturally bound. In line with your thinking, Dean’s film of Cunningham considers the image of movement rather than fixity of form. Do you think your new work—particularly in relation to your evocation of Cage and a different idea of what constitutes noise or sound in relation to dance and movement—might start to elicit a new language around your practice?

Hassabi: I started making this style of work because I was interested in creating images within live performance. Dealing with how to support images while avoiding easy theatrical tricks—change of lights, change of costumes, etc.—became my objective. Stillness, and a quiet and detailed way of transferring from one place of stillness to the next, was what made sense to me. Yet the more I worked with stillness and precision, the more I realized that what was produced was very sculptural as opposed to being a framed image that is very much bound to its framing. The body in live performance is three-dimensional, and I feel very comfortable with this idea of sculpting the body in each passing instance.

Maria Hassabi PLASTIC (2015) Installation view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, February 21-March 20, 2016. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Thomas Poravas.

Maria Hassabi, PLASTIC (2015), installation view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 21–March 20, 2016. Photo: Thomas Poravas, courtesy the artist

I often talk about the paradox of stillness in my performances, because stillness can’t really exist—we are breathing, and even if it’s imperceptible, it’s still a movement. Certainly this is congruous to the paradox of silence as John Cage understood it. I see them as the same concept rendered in different materials. This is something I want to continue pursuing in the new work I’m making for Common Time. What I’m planning to create will be heavily sculpted. It will also be the first work of mine in which I am not performing, and I hope that this will allow me to sculpt every passing second even more, since I will be outside of it. And, yes—I hope I do discover something new.

Moshayedi: To date, your works have sought to inhabit different contexts according to specific registers of time—how performers move and occupy space according to the conditions on offer. How much is location a factor in determining the contour and pace of a given choreography?

Hassabi: The context of where my works are presented is crucial to how I conceptualize them.

For museum works, I’m interested in an ongoing presence as it relates directly to the format in which the other art is exhibited, and one that allows the visitors to continue their patterns of behavior in these spaces. It’s up to the individual visitor to decide what they prefer to view, in what order, and for how long. I find this arrangement much more democratic than asking someone to take a seat in a specific location and watch us for a particular duration. Instead, we (the dancers) are there and fully committed to our product beyond any unscripted interactions that may occur with the visitors.

The kind of attention that visitors pay to a live performance changes depending on whether they view it in a theater, a museum, or some other kind of public space. Even so, sometimes the approaches used in a work can be portable across those contexts. For example, on a few occasions I have presented a “theatrical” work—one with a specific duration, a clear beginning and end, a dramaturgical through line, and fixed seating for the audience—in the context of a museum. Pretty much the only thing that changed was the overall color and scale of the piece, due to the switch from black box to white cube. The attention required of the audience remains pretty much the same.

Moshayedi: With regard to PLASTIC, how much of the choreography is determined by the conditions of the space when it’s re-performed in different contexts? What were the constants and what were the variables in each of its iterations at the Hammer, the Stedelijk, and MoMA?

Maria Hassabi PLASTIC (2015) Installation view, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, January 31-March 1, 2015. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Thomas Poravas.

Maria Hassabi, PLASTIC (2015), installation view, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, January 31–March 1, 2015. Photo: Thomas Poravas, courtesy the artist

Hassabi: It was pretty constant, but there were variables due to changes in architecture and crowd flow. A simple example: the difference in the number of stairs at each of these institutions required me to add or cut material from its original presentation at the Hammer. MoMA is a much busier museum in terms of attendance, so for that iteration I also added more performers. At the Hammer, a very crucial element of PLASTIC was the gallery project—a single dancer, throughout the duration of the piece, who was situated within an installation of sequenced light and sound. Neither the Stedelijk nor MoMA had gallery spaces in the same way, so that aspect of the project was not able to be remounted. But for MoMA, I made a new part for the work, which occupied the atrium area; it was loosely based on the Hammer gallery project. So there were variations, but the overall identity of the work did not shift.

Moshayedi: As you moved PLASTIC from one institution to the next, how concerned were you with some idea of an audience and its ability to apprehend, experience, or even just receive the work?

Hassabi: There is a through line in all my work, despite the context of presentation. I am concerned with the separation between the spectacular and the everyday, between subject and object, between bystander and viewer—while addressing the ways in which dance and the spectacle of performance are presented in theatrical and exhibition contexts. What shifts are concerns of duration, whether or not there is a clear beginning and ending, and my approach to addressing the audience and our shared intimacy.

A good friend mentioned to me awhile back that in theater we tend to treat the audience as a single body, because you cannot consider each audience member individually. In a gallery or an open space, this doesn’t have to be the case. Without a framed beginning and end, the performer is not aware of when visitors enter a gallery, when they pass by, or how they will choose to behave. This changes the intimacy between performer and viewer, and even the work’s intensity and temporality. But in a gallery or museum setting, there’s a feeling at times that we are performing for just one person, or for one body, and I think this can be quite luxurious for both the viewer and the performer.


Notes

1 Carrie Lambert-Beatty, Being Watched: Yvonne Rainer and the 1960s (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 60.

DaNCEBUMS Margaret, Karen, and Eben on Okwui Okpokwasili’s Poor People’s TV Room

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Margaret Johnson, Karen McMenamy, and Eben Kowler of DaNCEBUMS share their […]

Poor People's TV Room. Photo: Mena Burnette of xmbphotography

Poor People’s TV Room. Photo: Mena Burnette of xmbphotography

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Margaret Johnson, Karen McMenamy, and Eben Kowler of DaNCEBUMS share their perspective on Okwui Okpokwasili’s Poor People’s TV RoomAgree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

On the eve of the inauguration, Okwui Okpokwasili’s Poor People’s TV Room was the antidote to the always on political commentary. Joined by a multigenerational cast of women,Okwui, offered a splintered story in text, movement, and design. It was a beautiful disorientation that deliberated women’s initiation of, presence within, and erasure from historical narratives. Although it sourced from real events – Nigeria’s 1929 Women’s War, the #bringbackourgirls campaign – it told and teased out its own history entirely. It projected its own future and asked us to follow. It gave us the mystery and space we didn’t know we needed.

The show begins with a silhouetted dancer continually approaching and retreating from a side light. Behind a thin plastic wall, another figure – hazy like an aura – follows closely with quick sharp movement. We see a tv room completely turned on its side. A woman sits in a plastic lawn chair. In that moment we are saturated with depth. The set creates a layered environment and bodies follow suit by foregrounding and backgrounding, mirroring, mimicking, extrapolating and departing from each other’s physicality. We are primed for the continual shifting of timelines and characters to come.

Poor People’s TV Room combines movement and text to weave together a mythology incorporating breath, a knife, a time-traveling device inside a chest, cameras for eyes, and Oprah. The same myths are fragmented and recycled through the show. Nothing is fixed. Every repetition makes us question what came before. Who is a credible source, and who is really there? Who has the power to speak, and whose story is being told?

Dancing followed speaking. One ebbing into the other. Energy was processed and expelled from the body, or transmuted and transferred to another. Duets were both tender and combative, building on the relationships revealed by the text. Look carefully and sit close, low lighting obscures details of the choreography – calling attention to erasure in history and the blind spots of memory.

Here’s how Poor People’s TV Room rates based on DaNCEBUMS’ Standard Performance Criteria:

Relevance
We’re at a moment in our country’s history where there’s a lot of anxiety around the erasure of individual’s stories and/or needs from a national conversation. The show is explicitly about making something visible that’s not. 5/5

Hardness
Performers were virtuosic in movement, voice, and crafting environments. Movement seemed, at times, an act of endurance. As an audience member, there was a lot of content to digest. There was a sense that everything that happened was important, and yet it was delivered so rapidly that it was difficult to focus on everything. Bodies were intentionally hard to see. 5/5

Danciness
In this piece the state of the body was the danciness, not the individual dance moves. When they handled props or encountered the set, the performers moved with ease. We were super impressed by the scenes in the “tv room” – very trippy. Even the text felt like dance, every word was placed with a choreographic sensibility. 5/5

Musicality
The movement expressed the music but they didn’t happen simultaneously. 3/5

Buminess
The materials were bum-y: plastic sheets, plastic furniture, mylar, untreated lumber. However, the installation of all these materials was very precise and minimal. Delivery was polished, voices were confident and clear. 1/5

Pizza
“You had me at pizza.” Sparkly costume was like a personified trippy disco ball. Sideways room. 5/5

TL;DR
Words can’t do this show justice. Go see it; feel it.

Poor People’s TV Room continues at the Walker tonight and Saturday night, January 20-21, 2017.

DaNCEBUMS Margaret, Karen, and Eben on Faye Driscoll’s Thank You For Coming: Play

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Margaret Johnson, Eben Kowler and Karen McMenamy of DaNCEBUMS share their perspective […]

OT_Driscoll_Faye_PLAY_2016-17_13_PP

Photo: Maria Baranova

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Margaret Johnson, Eben Kowler and Karen McMenamy of DaNCEBUMS share their perspective on Faye Driscoll’s Thank You for Coming: PlayAgree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

All artifice at every point, Thank You For Coming: Play exists between dance and theater. Play looks at the structure of the performance, how every part functions: the director, the audience, the performers, the set, the theater. Play begins as an on-stage installation, and transitions to an extended pre-show overture before kicking off a play within a play: the origin story of Barbone. Five performers plus Faye embody dozens of characters – even themselves – to tell Barbone’s story from birth, to death, and after. The story was an absurd and over-acted farce, with tropes that hit close to home. Our audience didn’t laugh very much, but there was a lot of humor in the text and performance.

Play’s obsession with fabricating and consuming narrative raises questions of agency and control. The show opens up with the premise of co-creating the story. We are greeted by a dreadlocked witch who tells us “the story has not yet been written.” So we pitch in. When Barbone’s play starts, we learn that the story has been written. Scene by scene, we notice that none of the characters are self-aware about how the stories they tell themselves create their identities.

We see Faye interact with the story at multiple levels, seeming to be herself the entire time. She manipulates the set, interrupts and augments the narrative, and incites the audience to sing along. From the front row she pulls the strings. She even interjects herself into the climax of the show, sharing her feelings, then SPOILER kills Barbone. Who has the power to fabricate their own narrative, and who only gets to consume?

Here’s how Thank You For Coming: Play rates based on DaNCEBUMS’ Standard Performance Criteria:

Hardness

The play within the play was prepackaged, easily digestible, and entire scenes can be described in one or two sentences. The choreography closely matched the text – which makes Play not so hard for the audience. The stop motion movement demanded finite muscular control, combined with the fast switching between modes of performance and character; and the rigorous  detail in the facial expression, choreography, and vocal work all made Play hard for the performers.
3/5

Danciness
This is making us question what danciness is. Even in the more dancerly sections, we still felt that the performers were gesturing towards dance. A kind of meta-dance: dancers, playing actors, pretending to dance. Is that danciness? Their performances were hyper-embodied, and obviously choreographed. One thing is for sure, we’ll be thinking about this for a while.
[alien emoji]/ 5

Musicality
Music was used as a emotive and narrative tool. In a memorable solo, the movement felt unhinged from the music. Music was often used as a sound effect, and there was not much movement as an expression of music.
2/5

Buminess
Play was kind of like a show we made in our garage, and a show we planned to do but didn’t. Bedazzled costume pieces were used as all kinds of things (we even spied some hot-glued jewels). Using the audience as performers is kind of like using found objects for sculpture. And there were butts, also known as bums.
5/5

Relevance
Referenced current events – very relevant. There was a topical interruption that abruptly shifted the play’s emotional landscape. The line “getting all the likes,” is timely – but is that relevant? It’s the second part of a series, so very relevant if you are interested in seeing the last installment! If relevance is an experience that resonates with you where you are, the mad lib text is that – it mirrored the audience’s own stories back to us.
4/5

Pizza
A rollercoaster of pizza and not pizza.The extended intro was not pizza. The songs Barbone felt pizza. The “rage” song was pizza. Loneliness and mad-libs section were serious, not pizza. Costumes were pizza, very visually stimulating – like toppings.
1 and 5/5

TL;DR
Overheard in the audience: “My participation will be tremendous. I will participate in this play bigly.” You may participate, but who is pulling the strings?

Thank You For Coming: Play continues at the Walker through Saturday, January 14, 2017.

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