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Theresa Madaus on Beth Gill’s Brand New Sidewalk

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, choreographer and dance artist Theresa Madaus shares her perspective on the world premiere […]

Beth Gill_rehearsal_051

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, choreographer and dance artist Theresa Madaus shares her perspective on the world premiere of Beth Gill’s Brand New Sidewalk last Friday night in the McGuire Theater. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Beth Gill’s premiere of Brand New Sidewalk was a slowly unfolding dancework in three parts, each set in a starkly different atmosphere and each with its own minimal cast. Opening and closing with a solo, a duet sandwiched in between, the dance appeared as a triptych—each part discrete but offering a larger story together, like polished stones strung together to create a spare and asymmetrical necklace.  

Situated as part of the Merce Cunningham:Common Time exhibition, I was tempted to consider how this work related to my limited experience of Cunningham. Something about the way the dancers carried their spines in the duet—an uprightness and funneling of gravity down a flexible but solid column—reminded me of Cunningham dancers. The precision of the movement. And something about the relationship of the elements of the work—the primacy of the costumes, the impact of the lights, the draw of the music, each imperative to the power of the whole—that made me think about Cunningham’s collaborators. But ultimately I have no desire to compare and contrast to Cunningham or to abstract or analyze. I want to stay in the dreamy unfurling state that I experienced while watching: an ascending (or descending) series of images (sonic and visual, of body/matter and light), the slow unfurling of a flower, the strange reveal of a moonscape as it rotates into light, the metamorphosis of the grave, decay and birth.

Brand New Sidewalk by Beth Gill. Photo: Gene Pittman

Brand New Sidewalk by Beth Gill. Photo: Gene Pittman

We begin in the arctic, a sole figure (Danielle Goldman) bundled in an icy gray quilted one-piece jumpsuit, bulked with layers, the white marley of the floor and the bright lighting adding to the frigid atmosphere. With low bound movements, always in service of the fabric, she starts a slow and steady shedding of her layers, unzipping her jumpsuit and peeling off sweaters with the prosaic pace of a beetle—no urgency, but the attention of something that must happen, the emotionless striptease of an insect. Set to the drone of a mechanical screech/hum, it feels both urban and remote, solitary and full, like quiet nights on the farm with a more-than generator.

This metamorphosis reveals unnaturally bright colors (crimson sweater, vivid purple leggings), moving into green and then earthier tones (tan leggings and brown shirt), and finally, the shiny black obsidian at the core of the earth, a foreshadowing of where the piece will take us. Each layer is simultaneously a dead exoskeleton and a birthing, shifting contexts as the clothing remains attached to her limbs, a growing morphing animal. The slow build of melodic horns increases my appetite for the transformation. And then, finally clad in her shimmering ore pants and at last on her feet, she and the horns disappear, leaving us with the continuing hum and expectant closed curtains.

Brand New Sidewalk by Beth Gill. Photo: Gene Pittman

Brand New Sidewalk by Beth Gill. Photo: Gene Pittman

When they open again, we have flown to another world. If we were in the tundra, now we are on the moon, pale green and cast in soft glow. Perhaps a space station in an orbiting colony. (I am struck, later, by the relationship of colony to both outer space and insects, and why would I fixate on this word when the piece felt so solitary?) Even in this duet I felt the loneliness (or is it simply aloneness?) The two dancers (Kevin Boateng and Joyce Edwards) are clad in genderless hooded sleeveless tunics and pants, giving me the sense of futuristic scrubs, perhaps sanitation workers or priests. Their perfect unison adds to the uncanny sense of that are not quite human, and the movement—measured, fluid, exact, gliding—suggests a ritual, a meditation, a familiarity of routine that is both worker-drone and holy. They contain themselves entrancingly, moving in precision without sharpness or edges. Here is where I notice the spines—their bodies held in a different relation to gravity—weighted centers never contracting while their arms float heavily, sinuously, as if they are moving through thick viscous liquid-atmosphere. Not effortless but not effortful. This is clockwork if clockwork were made of snakes.

When the hoods come down and hair is revealed, the dancers become human, and when they lie down, the abrupt end of the horns (which have been building again with a calm ascendance) calls to mind both death and a mistake. But death is a purposeful mistake and their arms rise from their chests in lieu of spirits; I think they are ready to be levitated, raptured, taken by the mothership. And when they stand and move towards the back, I think they might step through an invisible-but-about-to-appear portal. And when this section ends we are again left in quiet darkness to wonder what comes next. What comes after death/transcendence?

Beth Gill_rehearsal_175

Brand New Sidewalk by Beth Gill. Photo: Gene Pittman

Oh, of course, the subterranean grave. The stage has expanded, consumed with velvety blackness, the floor slicked with three streaks of oil-like shine. A single figure again (Maggie Cloud), wrapped in layers of white shroud-like gauze. Less methodical, the movement of this solo seems dependent on shedding the fabric, but this time with less directed attention, more incidentally and with more stuttered movement, standing bent over, rolling on the floor, without the dexterity or focus of hands. I think of a corpse struggling out of her wrappings, moments of Poe, dead/undead, the white sunless bodies of larvae, still underdeveloped, pre-birth. When these layers are strewn about the floor and the dancer is at last upright, she still appears wrapped in a thin translucent skin, nylon skull cap on her head and wrinkles of innards showing beneath the pale tightly drawn fabric.    
The motif repeats; when she pulls off her head wrapping and releases her hair, she becomes human to me. In the dim atmosphere, beams of light strike her, sometimes shimmery and watery from the front, other times stark and painful from the side. As she gestures and almost mimes against the sidelight, an invisible wall, I wonder if this is Persephone, searching for a way out? Death is apparently literary. And when she stands in another watery beam at the end, I am ready for her to bite her skin off.

Brand New Sidewalk by Beth Gill, was commissioned by the Walker Art Center and performed in the McGuire Theater May 5 and 6, 2017.

Dancing on the Brink: An Interview with Beth Gill

“The worst thing about making choreography is that you get one chance to experience the novelty of something new, and then you get a million chances to practice recapturing that experience… The biggest criticism I have of my own work is that it’s always on the brink of dying.” Bessie Award–winner Beth Gill makes choreography that […]

Beth Gill, Electric Midwife (2011), performance at the Chocolate Factory, Long Island city, New York, June 2011.

Beth Gill, Electric Midwife (2011), performance at the Chocolate Factory, Long Island City, New York, June 2011

“The worst thing about making choreography is that you get one chance to experience the novelty of something new, and then you get a million chances to practice recapturing that experience… The biggest criticism I have of my own work is that it’s always on the brink of dying.” Bessie Award–winner Beth Gill makes choreography that is spare yet playful, stark yet beautiful. In the Walker-commissioned work Brand New Sidewalk—performed May 5–6 in the McGuire Theater—Gill teams up with composer Jon Moniaci and lighting designer Thomas Dunn as she questions the value of formalism in dance. This evocative piece for four dancers explores themes of alienation, erasure, and power, illuminating the compositional pleasure of the Merce Cunningham legacy. In an interview with performance scholar Danielle Goldman, first published in the Walker-designed catalogue Merce Cunningham: Common Time, Gill discusses audience-performer intimacy, choreographic density and complexity, and releasing control of the creative process in search of “liveness.”

Danielle Goldman: When I reflect on your creative practice over the past ten years, I don’t often think of Merce Cunningham as being an explicit reference for you. But since you were commissioned to make a new piece for the exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time, perhaps we could begin by talking about Cunningham’s investment in “pure dance” and formalist abstraction. I often think that discussions about these aspects of his work fail to reckon with the ways in which he recognized the idiosyncrasies of his dancers. When discussing his Suite by Chance (1953) some years after its premiere, Cunningham said: “It was almost impossible to see a movement in the modern dance during that period not stiffened by literary or personal connection, and the simple, direct, and unconnected look of [Suite by Chance] (which some thought abstract and dehumanized) disturbed. My own experience while working with the dancers was how strongly it let the individual quality of each of them appear, naked, powerful, and unashamed.”1 How do you think about the encounter between dancers and form?

Beth Gill: Some of my love of Merce’s work—and, really, much of postmodern dance—has to do with the way he uses form as a foundation, as a structure, as a canvas, as a kind of supportive system in which one can perceive the individual contributions of the dancers, or—as I understand the quote—to perceive the individual dancer in a kind of naked, authentic state. I have that experience with Trisha’s [Brown] work as well. There’s some kind of relationship or contractual agreement that the dance coexists with that also makes possible the viewing of the individual dancers.

The closest I’ve come to that experience in my own work, though with more murky results, is in Electric Midwife (2011), in which three pairs of dancers, divided by two lines of tape on the floor, mirror each other’s movements. The overarching structure of symmetry creates a kind of feedback loop with the perception of the dancers. Watching the work, I’m pushed to consider how the form is affecting my understanding of who I’m seeing. So the notion that I can witness an authentic self becomes questionable, and for me that uncertainty is a powerful layer in the piece.

Goldman: Were there any particular works in which you were investigating the mechanism for questioning who or what it is that one is seeing?

Gill: When I was making New Work for the Desert (2014), I started to tailor roles to a specific dancer. Not just aesthetically but conceptually—thinking about what that role’s particular relationship to form should be in terms of style, history, and representation. I was using certain dancers symbolically or metaphorically only through the manipulation of their physical material, as opposed to costuming or visual design. I think my understanding of what form encompasses is expanding—it has more plasticity to it now. But it’s hard to talk specifically about this. When you talk about form, what are you talking about?

Goldman: The various ways in which the dance is structured: line, gesture, the compositional elements of a work, timing, the ways in which embodiment is structured and designed by your choreographic eye. For example, the New York Times described Electric Midwife—which I danced in at the Chocolate Factory—as “highly formal,” and there was certainly a very clear interest in geometry as one form that we as dancers were negotiating.2

Beth Gill, Electric Midwife (2011), performance at the Chocolate Factory, Long Island city, New York, June 2011.

Beth Gill, Electric Midwife (2011), performance at the Chocolate Factory, Long Island City, New York, June 2011

Gill: Right, there are many layers of form, and it’s challenging for me to extract and examine any one of them in isolation from the whole. Similarly, the discussion of the dancer as separate from the form is equally difficult, because it implies that the form can somehow stand on its own. What maybe makes it possible to have that discussion about Electric Midwife is how the symmetry forces the viewer to hold an understanding of both the ideal and the real experience. So we can separate out the ideal as the form itself and the dancers as being in negotiation with it.

Some of my earlier, more minimal works, like wounded giant (2005), have a clearer relationship to the Cunningham quote because the viewer’s primary encounter is with the performer. In the work I’m making now, Catacomb [premiered May 2016 at the Chocolate Factory, New York City], the complexity and density of the form can have a smothering effect on the dancers. There’s a lot for them to sift through.

Goldman: I was intrigued by your comment that there is a kind of contractual agreement at the outset of a process. Were you talking about an agreement between the dancer and the choreographer?

Gill: I think there are always contracts or agreements that get set up, of course between the choreographer and performer but also between the performer and the viewer, whether consciously or unconsciously. Sometimes a performer is asking to be seen in a particular way, or to not be seen at all. That’s something I’m really curious about as a director. From a psychological standpoint—what is the expectation they’re setting up and what is my role in shaping this? What I’m trying to address now is all of the work that’s happening inside the dancer’s mind beyond the management of body mechanics—what they’re thinking and imagining in addition to the moves.

Goldman: I was thinking recently about dancer Eleanor Hullihan in your work Eleanor & Eleanor (2007). I remember watching from the wings, mesmerized, as Eleanor, over the course of several minutes, gradually shifted from a full and engaged presence to a seemingly drained-out form, all while standing in a stationary spot onstage. There is tremendous complexity in the meeting of her interior space and that rather minimal formal proposition. It was seemingly so simple, yet very alive and shifting over time.

Gill: Catacomb is also an interesting workspace with regard to the dancer’s interior landscape, mainly because I’m trying to visibly render different modes of representation for each of the four roles, and I’m doing so by setting up different formal but also behavioral conditions with the dancers. This means building customized—I’ll just continue to use this word “contractual”—ideas for each person. How visible the differences are depends a lot on the viewer. For me, it would be most successful if it were clear to most viewers that there are distinctions, that these roles are not the same, and that the differences reveal a level of intentionality about how I constructed the form of the work.

Getting back to Cunningham, there are many differences between what he made and what I make, but certainly our individual relationship to control is radically different. For me, his willingness to let go of some of his control in the creative process is inspiring and something to strive toward.

Beth Gill, Electric Midwife (2011), performance at the Chocolate Factory, Long Island city, New York, June 2011.

Beth Gill, Electric Midwife (2011), performance at the Chocolate Factory, Long Island City, New York, June 2011

Goldman: Maybe another way to think about control is in terms of care. You’ve taken remarkable care to control or structure the viewer’s encounter with your work. In Electric Midwife, for example, you decided to limit the audience to twelve people, and you became a kind of host for the work. I remember your attempt to personally escort everyone into the theater. You’ve talked about that as a gendered kind of care, in some ways similar to the paid work you’ve done at the Williamsburg restaurant Diner. Can you talk about that?

Gill: At the time I was making Electric Midwife, I had another identity as a waitress who would sit down at a table with customers and hand-write the menu for them while simultaneously describing each dish. I was using language—I would even go so far as to say performance—to give them a sense of how the ingredients were coming together. I always felt these encounters to be very intimate exchanges. I was also hosting at Diner, and that role in particular made me think a lot about care and responsibility. I learned a lot about how a guest’s initial experience could set the stage for their ability to enjoy the Diner culture I described earlier. People were often more open to the experience if I could find a way early on to make them feel cared for, seen, and special.

So I brought all that experience to Electric Midwife. I wanted guests at the theater to feel my care for them, to feel welcomed, and for the work to reaffirm in every aspect that I wanted them to be there. The seating in particular was the clearest example of this. We worked to build platform heights that would ensure that each person had a clear sight line. We arranged the seats in a triangle with the point closest to the dance to maximize people’s sense that they were the center of this symmetrical work.

Goldman: I wanted to ask you about some remarks you made in fall 2015 during a panel on Trisha Brown. You were sketching your development as a choreographer and the way your interests have changed over time. You mentioned that, early in your career, timing was where you first felt a sense of your own voice. Can you say more about that?

Gill: I often think that timing has a direct effect on the act of seeing. Slowness and stillness instigate expectation or waiting, and waiting has a pressurizing force on a viewer. As a result, the viewer is leaning in—not literally, but leaning in a little bit more attentively to the work, because the work isn’t overdelivering to them.

Goldman: Your notion of a spectatorial “leaning in” seems apt when I think about my experience of watching your work. It suggests an active viewer but also a kind of intimacy, a spatial experience of vision.

Gill: Intimacy is really about connection, merging, closing the gap.

Beth Gill, Catacomb (2016), performance at the Chocolate Factory, Long Island City, New York, May 2016.

Beth Gill, Catacomb (2016), performance at the Chocolate Factory, Long Island City, New York, May 2016

Goldman: In one of our earlier conversations, when you were beginning work on Electric Midwife, I remember you talking about a desire for more density within a single figure, which I understood to mean more complex choreography for each dancer. I don’t know whether that happened to the extent you initially imagined, but there certainly has been an increase in compositional density in your work. It’s funny to be citing Cunningham on this subject, but I flagged this: “The eye tries to recognize what it already knows. It is like security. Everybody does that. It takes anybody a long time to really see something new.”3

Gill: I think that’s a powerful part of Cunningham’s legacy. He had some capacity to wrestle with his own attachment to what a thing is, and potentially to let go of that attachment and let the thing change. That’s another area where I hold him in very high regard. It’s very difficult to perceive change. It takes an investment of time and labor to see something differently.

For me, the experience of seeing things differently is happening in my relationships with the people I work with. I’m getting to work with the same dancers over a series of projects, and it’s a total blessing when you’ve known someone in a particular way and then you get to encounter them differently. I feel like we are deepening our relationships to each other. The worst thing about making choreography is that you get one chance to experience the novelty of something new, and then you get a million chances to practice recapturing that experience or getting something different out of it.

Goldman: If you don’t, it’s dead.

Gill: Exactly. The biggest criticism I have of my own work is that it’s always on the brink of dying.

Goldman: Can you say more about that?

Gill: Sure. As I have gone deeper into the issues we’ve talked about—density, complexity, or care for all the levels that constitute a work—that means that I am digging my hand into all those different places, making choices, and then asking the dancers to be held accountable to those choices.

Goldman: Earlier you used the word “smothering.” Is that what you mean?

Gill: Yes. The performers have to deal with the kinetic, imaginative, and sensorial obligations of the piece, as well as this notion of presence and how to relate to the audience—not to mention the structure of the dance and of course how to be in space and time with the rest of the dancers in the “correct” way. Being held accountable for all of that can be smothering. When the dance starts to lose its liveness, I understand that to be directly related to this overload of expectations.

There are a few different ways to think about liveness. Do we, as an audience, expect to see a kind of liveness that might not actually relate to the experience of being alive, or are we just hoping to experience the euphoria of novelty? And do we feel this liveness in our encounter with the work or with the dancers themselves? I don’t know! But it can feel very depressing or deadening to watch somebody just tackle the thing they did yesterday. I don’t know how much I can create a kind of trickery to take that away. That’s one of the things I’m thinking about right now.

Beth Gill, Catacomb (2016), performance at the Chocolate Factory, Long Island City, New York, May 2016.

Beth Gill, Catacomb (2016), performance at the Chocolate Factory, Long Island City, New York, May 2016

Goldman: As you know, Cunningham invited many composers and sound artists to create new music for his dances, and he set no parameters on their work. I’m curious about how your collaborations with sound artists compare to his. A way in to this topic might be to talk about your work with Jon Moniaci.

Gill: Jon and I have a really incredible collaborative relationship, but our collaboration is not the same as Cage and Cunningham’s. Cage’s sound was independent of Cunningham’s choreography, whereas Jon’s compositions are very responsive to the dances I make. I often bring him into the process after I have been working for a period of time. We talk a little bit, but mostly just to share what we’re thinking. I never step into his process of choice-making. We let the dance and the score develop alongside each other.

Goldman: It’s striking to me that the company structure Cunningham was working with doesn’t exist anymore. Yet long-term relationships seem to be important to you—with Jon, with individual dancers—and maybe it takes that kind of time to develop the particular virtuosities that interest you and also to allow you to release control. It’s a magical thing when something has been built or gathered between people. And held across bodies.

Gill: It’s so powerful for me to see myself reflected back when I watch any of the people I’ve worked with perform. Because I know there are times when I articulate my ideas clearly, and times when I don’t. They are the real detectives, putting the pieces together.

 

Notes

1 Merce Cunningham, Changes: Notes on Choreography, ed. Frances Starr (New York: Something Else Press: 1968), quoted in David Vaughan, Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, ed. Melissa Harris (New York: Aperture, 1997), 69.

Roslyn Sulcas, “Symmetry and Geometry, in Mirror Image,” New York Times, June 21, 2011.

3 Merce Cunningham and Jacqueline Lesschaeve, The Dancer and the Dance (New York: M. Boyars, 1985), 131.

A Quiet Kind of Boldness: Beth Gill’s Abstract Storytelling

Choreographer Beth Gill practices a subtle form of risk-taking. Her work certainly doesn’t elicit the kind of responses that have sometimes characterized the proposal of radical new ideas: there’s no booing from the crowd, storming out of the theater, or scathing reviews. Yet, she demonstrates a quiet kind of boldness, with each new work supported by […]

Beth Gill, New Work From the Desert (2014).

Beth Gill, New Work From the Desert (2014). Photo: Alex Escalante

Choreographer Beth Gill practices a subtle form of risk-taking. Her work certainly doesn’t elicit the kind of responses that have sometimes characterized the proposal of radical new ideas: there’s no booing from the crowd, storming out of the theater, or scathing reviews. Yet, she demonstrates a quiet kind of boldness, with each new work supported by its own distinct thread of critical inquiry. When the Walker began putting together the artists who would produce commissioned work for Merce Cunningham: Common Time, instead of Cunningham look-alikes they sought choreographers who honor Cunningham’s courageous trailblazing in their own unique way. While the tone of Gill’s work inhabits a very different world than Cunningham’s, her distinct creations nonetheless meaningfully contribute to the continuation of dance, albeit in a more understated way.

Her current body of work is part of a new era of abstraction in post-modern dance. Cunningham, in a daring departure from the emotionally-charged narratives of Martha Graham, set out to prove how dance could still be relevant, compelling, poignant, and exquisite without dependence on “meaning.” He brought the tremendous value of pure abstraction—which at the time was well-established in visual arts—to dance. The impact of his assertion was strengthened by the rigor of his abstraction; in some cases he sought to remove nearly all traces of his personal taste and motives by leaving even the most basic decisions about what a gesture should look like up to chance. Since Cunningham’s ideas first changed the way people thought about dance, countless artists have continued the discussion of what place meaning and abstraction have in contemporary performance. Gill is among choreographers who question the dichotomy of meaning versus abstraction by reclaiming the pursuit of meaning within abstraction. Her work has an undoubtedly abstract inclination with its compelling formal choreographic structures and ineffable visual environments. Yet, as with her last work Catacomb, she offers a tantalizing liminal space full of character and drama.

Beth Gill, Catacomb (2016). Photo: Brian Rogers

Beth Gill, Catacomb (2016). Photo: Brian Rogers

What Gill refers to as “abstract storytelling” allows the audience to experience all the depth and connective potential of meaningful storytelling in a space free from literal description. She maintains the multiplicity that abstraction allows, inviting the audience to explore their individual interpretation of the work, but without losing the possibility of experiencing something shared. In practice, this means using imagery and symbolism to foster association, creating spaces where there’s plenty of room to roam, but with concrete ideas to anchor you along the way. Gill is explicit about privileging the audience in her creation process, always attentive to ensuring they feel cared for and considered. She develops a special kind of direct communication with the viewer by meticulously considering the visual component of what she’s making and noting how the imagery can trigger personal associations. The results are rich and mysterious visual and temporal worlds, often described as immersive and disorienting. As New York Times critic Siobhan Burke, in naming Catacomb one of the best in dance of 2016, describes, “I remember less about the details of the work itself than I do about the moment it ended—a startling return to reality. What had just happened? Where had I gone?”

Beth Gill, Eleanor & Eleanor (201?). Photo: Paula Court

Beth Gill, Eleanor & Eleanor (2007). Photo: Paula Court

For her newest piece Brand New Sidewalk, premiering at the Walker next week, Gill is taking her visual prowess in a new direction. Instead of employing a slow-burning single structure she is seeking a coherence defined by juxtaposition. Starting with the question “what do I have?” she embarks on an in-depth inquiry of her cast members, honing in on particular vocabularies for each of them. With the creative contributions of her collaborators Jon Moniaci (sound) and Thomas Dunn (lights), Brand New Sidewalk presents a triptych of meticulously crafted domains that transform the McGuire Theater stage to the dancers’ individual logics. The format is one that she says has tested her skill set under very different circumstances, challenging her to define her sense-making through contrast. This kind of challenge in her creative process is part of how Gill confronts the idea of risk in a continual practice of personal growth and change. She aims to re-imagine herself with each project, taking inspiration from the likes of Robert Irwin, author of Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. She stresses the importance of maintaining a shifting and evolving perspective, of allowing the work to change as she does.

The ethos of attentiveness and responsiveness in Gill’s work sheds new light on the formal abstraction that Cunningham originally presented. She offers a vision of post-modern dance which challenges the idea that meaning and emotion can’t coexist with formalism and abstraction. In the fertile, mysterious environments she creates we’re challenged to wonder: How can meaning be heightened when you can’t describe it with words? How can we connect deeply to abstraction when it is carefully and receptively constructed? Whereas Cunningham was in the vanguard in his purist commitment to abstraction, her own pioneering vision comes from nuance, subtlety, and the depth of opportunity available when we consider the question of how we find meaning in contemporary dance.

Brand New Sidewalk by Beth Gill will premiere Friday and Saturday, May 5 & 6, 2017 in the McGuire Theater as part of the Walker’s exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time

Tesseract : A Parallel Universe Through the Fourth Dimension

Curatorial Assistant Mary Coyne considers the politics and beauty of exploring the fourth dimension in Charles Atlas, Rashaun Mitchell, and Silas Riener’s Tesseract, a co-commission by the Walker Art Center and EMPAC (Experimental Media and Performing Art Center) that premiered at the Walker March 16–18, 2017 as part of Merce Cunningham: Common Time. Can formalism be […]

Eleanor Hullihan and Ryan Jenkins in Tesseract in the Walker’s McGuire Theater. Photo: Gene Pittman

Curatorial Assistant Mary Coyne considers the politics and beauty of exploring the fourth dimension in Charles Atlas, Rashaun Mitchell, and Silas Riener’s Tesseract, a co-commission by the Walker Art Center and EMPAC (Experimental Media and Performing Art Center) that premiered at the Walker March 16–18, 2017 as part of Merce Cunningham: Common Time.

Can formalism be a type of politic? I returned to this question while witnessing three performances of Tesseract, a collaboration between film artist Charles Atlas and choreographers Silas Riener and Rashaun Mitchell. Through an edited 3D film and live performance/live video component, Tesseract expands the limits of its media by adding additional dimensions: a film, typically two dimensions, becomes three, the live performance, usually three dimensions, becomes four. Tesseract is about geometry, or rather using geometry as a method for establishing an alternative futurism that exists in parallel to our current reality.

In geometry, the tesseract is the four-dimensional analogue of the cube; the tesseract is to the cube as the cube is to the square. Just as the surface of the cube consists of six square faces, the hypersurface of the tesseract consists of eight cubical cells. In other words, the tesseract requires an assumption of four dimensions. I viewed Tesseract after conversing, as many of us have lately, about what type of work “should” be made, shown, and viewed right now and how art can be political simply by existing. Tesseract is political in the ways in which the best theories are, by creating and applying a methodology that offers an alternative to lived experience.

During a visit to EMPAC in the fall of 2015, I witnessed a brief glimpse into one of these other worlds: a green screen, on which an immense set constructed of brightly painted triangular prisms that formed a type of façade, against which Silas and Rashaun constructed one section of choreography for the 3D film, Tesseract ▢.  A small snippet into what would become the cohesive filmscape of Tesseract, the experience remained with me, much like the feeling of reading a page midway through a book before starting from the beginning: enticing but without scaffold. Nevertheless, that production still from memory—the work hatching in the tesseract-like structure of the Grimshaw-designed building in mist-covered Troy, New York—offered a key to the logic of the completed work.

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

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

In Tesseract ▢ we are invited through a peep hole. The changing framing of the screen heightens this perception. We haven’t fallen through the looking glass, the viewers don’t ever quite enter the surrealistic words in which the dancers inhabit, but rather we have a sense that we are getting a sneak preview at the future—one that is at once dystopian and utopian, cold and austere even as it is bright and glimmers with a lack of pain or loss. Following the logic of the tesseract, it’s a world that also exists in tandem, a parallel universe to the world we currently inhabit. And it is this simultaneity that offers a sense of comfort. In the film, as in the live dance component, Atlas, Mitchell and Riener are able to expound upon the balance of the body and technology, without sacrificing the humanness of dance.

Tesseract ▢ opens with the body, and more importantly, with human touch. The camera pans out on the face of Melissa Toogood, a stunning mover (who had also danced with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company with Mitchell and Riener). Toogood’s eyes are set within black squares of makeup, similar to those juxtaposed on her and the other five dancers’ costumes. Hands appear, stroking her face, caressing. There is a care here, even though a context, or a relationship, isn’t offered. The connection between the dancers through this sequence (as the choreography builds in energy, the camera framing and re-framing groups or solos between and black and white painted panels) creates a somehow comfortingly human world—can the future be that scary when painting is still involved?

The flattened rectangle takes form in another scene, which may be the key sequence of Tesseract ▢. The six dancers recline against a mirage-like desert or moonscape in which a futuristic city shines in the distance. Each dancer is paired with an orange three-dimensional object—a cube, a cone, a sphere—to which he or she is uniquely wedded. Geometric protrusions on the dancer’s unitards almost suggest objects and bodies to be one of the same species. Despite the oddity, there’s a sense of care here too, a pervading calm, a humanity even as the dancers’ bodies appear more and more like the shapes with which they are paired. It’s a visual of Jean- François Lyotard’s “collection of materials” as the definition of humanity, but one where once collected, the assemblage has been pared down, reduced, leaving a kind of unknown essence.

Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener. Photo: © Mick Bello / EMPAC

Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener. Photo: © Mick Bello/EMPAC

It’s this form of utopia that Tesseract offers, one where bodies can take on the auspices of other objects or species. The film culminates in a sensual pas de deux, a courtship dance of strange birds-of-paradise. Mitchell and Riener, half clothed in the rope-like décor that surrounds them, demonstrate their individually unique yet compatible movement styles: Mitchell’s preciseness, exuding a quiet strength, and Riener’s beguiling and fiery movements, supported by a technique that maintains its strength even as both fall into playful exchanges with each other and with the viewers. It’s this technique allows an experience of witnessing a private moment between two beings, not men, not dancers. The portal through which we are gazing, the fourth dimension of the tesseract, lets us into a world not yet realized and only beginning to be actively sought within our own. A fourth dimension removes the possibilities of binaries, creating a space for bodies to exist outside of gender. Tesseract is this utopian world, one that equalizes without essentializing.

Tesseract ◯, or the live performance and video second act, follows the logic of the geometrical form, adding yet another dimension to the work. The dancers enter in a square formation lead by Mitchell, pausing at each corner of the stage, sharply changing direction and running to the next corner. Down to the gauzy white flared pant suits (which also share a kinship with Suzanne Gallo’s kimonos for Cunningham’s BIPED [1999]), it’s a futuristic version of Trisha Brown’s Glacial Decoy (1979). The choreography again balances between stark and formally playful. Where there isn’t eye contact there’s touch, a closeness that seems innate with dancers who have worked and trained closely together for extended periods of time, a calmness in knowing where everyone else on stage is (and why) at any given time. The silent observer to this play is Ryan Jenkins, Senior Video Technician at EMPAC. Costumed in a bright pink jumpsuit and glittering silver shoes, Jenkins embodies the camera, quite literally becoming another body within the choreography. Even his donning of the rather awkward and seemingly heavy Stedicam occurs center stage with the assistance of technical producer Davison Scandrett, a reveal of the façade, a fourth wall (or fifth wall) moment. After establishing the structure of the dance, and ensuring us that the world that existed within the frame of Tesseract ▢ can exist here, mediated only by a barley visible scrim, the action folds out onto itself again, with Mitchell guiding Jenkins, the human-apparatus onstage. Jenkin’s movements are from here out choreographed, while the video footage he captures live is mixed by Atlas in real time and projected onto the scrim downstage of the dancers. Even when Jenkins is off stage, hidden cameras offer alternate views of the movement on stage including close-ups and aerial shots.

Charles Atlas, Rashaun Mitchell, and Silas Riener's Tesseract in the Walker's McGuire Theater.

Charles Atlas, Rashaun Mitchell, and Silas Riener’s Tesseract in the Walker’s McGuire Theater. Photo: Gene Pittman

In Tesseract ◯, the artists picked up Cunningham’s oft-repeated adage of “there are no fixed points in space,” a key structure to his work from Suite for Five (1956) to Ocean (1994). For Cunningham, this exploration of “space time” is arguably his trademark as a choreographer; even more than using chance to construct his work, his use of the stage (and non-stage) space—the temporal structure through heightened moments of stillness and silence—is arguably his most lasting impact on choreographers working today. Atlas, Mitchell, and Riener’s live performance gives form to Einstein’s concept of “space time” or (x, y, z, t). Time—the real-time aspect occupied by all live performance and underscored by Atlas’ live video mixing—is added to the structure established in the film. Where the dancer’s relationships to the objects in the film was firmly established, Tesseract took up this approach by constantly provoking a viewing of the dancers as objects that will be seen from different vantage points. The dancers themselves are the geometric forms, turned, and observed from different angles.

There’s more to unpack in Tesseract. There’s a moment near the end of the live performance when Eleanor Hullihan crosses the scrim, inches away from the front rows. Mitchell remains on the stage, unwilling to let her remain on “our side.” There’s a vulnerability in Hullihan here and when, after a few moments she recedes to the wings and then back to the downstage side of the scrim, there’s a collective relief that she’s found her way back. Atlas, Mitchell, and Riener have offered a view of a future, and it’s one that I’m looking forward to realizing, living in, and finding refuge in.

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 dancers Douglas Dunn and Chris Komar (foreground) and Susana  Hayman-Chaffey perform Event #32 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 dancers Carolyn Brown and Susana Hayman-Chaffey perform 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.

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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.

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