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 […]
To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoingRe: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.
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 describedFabrications 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 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 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, 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 performing Fabrications. Photo: Bernard Prudhomme
During the next three months, movement and music will merge within the Walker Art Center galleries as Events, part of the exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time, unfold. Taking place in the Perlman Gallery February 8–9, March 30–April 2, and April 6–April 9, this Cunningham piece features dancers from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and music by Minnesota-based […]
During the next three months, movement and music will merge within the Walker Art Center galleries as Events, part of the exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time, unfold. Taking place in the Perlman Gallery February 8–9, March 30–April 2, and April 6–April 9, this Cunningham piece features dancers from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and music by Minnesota-based vanguard music-makers. The nature of these works will highlight the collaborations established by Cunningham between dance, music, and art.
Below, an introduction to some of the Minnesota-based music-makers featured in Events, along with their answers to the question: Why Merce?
Wednesday, February 8: Mankwe Ndosi/Nick Gaudette
Renegade bassist and composer Nick Gaudette has been playing and performing in the Twin Cities for over a quarter century. Nick began his studies of the bass at the age of 5. Studying classical and nonclassical forms of music, Nick completed Bachelors and Masters degrees in performance from the Cleveland Institute of Music. Over the last decade, he has dedicated himself to the progression of music education. You can still catch his performances and collaboration as he regularly appears with the Cherry Spoon Collective, the Maggie Bergeron & Dance Company, as well as being a co-curator of the Hear Here! Live Music and Movement Festival.
I studied Modern Dance as a musician. To me time and space in music parallels dance. I am always intrigued by the way the body can paint a picture through movement just as a musician paints through a sonic backdrop. Having the opportunity to work within the world of Merce Cunningham in the city and community that I live within is a treat and a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Mankwe Ndosi is a Twin Cities–based vocalist, improviser, and composer focused on using an expanded vocabulary of singing to express emotion, story, and spirit guidance. Ndosi regularly makes new shapes of sound with artists of all media, and living beings of all kinds.
I look forward to new collaborations and pushing to find this moment’s song and movement with Merce Cunningham Company dancers to celebrate and stretch his life through here and now.
Thursday, February 9: Michelle Kinney/Anthony Cox/Andrew Broder
Michelle Kinney is a dedicated and lifelong improviser and composer, working in nontraditional contexts. She finds much inspiration in cross-cultural and cross-genre collaborations. As Musician in Residence at the University of Minnesota’s Dance Program, she mines the music and kinesthetic information revealed by the body in motion, while accompanying classes with her cello, using a looping station and electronics. She has created several scores for dance, theater, and film, and performs frequently with many collaborative original music ensembles.
The biggest inspirations I get from the Cage and Cunningham collaboration are the many ways they worked together to sublimate the ego in creation and performance, as much as that is possible. I’m fascinated by this unique career-long meditation on the ego. It closes the usual doors to ego-involved self-expression, while opening endless pathways the artist couldn’t have imagined. It’s a disciplined practice, yet it leads to results that are the definition of feral, and offers the artists and audience a glimpse into the randomness of the universe.
Thursday, March 31: John Keston/Graham O’Brien
John Keston is a composer, sound artist, and developer who connects musicians to each other and their audience through the insertion of a mediating layer that embraces the chaotic ambiguities of environmental and sensorial influences. His music often activates what remains immutable within traditional forms of notation. He has performed and/or exhibited at Northern Spark, the Weisman Art Museum, the Montreal Jazz Festival, the Burnet Gallery, Walker’s Point Center for the Arts, the Minnesota Institute of Art, the In/Out Festival of Digital Performance, the Eyeo Festival, INST-INT, Echofluxx, and Moogfest.
I have been hooked on the work of John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, and many other innovative composers for years. What keeps me coming back is their sense of discovery. Both Cage and Oliveros excavated sonic environments, bringing attention to sound artifacts that were otherwise ignored. I am thrilled to participate in Merce Cunningham: Common Time, not to emulate the work of Cage, Tudor, or Oliveros, but to honor them through a similar spirit of exploration.
Graham O’Brien is a drummer and electronic music producer/composer from St. Paul. His most recent work, Drum Controller, is focused on the interplay between his unique drumming and composition styles. Currently he is performing new music written especially for live performance and which utilizes a custom-made electro-acoustic drum set concept. As he puts it, “I’m exploring ways to explore spontaneous composition using the rhythmic information of my drumming to provoke surprising response from my computer, in real-time.” Graham’s electronic music work has been released on labels includingEqual Vision, Ambledown, Doomtree, and Strange Famous.
I have lately been especially interested in the concept of “surprise” in my musical creations. If I can truly surprise myself with a combination of sounds, there’s that elusive excitement and inspiration of finding an unturned stone. It’s infectious. In my experience, one way to discover surprise in music is by introducing randomness and chance to my composition or performance concept. It was through the works of Cunningham in collaboration with John Cage that I first encountered this fundamental idea. The Cunningham/Cage/Tudor work has been one of few sources of inspirations that don’t seem to fade, because I’m reminded of the idea of childlike surprise and newness. Really, it’s exciting to be a part of an event celebrating this spirit.
Friday, March 31: Douglas Ewart/Laura Harada
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Douglas Ewart immigrated to Chicago, Illinois in the 1960s. He is a past chairman of the world renowned Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM); board member of the Jamaica Minnesota Organization (JMO), and current co-chair of the American Bell Association, Minnesota Chapter. The polymathic Ewart has been honored for his work as a composer, improvising multi-instrumentalist, conceptual artist, sculptor, and designer of masks and instruments. Also an educator, Ewart bridges his kaleidoscopic activities with a vision that opposes today’s divided world. His culture-fusing works aims to restore the wholeness of communities and of the individuals within them, and to emphasize the reality that the world is an interdependent entity.
I have always had a great affinity for choreographers and dancers, and have collaborated with numerous practitioners in the movement field from the formative years of my life as a sonic and visual artist. Music with dance is one of the most compelling and profound confluences. The duet format has been one of my favorite ways to practice. I am looking forward to collaborating with violinist Laura Harada. She is a highly skilled, very sensitive, and dynamic artist, and she has a wonderful spirit. I am honored to be part of this project that is paying homage to Merce Cunningham, the brilliant dancer, choreographer, experimentalist, and conceptualist. Cunningham has been an inspiration and beacon to artists in all disciplines, and people from all walks of life!
Saturday, April 1: Cole Pulice/Michelle Kinney/Eric Jensen
Cole Pulice is a saxophonist, composer, and improviser based in Minneapolis, where he works with a diverse array of groups and individuals across genre and disciplinary boundaries. Cole also works with the Twin Cities–based collective 6 Families to curate and facilitate community-driven performances and projects.
I am thrilled to participate in the celebration of Merce Cunningham’s work and legacy at the Walker. He’s artist who so gracefully pushed the limits of his medium through the development of frameworks of thinking, choreography, and performing, and well as through the frequent collaboration with artists across other disciplines. It’s fitting to be celebrating Merce Cunningham with such a varied and beautiful collection of musicians and artists.
Sunday, April 2: Noah Ophoven-Baldwin/Joe Strachan
Noah Ophoven-Baldwin is an improvising cornetist based in Minneapolis. As well as being a cornetist he is also a member of 6 Families, a collection of musicians located in Minneapolis. As an organizer for 6 Families, he acts as an advocate for building and participating in an arts community based in patience, kindness, and love. He appreciates the chance to learn from all of his friends/loved-ones/elders/mentors.
As an improviser I think Merce Cunningham’s work is extremely attractive to investigate. His work embraces a similar chaos that so many improvising musicians tap into as performers (and listeners). In my case, Cunningham deftly refocused how collaboration between dance and music (or visual art or architecture) exist together in space.
Thursday, April 6: Toby Ramaswamy/Adam Zahller
Toby Ramaswamy is a Minneapolis-based composer, drummer, and member of the musicians collective 6 Families. He has been fortunate enough to work with, learn from, and be influenced by a diverse group of Minneapolis musicians and artists.
I’ve been lucky enough to work with dancers in the Twin Cities for several years now, both as an accompanist at several schools and as a collaborator with DaNCEBUMS and Kelvin Wailey. The idea of doing a dance/music piece with dancers I had never met really interested me. I’m also a fan of John Cage’s music, and the prospect of working on a project connected to the choreographer most associated with Cage was exciting.
Friday, April 7: Patrick Marschke/Tara Loeper
Patrick Marschke is a Minneapolis-based percussionist, composer, and electronic musician trying to make all of those things into one thing. He is a proud member of 6 Families and occasionally writes about music for the SPCO, the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series, and Walker Art Center.
I think this particular Cunningham “event” and the total ambiguity of the relationship between the dance and sounds being created can be incredibly instructive in a time where we are constantly bombarded with information: we don’t really have the capacity to understand and rationalize every correlation or relation being thrown at us, and a certain clarity can come from acceptance and welcoming of chaos. This work does that in a really subtle and profound way, and I’m excited to see how they all play out.
Saturday, April 8: Davu Seru/Jeremy Ylvisaker
Sunday, April 9: Cody McKinney/Leah Ottman
Cody McKinney is a bassist, composer, improviser, and sound artist currently residing in the Twin Cities. He has been actively composing, recording, and performing since the mid 1990s. McKinney studied jazz and improvisation at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and, later, composition and process conceptualization at the New School in New York. His work straddles “a haunted space somewhere between free jazz and musique concrète,” with hallmarks that include his “liquid mastery of rhythm” and his use of graphic and text scores with indeterminacy and fixed time. Some of McKinney’s recent works have been recorded by his contemporary trio, Bloodline.
I actually studied composition in the same room where John Cage was teaching composition 50 years earlier. The “young me” was tossing around similar questions and processes when I finally came to learn of their work. That discovery became a revelation for me; both due to the brilliance of the work itself and the realization that the zeitgeist had expanded to unknowingly defending my ideas. Perhaps no other collaboration has been more important to performing arts in the 20th Century than that of Cage and Cunningham.
Cunningham Events is free with gallery admission and has the following performance schedule in the Perlman Gallery.
February 8–9 Wednesday–Thursday, 5:30 and 8 pm
March 30–April 2 Thursday, 5:30 and 8 pm Friday–Sunday, 1:30 and 4 pm
April 6–9 Thursday, 5:30 and 8 pm Friday–Sunday, 1:30 and 4 pm
“I am concerned with the separation between the spectacular and the everyday, between subject and object, between bystander and viewer—while addressing the ways in which dance and the spectacle of performance are presented in theatrical and exhibition contexts.” For Maria Hassabi’s Walker-commissioned performance STAGING (2017)—performed continuously during gallery hours, February 8–12 and 14–19, 2017—eight dancers will […]
Kennis Hawkins performing Maria Hassabi’s STAGING (2017); installation view, Walker Art Center. Photo: Gene Pittman
“I am concerned with the separation between the spectacular and the everyday, between subject and object, between bystander and viewer—while addressing the ways in which dance and the spectacle of performance are presented in theatrical and exhibition contexts.” For Maria Hassabi’s Walker-commissioned performance STAGING (2017)—performed continuously during gallery hours, February 8–12 and 14–19, 2017—eight dancers will inhabit various locations within the Walker Art Center, including the galleries of Merce Cunningham: Common Time, creating a sculptural movement installation. Occupying a space between live performance and visual art, her art explores the tension between human form and artistic object through stillness and sustained motion. Here, in an interview with curator Aram Moshayedi, first published in the Walker-designed catalogue Merce Cunningham: Common Time,Hassabi discusses her live-installation work, her approach to institutional spaces and the body, and the relationship between the spectacular and the intimate.
Aram Moshayedi: It makes sense to begin our conversation with PLASTIC (2015), a work that you first presented at the Hammer Museum for a month in February 2015. As an “installation” of choreographed movement for four performers, it’s a work that inhabits slowness. In some sense, it relies on its performers to move almost glacially or tectonically slow. This characteristic was something that I was first drawn to when I saw you perform Intermission (2013) at the 55th Venice Biennale as part of the Cyprus and Lithuania Pavilion. Can you talk about the relationship between these two works and any conceptual ties that bind them?
Maria Hassabi: Both PLASTIC and Intermission belong to the format I call “live-installation.” This is a term I coined in collaboration with my team, Hristoula Harakas and Paige Martin, when we were asked in Venice to describe the kind of work we were presenting. In principle, live-installations have an ongoing presence in an exhibition space, and their duration is determined by the opening hours of the institutions in which they are presented. These works lack any dramaturgical arc (usually necessary in theater), as there’s no definite beginning and ending.
My works in general are characterized by their slowness, even though slow per se has never been my concern. I’m interested in creating a space where the viewer is given plenty of time to see and be, a space where even the smallest details of motion can become visible. In order to do so, I pare down my material and slow its rhythm.
Maria Hassabi, INTERMISSION (2013); installation view, Cypriot and Lithuanian Pavilion, 55th International Venice Biennale, May 28–June 4, 2013. Exhibition view includes artwork by Phanos Kyriacou: Eleven hosts, twenty-one guests, nine ghosts, mixed media, 2013. Photo: Robert Narkurs, courtesy the artist
For a long time now I have been preoccupied with stillness and the paradox of this idea in live performance. Working with stillness, and finding a way to support it, has turned my attention toward how to move, uninterrupted, from one place of hold to another (which can result in a “tectonic” appearance). I find the only way to succeed in this un-interruption is to approach movement very precisely, with full awareness of its image. The performers need to be aware of the representations their bodies are producing at any given moment. This takes time, both for the performer to inhabit this awareness and for the viewer to observe it.
This approach results in material that is detached from more typical rhythmical patterns. I try as much as possible to avoid any accentuated rhythms in my work, as that tends to create a hierarchy among movements, and can inadvertently turn the attention of the viewer toward a search for meaning.
Moshayedi: Given that the commitment of time and the expectations of viewership are different in works presented in a theater, such as PREMIERE, would you say your interest in “the image” still applies? I ask because, in some sense, the experience of static images also lacks any determined duration.
Hassabi: Yes, definitely, it applies. When my works are presented in a theater, I’m still dealing with images and their representation. I consider dance to be an abstract art form, yet it is one that is represented by human beings. The material of dance is people. This means that dance cannot avoid representation, especially with works like mine that tend to be so static. In terms of time and expectation, I think the biggest difference between a theater work like PREMIERE and a live-installation like PLASTIC is the nature of the tension between performer and audience. The closed space of a theater contains anticipation in a very particular way—the audience and performers are locked together for a shared experience that lasts for a specific duration. In an exhibition context, performers are present at all times, while the “visitors” come and go as they wish. This removes the nervous tension the performers usually carry within a theatrical presentation, which in my works doesn’t evaporate easily. Also, in my theatrical works I tend to exaggerate the idea of seeing, theater being the seeing place, by adding lights that are very bright and are treated as another sculptural entity in the space. They also produce a lot of heat that is felt throughout the duration of the work and intensifies the shared experience within the enclosed space. This is an element that I don’t involve in live-installations, even though at the Hammer iteration of PLASTIC an idea of this was materialized in the gallery space. So works like PLASTIC and Intermission tend to be less about the tension created and rather about the constant presence of the performers in the space.
Maria Hassabi, PLASTIC (2015), installation view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 21–March 20, 2016. Photo: Thomas Poravas, courtesy the artist
Moshayedi: How does the idea of an image translate specifically to your conception of the choreography and the role of the performers you’re working with?
Hassabi: When I began creating PLASTIC, for example, there were specific images I had in mind as well as concepts—rounded torsos, a falling body, an overall plasticity of the body. There were also specific images of sculptures made by other artists that were very present in my mind while I was creating the movement. One in particular came from a conversation with you while we were looking at an exhibition of three solid stainless steel figurative sculptures by Charles Ray at the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York.
For some works, including both PLASTIC and Intermission, I first make the material myself—they are solos, after all—and later on I teach it to the dancers. This gives me the opportunity to understand the images I’m thinking of and to really explore their physicality at a point when I’m not yet ready to articulate ideas very clearly to my collaborators. So I work alone for a while, and once things become clearer the collaborators come into the process. Everything changes immensely once they translate the movement I’ve created. Each physical body is very different, with its own limitations, abilities, and temperaments, and this is something I find very exciting, as it brings information into the process that I could not develop on my own. As far as the people I choose to work with, I’m drawn to them instinctively, while being aware of their technical capacities. I also pay attention to gender, ethnicity, age, and body type, as those are critical aspects of the images created. That said, some of my collaborators are consistent, such as Hristoula Harakas, who has performed in my work since 2002.
Moshayedi: This attention to both the technical ability and “look” of your dancers is an interesting one. In her book on Yvonne Rainer, Carrie Lambert-Beatty makes a distinction between Merce Cunningham’s company and Judson Dance Theater on the grounds of pace—how the pedestrian pace of a choreography by, say, Steve Paxton, or the slow-motion movement between poses in another by Yvonne Rainer, might lack the surprise, glamour, and sparkle (in Paxton’s words) of a work by Cunningham.1 How relevant is this tension today? Are there trajectories of dance that are more loyal to one lineage and theory of movement than the other?
Hassabi: I suppose there are, but honestly I’m not so concerned with historicizing my work in any way. I make the work I make. Yes, it has its influences—in fact, all the names you mention have influenced what I make today: the pedestrianism of Judson, Cunningham’s approach to time-space.
Maria Hassabi, PLASTIC (2015), installation view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 21–March 20, 2016. Photo: Thomas Poravas, courtesy the artist
And you know, I never really found Cunningham’s work to be “glammed-up.” Yes, he had bigger production values, fancier costumes, sets, and many people on stage—for sure a different economy in terms of production. But for me, his work still always had the feeling of investigation and experimentation of form, even in the later productions.
Moshayedi: Specifically with regard to Cunningham, to what degree are you tied to his legacy and what challenges does your participation in an exhibition of this sort at the Walker pose to the way you conceive of your work?
Hassabi: I love his work. I always have, even when I didn’t enjoy being part of the audience. His work lacks any sense of entertainment or concern with being entertaining. That’s one of the things I love about it. My most direct tie to his work, at least for my approach toward this exhibition, is in relation to John Cage and his interest in silence. I find it similar to my understanding of stillness in dance.
Moshayedi: The notion of silence, or rather muteness, might also be used to describe the reticence of images. Of course, there is a relationship here to Tacita Dean’s film Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS (in three movements) to John Cage’s composition 4’33” with Trevor Carlson, New York City, 28 April 2007 (six performances; six films) (2008). This film is interesting in terms of your practice because I think that up until recently your work has been characterized within an art context according to a sculptural logic, one inherently tied to objects and the body as sculpturally bound. In line with your thinking, Dean’s film of Cunningham considers the image of movement rather than fixity of form. Do you think your new work—particularly in relation to your evocation of Cage and a different idea of what constitutes noise or sound in relation to dance and movement—might start to elicit a new language around your practice?
Hassabi: I started making this style of work because I was interested in creating images within live performance. Dealing with how to support images while avoiding easy theatrical tricks—change of lights, change of costumes, etc.—became my objective. Stillness, and a quiet and detailed way of transferring from one place of stillness to the next, was what made sense to me. Yet the more I worked with stillness and precision, the more I realized that what was produced was very sculptural as opposed to being a framed image that is very much bound to its framing. The body in live performance is three-dimensional, and I feel very comfortable with this idea of sculpting the body in each passing instance.
Maria Hassabi, PLASTIC (2015), installation view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 21–March 20, 2016. Photo: Thomas Poravas, courtesy the artist
I often talk about the paradox of stillness in my performances, because stillness can’t really exist—we are breathing, and even if it’s imperceptible, it’s still a movement. Certainly this is congruous to the paradox of silence as John Cage understood it. I see them as the same concept rendered in different materials. This is something I want to continue pursuing in the new work I’m making for Common Time. What I’m planning to create will be heavily sculpted. It will also be the first work of mine in which I am not performing, and I hope that this will allow me to sculpt every passing second even more, since I will be outside of it. And, yes—I hope I do discover something new.
Moshayedi: To date, your works have sought to inhabit different contexts according to specific registers of time—how performers move and occupy space according to the conditions on offer. How much is location a factor in determining the contour and pace of a given choreography?
Hassabi: The context of where my works are presented is crucial to how I conceptualize them.
For museum works, I’m interested in an ongoing presence as it relates directly to the format in which the other art is exhibited, and one that allows the visitors to continue their patterns of behavior in these spaces. It’s up to the individual visitor to decide what they prefer to view, in what order, and for how long. I find this arrangement much more democratic than asking someone to take a seat in a specific location and watch us for a particular duration. Instead, we (the dancers) are there and fully committed to our product beyond any unscripted interactions that may occur with the visitors.
The kind of attention that visitors pay to a live performance changes depending on whether they view it in a theater, a museum, or some other kind of public space. Even so, sometimes the approaches used in a work can be portable across those contexts. For example, on a few occasions I have presented a “theatrical” work—one with a specific duration, a clear beginning and end, a dramaturgical through line, and fixed seating for the audience—in the context of a museum. Pretty much the only thing that changed was the overall color and scale of the piece, due to the switch from black box to white cube. The attention required of the audience remains pretty much the same.
Moshayedi: With regard to PLASTIC, how much of the choreography is determined by the conditions of the space when it’s re-performed in different contexts? What were the constants and what were the variables in each of its iterations at the Hammer, the Stedelijk, and MoMA?
Maria Hassabi, PLASTIC (2015), installation view, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, January 31–March 1, 2015. Photo: Thomas Poravas, courtesy the artist
Hassabi: It was pretty constant, but there were variables due to changes in architecture and crowd flow. A simple example: the difference in the number of stairs at each of these institutions required me to add or cut material from its original presentation at the Hammer. MoMA is a much busier museum in terms of attendance, so for that iteration I also added more performers. At the Hammer, a very crucial element of PLASTIC was the gallery project—a single dancer, throughout the duration of the piece, who was situated within an installation of sequenced light and sound. Neither the Stedelijk nor MoMA had gallery spaces in the same way, so that aspect of the project was not able to be remounted. But for MoMA, I made a new part for the work, which occupied the atrium area; it was loosely based on the Hammer gallery project. So there were variations, but the overall identity of the work did not shift.
Moshayedi: As you moved PLASTIC from one institution to the next, how concerned were you with some idea of an audience and its ability to apprehend, experience, or even just receive the work?
Hassabi: There is a through line in all my work, despite the context of presentation. I am concerned with the separation between the spectacular and the everyday, between subject and object, between bystander and viewer—while addressing the ways in which dance and the spectacle of performance are presented in theatrical and exhibition contexts. What shifts are concerns of duration, whether or not there is a clear beginning and ending, and my approach to addressing the audience and our shared intimacy.
A good friend mentioned to me awhile back that in theater we tend to treat the audience as a single body, because you cannot consider each audience member individually. In a gallery or an open space, this doesn’t have to be the case. Without a framed beginning and end, the performer is not aware of when visitors enter a gallery, when they pass by, or how they will choose to behave. This changes the intimacy between performer and viewer, and even the work’s intensity and temporality. But in a gallery or museum setting, there’s a feeling at times that we are performing for just one person, or for one body, and I think this can be quite luxurious for both the viewer and the performer.
1 Carrie Lambert-Beatty, Being Watched: Yvonne Rainer and the 1960s (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 60.
To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Margaret Johnson, Karen McMenamy, and Eben Kowler of DaNCEBUMS share their […]
Poor People’s TV Room. Photo: Mena Burnette of xmbphotography
To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Margaret Johnson, Karen McMenamy, and Eben Kowler of DaNCEBUMS share their perspective on Okwui Okpokwasili’s Poor People’s TV Room. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
On the eve of the inauguration, Okwui Okpokwasili’s Poor People’s TV Room was the antidote to the always on political commentary. Joined by a multigenerational cast of women,Okwui, offered a splintered story in text, movement, and design. It was a beautiful disorientation that deliberated women’s initiation of, presence within, and erasure from historical narratives. Although it sourced from real events – Nigeria’s 1929 Women’s War, the #bringbackourgirls campaign – it told and teased out its own history entirely. It projected its own future and asked us to follow. It gave us the mystery and space we didn’t know we needed.
The show begins with a silhouetted dancer continually approaching and retreating from a side light. Behind a thin plastic wall, another figure – hazy like an aura – follows closely with quick sharp movement. We see a tv room completely turned on its side. A woman sits in a plastic lawn chair. In that moment we are saturated with depth. The set creates a layered environment and bodies follow suit by foregrounding and backgrounding, mirroring, mimicking, extrapolating and departing from each other’s physicality. We are primed for the continual shifting of timelines and characters to come.
Poor People’s TV Room combines movement and text to weave together a mythology incorporating breath, a knife, a time-traveling device inside a chest, cameras for eyes, and Oprah. The same myths are fragmented and recycled through the show. Nothing is fixed. Every repetition makes us question what came before. Who is a credible source, and who is really there? Who has the power to speak, and whose story is being told?
Dancing followed speaking. One ebbing into the other. Energy was processed and expelled from the body, or transmuted and transferred to another. Duets were both tender and combative, building on the relationships revealed by the text. Look carefully and sit close, low lighting obscures details of the choreography – calling attention to erasure in history and the blind spots of memory.
Here’s how Poor People’s TV Room rates based on DaNCEBUMS’ Standard Performance Criteria:
We’re at a moment in our country’s history where there’s a lot of anxiety around the erasure of individual’s stories and/or needs from a national conversation. The show is explicitly about making something visible that’s not. 5/5
Performers were virtuosic in movement, voice, and crafting environments. Movement seemed, at times, an act of endurance. As an audience member, there was a lot of content to digest. There was a sense that everything that happened was important, and yet it was delivered so rapidly that it was difficult to focus on everything. Bodies were intentionally hard to see. 5/5
In this piece the state of the body was the danciness, not the individual dance moves. When they handled props or encountered the set, the performers moved with ease. We were super impressed by the scenes in the “tv room” – very trippy. Even the text felt like dance, every word was placed with a choreographic sensibility. 5/5
The movement expressed the music but they didn’t happen simultaneously. 3/5
The materials were bum-y: plastic sheets, plastic furniture, mylar, untreated lumber. However, the installation of all these materials was very precise and minimal. Delivery was polished, voices were confident and clear. 1/5
“You had me at pizza.” Sparkly costume was like a personified trippy disco ball. Sideways room. 5/5
Words can’t do this show justice. Go see it; feel it.
To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Margaret Johnson, Eben Kowler and Karen McMenamy of DaNCEBUMS share their perspective […]
Photo: Maria Baranova
To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Margaret Johnson, Eben Kowler and Karen McMenamy of DaNCEBUMS share their perspective on Faye Driscoll’s Thank You for Coming: Play. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
All artifice at every point, Thank You For Coming: Play exists between dance and theater. Play looks at the structure of the performance, how every part functions: the director, the audience, the performers, the set, the theater. Play begins as an on-stage installation, and transitions to an extended pre-show overture before kicking off a play within a play: the origin story of Barbone. Five performers plus Faye embody dozens of characters – even themselves – to tell Barbone’s story from birth, to death, and after. The story was an absurd and over-acted farce, with tropes that hit close to home. Our audience didn’t laugh very much, but there was a lot of humor in the text and performance.
Play’s obsession with fabricating and consuming narrative raises questions of agency and control. The show opens up with the premise of co-creating the story. We are greeted by a dreadlocked witch who tells us “the story has not yet been written.” So we pitch in. When Barbone’s play starts, we learn that the story has been written. Scene by scene, we notice that none of the characters are self-aware about how the stories they tell themselves create their identities.
We see Faye interact with the story at multiple levels, seeming to be herself the entire time. She manipulates the set, interrupts and augments the narrative, and incites the audience to sing along. From the front row she pulls the strings. She even interjects herself into the climax of the show, sharing her feelings, then SPOILER kills Barbone. Who has the power to fabricate their own narrative, and who only gets to consume?
Here’s how Thank You For Coming: Play rates based on DaNCEBUMS’ Standard Performance Criteria:
The play within the play was prepackaged, easily digestible, and entire scenes can be described in one or two sentences. The choreography closely matched the text – which makes Play not so hard for the audience. The stop motion movement demanded finite muscular control, combined with the fast switching between modes of performance and character; and the rigorous detail in the facial expression, choreography, and vocal work all made Play hard for the performers. 3/5
This is making us question what danciness is. Even in the more dancerly sections, we still felt that the performers were gesturing towards dance. A kind of meta-dance: dancers, playing actors, pretending to dance. Is that danciness? Their performances were hyper-embodied, and obviously choreographed. One thing is for sure, we’ll be thinking about this for a while. [alien emoji]/ 5
Music was used as a emotive and narrative tool. In a memorable solo, the movement felt unhinged from the music. Music was often used as a sound effect, and there was not much movement as an expression of music. 2/5
Buminess Play was kind of like a show we made in our garage, and a show we planned to do but didn’t. Bedazzled costume pieces were used as all kinds of things (we even spied some hot-glued jewels). Using the audience as performers is kind of like using found objects for sculpture. And there were butts, also known as bums. 5/5
Referenced current events – very relevant. There was a topical interruption that abruptly shifted the play’s emotional landscape. The line “getting all the likes,” is timely – but is that relevant? It’s the second part of a series, so very relevant if you are interested in seeing the last installment! If relevance is an experience that resonates with you where you are, the mad lib text is that – it mirrored the audience’s own stories back to us. 4/5
A rollercoaster of pizza and not pizza.The extended intro was not pizza. The songs Barbone felt pizza. The “rage” song was pizza. Loneliness and mad-libs section were serious, not pizza. Costumes were pizza, very visually stimulating – like toppings. 1 and 5/5
Overheard in the audience: “My participation will be tremendous. I will participate in this play bigly.” You may participate, but who is pulling the strings?
This week, choreographer/director Faye Driscoll will return to the Walker as a part of the 2017 Out There festival of theater alternatives. Driscoll’s work is well-suited to Out There: often characterized as daring, original, and imaginative, she’s been called a “post-millenium, postmodern wild-woman.” Her newest work, Play, is the second in a trilogy called Thank You For Coming that proposes […]
Thank You for Coming: Play. Photo: Maria Baranova
This week, choreographer/director Faye Driscoll will return to the Walker as a part of the 2017 Out There festival of theater alternatives. Driscoll’s work is well-suited to Out There: often characterized as daring, original, and imaginative, she’s been called a “post-millenium, postmodern wild-woman.” Her newest work, Play, is the second in a trilogy called Thank You For Comingthat proposes performance as a shared political act, where performer and audience co-create reality. The first piece of the series, Attendance, captivated Walker audiences in February of 2016; this second installmentis co-commissioned by the Walker.
Driscoll describes Play as an investigation into the consumption and fabrication of personal stories that make our lives coherent, yet broader definitions of play permeate her work well beyond this particular piece. The word “play” itself is dynamic and multifaceted, offering a relevant frame/perspective through which to view Driscoll’s work.
You’re Me. Photo: Sally Cohn
To amuse oneself by engaging in imaginative pretense
Multiple elements evoke the “playful” feeling people describe in Driscoll’s performances, and humor is a prominent theme. In a conversation last year with the Walker’s Director and Senior Curator of Performing Arts Philip Bither, Driscoll said that she views a visceral response such as laughter as a cue that there is something interesting happening within the material. Achieving that kind of impulsive physical response is what interests her, rather than intentionally striving to make work that is humorous. Within this approach, audiences may find themselves laughing in reaction to any number of things, including those that might just be strange, uncomfortable, or unnerving. In an interview with Feministing she describes playing with a darker form of humor in her work:
“It rides the line of the deep pain from being alive, being human, and trying to connect to other people. For me it’s often an edge-that feeling of laughing and getting opened up and getting stabbed in the heart at the same time. I try to ride that line a lot.”
Driscoll’s creative process is rich in the search for these potent physical and emotional responses. With the help of imaginative games and improvisational scores, her performers construct distinct physical and emotional states that give them their dynamic presence during performances. One such game, which she developed along with her collaborator Jesse Zaritt for the piece You’re Me, involved the two performers standing across from each other attempting the impossible task of becoming the other person. Through this somewhat absurd and insistent process a third presence emerged: a warped middle-ground between Driscoll and Zaritt whom they named “Chad,” with the practice cleverly referred to as “chadding.”
Some of her games are performed live in the work, as with the puppeteering in her piece 837 Venice Boulevard. In a section of the piece, performers manipulated each other from behind as if one were a puppet, illustrating whatever the puppeteer wanted to say, or what the puppet might want to say but can’t — hinting at the subtle and not-so-subtle role manipulation can play in our interpersonal relationships. Both puppeteering and “chadding” reflect her complex humor in how they can be simultaneously amusing and raw. Through the rigor of these experiments both on and off the stage, Driscoll’s work shares an imaginative pretense that is nevertheless anchored in substantive inquiry.
Thank You for Coming: Attendance. Photo: Maria Baranova
To be cooperative
Addressing the vulnerability, authenticity, and overall complexity of human experience in performance is a recurring interest for Driscoll. Within her work audiences are confronted with questions about how our individual human experiences overlap with others, reflecting the complex nature of our relationships. The scenes that are played out on stage are metaphors for our broader social experience, using live performance as a tool for digging deeper into various qualities of human interaction. Her research begins with the unique histories of her performers, drawing on them with a range of writing exercises and improvisational scores. Through these kinds of exercises she fosters an ongoing interest in how the chemistry between people can be made palpable on stage. For 837 Venice Boulevard she explains how the text comes from a very personal place for each person, and how the improvisations, games, and writing are her way to explicitly develop it with them.
Driscoll’s work also seeks to incorporate the audience in these relational dialogues. She strives to build a shared world/culture/alchemy between choreographer, performer, and audience. Anyone who experienced Thank You For Coming: Attendance can likely testify to this effort, wherein the format and presentation of the piece actively asked the audience to engage rather than simply watch. Her next piece in the Thank You For Coming series continues this effort.
“Play picks up the flag thrown by Attendance and deepens, complicates, and continues that our personalities not only change but activate in response to other people.” -Columbus Underground
Thank You for Coming: Play. Photo: Maria Baranova
To fiddle or tamper with
There is undoubtably a certain “capriciousness” in Driscoll’s work. A profile in the New York Times describes it as “a sense that any preconceived contract between audience and performers could be rewritten at any moment, in any way.” Such is the case with Thank You For Coming: Play, where she doesn’t stop with the initial interest in how narrative and stories function, but takes a step further to wonder how we dislodge them—seeking the tension in exploring unknown territory for both her and the audience. This same tension is often achieved through a kind of ambiguity, either in the narrative or the presentation. Through uncertainty and unexpected turns within the work, she opens up the opportunity for a multiplicity of responses. As an audience member, Driscoll hopes you won’t just sit back and be entertained—throughout the work you’ll notice your own way of perceiving and the assumptions that come along with it.
“I often use text to seduce the viewer so they might think, ‘I know what is happening and who those people are,’” she wrote in a feature for Dance Magazine about using text in dance. “Then I flip things on their head so that the viewer is left in the uncomfortable attempt to relocate him or herself.”
It’s about playing with the way we enter and act in the theater, with a social construct we’re familiar with. Sometimes her pieces are unpredictable in content, where at times the movement itself displays momentum thwarted, actions being cut-off before they are allowed to complete themselves; other times it’s a new kind of non-proscenium presentation that plays with our expectations.
837 Venice Boulevard. Photo: Steven Schreiber
To put on or take part in (a theatrical performance, film, or concert)
Driscoll’s works are often called “plays” rather than “dances” (or “highly theatrical” dances). She attributes this characterization to her inclusion of elements that are more culturally associated with theater, such as facial expressions, singing, and speaking. Her performers are encouraged to take advantage of these performance tools in addition to their dance vocabulary when they’re investigating ideas or images for a piece, which become iconic components of the spirit of playful exploration that she’s known for. Driscoll’s own theatrical talents have been aided by her collaborations with theater artists like Young Jean Lee, Cynthia Hopkins, Jennifer Miller, and Taylor Mac (she choreographed Lee’s Churchand Untitled Feminist Show, both commissioned and presented in previous Out There Festivals by the Walker).
Driscoll has described these collaborations as a way to step out of her usual way of working and try out a variety of palettes, taking inspiration from the differences in how directors realize their vision. In both pieces of Thank You For Coming, she includes herself as an active director throughout the performances— handing out costumes, giving feedback, or welcoming the audience. She’s also notably unafraid of using props, which tend to show up in unexpected configurations to support the scene at hand. With her anything-goes approach, what she uses can vary wildly from moment to moment—even what you assumed was the stage may suddenly become a prop.
Driscoll is diving head first into her theatrical tendencies with Thank You For Coming:Play, which one critic described as “replete with dance, song, caricatured accents, incredible costumes, a movable and deconstruct-able set and truly versatile performers.” With this new work, the subject of play seems to be an apt frame through which to view the diversity of Driscoll’s choreographic skill, complete with all the bold and lively elements that have enchanted audiences thus far.
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, Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on Karen Sherman’s Soft Goods, which makes its […]
Joanna Furnans, Krista Langberg, Jessica Cressey, and Ross Orenstein in Karen Sherman’s Soft Goods (2016). Photo: Sean Smuda
To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoingRe: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, Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on Karen Sherman’s Soft Goods, which makes its world premiere on the Walker stage December 8–10, 2016. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
Soft Goods, conceived and directed by Karen Sherman, directs the eye to what is usually unseen in performance. Light is shed upon what is deliberately kept in the dark, specifically the tech folks who make performance happen. But she also draws our attention to elements that support and allow them their day in the sun: power cords, hanging lights, Genie lifts, a tool box, a puff of smoke…
Soft Goods was created collaboratively over several years at multiple residency sites where tech needs could be experimented with in rehearsal. This is a very unusual opportunity in the performance world, and utterly necessary here. Dancers and technicians are equalized, and we are treated to insider banter, jokes, and hijinks as the piece escalates.
Sherman is known for her keen wit and clever direction, and she brings these fully to bear here. Even more impressive, however, is how the work uses those platforms to reveal touching and ultimately blatantly sentimental celebrations of performance and life itself.
Work is underway when we enter the theater. Nothing is overtly theatrical; we watch the quotidian. The piece formally begins when the house lights dim and the stagehands take center stage, bantering as they work, at once readying and breaking down a show.
Enter The Dancers, a moment that is repeated to great effect, a superheroesque face-off, sublime and ridiculous. The suitcases are my favorite.
Tension ensues between the crew and cast as each vie to do their jobs, which necessarily involves claiming stage time. An exaggerated technical jargon moment among the crew reminds us that these folks bend over backwards for directors, designers, and performers. It is a subtle and touching moment underneath the comedy, reminding us that the frame is as important as what’s inside.
The culminating moment of the show is a sustained section of dance that takes place entirely behind a cyc [or cyclorama, a large curtain wall], the dancers only appearing in silhouette against a sidewall and occasionally coming into view to change a costume, take an oxygen break, or demand a prop. Random and ridiculous objects fly over the cyc, and the crew attempting to wrangle the stuff of stagecraft is hilarious, the overt exaggerations utterly rooted in truth. Philip Glass’s In the Upper Room, famously used by master choreographer Twyla Tharp, is blasted here as accompaniment, a sly wink to iconic, ballet-centric dance history.
The end envelopes us in smoke, the smell of which takes me back. I am 13, sitting backstage and watching a dance from the wings. I have friend trouble at school, but in that moment I am safe and content to be a watcher, a smeller, inhaling my future and knowing that, as far as school was concerned, I’d be okay.
Soft Goods is many things. Like the above, it is memory and safekeeping. Another is a 360-degree celebration of all of the people and stuff that give performance life.
In the theater world, a raft of technicians—often clad in black and hidden just out of view of audiences—bring the work of dancers and theater artists to life on stage. They break down staging and sets and wrangle lighting units, adjust sound levels and manage “soft goods,” all the cloth elements used in productions, from drapes and curtains […]
Joanna Furnans, Krista Langberg, Jessica Cressey, and Ross Orenstein in Karen Sherman’s Soft Goods (2016). Photo: Sean Smuda
In the theater world, a raft of technicians—often clad in black and hidden just out of view of audiences—bring the work of dancers and theater artists to life on stage. They break down staging and sets and wrangle lighting units, adjust sound levels and manage “soft goods,” all the cloth elements used in productions, from drapes and curtains to scrims and masking. Their technical skill is matched by an ability to recede from view. In her new, Walker-commissioned dance/performance work, Minneapolis-based artist Karen Sherman looks at another type of “soft goods,” bringing the humanity of these crew members—and their vulnerabilities and mortality—into the spotlight in an arresting examination of labor, life, and loss. A longtime stagehand (including for many Walker productions) and independent dancer and choreographer, Sherman explicitly interweaves the two for the first time in Soft Goods. On the eve of the work’s December 8–10 world premiere, she sat down with scenic designer Kate Sutton-Johnson, who served as dramaturg on the show, to discuss Soft Goods, the tragedies that sparked it, and the challenges of crossing between worlds as performer and technician.
Kate Sutton-Johnson: Can you give us some basic background about Soft Goods? When did you first conceive of the idea that would ultimately become this new work?
Karen Sherman: I’ve been a stagehand for as long as I’ve been a dancer/choreographer—since the early ’90s. The fact that I’ve worked both sides of the stage for so long has always informed my work in both fields: as a technician I understand where artists are coming from, and as a choreographer I know how to realize my work from a technical standpoint. But until recently I’d never considered making a show explicitly about this dual perspective.
I often backdate the project to 2012 when two technician friends of mine died within about a week of each other—one from alcoholism and one from suicide. One had been dead for a week before he was discovered, and the other’s body wasn’t found for four months. Production work requires you to disappear so expertly, and it struck me that these guys managed to slip away unnoticed even in death. The week we found out I was working a load-in at the Walker, where I’d first worked with both of them. We were hanging lights and trying to talk about it all, but there was no time and space to process the loss because, well, we had a show to install. The irony of that struck me. I began thinking about all of the death imagery in technician culture—the long hours; never seeing daylight; wearing black all the time; drinking too much and not sleeping enough; listening to disembodied voices over your headset; being entombed in booths, wings, dark cavernous spaces; thinking about the load-out as you load-in, which is thinking about endings even as you’re building and creating… I thought how spending so many hours steeped in that mindset influences how you experience the world outside of work—and yet the hours are so demanding there rarely is a world outside of work.
I’d long been aware of this, of course. I had a technician friend commit suicide more than 20 years ago. Her memorial was held in the theater where she worked and was mostly attended by production people, so of course afterward everyone went up the street to a bar, even though it was the middle of the day. She had hanged herself with electrical cord, and I remember one of the guys saying admiringly that she’d gone out like a true electrician. I was shocked by the deification, but I recognized the tendency, particularly in young male stage electricians, to revere self-brutality. Yet they are also a smart, literate bunch in the business of creating things, so they can appreciate artful gestures—as hers was. Still, the exaltation was chilling. So Soft Goods looks at the reality of the hazards but also the fetishizing of them in the industry. I’ve been careful not to pathologize the field—people struggle with depression and alcoholism in every profession, and to the degree the show is looking at those issues, we’re simply using the images and tools of our work to do so. The reason I called it Soft Goods was to get at this idea. “Soft goods” is an industry term for stage curtains, but here I mean it as a reference to the humanity, vulnerability, and mortality of the crew. They are the soft goods.
Karen Sherman. Photo: Aaron Rosenblum
Sutton-Johnson: I hadn’t thought of a double meaning for that term. I love that. I totally agree about the fetishizing of destructive habits inside the industry. I see it all the time, and I’m not entirely outside of it myself. It’s easy to fall into this kind of boundary-less mode, working an absolutely absurd number of hours for example. It becomes normalized to neglect your family, friends, and your own health. And there’s a strange pride in the sacrificing. Maybe it’s the neglect of what we need that proves how truly indispensable we are to the work. All of this is quite dangerous, actually, as we both know. So, yeah, this world you’re cracking open, I certainly recognize it.
Sherman: The indispensable thing is huge. In both dance and production you’re given the message that the project can’t happen without you (which is why you have to miss out on so many things or why you push yourself so hard), and yet it’s also implied that you could be replaced at the drop of a hat. It’s a very cruel dynamic.
To address this through tangible means, we’ve partnered with Behind the Scenes, a charity that provides financial assistance to production personnel struggling with illness or injury. I approached them about starting a new grant designed specifically to help alleviate the costs of mental health and substance abuse counseling. They’re launching it in conjunction with the show. We’ll be raising money for it, and the Walker is generously donating $1 of every ticket sold to the fund. It’s like the real-world social service version of the project.
Sutton-Johnson: Wow, awesome. Can you talk a little bit about how this piece was created with the ensemble of performers?
Sherman: I’ll do my best! First off, we’re calling it a dance but it’s really more of a dance/play/performance/exhibition of manual labor. The performance itself is structured like a live load-in, tech, and rehearsal for a show that never happens. We couldn’t make it in a rehearsal studio because we needed access to gear, equipment, lights, which as tools of the trade contextualize the human beings. Plus, the movement and choreography of the gear is part of the larger idea of “dance” in the show. So we made it almost entirely in production residencies in fully equipped theaters. Production residencies are rare in the dance world but we were very fortunate to have several partners who offered them, including the Walker, Alverno Presents, Concordia University, and LUMBERYARD.
An equipment rack, built by Walker lighting supervisor Jon Kirchhofer, in Karen Sherman’s Soft Goods (2016). Photo: Gene Pittman
I went in with a long list of images, ideas, and themes, and it was just a matter of figuring out how to manifest them. Rehearsals consisted of a lot of experiments in examining how the two worlds could overlap. For example, the crew had five minutes to verbally describe how to hang a stage curtain—no gestures or acting out the task—while the dancers wrote down whatever words, phrases, or images stuck out to them. Then the dancers had five minutes to create choreography based on their notes. In another example, the dancers had a trio that moved through the room with each dancer orbiting around the other. They taught it to the crew—just where they went in space and in relationship to each other, subtracting any “dance.” Then crew used that pattern while executing very basic tasks. We each made “memorials” using only lighting cues, shutter cuts and bodies in space. We used the IATSE [International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees] vocabulary test prep sheet to create text and original movement (there’s a move called “trim chain”). There was a lot of this culling from each others’ work and worlds.
Sutton-Johnson: Oooh, the “trim chain” move. Nice. I may have to learn that one to be ready for when you’re auditioning set designers for performance roles. Hey, it could happen, right?
Sherman: Maybe it already is happening and you’ve already been hired!
Sutton-Johnson: Ha! So, speaking of casting, there are distinct roles that the performers play that reflect their real-life identities. Did this make the work harder or easier? What were you looking for when you cast the piece?
Sherman: Well, there are 10 core people in the project—dancers, technicians, designers, administrators. Everyone performs in the role they usually perform in their working life, and to some degree they may be performing as a version of themselves as individuals. But the great thing about live performance is that we get to point to, yet free ourselves from, our real lives. So in this show people are being somewhat true to their nature but only to the degree that it is being shaped and mediated by the story we’re telling. I’ve asked the performers to represent external identities, ideas, and certainly stereotypes to a greater degree than I typically do. They’re representing points of view that they don’t necessarily align with and are stand-ins for ideas about sex, gender, and power in our professions. In terms of what I was looking for in casting, I was pretty open-minded. But I was looking for a sensitivity to and awareness of the emotional, psychic hazards of living your life in a theater. Everyone in the show has been incredibly generous, insightful, brave, and willing. I imagine they could have made this show without me.
Ross Orenstein, Andy Kedl, Zachary Humes, Krista Langberg, Jessica Cressey, and Joanna Furnans in Soft Goods. Photo: Sean Smuda
Sutton-Johnson: Mm-hm, sure they could. [Audible sighing.] Well, speaking of your faint, hardly necessary presence, I know that during the creation of Soft Goods you wrestled with what your role should be inside the piece. Can you talk about that?
Sherman: The performer/technician crossover is not uncommon in the theater world, but it is rare in dance. The tech world is male-dominated and male-populated. Dance is dominated by women and gay men (though men have more power and opportunity in the field). So the fact that I’m a queer woman who is both a technician and a dancer is actually unusual. Of course, there are many variations and places on the spectrums of identity, but this project was trying to root itself in the complications of the status quo—I stayed true to a lot of stereotypes that have been my observed reality (most technicians are male, most dancers are female, most people working in either field in the contemporary touring dance world are white, etc.). Because of this, the reality of my duality had no place in the piece even as it was the locus for it. Yet presenting myself as only a dancer or only a crew member felt false. Still, there was no escaping that I was in control and directing things. So I’ve tried to acknowledge that.
Sutton-Johnson: Interesting. I’ve never heard you talk about it that way, but I completely understand what you mean. I’d like to touch again on the other two groups of performers: dancers and stagehands. Does it matter who has more power or which group the audience may identify with more strongly? Was it important to maintain a sense of balance in the piece? Is it important who controls the narrative?
Sherman: No, the identification doesn’t matter. I think there is balance between the groups, but it’s through them being shown differently than you are used to seeing them; we get to know the dancers by how little they do and the crew by how much. And let’s be honest, these are two very arcane professions that don’t hold societal power anywhere outside of a theater. They are each beautifully metaphoric for so many things—labor, power, death, race, sex, gender, loss, aloneness, suffering, isolation, self-erasure, aliveness, the body, relationship. I could make a million shows from this show. My goal was to pull them all into one piece. Which is impossible but also not. I think if you go in to this show with an agenda of what you want to see—a display of technical virtuosity, a meditation on loss, a cheeky lament on the lives of dancers, a visual poem—you will find that thing. I know that comes somewhat at my expense; I’ll want you to have all agendas and you may only have one. But that’s show biz.
Sutton-Johnson: So perhaps this has to do with my vantage point and what I’m looking for in the piece—my agenda, as you say—but I’m aware of a palpable tension throughout the piece between the stagehands and dancers. Sometimes this sense of conflict seems comical, and at other times, painful. Can you talk about the element of tension in the piece?
Sherman: Well, can you say more about your role as a designer? Someone who is neither crew nor performer but a unique role entirely? (I feel like my place in this piece is with the designers—I literally sit next to the lighting designer. In terms of the hierarchies, Designer is to Crew as Choreographer is to Dancers.)
Sutton-Johnson: Well, yeah, for me it feels a bit like a straddling act between the stagehands, the performers, and a third thing: the artistic vision. I want the performers to feel empowered and taken care of inside the process. I want the same thing for the stagehands, and I also want them to feel like the project—the artistic vision—is worthy of their best work and commitment. Demanding a lot of the crew without alienating them can be very difficult, and an absolute nightmare process is one where the crew is totally resistant. I find that I’m usually met with skepticism or at least some wariness when I step into the space with them, and so the initial impression I make on the crew is critical, I think. A make-it-or-break-it moment. Behind what I always hope is a relaxed, confident façade, I’m usually feeling pretty desperate for the crew’s help, their problem solving, willingness to hustle, focus, etc. It’s a neediness I hate, but at the same time, I have no interest in making art alone. Having to give up control comes with the territory, but it’s not easy and so, yes, clearly I’m very conscious of tension. It very well could be that I’ve zeroed in on this in Soft Goods. Perhaps I’ve even noticed it where you didn’t intend it. What do you think?
Sherman: I relate to so much of what you’ve said here, Kate: “the third thing”; taking care of people; wanting people to feel a part of the vision while also having to ask them to do things; the neediness against the difficulty in ceding control. The fact that I do both jobs complicates how crews see me as well as how I present myself to them initially when I’m “the artist.” It has sometimes worked well for me when my production background is known right away. Other times it raises suspicions. I’m sure the fact that I’m a woman complicates this even more. I think if I were a male artist/technician most crews would be more likely to right away believe that I knew what I was doing (even if I didn’t).
Andy Kedl, Zachary Humes, Ross Orenstein, and Emily McGillicuddy in Soft Goods. Photo: Sean Smuda
Sutton-Johnson: Do you feel like this piece is in conversation with any of your previous work?
Sherman: I think often my work deals with a certain amount of violence, loss, and a scrappy beauty, though the violence is usually more implied and internalized than acted out. For sure, these themes are present throughout Soft Goods and certainly within the reality of my day-to-day work as a stage technician and dancemaker. Both fields deal with self-sacrifice whether the public is aware of it (the romance of the suffering, passion-driven dancer) or not (the invisibilized stagehand who worked 70 hours that week). My work is also usually quite funny and wry. Soft Goods deals with a lot of big themes, but it’s also funny and beautiful and (deceptively) simple. I think that would describe most of the work I make. I hope.
Sutton-Johnson: Can we circle back to something you talked about earlier regarding the rather unusual tech demands associated with rehearsing this piece? The necessities of a theater space and a significant amount of lighting gear made the creation of Soft Goods a serious logistical challenge. Can you speak to that and also to how this will impact you as the piece tours and plays in different kinds of spaces?
Sherman: I refer to it as the show that eats itself. From a logistical standpoint, this is the hardest show I’ve ever made. Just finding rehearsal spaces that suited our needs, that were available when all 10 of us were, and raising the money to pay for it was extremely involved. I’m used to making a piece in a rehearsal studio over a couple of years with time to come and go from ideas. But with Soft Goods, every time we worked it would be for a solid 40- to 60-hour week. It was basically like being in constant tech, which as you know is not the most low-stress environment! Then the week would end and I’d spend months just writing grants, trying to set up the next residency, and having no hands-on creation time. It was very all or nothing. Making a show under those conditions was definitely a new challenge. The show has turned out to be quite tuned to its own poetics; how to make those resonate in different venues requires more adaptations than I’d like. We go to PS122 (New York) and Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA (Los Angeles) in 2017. They’ve co-commissioned the show along with the Walker. The Walker is one of the few US venues presenting contemporary dance of this genre that actually has a fly system, so we were always going to have to adapt it to fixed grid houses on tour. But we did turn down a few opportunities due to lack of a suitable venue. That was very hard, but it was the right thing to do. You can’t always know at the beginning the constraints you’ll have built by the end. I’ve spent years having to adapt shows to challenging conditions so prioritizing rather than sacrificing the needs of Soft Goods has been a lovely line to hold.
Sutton-Johnson: Yes, that also makes me think about how defining the limitations of the art can be the biggest challenge but ultimately the thing that feels the most freeing. Seeing the edges of it means that you finally know what in the world it is. I think that’s been my experience as an artist, anyway.
Sherman: Yes, as if the world did turn out to be flat after all!
A ball of gaffer’s tape in Soft Goods (2016). Photo: Sean Smuda
Sutton-Johnson: So, big picture: what are your hopes for Soft Goods?
Sherman: Well, Kate, as you know, Soft Goods has been fraught with some pain for me because my lighting designer and our close, mutual friend, Carrie Wood, died unexpectedly in March, midway through the process. After that, every time I went back to work on the project it felt like renewed trauma. I wasn’t sure how I could even continue the piece. (I felt a related feeling after the election: how do I go back to work after this?) I eventually found my way back, but there was just so much… I don’t even know… the word ”pain” almost ties it up with too pretty of a bow. There was something profoundly fatiguing and enervating in there. A looming dread that I had shackled myself to. But recently, I could feel how the show had grown its own legs and set out on its identity. It’s cliché and hokey, but we give life to these projects and then they exist outside of us. So that has freed me, released me from much of the pain and struggle. I feel proud and moved by what we’ve made so far. And incredibly lucky to work in such a beautiful, expansive medium. I’m looking forward to shepherding Soft Goods along. It’s like my new companion. It’s very alive, which is ironic considering some of its themes. It’s also weirdly uplifting. But I’ve come to think that our work can be a place to alchemize sorrow and cruelty and turn them into energy and image, something beyond ourselves. It’s like burning off the excess to be left with a substance more pure. So I hope that for the show as well as for myself.
In the upcoming 44th Annual Choreographers’ Evening, curator Rosy Simas brings together a group of 11 choreographers in an inclusive look at dance being made in the Twin Cities. Simas, a well-known performer/curator/Native American activist/educator, selected works that “complement each other, dances that reflect the times we live in, and dances that will create thought provoking […]
Left to right: Paula Mann, Greg Waletski, Taja Will, Koua Mai Yang, matt regan, Charles Campbell, Megan Mayer, Magnolia YSY, Erin Drummond, Holo Lue Choy, Laura Selle-Virtucio. Photo: Gene Pittman
Left to right: Iris Meszaros, Deja Stowers, Jaime Ramberg, Alana Rucker, Madelyn Yang, Joelle Fernandez, Zack Nguyen, Akiko, Andy Mor, Bella Roberts, Vera Meszaros, Frankie Hebres. Photo: Gene Pittman
In the upcoming 44th Annual Choreographers’ Evening, curator Rosy Simas brings together a group of 11 choreographers in an inclusive look at dance being made in the Twin Cities. Simas, a well-known performer/curator/Native American activist/educator, selected works that “complement each other, dances that reflect the times we live in, and dances that will create thought provoking conversation among audiences.”
In advance of their performances, I asked the participating choreographers a few questions about the nature of their work, their artistic process, their influences, and their thoughts on being involved in Choreographers’ Evening. What follows is a brief introduction to each of the artists, who together represent a wide range of vital dance makers in Minnesota.
Photo: Emma Voorhes
Where do you find inspiration?
I find inspiration in the shifting wild presence that lingers in places and moments beyond the contours of linguistic comprehension and ordinary perception. I’m compelled to tap into currents in this liminal realm to help mobilize and heal stuck, scarred aspects of our communal web.
What interests you about an “interdisciplinary” approach to dance-making?
Disciplines are only temporary designations, meant to hone particular skill sets and modes of expression. I’m interested in dancing beyond the edges as a means to liberate the needs of the art: if this little art ghost wants to live between the bridge and water, so be it. I’ll give it spider’s silk to fly there.
Photo: Julius “Juicee” Johnson
What kinds of techniques and dance forms influence your choreographic style?
Hip Hop, House Dance, Krump, Karate, and Filipino Folk Dance influence my choreographic style. While I possess a strong foundation in those dance forms, I ditch mirrors and I base my choreography off of feeling rather than appearance. My anger admittedly fuels me. There are so many injustices all over the world. As an artist, I feel a duty to use my platforms to say what needs to be said as clear as possible. I don’t want audiences leaving with their own interpretation of our personal stories. I want audiences to leave knowing exactly what we meant to say. I am inspired by real world issues, my family’s immigration story, my friends and students, and my dedication to authenticity of the styles I do and the communities I belong to.
What do you hope to learn from presenting your work at Choreographers’ Evening?
Presenting White Privilege at Choreographers’ Evening is going to be exciting. Community/authentic hip hop is rarely put on large stages. My colleagues and I will learn how the general Twin Cities population feels about not only our art form, but our message. When we performed this piece at our own show in July 2016, the audience felt healed and inspired. Performing this piece for an audience that is mainly white and not exposed to underground hip hop will be truly interesting. There is a lot of pressure for hip hop dancers all over to conform to the mainstream industry’s expectations like entertaining huge audiences to clean and happy pop music with flashy moves. There is a lot of pressure for hip hop dancers in the Twin Cities to be highly influenced by modern and contemporary dance because there’s a lot of that here, to put it simply. It is imperative to us that we stay raw and true to ourselves.
Photo: Clarence Chan
How do you describe your style of moving/making?
My style of moving is deeply rooted in Popping and couples with sounds from my upbringing in the Bronx or sounds that speak to my life and experience now. I usually begin with a personal point of tension or question around issues of individuality, fatherhood and marriage, masculinity, racism, and privilege, like what it means to stay true to my street dancing roots as my locale and context have changed. I think my dance is really an attempt to make sense of, negotiate, and ultimately embrace change, conflict, and complexity.
My choreography is shaped by the physical space I’m dancing in and by the audience I’m dancing in front of, which is why I’m a firm believer of not doing the same performance more than once.
What unique contribution do you hope to bring to this Choreographers’ Evening?
My personal narrative and perspective on life, which I hope other working people can relate to. For Solo Dolo No Mo, I am going to dance like nobody’s watching because I feel like I’m always on and going through the motions inherent to being in a capitalist society. Dance enables me to break away from those confines as it becomes less about mass consumption and exploitation, and more about individual meaning and expression. This performance, in particular, is a vulnerable, solitary, and rebellious act of materializing my thoughts and feelings while being present.
Photo: Courtesy of the artist
How does teaching influence your artistic practice and/or choreography?
This is my 44th year of dancing, and my 28th year of teaching. As a mid-career choreographer, I have survived long enough to have experienced many cycles in my work. I created my first dance at age 14, very soon after I began studying Modern Dance and Improvisation. During the post-modernist movement of the late 1970’s-1980’s, I attended N.Y.U. and was part of the downtown dance scene in New York for 10 years.
The process of teaching and creating dances are inextricably linked for me. They feed each other; when practiced together, I can tap into the creative current more readily. Both require a deep understanding of energy and out flow. Teaching is a service to others, but also engages me creatively and challenges me to fully embody the material I’m teaching. Dance making is more insular in the first stages; I have to go within, become absorbed in my imagination and then translate the ideas in some way.
How has you work shifted over your career?
My work continues to evolve over time; in the early days I was inspired and influenced by ideas and aesthetics that were different than mine. I was learning, soaking everything in. Later I began to discern and evaluate my own vision. What is uniquely mine that I can contribute? I began to look for articulation and distinction in movement more specifically.
What is unknown and perhaps unknowable? I allow myself the freedom to experiment and investigate incongruent ideas. It doesn’t always work out. I try to blend together a story, a structure, and an idea that has meaning for me, expressed through the energy of my movement. Somehow I try to reconcile my observations of the external world with my unexplored inner material, the story beneath the story.
I’m still able to tap into the excitement, the physicality and the energy release that is dancing to me. I continue to be engaged in an emotional, imaginative and magical place. What excited me was how moving through space and time connected me to my inner self, to the depth of emotions that felt like I was experiencing the “real” reality, not just business as usual.
Over the years I’ve gotten better at making my work more specifically distinguished from the work of others, and really looking inside myself by being honest about what I have to contribute to this field.
Photo: Megan Mayer
What are some key words or phrases you use to describe your aesthetic?
I obsess over minimalism, mimicry, tenderness, wry humor, loneliness, fake bad timing, exacting musicality and understatement. I like to explore internal terrain, subtlety and tiny emotional undercurrents that resonate in the body. I am an artist working with choreography, dance, experimental video and photography. I construct a unique perspective of what dance can be: virtuosity in vulnerability and a victory in a gesture. Drawn to the edges of the experience of performing: the anticipatory rapid heartbeat before going onstage, and the regretful relief after exiting, my work often reveals where that switch lives in the body. I feel most like myself when I am onstage being other people.
How do you incorporate your interests in experimental video and photography into your practice/performance?
For the Choreographers’ Evening piece, which is part of This is supposed to be my fertile window, an evening-length work I premiered in 2016, I studied photographs of Cecile Richards and tried to copy her gestures and facial expressions as she testified in front of Congress on behalf of Planned Parenthood. Videotaping myself is another way to extend and curate the frame and focus; sometimes video is part of my process of choreographing, and sometimes the choreographic process results in a fully-realized video work. With video, I have more control over framing, editing and time than I do in a live performance. Sometimes, if I’m feeling stuck choreographically, I’ll set up the camera up and improvise something seemingly unrelated to the piece I’m making. Reviewing that footage often provides a breakthrough and tells me where I should go next in the dance. In general, I use film clips and still images from film or photography as a starting point for creating movement. Photographs are useful in that they reveal movement quirks and unique physicalities and suggest what to enhance or feature. My first goal is to try to make a compelling stage picture; locomotion is secondary. When working with a group, I often photograph the performers talking casually before or after rehearsal and pore over them later. The chemistry I see amongst the cast in the photographs and who they are as individuals tells me where I need to focus.
Photo: Jenelle Abts
Describe the starting point of the piece you’ll be presenting at Choreographers’ Evening.
Well first off a little history on the dance. It started in the southwest region of the United States. Many tribes lay claim to this visually appealing dance. But is has recently sprung up across native America and is very special dance that tells stories and teachings about life. When the dance is first started the dancer will start with one hoop. She will eventually work her way up to however many hoops she desires. You will see all kinds of transformation from plants to eagles to spiritual beings.
What is appealing to you about being included in this Choreographers’ Evening?
I am so happy to share the knowledge and wisdom that this dance has. I’m happy that I can give a piece of who I am to the audience. This dance varies from each dancer. So for me to give my story and my heart to the audience brings me great honor.
Photo: John Lombardi
You often use the word “fusion” to describe your work – what does this describe about your dancing?
I think about the word a lot. The genre of dance I do is called ” tribal fusion belly dance,” and I am definitely trained within the genre for the first three years of studying dance. So when someone asks me what type of dance I do, there is no way around it but to use the word “fusion.” But it’s not my favorite word because it sounds less serious, less authentic, less genuine, and less sincere.
The word “fusion” describes that I am continuously learning elements from different dance styles and try to fuse them with what I already know. I am always wondering how I can do so without ending up stealing and poorly copying other dance styles.
How does your work fit into the themes of Simas’ curatorial vision for this Choreographers’ Evening?
My work is about the hassle of, not only cis women, but all femme presenting people in rape culture.
Now, that didn’t start this year, it’s not a new thing. Misogyny and rape culture, however, are still problems we face today. So I brought this piece to the CE audition.
Laura Selle Virtucio with Holo Lue Choy
Her Kind with Holo Lue Choy. Photo: courtesy of the artist
You were once referred to in an interview as having “no ambition to choreograph.” How has that changed?
I have been a dancer in this community for a long time; it sometimes seems that choreography is expected of me at this stage. It has never been a goal for me. I care very much about what is being made when I’m working with a choreographer. My ideas and movement are often pulled into what someone else is making. I have felt respected as a collaborator during much of my Minneapolis dance career. But I have trepidation about what I might be able to accomplish as a sole dance-maker. The times I’ve created work have been when a young dancer has looked to me for collaboration and mentoring. I see it as an opportunity to support an individual voice and to practice craft. That process I have enjoyed immensely. So, with this iteration of Her Kind, the work is my structure, but Holo and I have co-authored the details. Three dancers have contributed their voices while performing this work in the past and now Holo will share her voice. There is a parallel journey that these dancers have had in doing this particular work to my own journey working with the choreographers who have shaped my career. I hope to reflect back what I’ve experienced: a community that makes room for diverse voices and that challenges one to overcome fear.
Deja Stowers – BLAQ
Photo: Courtesy of the artist
Where does this piece fit in the general trajectory of your creative work, and what are the most important questions driving your work right now?
My work is derived from real life experiences. I am interested in reliving and processing these experiences for artists in order to learn from them. I am most interested in how Black people in “America” are surviving and thriving in a world that was built by us but not for us. I explore the homelessness and displacement of my people but also soak in the vastness of what it means to be Black. How we stretch and shrink in the presence of joy and heart filled laughter. It is important that in BLAQ’s process we live through both. BLAQ is a company uninterested in performance but is drawn to “observance.” I believe that the observers are just that, observers. They play a role just by being in the room. WE SEE THEM. But our process is not packaged for them. It isn’t a message in a bottle. and it most importantly isn’t a truth that is open for critique. Though my work is geared to evoke social change and is in fact a social gathering, everyone has the right to give or get what they want from the process. BLAQ is process-based. The product is the process not to be bought and sold, but kept sacred and respected.
Photo: Kari Mosel
What’s important about using dance as your platform for creative expression?
I create performance with the moving body, which for me includes extensions of the body including voice and the spiritual practice of presence. I move to know the viscera of my own human body and its likeness to others, I move to listen to its intelligence, I move to research and I move to communicate. The body is my vehicle, my language for relating.
Talk a little about your practice and how it frames your choreography.
My practice is based in somatic modalities, energy medicine and structured improvisation. I work from a place of inquiry or research, in Bruja I am curious to excavate my ancestral lineage from my cellular intelligence. As an international adoptee I’ve lost my understanding of homeland and genetic resonance. This theme has informed much of my work and I still don’t feel complete with this research. The solo evolves as more of a soul’s journey, less of a human experience. I am using my spiritual practice and somatic movement research as a centerpoint to communicate with the unknown lineage held by my body. In performance the research is framed by an aesthetic of spontaneity, improvisation itself and the audience as witness to something that is immediately personal and somehow universal.
Photo: Bruce Silcox
How does your identity as a Hmong woman influence your choreography?
Not all my work engages in the Hmong identity, but my identity as a Hmong woman, Asian-American woman, and woman of color will always affect, nurture, and define the lens that I have in order to navigate through this world. The term woman is the identity that most confines and defines why I choose to address patriarchy in the many spaces I occupy. In this piece specifically, it is important and relevant to have Hmong women occupy and claim the performance space, and to make our presence known and extant considering the demographics of the Twin Cities. My choreography is always an extension of me and my experiences, and a reaction to our times. It’s time to make our stories and histories be seen as relevant.
Describe your relationship to social justice in your work.
I would have never came to a social justice approach to my work if it wasn’t for my mentor, Ananya Chatterjea. All dance is political. Nothing is apolitical. Therefore, intentionality and craft is really important for me in order to get my message across in the way that I want it to come across. Personal interpretation is inevitable, but if I can engage my community and audience members through the images and energy I am producing, then I have also engaged them in social justice work. Social justice is the continuous force that drives my passion for thinking, making, helping, loving, creating bridges among our differences, and my work is the outlet in which it is being manifested.
Choreographers’ Evening 2016, curated by Rosy Simas, takes place on November 26 at 7 pm and 9:30 pm in the Walker’s McGuire Theater.