One of the most technically ambitious dance recordings ever made, incorporating 3D film, live performance and on-the-spot video-mixing by Atlas. —The Art Newspaper on Tesseract Two years in the making, Tesseract brings together video artist Charles Atlas with dancer/choreographers Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener in a collaboration that pushes the boundaries of space, time, and energy. Co-commissioned […]
Kristen Foote, David Botana, and Cori Kresge, during the 3D filming of Tesseract. Photo: Mick Bello, EMPAC
One of the most technically ambitious dance recordings ever made, incorporating 3D film, live performance and on-the-spot video-mixing by Atlas.
Two years in the making, Tesseract brings together video artist Charles Atlas with dancer/choreographers Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener in a collaboration that pushes the boundaries of space, time, and energy. Co-commissioned by the Walker Art Center and Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC), Tesseract is a two-part work: a stereoscopic 3D “dance video” by Charles Atlas (Tesseract ▢) and (Tesseract ◯), an on-stage performance by six dancers, filmed live and edited and projected in real time by Atlas.
Part dance, part 3D film, and part science-fiction, the show is divided into six chapters that display a different world, visually and energetically, with unique rules dictating the type of movements for each section. The resulting experience is a densely layered, visually stunning alternative universe drawn from numerous influences and collaborations. In advance of the work’s March 16–18 Walker performances, we asked Silas Riener and Rashaun Mitchell to provide commentary on a selection of film stills, performance images, and behind-the-scenes photos from the making of Tesseract in order to provide a glimpse into multiple dimensions of the work.
Melissa Toogood. Photo courtesy the artists
This image shows Melissa Toogood in a section we call “The Desert.” We envisioned a desert landscape and the bodies and objects as topography of this moving landscape—a kind of evolution of form. The entire section was shot on a green screen, knowing we could create different backgrounds in post-production. This helped create a hypothetical world, perhaps partly inspired by Edwin Abbott’s story Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, where the body would have cartoonish geometric outgrowths, like appendages but in spherical, conical, or cube forms with costumes constructed by the completely inimitable Yvette Helin. The movement material is drawn from an improvisational score that takes its cues, timings, and types of movement from looking at the natural world at a geological scale: glacial cleavings, tectonic shifts, and the slow but constant tides of the world.
Melissa Toogood, Cori Kresge, Silas Riener, and Rashaun Mitchell. Photo courtesy the artists
This section was shot on a rubber padded floor, which completely changed the quality of movement we were able to do. We could throw ourselves around because of the springiness and protection provided by the floor.
The manic atmosphere made Charlie [Atlas] think of wigs, bringing a kind of bizarre dressed-up/dressed-down feeling.We wanted to be both easily identifiable and fantastical, but also faceless and unknown. The makeup artist covered all of our facial features, while the movement of the wigs obscured us further. The movement score proposes disorientation. We work to constantly disrupt our own intentions, to locate a space in between. We throw, release, and stiffen multiple parts of the body into competing and surprising falls and redirections. Attempts to support one’s self towards verticality are premature or too late. The Steadicam operator, Ryan Jenkins, weaves his way around and through us, upside down and around, reinforcing this sense of disorientation for the viewer.
Left to right: Rashaun Mitchell, Cori Kresge, Melissa Toogood, Silas Riener, Kristen Foote, and David Rafael Botana. Photo: Mick Bello, EMPAC
Gestural sequences for this scene were created out of representational movements derived from mini-narratives, woven together. The textile drops are by Fraser Taylor, originally made for Rashaun’s piece, Interface (2013). The recycled graphic, two-dimensional images were set in the space to create the sense of multiple three-dimensional rooms or pockets in the space that display and conceal secret stories. This is the most playful, character-driven scene choreographically. We wanted to evoke a kind of childlike story-time—an Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland-inspired world.
Photo: Ray Felix, EMPAC
In this image, Cori Kresge is performing live while her movements are simultaneously captured by a camera offstage and manipulated live by Charles Atlas. In this particular moment, she appears larger than life, with trails of different colors coming off of her as she moves.
Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener. Photo: Mick Bello, EMPAC
This is a photograph from a set-up that never made it into our “duet” scene of the film. We were imagining a kind of technological jungle, with structural forms appearing part natural outgrowth of a forest ecosystem, and part complete hyper-color explosion of chords and connective tissue. We played with movements that appear part robotic, part animal. The material is tubular crinoline, which is also used for “Chinese finger traps,” and was originally sourced by our friend, artist Ali Naschke-Messing, for our earlier piece, PERFORMANCE. For this film, the material was recycled into corsets constructed by Julia Donaldson, reminiscent of peacock plumage, and inspired by kamata, worn by the Dinka group in South Sudan. We had a lot of fun filming this scene, at one point almost collapsing the theater’s hanging pipes when the vines got tangled during a circular run in the choreography.
Photo: Ray Felix, EMPAC
This is the full cast of the live work, including Steadicam operator Ryan Jenkins, capturing the dance from his perspective and projecting it into the action as it happens.
Left to right: Victor Lazaro, Ryan Jenkins, Horoki Ichinose, and Cori Kresge. Photo: Mick Bello, EMPAC
This is a production shot from the filming of a section of the 3D film, featuring Hiroki Ichinose and Cori Kresge dancing and Steadicam operator Victor Lazaro with Ryan Jenkins. The 3D Steadicam rig was huge, weighing about 90 pounds. The ring of lights illuminating the fog in a room of blackness, combined with continuous circling choreography for the dancers, was very disorienting. No one ever knew where front was. It’s a miracle the shot happened at all. Everything about this scene is slippery, including its own success. By the end of the second or third take, we had to wrap the scene because the Steadicam operator’s back gave out. The vulnerability of the human body next to the durable machine was never so poignant. This is the most virtuosic shot of the film, for both the camera and the dancing.
Charles Atlas during rehearsal. Photo: Mick Bello, EMPAC
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
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 […]
Photo: Martin Argyroglo
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 Philippe Quesne’s La Mélancolie des Dragons. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
Conceived by Philippe Quesne, a theater director by way of set designer, the premise for La Mélancolie des Dragons is very compelling – seven metalheads are stranded in the forest and build an amusement park for a single visitor and car mechanic: Isabelle. So absurd you have to see it.
Details, details, details. From the meticulous construction of the remote and snow covered forest, to the didactic explanation of each attraction – what it is made of, how it functions, how visitors engage with it – the power of the performance comes from a thorough attention to detail. The result is more like a diorama than a play.
La Mélancolie des Dragons confounded expectations. When a hiccup in the plan could be disastrous, it instead provides an opportunity for generosity. The hard metalheads have a gentle disposition and are eager to share the many features of their amusement park. These diverse, understated interventions are meant to attune the visitors to their own senses and the natural environment. A kind of anti-amusement park that seeks to inspire reflection over thrills.
The fantastical situation is made believable by startling realism in design and performance. It allows you to accept and appreciate things for what they are.
This show was originally performed in 2008, (sigh) such a different time. Signifiers of 1980s metal culture were heavily featured, along with some classical music. Their wigs and denim/leather outfits recreated stereotypical metal, hair-band outfits. 0/5
Each attraction was thoroughly explained by the group. They described how the technology worked and the intended effect before demonstrating it. Self-awareness was used as a tool to invite the audience into the action. At times, the cadence of the dialogue and thoroughness of explanations were tedious. Overall, each element was offered both to Isabelle and the audience in bite-sized pieces. 1/5
The performers strive to be appear natural, crossing the stage as they would cross a street. The movement is not stylized or overly structured. However, the characters do perform choreographies of their own, developed as attractions for the park. 1/5
Ranging from 80s classics to cinematic scoring, sonic environment effectively created an overall feeling of magic, especially toward the end, when the attractions were presented simultaneously to create huge, operatic images. 4/5
The show opens with a bummy highlight: four dudes drinking Hamm’s and Grain Belt, eating Lay’s, in a crowded Volkswagen Rabbit. They live a transient lifestyle, traveling the world with their melancholy installations. The world that Quesne created was quite detailed– using both cheap objects and current technology. La Mélancolie des Dragonstoes the buminess line. 5/5
This group seems like they know how to throw a party and have the true party spirit in their hearts. Potato chips are almost pizza. The characters are perfectly pizza. They are generous with what they have, earnest, and good natured. 5/5
TL;DR Nice metalheads are weird artists. Set design was on point.
For those of you who have followed these reviews, here’s some insight into our categories! They were originally devised when Tom Lloyd challenged DaNCEBUMS to a dance competition. It was legendary, we hope you were there.
These days, the categories moonlight as a lens to consider performance. They help us to focus conversation and pit it against certain elements that are important to our personal dance-making preferences. In a way, the rubric doesn’t so much evaluate the performance, but uses the experience to evaluate the categories themselves.
ReLEVANCE: This category evaluates how well a performance engages with current events, performance practices, and/or our personal journeys. Is it topical? Did it change our lives? Will we talk about it later?
HaRDNESS: Hardness is challenge. This could be physical or performative. This could consider how challenging a performance is for an audience member. Is it easy to follow or digest?
DaNCINESS: DaNCINESS is a disputed category, encompassing the choreography of bodies, space, materials, sounds, and light. The question of “what is dance and why is it important?” can swallow you whole…
MuSICALITY: We love dancing to music. We use it a lot in our work. In this category we ask two questions: 1) What is the role of music and sound in the piece? 2) How do the performers relate to and embody the music. We also look for an overall groove.
BuMINESS: We come from a DIY community and we value an air of casualness in our work. We are equal parts serious and lazy. Tattered edges and pop elements are endearing; but we also appreciate polish when it’s called for. This category is about aesthetic and attitude.
PiZZA: Pizza stands for universal enjoyment – as a theme and an experience. In the context of performance it may be hard to discern, but pizza is something deeply known. Would we eat this for dinner? If the answer is yes, then it’s definitely pizza.
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.
When the Walker commissioned Okwui Okpokwasili to create her new newest work, Poor People’s TV Room—a work deeply rooted in her thinking around race, gender, and her Nigerian-American identity—it wasn’t known that one of her January 19–21 performances would fall on the day of President-elect Trump’s inauguration. In light of this development, we invited Okpokwasili to share her reflection on […]
For me, this is a moment in our nation’s history where hope threatens to be replaced by fear, curiosity replaced by ignorance, and where the value of an individual is not measured by their commitment to fighting for justice and the well-being of those who are suffering, but measured by their ability to extract profit from that suffering, driven by a self-interest that is staggering, egregious, and amazing.
So I wake up every day with a new break in my heart, a new scar. And the only comfort that I have right now is that there is a vast community of people I know and do not know, who are also waking up every day with some new splintering. And many of them work every day to keep from normalizing racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, islamophobia, xenophobia, threats to the fourth estate, a raging and unfettered capitalism, climate-change deniers and an emerging kakistocracy. It is with them that I join the ragged shards of my heart to build a bigger and more resilient heart that continues the work of building greater empathy, of seeing in each other the promise of our future, and inspiring in each other the will to work to build that future.
“Maybe that’s what I’m also trying to generate or facilitate: the potential for a body to be possessed. What have we transferred through skin? Through genetics? What of pain? What of confusion? The body has these tunnels, these secrets, these pathways that can be opened up.” In a multi-disciplinary performance work created by dancer, choreographer, […]
Okwui Okpokwasili in Poor People’s TV Room. Photo: Mena Burnette of xmbphotography
“Maybe that’s what I’m also trying to generate or facilitate: the potential for a body to be possessed. What have we transferred through skin? Through genetics? What of pain? What of confusion? The body has these tunnels, these secrets, these pathways that can be opened up.”
In a multi-disciplinary performance work created by dancer, choreographer, and writer Okwui Okpokwasili, this is one of the multiple ways that the body and performance are discussed. The work subtly weaves together recent and historic women’s resistance movements in Nigeria with gestures of memory. Working in collaboration with director Peter Born, Okpokwasili began the process of creating Poor People’s TV Room in 2014 amid the heightened visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement, the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria by Boko Haram terrorists. Commissioned by the Walker, the Minneapolis debut of Poor People’s TV Room will be presented as part of Out There 2017. Performed by an all-female cast—Okpokwasili, Thuli Dumakude, Katrina Reid, and Nehemoyia Young—Poor People’s TV Room explores the intersection between installation, theater, and dance in an effort to highlight collective action.
The following is an excerpt from a wide-ranging conversation between the Walker’s Mellon Interdisciplinary Fellow Danielle Jackson and Okwui Okpokwasili. Using Poor People’s TV Room as a point of departure, the interview traces the choreographer’s expansive research process including the history of Nigerian protest practices and its relationship to the performance, conditions of the body, and recent works presented by Okpokwasili.
Danielle A. Jackson: I thought we might begin with you speaking more generally about how you begin your projects conceptually?
Okwui Okpokwasili: Overall, my concerns are with visibility and the nature of performance and the body and how bodies are read—how bodies can undermine or reaffirm those readings. Brown and black bodies on stage surface a kinetic architecture weighted with pain, pathologies, resilience, joy. I’m interested in the dynamics of legibility and trying to confound easy readings. So even though I may begin projects with a kernel inquiry, or question, and, even though the DNA or genetic material of that initial seed remains, ultimately the moment of encounter between performers and audience, during performance, takes precedence. My love is with brown bodies—maybe it goes back to childhood—this sense of always looking for some reflection in the larger world of an experience that might resonate with mine, and a body behaving in ways that reaffirm what I believe about bodies and at the same time challenge that belief.
For Poor People’s TV Room, I was reacting to the kidnapping of 276 girls in northern Nigeria (the Chibok schoolgirls) by Boko Haram, sparking the #bringbackourgirls movement. I applauded the attention given to these Nigerian schoolgirls who disappeared, but I also felt that we were losing a sense of who the initiating voices of this outcry were: the mothers, the women in Nigeria. That fact belies what people’s assumptions tend to be about African women. They aren’t framed within the lens of agency and self-advocacy. They’re generally framed as victims that need to be saved.
Okwui Okpokwasili. Photo: Mena Burnette of xmbphotography
I’m Nigerian-American, and I’ve always been interested in what was visible or not visible about ideas of West African women. And that sprung into this question of whether there’s a legacy of collective action? I looked into evidence and forms of embodied protest practices that, in a sense, the women in northern Nigeria were also an extension of. There was the Women’s War in 1929, in Nigeria, where thousands of women came together to protest what they considered the violent and disruptive actions of a colonial government on their being, on their culture. As I looked into some of these forms, I saw that there were protests where women stripped themselves naked. In precolonial culture, it was fine for young girls to be bare on top, but after marriage you’d cover yourself, especially after you’ve had children. So actually older women were stripping themselves bare in order to shame the person watching them. There was also something called “sitting on a man’s head,” where the women would go to a compound in villages in Eastern Nigeria. It was considered a private space, but the women would go into the compounds of elders or people who had certain amounts of power. They would stay in their compounds, sing songs denigrating them, making fun of them, complaining to them, telling these officials “step up” or asking, “Why are you insulting us?” It was a deeply embodied action. As I was looking into all of this, Ferguson happened, the Black Lives Matter movement was taking off—again, another movement that, even in its dispersal, that’s been helmed by African-American women. I felt this resonance with these bodies, in motion, together. The events in Nigeria, around the Women’s War in 1929, were sometimes referred to in Igbo language as the “Grand egwu.” “Egwu” means “dance,” so this collective action is linguistically linked to the language of dance, or performance.
The first thing that I did was build a collective song with the help of my partner, my collaborator, Peter Born. It was a 50-minute song that I sang in a solo, and we constructed an environment that was encased in a box that was covered in plastic, and there was a projection on the floor, a series of trailers from Nollywood movies, creating a shifting source light. I wanted to see if I could, within my own body, resonate with multiple voices. So I built this song that was meant to evoke a collective cry or a shout-out.
Jackson: Women spearheaded these resistance movements, and the performers in Poor People’s TV Room are all women.
Okpokwasili: Yes, that’s right. It was a female thing!
Jackson: Is that an outcrop of your research? There’s also an intergenerational component to this piece.
Okpokwasili: We span at least three decades. Late 20s, early 30s, mid 40s, and 60s. I wanted to have some sort of generational spectrum. I feel there are certain things that are carried and marked on the body that, even if you’re not speaking to those things directly, they surface, and working with these women is also about finding these compelling singular individuals. Our resident elder [Thuli Dumakude] has a full performance life. She’s won an Olivier Award and been on Broadway. She’s created her own singing groups and bands. She was a part of the company that organized the entertainment for Nelson Mandela’s inauguration. She left South Africa and returned to vote in the country’s first democratic election in 1994. The younger women have multidisciplinary practices and bring powerful and singular vocabularies that come from their individual work as movement makers.
Maybe you’re right in saying that having this group of women is also another outcrop of this initial generating seed that began with the research I was doing into the Women’s War. A lot of my discursive thinking and expansiveness is activated by my ongoing collaboration with Peter Born. I think as a director, as a kind of co-facilitator of the work, he and I can engage in conversations around what the form and structure of these investigations should take and try to find ways to explore together the kind of vocabulary that we need. He has a very expansive way of considering what can happen in the theater.
Poor People’s TV Room. Photo: Mena Burnette of xmbphotography
Jackson: I was present for when i return who will receive me, performed in June 2016 as part of the River To River Festival at Fort Jay Magazine on Governor’s Island. It was a performative installation on a two-hour durational loop. You presented fragments from Poor People’s TV Room there. How will the Walker iteration differ?
Okpokwasili: The Walker iteration is actually going to be in the theater proper. All of the women in Poor People’s TV Room were also in when i return who will receive me. Peter and I have been writing a narrative to facilitate a feeling, tone, and mood, so in that sense it’s similar because the River To River performance was about generating a kind of energetic field in the room. It will be different in that it has a specific beginning, middle, and end, and it’s in a space that you come into and have a very clear and stable physical or architectural position to.
Jackson: You reference the Women’s War of 1929 and the #bringbackourgirls movement, but often with your performances the research isn’t immediately recognizable to an audience.
Okpokwasili: I don’t know that I want it to be.
Jackson: You don’t want to make documentary work, but you don’t want these histories to be forgotten either.
Okpokwasili: Right. The work has its own engine and its own demand. I want to have all of my attention focused on addressing the demand of the work rather than any polemical or didactic concerns that might have started me on my journey. I’m really concerned about how bodies can resonate in a space and leave a deep imprint. I think if the concerns are only with getting a particular story out, or at least getting a story out only in the text, then I lose something about what the impact would be. I am working in a medium where dance is a part of my vocabulary, and I feel a very unique and amazing thing that [dance] can facilitate is some kind of body transference, where you can feel like you are in another person’s body.
Bodies can get really weird and strange and confusing but still compelling. We don’t necessarily know why a body is moving the way it’s moving, or where it’s going, or how it began, or why it’s ending the way it is, but we can see that a moving body can create a kind of vortex, and we can be spun in, even in our confusion. There’s something about that that’s a kind of critical space in performance. I’m always concerned also with memory and with the idea that some things may surface on a cellular level, or in the skin. There’s something about the River To River/Fort Jay piece that started to feel like a shrine. We come into this ritual and we may not know or understand why it’s using this particular language. You go into church and you don’t always understand the liturgy, you don’t understand exactly why or what everything means, but there’s another understanding, of occupying sacred space, of the need to listen intently. It is a space where all strangers are family in a moment and come together and commune over non-literal language designed to open up a channel to a spiritual awakening. And of course, there’s music, a critical centripetal force.
Jackson: Energetic forces are always present in your work. The first piece I saw you perform was Bronx Gothic at New York Live Arts. In Bronx Gothic you are already on stage when the audience enters. You stand in a corner shaking to the point of exhaustion and your shadow is projected onto the wall. I paid close attention to your movements. Most of the audience didn’t seem aware that the performance had begun. Fifteen minutes later, everyone tuned in. I left Bronx Gothic feeling a change in my body—a feeling that I haven’t been able to fully articulate in words. Affect was so present.
Okpokwasili: That’s what I want. I want some change! Even if it’s not like, “Oh, I went to this performance and now I’m different for the rest of my life.” I want some granular shift that is so deep inside that I will never be able to know what that shit was or locate where it happened, but I felt that shit!
Okwui Okpokwasili in Poor People’s TV Room. Photo: Mena Burnette of xmbphotography
Jackson:Poor People’s TV Room, where did the title come from?
Okpokwasili: It comes from a novel, Foreign Gods, Inc. by Okey Ndibe, that I was reading. There was a wealthy and corrupt government official in a village in Nigeria, who, when pressed about what he was doing for poor people in the village with his ill-gotten gains, talked about how he provided them with a TV room. He called it the poor people’s TV room. It was an air-conditioned room on the outer edges of his home where people would come in and sit and watch reruns of basketball highlight videos from the late ’80s. That made me think of questions I had when I went back to Nigeria and visited my parent’s home village and saw the disparity in wealth and the lack of labor protections and labor laws. There’s also a nod to something that I think is amazing—Nollywood, which is the second largest movie industry in the world. Africans, particularly Nigerians, are starting to take narratives into their own hands; instead of pirating western popular movies, they’re like, “Well, we can do this!” Considering that electricity can be hard to come by in Nigeria, or at least inconsistent, to think that they’re generating millions of movies a year and finding ways to work around a spotty electrical infrastructure—how they’re making that happen is pure fucking genius! So, there’s also a bit of that.
Jackson: In a recent interview with Jenn Joy, you had an interesting moment where you discuss the idea of possession, sustaining a tie between the living and the dead, and how the body functions within that.
Okpokwasili: Maybe that’s what I’m also trying to facilitate: the potential for a body to be possessed. What have we transferred through skin? Through genetics? What of pain? What of confusion? The body has these tunnels, these secrets, these pathways that can be opened up. Or maybe I just want to be possessed, as an audience member? Again, that’s maybe connected to the vortex. What’s flashing through my head is Maya Deren and her film Divine Horseman: the Living Gods of Haiti, which brings up questions. Who owns the body? Who can claim the body? What does it mean to have a god inhabit your body?
Of course there is a desire as a performer, as a choreographer, as a maker to find an engine to facilitate instances of possession and dispossession. It’s weird: I want to claim and hold on to something and then I want to let it go. I want to be in a state of dynamic coming together and letting go, coming together, and falling apart.
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.
America lost a treasured and transformative artist on November 24, 2016, with the passing of Pauline Oliveros, composer, performer, and tenacious humanitarian. The art world lost a vital creator of new music, a renowned electronic music innovator and composer, the creator of deep listening and other experimental practices, a genius inventor of sound making software, […]
Pauline Oliveros performing Commissioning Booth, Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, 1980. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives
America lost a treasured and transformative artist on November 24, 2016, with the passing of Pauline Oliveros, composer, performer, and tenacious humanitarian.
The art world lost a vital creator of new music, a renowned electronic music innovator and composer, the creator of deep listening and other experimental practices, a genius inventor of sound making software, and a fearless champion on issues of gender, race, ability, and sexual orientation.
I lost a beloved mentor who shaped my artistic sensibility and my core approach to living on this planet. In the words of Diamanda Galas, “The word ‘innovator’ pales in the face of Pauline’s aloneness as tribal leader, compass of the fallen, and challenger of trespass. A mighty soul has died.”
I invited Diane Willow, artist and professor at the University of Minnesota, to share stories of Pauline as a way of memorializing her legacy. Diane and I were introduced to one another by Pauline when Diane and her partner Jo. E. moved to the Twin Cities from Boston. It seemed only right to collaborate with Diane on listening for Pauline.
Eleanor Savage: My first encounter with Pauline was working on Njinga the Queen King, a collaborative theatrical project she created with her life partner, writer/director Carole Ione (IONE) in 1993. The Walker Art Center co-commissioned the work. At that time, I was the Walker’s Associate Director of Events and Production, and I was charged with getting the show up and running in Red Eye Theater’s space. This work wove together the story of Njinga, who ruled 17th-century Ndongo—now Angola—as a “king” because tribal custom forbade her to rule as a woman. The story was synthesized through song, dance, Pauline’s score and electronics, traditional Kongolese music arranged by Titos Sompas, and Brazilian music arranged by Nego Gato.
Pauline Oliveros and Carole Ione, workshop performance of Njinga the Queen King, Red Eye Theater, September 10, 1993
I developed an instant art crush on Pauline. She was a kindred spirit in her unapologetic butch lesbian persona and fierce feministic stance. She had no qualms about taking a screwdriver to incredibly expensive electronic devises to “see what would happen if.” She was playful and had a spirited sense of humor. She talked about and modeled the integration of artistic practice with day-to-day life. And she introduced me to her deep listening practice, sharing ideas of listening versus hearing, integrating consciousness, compassion, and quantum physics: “listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what one is doing.”
Pauline taught me the art of listening.
“We listen in order to interpret our world and experience meaning.” —Pauline Oliveros
Diane: My introduction to Pauline was through a cassette tape recording of the The Well and the Gentle. My partner Jo.E. gave this to me, music for a Boston-to-Montreal drive, just as we were getting to know one another. Literally carried away by the sounds, I had to pull over to the shoulder of the road, reorient myself, and wait until I was no longer driving to fully experience her entrancing work. Transcendent is the only way that I can begin to describe my experience.
Eleanor: Shortly after the Njinga project, Pauline and composer Ellen Fullman invited me to Austin, Texas to design lights for a film shoot for a collaborative video and audio recording session for the Suspended Music Project. Fullman’s Long String Instrument was installed in The Candy Factory, which was literally a former candy factory. This instrument is made from rows of stainless steel and bronze strings, 100-feet-long, stretched taut between wooden resonators that amplify the sound. She plays it by walking along the length of its strings and rubbing them with rosined fingers.
Pauline had setup her Expanded Instrument System (EIS), an evolving electronic sound-processing environment that provides improvising musicians individual performance control over a variety of parameters during live performance. Pauline and the Deep Listening Band (Stuart Dempster and David Gamper) and Ellen with the Long String Instrument, performed Pauline’s Epitaph in the time of AIDS (Parts 1–4) and Ellen’s TexasTravelTexture (Parts 1–4).
After a full day of filming, with the usual stops and starts and take after take, Pauline announced that she wanted to play through Epitaph all the way through before we left. Everyone was exhausted, but it is impossible to say “no” to the ever-loving but indomitable Pauline Oliveros. I perched against a wall on a stack of platforms to listen. The long tones were hypnotic and I slipped into a waking dream state. I remember the feeling of movement in the air around me as if the room were filled with currents of energy. When I opened my eyes there was nothing visible. This was one of my first experiences with the way that deep listening expands the boundaries of perception.
Diane: Nearly two decades after first hearing her music, I invited Pauline to participate in the studio-based symposium I curated, Digital Dialogues: Technology and the Hand by MIT Media Labs. Jo.E. prompted the invitation by asking me whom I would invite if I could invite anyone. My immediate response was Pauline Oliveros. We had attended her mystifying performance at Mobius in Boston, involving cabbage leaves and the live transmissions of radio signals that were bouncing off of the moon.
Pauline accepted the invitation to travel to the Haystack School in rural Maine. Exquisitely perched upon granite outcroppings edging deep-water seas, the spaces designed for working with paper, metal, and clay were hybridized with all manner of digital technology that we hauled from MIT. This symposium brought together two creative communities with little permeability at the time: artists and researchers whose creative palette was digital and material based artists from the extended Haystack School community. Pauline was a wild card invitee.
My most vivid memory is of her compositional strategy for an improvisation including all of the sounds made as we transformed a meeting space, with rows of chairs facing a podium to be occupied by one, into a circle formed by everyone in the now open space. Hands accustomed to being immersed in mud and those that were habituated to keyboard coding were joined as Pauline conducted the circle. I could never have imagined friends and colleagues from the Media Lab holding hands in a circle sending tactile and vocal pulses meant to supersede the cognitive with this intuitive transmission of energy. Only Pauline could have catalyzed that.
Eleanor: In 2009, I did a Deep Listening Retreat with Pauline (and her ongoing partners in crime, IONE, and Heloise Gold) at the Rose Mountain retreat center in New Mexico. Pauline introduced and lead the assembled cohort in an exploration of many ideas and scores found in Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice. This immersive experience included several days of silent retreat. The beginning of this extended “no talking” time was followed by a meal. Everyone went into an odd reverential state as we ventured into silence, not looking at one another, defaulting to a quietness as well as silence. This was disrupted by a loud clatter from the end of the table where Pauline was sitting. She was trying to hang spoons off her nose and cheeks. We erupted into to laughter and joined in the fun. A spontaneous score emerged of clinking, clattering, and giggling. Pauline later talked about how not talking does not mean you can’t communicate and about the world of difference between silence and quiet.
Diane: In September of this year, Pauline was in Minneapolis where Jo.E. and I now live. She and IONE had stayed with us literally days after our move from Cambridge, Massachusetts over a decade ago (and introduced us to Eleanor). This more recent visit was made possible by the funding generosity of the Winton Chair at the University of Minnesota. She was the embodiment of this fund’s paradigm-changing directive, “an individual who challenges established patterns of thought.” Pauline brought together artists and musicians, dancers and cultural theorists, art historians, biologists, computer scientists, and architects for her Deep Listening workshops and Participatory Performance. Her reach was consciously boundless, always creating space for the emergent. Not one to be defined by disciplines nor social demarcations of separation, she composed contextual experiences that unified.
Eleanor: I am so grateful to have visited with Pauline and IONE during her September trip to the Twin Cities. In hindsight, it was a true and rare gift to see her before she left the planet. Pauline has touched so many lives. She was a virtuosic artist and thinker, a brilliant instigator and connector, and a beloved friend. She forged an extensive community of listeners during her 84 years.
Dear Pauline, we love you and will forever be listening for you, for ourselves, for humanity, and for the universe. Our hearts are with you IONE.
Diane and I invite you to share your listening stories for Pauline Oliveros.
Stand together in a circle with feet about shoulder width apart and knees a little soft.
Warm up your hands by rubbing palms together until you feel the heat.
Place your right hand over your own heart. Place your left hand on the back of your left hand partner (back of the heart).
After a few natural breaths sing/chant/intone “AH” on any pitch that will resonate your heart. Sense the energy of your own heart and that of your partner over the course of several breaths.
Can you imagine that the heart energies are joining together for healing yourself and others?
Can you imagine heart energies traveling out into the universe as a healing for all victims and toward the end of violence?
When The Heart Chant ends, gradually release your palms and bring them forward parallel in front of you. Sense the energy between the palms as if there were a sphere or ball that can be moved around. Then bring your palms to your own center, fold them over and store the energy.
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.