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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tesseract : A Parallel Universe Through the Fourth Dimension

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exploring Visual Dimensions of Tesseract with Silas Riener and Rashaun Mitchell

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

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

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

The Art Newspaper on Tesseract

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

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

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Melissa Toogood. Photo courtesy the artists

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

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

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

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

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

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

EMPAC: Tesseract

Photo: Ray Felix, EMPAC

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

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

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

EMPAC: Tesseract

Photo: Ray Felix, EMPAC

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

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

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

Charles Atlas on set of Tesseract

Charles Atlas during rehearsal. Photo: Mick Bello, EMPAC

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

Walker Cunningham Events: Meet Participating Twin Cities Musicians

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 8: Mankwe Ndosi/Nick Gaudette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 31: Douglas Ewart/Laura Harada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 6: Toby Ramaswamy/Adam Zahller

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

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

Friday, April 7: Patrick Marschke/Tara Loeper

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

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

Saturday, April 8: Davu Seru/Jeremy Ylvisaker

Sunday, April 9: Cody McKinney/Leah Ottman

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

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

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

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

DaNCEBUMS Margaret, Karen, and Eben on Philippe Quesne’s La Melancolie des Dragons

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 […]

Philippe Quesne, La Mélancolie des Dragons. Photo: Martin Argyroglo

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.

Relevance

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

Hardness

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

Danciness

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

Musicality

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

Buminess

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 Dragons toes the buminess line. 5/5

Pizza

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.

La Mélancolie des Dragons continues at the Walker tonight and Saturday night, January 20-21, 2017.

***

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.

TL;DR Too long; didn’t read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Some New Splintering”: Okwui Okpokwasili on the US Presidential Election

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 […]

Okwui Okpokwasili. Photo: Peter Born

Okwui Okpokwasili. Photo: Peter Born

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 the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. 

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. 

Facilitating Possession: Okwui Okpokwasili on Poor People’s TV Room

“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 Photo: Mena Burnette of xmbphotography

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.

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

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

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

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.

Possession is a big thing!

Poor People’s TV Room, a Walker commission, will be performed January 19–21 as part of Out There 17.

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

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

OT_Driscoll_Faye_PLAY_2016-17_13_PP

Photo: Maria Baranova

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

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

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

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

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

Hardness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ways of Playing with Faye Driscoll

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 […]

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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 Coming that proposes performance as a shared political act, where performer and audience co-create reality. The first piece of the series, Attendancecaptivated Walker audiences in February of 2016; this second installment is 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.

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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.

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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 Church and 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.

Thank You For Coming: Play will be performed Thursday through Saturday, January 12 – 14, 2017 in the McGuire Theater as part of the Walker’s annual Out There theater festival.

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