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Overnight Re-View: Penelope Freeh on Soft Goods

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

Joanna Furnans, Krista Langberg, Jessica Cressey, and Ross Orenstein in Karen Sherman’s Soft Goods (2016). Photo: Sean Smuda

Joanna Furnans, Krista Langberg, Jessica Cressey, and Ross Orenstein in Karen Sherman’s Soft Goods (2016). Photo: Sean Smuda

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on Karen Sherman’s Soft Goods, which makes its world premiere on the Walker stage December 8–10, 2016. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Soft Goods, conceived and directed by Karen Sherman, directs the eye to what is usually unseen in performance. Light is shed upon what is deliberately kept in the dark, specifically the tech folks who make performance happen. But she also draws our attention to elements that support and allow them their day in the sun: power cords, hanging lights, Genie lifts, a tool box, a puff of smoke…

Soft Goods was created collaboratively over several years at multiple residency sites where tech needs could be experimented with in rehearsal. This is a very unusual opportunity in the performance world, and utterly necessary here. Dancers and technicians are equalized, and we are treated to insider banter, jokes, and hijinks as the piece escalates.

Sherman is known for her keen wit and clever direction, and she brings these fully to bear here. Even more impressive, however, is how the work uses those platforms to reveal touching and ultimately blatantly sentimental celebrations of performance and life itself.

Work is underway when we enter the theater. Nothing is overtly theatrical; we watch the quotidian. The piece formally begins when the house lights dim and the stagehands take center stage, bantering as they work, at once readying and breaking down a show.

Enter The Dancers, a moment that is repeated to great effect, a superheroesque face-off, sublime and ridiculous. The suitcases are my favorite.

Tension ensues between the crew and cast as each vie to do their jobs, which necessarily involves claiming stage time. An exaggerated technical jargon moment among the crew reminds us that these folks bend over backwards for directors, designers, and performers. It is a subtle and touching moment underneath the comedy, reminding us that the frame is as important as what’s inside.

The culminating moment of the show is a sustained section of dance that takes place entirely behind a cyc [or cyclorama, a large curtain wall], the dancers only appearing in silhouette against a sidewall and occasionally coming into view to change a costume, take an oxygen break, or demand a prop. Random and ridiculous objects fly over the cyc, and the crew attempting to wrangle the stuff of stagecraft is hilarious, the overt exaggerations utterly rooted in truth. Philip Glass’s In the Upper Room, famously used by master choreographer Twyla Tharp, is blasted here as accompaniment, a sly wink to iconic, ballet-centric dance history.

The end envelopes us in smoke, the smell of which takes me back. I am 13, sitting backstage and watching a dance from the wings. I have friend trouble at school, but in that moment I am safe and content to be a watcher, a smeller, inhaling my future and knowing that, as far as school was concerned, I’d be okay.

Soft Goods is many things. Like the above, it is memory and safekeeping. Another is a 360-degree celebration of all of the people and stuff that give performance life.

Bringing Backstage into the Spotlight: Karen Sherman on Soft Goods

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 […]

L to R: Joanna Furnans, Krista Langberg, Jessica Cressey, Ross Orenstein in Karen Sherman's Soft Goods (2016)

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

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.

Sherman Soft Goods sidearm cartphoto by Gene Pittman

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.

L to R: Ross Orenstein, Andy Kedl, Zachary Humes, Krista Langberg, Jessica Cressey, Joanna Furnans

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).

L to R: Andy Kedl, Zachary Humes, Ross Orenstein, Emily McGillicuddy

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!

photo by Sean Smuda

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.

Karen Sherman’s Soft Goods makes its world premiere in the Walker’s McGuire Theater December 8–10, 2016. 

Beauty at the Edge of Terror: A Conversation with Pavel Zuštiak

  Born in Czechoslovakia and based in New York City, Pavel Zuštiak is a director, choreographer, performer, and sound designer. He is also the Artistic Director of Palissimo Company which he founded in 2004 and the winner of the 2015 Juried Bessie Award for Outstanding Emerging Choreographer. This weekend, the Walker will present the Midwest […]

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Custodians of Beauty by Pavel Zuštiak. Photo: Maria Baranova

 

Born in Czechoslovakia and based in New York City, Pavel Zuštiak is a director, choreographer, performer, and sound designer. He is also the Artistic Director of Palissimo Company which he founded in 2004 and the winner of the 2015 Juried Bessie Award for Outstanding Emerging Choreographer. This weekend, the Walker will present the Midwest Debut of Zuštiak’s newest work Custodians of Beautyco-commissioned by the Walker Art Center, New York Live Arts, American Dance Institute, and Legion Arts. In Custodians of Beauty, Zuštiak questions where beauty is found and whether it needs our defense. With this piece, Zuštiak moves away from his usual large scale productions by focusing on a more minimalist approach to choreographing dance—picking away at the subject to find, perhaps, the truth of what beauty is.

I had the honor to talk to the artist himself over a cup of coffee and what follows is a series of questions and responses to get a better idea of who Pavel Zuštiak is as an artist, and how he went about creating Custodians of Beauty.

Ben Swenson-Klatt: So glad that you are able to sit down and talk! I thought we would start out with a few questions to get to know you. What inspired you to become an artist? Was there a particular moment or artist that inspired you the most?

Pavel Zuštiak: I was born in former Czechoslovakia in an area that is now Slovakia, and I was always attracted to the theater world as far as I can remember. I built my own lighting system for my homemade puppet theater when I was very young, then acted and sang on a very popular TV series starting at age nine. Early on I also studied piano—I almost went to a conservatory to study that—and then things kind of shifted; when I was 12, I started to dance by accident.

That’s actually a funny story. This was around the time when Flashdance and Dirty Dancing had just come out, so dancing was very popular and everybody was looking for studios to dance in. Slovakia has a very rich tradition of folk dancing, and every town had its own specific folk dance vocabulary and traditions. A schoolmate of mine wanted to go audition for a folk dance company, but he didn’t want to go alone and asked me to go with him. I said sure. We got to the cultural center where the audition was being held, but he messed up the dates and we ended up at a modern dance company audition instead. Everyone was in tights except the two of us! We both got in—he quit after a month—but for me it was a revelation. I was fascinated by the ability of dance to touch upon something that goes beyond words and yet can be very specific in communicating.

One particular moment made me recognize art making could be a vocation, and that was meeting Pina Bausch and seeing her work. She came to my hometown, Kosice, in Czechoslovakia in 1987 and rehearsed and performed at the cultural center where the dance company I was a part of resided. We observed her rehearsals, interacted with her, and eventually saw two of her seminal pieces, Café Muller (which she performed in) and The Rite of Spring. This experience blew me away and revealed how powerful dance and theater can be. It was truly a pivotal moment for me. Later I went to the School for New Dance Development in the Netherlands. Seventeen years ago I moved to New York, and that’s my journey.

But I would also say that very early on, because of all these different genres that I had explored, to me, in a theater performance, one is not more important than the other, so rarely I see set, music, or lighting just as a decorative element but as an element that can push the narrative of the piece.

Swenson-Klatt: You seem to be really aware of the sound and lighting, and I think you even mentioned that you are playing with scent in this production?

Zuštiak: Yeah, this is the first time. The show is titled Custodians of Beauty, so one of the very first tasks when talk

ing with designers was asking what is the most beautiful thing that you could witness in theater, musically, visually or scenically? So of course we

went through all this stuff including clichés, and someone brought up the scent of a rose.

Swenson-Klatt: And other scents,like perfumes?

Zuštiak: Yes, and I was reminded of how powerful scent can be in transporting you to a place or time in a very immediate way. This is the first show where I am playing with that, and I plan to explore that further in my next project, where I will be collaborating with a scent artist. So this is dabbling into something new.

Swenson-Klatt: Could you talk a little bit more about the collaboration you have with lighting designer Joe Levasseur, set designer Simon Harding, and sound designer Christian Frederickson, and how they are integral to Custodians of Beauty, in terms of pushing the narrative through transitions?

Zuštiak: I usually start with a question or dilemma around a certain subject or theme as an opening question or conversation, not only with the designers but also with the performers, who are equally contributing artists in the room. Out of those conversations and out of contributions from all of us, we start to look at a palette of possibilities. Ideas, scenes, and events start to emerge, and then at a certain point I end up with a series of… I call them images, but I don’t see it as a static moment. I start placing them in a certain order, looking dramaturgically at what kind of trajectory the show could have, and then I start shaping individual images or scenes, and their progression, throughout the show. In terms of my direction, often I come with an image or I come with a clear proposal or direction of a scene, and sometimes I know what function a transition or scene has and that’s my direction to designers, to problem solve. But it’s a lot of back and forth, a very organic process. I have worked with Christian, the composer, on five productions, and Joe Levasseur is the exclusive lighting designer that I have worked with since living in New York, so at this point they pretty well understand my aesthetic. I think we are also at a place where, we were joking, we can be like an old couple: we know when to fight over something and when to let go.

Swenson-Klatt: You bring up seeing the overall choreographic process as visual or image-based. Do you have a connection to visual arts or a way that the visual arts play into making movement?

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Pavel Zuštiak. Photo: Maria Baranova

Zuštiak: I think there are choreographers who are creating or editing through kinesthetic feedback, and that’s how they shape and edit the work. For me, it’s seeing the work and seeing all the elements together, and I am more and more curious in reduction: how far can I push reducing expressive modes into a simple statement or gesture that would hold much more than you are seeing? Like reduction in cooking—you taste something but there is a depth—many different ingredients that went through a long process to get to that point. Or like a capsule that locks together complex layers, or a statement. I like to see how far I can push that without losing the intensity of what goes into it.

Swenson-Klatt: And the way that all the different elements that came together. In other interviews you’ve discussed the research that went into this piece, like how its title is pulled from a 2009 address by Pope Benedict XVI when he met with artists at the Sistine Chapel, as well as the influence of Alva Noë’s book, Action in Perception, and Susan Sontag’s essay, “An argument about Beauty.” Could you talk about your research?

Zuštiak: The original speech by the pope already touches on some references from history. He quotes Plato, for example, who talked about beauty as something that shocks us out of ourselves, which I find fascinating, as a way of being disarmed as an audience member, which also leads to a certain loss of narcissistic vision and makes you aware of larger issues or gives you a sense of humanity. In the show there a few moments where we are eluding to this sensibility of breaking the fourth wall, to making the audience realize that we are here in the same room, that this is something happening collectively.

I came across an article with the same title in a wonderful Dutch magazine Works That Work, published by a Slovak editor, Peter Bilak, which mentions the pope and his speech to leading art makers of the time—his insistence of holding onto beauty as something important in their art making. I was perplexed that this was high up on his agenda, although the relationship of the church and art world is nothing new. That led me to research beauty throughout contemporary art history, and I realized how problematic this subject matter is and how in certain parts of the art world, beauty has become almost taboo. Often we feel more comfortable talking about something as interesting rather than beautiful, which Susan Sontag states at the end of her article as an argument for the definition and existence of beauty: “If you are watching a sunset it would be strange to say it is interesting rather than beautiful.” I find that when we say something is beautiful we are laying our cards on the table, while when saying something is interesting we are holding them close to our chest.

Swenson-Klatt: It’s kind of like calling on people to really stand by what they believe in. I think that is an important concept to tackle especially today, when sometimes it is almost easier to not have an opinion but to instead stay on the sidelines and say, “That’s interesting.”

Zuštiak: I think the resistance towards beauty also comes from its associations, for instance as something being pretty or as something that has to be symmetrical, these preconceived ideas of what beautiful means. Who defines that? I think the question itself has also become controversial: who is in charge of the definition of what is and what is not beautiful? Although the pope is approaching the artists as custodians, the title Custodians of Beauty for me is more of a question mark, i.e. who are the custodians? Is it the audience member? Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Is it the curator, who presents the work, is it his or her responsibility? The questions that this subject raises are challenging and lack straight answers, and I found it to be a fertile ground for a new work.

Swenson-Klatt: In her article, Sontag brought up the feminine connotations of beauty, and of course in mainstream media beauty has almost become attached to the feminine. Did you play at all with gender?

Zuštiak: Yes, there is one scene that acknowledges that. I am acknowledging feminine beauty as an image or association, although the notion of beauty as the cover of a fashion magazine often relating to a product was not something I was going for in this piece. I was more interested in beauty that is at the edge of terror. You know you can be in the presence of a tornado and it can be a beautiful sight, but you are also at the edge of something that can consume you. I believe there are artworks that can produce the same effect.

Swenson-Klatt: Is there a piece of artwork that you find beautiful? That’s probably a big question.

Zuštiak: I’m sure there is. For some reason I’m going to music. I’m thinking of the work of Arvo Pärt, music I find incredibly simple yet immensely beautiful.

Swenson-Klatt: It’s a hard question! But maybe something for everyone to think about when they are approaching this piece.

Zuštiak: And by saying something is beautiful, there is also judgment, so that is part of the show, where—I don’t know how much I want to say because people should come and see—basically, it’s a subjective matter, something can be witnessed by two people but they can have polar opposite experiences. So it’s also touching on that; it’s a subjective thing relating to judgment. And that leads to perception, which leads to Alva Noë, who talks about perception as not something that happens to you but something that you do. So he is talking about perception as an active engagement with what you are seeing. And for me, not just with this show but for any show, the audience is the co-creator of the experience and it is a live thing. When that meets with what we are proposing and comes into a conversation, I feel like that’s what releases the magic of a theatrical experience, something unpredictable but alive.

Swenson-Klatt: It almost seems that by setting the context with the term beauty that you are asking the audience to be active participants and to make a decision about what they find beautiful.

Zuštiak: And I’m hoping that it’s not just about this show. I’m thinking of another performance that we did in a public space. It was called Halt! and was presented in the terminal of the Staten Island Ferry in New York City. There were three performers who were among the people that accumulated to get on the ferry, and after one of the shows I got an email from someone who came to see it, and she was saying that suddenly everything in that terminal, in her eyes, was choreographed. She said, “I left the terminal and it continued. I was on the subway and it felt like everything was a dance.” So her perception shifted and I would hope that this show could also shift people’s perception. There are many things in the show that look at subtleties, the mundane, and when you start looking at things for an extended period of time or from a different angle, you start to see things differently, so that’s also what I am hoping to achieve with the show.

Swenson-Klatt: Do you have any last words as the audience prepares for the show?

Zuštiak: I feel like non-dance audiences come to a dance show believing that there is a certain kind of experience they should be having rather than just having their experience, so I would say, go in with an open mind; have an experience first, and then start analyzing what happened rather than coming in with an analytical mind at the start of the show. The biggest compliment I received for my work was from an audience member who said, “I did not understand it but I know what it was about.” I think dance is not the best medium at telling stories but an amazing medium to tell stories in its own language.

Pavel Zustiak’s Custodians of Beauty will be performed Thursday through Saturday, October 20–22, 2016 at 8 pm in the McGuire Theater.

I will be there when you die?: John Fleischer on Alessandro Sciarroni

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, John Fleischer shares his perspective on last weekend’s performance of UNTITLED_ […]

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Edoardo Demontis in UNTITLED_I will be there when you die. Photo: Andrea Pizzalis

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, John Fleischer shares his perspective on last weekend’s performance of UNTITLED_ I will be there when you die by Alessandro SciarroniAgree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Friday evening. The house lights in the McGuire Theater dim, gently signaling the imminent beginning of Alessandro Sciarroni’s UNTITLED_ I will be there when you die, and the room falls silent. After a few moments, five male performers walk quietly onto the bare white stage. Four of the performers arrive carrying sets of juggling clubs, and after each deposits all but one of his clubs to one side of the stage or the other, he moves to one of four staggered positions on the expanse of marley. Each stands motionless, eyes closed, facing the audience. The fifth performer, dressed in black, arrives empty-handed and moves to a station of electronic devices off in the shadows.

I watch the performer closest to me for a while — Lorenzo Crivellari. Pastel green trousers. Eyes closed. Breathing. The performer in the back — Pietro Selva Bonino. Head tilted. White high-tops. Eyes closed. To his left and slightly forward — Victor Garmendia Torija. Curly hair. Eyes closed. Broad shoulders. Left and slightly forward again — Edoardo Demontis. White T-shirt and jeans. Thin beard. Eyes closed. I revel in moments like this, the focused pause before the act, the viewer present and participating. Sometimes it can get a bit sticky, of course. Extended? Indulgent? Almost theatrical? But this feels natural — the time it takes to fully arrive. Eventually Demontis opens his eyes. I try to imagine the harsh intensity of his visual experience as he looks slowly around the house, at each of his fellow performers, and then up, directly into the lights. I feel him shift his attention to the object in his hand. And finally, still looking upward, he tosses the club into the air above his head.

Empathy?

I arrived this evening still processing my experience of yesterday’s performance in the Walker’s Cargill lounge, where Sciarroni presented CHROMA_don’t be frightened of turning the page. Waiting there in the lounge for the performance to begin, I overheard someone say the words work-in-progress. I think I heard someone else say meditation on spinning. When the artist finally arrived, he began by walking. He paced back and forth along a diagonal, the distance between his counterclockwise turns contracting until he was spinning. Yes, slowly at first, but increasing in speed and intensity over time, arms rising, hands folding and unfolding overhead like a double helix, gradually down the forehead to the mouth like a baby, spinning like summer afternoon in the grass, spinning because it’s just so incredibly wonderful to spin, but also intentional and precise. Heroic? I’m thinking about practice. I’m thinking about endurance. I’m thinking about skill. All this to a slowly shifting pulse of electronic sound particles, punctuated at first by every twelfth beat, and then dissolving into increasingly complex waves and washes. Sciarroni spins for … fifteen minutes? Twenty? Still spinning, arms extended, he moves outward toward the viewers circled around him. He spins a counterclockwise lap at the edge of the crowd, increasing the risk of falling into the the group, and then moves back to the center, gradually coming to rest. Yes.

Alessandro Sciarroni performing CHROMA_don't be frightened of turning the page at the Walker Art Center,

Alessandro Sciarroni performing CHROMA_don’t be frightened of turning the page at the Walker, September 22, 2016. Photo: Gene Pittman

Dimensions of time?

Still looking upward into the lights, Demontis catches the club with the opposite hand. Although I know he has done this thousands of times, I feel in my chest the real possibility of a miss. All of us focusing now on this isolated catch. He pauses for a moment, and returns the club to the air. Another catch. Another toss. The slap of the club in his palm gradually becomes a rhythm. Another performer opens his eyes, looks around, upward, and tosses his club in the air. Soon there are a pair of rhythms, then a trio, and finally a quartet. The rhythms phase in and out of sync with each other. They synchronize again, and the performers simultaneously catch and release the body of the club instead of handle, shifting the timbre of the percussive beat. The fifth performer — Pablo Esbert Lilienfeld — introduces a sparse mix of recorded clicks and slaps from somewhere in his stack of electronics, and the piece is spinning.

Obsessions, fears, and fragilities?

Occasionally, one of the performers walks over to the side of the stage and grabs another club. Are the cues for this shift in the music? The lights? Or do the performers decide when to shift? I sense a negotiation taking place, but I’m not sure. Sometimes one, sometimes another? Gradually, more and more clubs are flying through the air. Two clubs per juggler. Then three. Four. I find myself wondering where I placed those bean-filled juggling bags I picked up a few years ago. The bags came with an instruction manual, and I still remember practicing the first lesson — the drop. Throw all three bags into the air and let them hit the ground. It was a bit on the nose, but I recall appreciating the intentional space it created for failure, the miss, the mistake. UNTITLED cultivates a space like this, and occasionally one of the performers misses a catch. He watches the pin as it rolls along the mat, and after it slows to a rest, he calmly retrieves it. Usually he looks around at his fellow performers for a moment. Sometimes he smiles. And then he begins juggling again.

Theatrical framework?

Witnessing a demonstration of the skills that emerge over hours upon hours upon hours of practice is a pleasure and an inspiration. So I must confess I am a bit disappointed when the music and lights interfere with my ability to see and hear the jugglers excel at what they do. When the music gets louder and more dense, I can no longer hear the rhythms of catching. I no longer hear the performer nearest me breathing. I suppose an argument could be made that — like the clubs — the sound samples are being juggled in real time. But there is also this slow, emotional progression of piano chords, and I feel manipulated.

Finally, after a patient, slowly shifting display of juggling tricks and patterns, the music stops, and Crivellari launches five clubs into the air. His breathing is more strained now, and his feet scuff sharp sounds from the mat as he positions and re-positions his body beneath the clubs hovering above him. I’m amazed at how they seem to hang there, spinning in midair. At times it even appears that the clubs are juggling the performer. Yes. Wonderful. Just this man repeatedly tossing objects in the air, keeping them afloat. I see the precise, mundane, sweaty reality of years of practice, and its relationship to a skillful performance.

When the music begins again, the overhead lights go down, and the jugglers are dimly lit from the floor. They cast tall multicolored shadows on the scrim behind them as they pair off and begin passing clubs as duets. I immediately recall another tidbit from my misplaced juggling manual — juggling is not about making great catches, it is about making great throws. The passing continues as the duets entwine, cycling around and between each other. I struggle to watch their exchanges, but the colored background takes over. Dozens and dozens of spinning colored shadows are difficult to ignore. I try again to focus on the jugglers, their amazing entangled performance, but I keep seeing sperm.

Traditional definitions of gender?

Tomorrow I will think about how much I enjoyed the way Bonino sometimes separated his tosses into three distinct heights, one club spinning quickly near his chest and face, another more slowly above his head, and the third almost languid toward the ceiling. I will wonder what this bit of writing would have looked like if I had chosen to excavate the layers of time in this single toss. I will try, repeatedly, to make sense of the line in the program about gender, and I will swap texts with a friend who will critique Sciarroni’s use of talent from other disciplines. I will wish I could witness yesterday’s spinning performance again. Maybe I will even spin a bit. I will also try to find those juggling bags.

Transcending Language: Chris Strouth on Kid Koala’s Nufonia Must Fall

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, composer, producer, writer, and filmmaker Chris Strouth shares his perspective on Kid Koala’s […]

Kid Koala and the Cecelia String Quartet performing Nufonia Must Fall in the McGuire Theater, April 2, 2016. Photo: Jayme Halbritter Photography

Kid Koala and the Cecelia String Quartet performing Nufonia Must Fall in the McGuire Theater on April 2, 2016. Photo: Jayme Halbritter Photography

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, composer, producer, writer, and filmmaker Chris Strouth shares his perspective on Kid Koala’s Nufonia Must Fall at the Walker Art Center last weekend, a performance copresented by the SPCO’s Liquid Music series. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

There are things that can’t really be described, in part because we don’t have a language that can accurately explain what it is that we have witnessed. Nufonia Must Fall is one of those things.  The simple explanation is to say it is “a motion comic animated in real time with a live soundtrack.” I fear that is about as descriptive as calling War and Peace an adventure story.

It might be easy to pigeonhole Kid Koala (Eric San). Musically he was an architect of the new alternative hip-hop/turntablist movement of the late ’90s, with a discography that is chock full of some of the high water marks of the cove where pop, rock, art, and hip-hop meet. He’s worked with Gorillaz, Peeping Tom, and Handsome Boy Modeling School and has his own bands like Deltron 3030 and Loveage. But then there is Kid Koala the author/illustrator of two graphic novels; this show, Nufonia Must Fall, is based on his 2003 book of the same name.

The live version of Nufonia Must Fall is hard to put neatly into one category: is it a film, a concert, a play, a dance? Or is it secretly a Charlie Chaplin silent film reimagined for the post-nuclear age? The story is as deceptively simple as it is ancient, though with a decidedly modern twist: robot meets girl, robot gets girl, robot loses girl, robot goes on vacation with girl. But it’s done in a way that if it doesn’t pull on your heart strings a little, you might be the one who is the robot.

The stage is set with Kid Koala upstage right with enough musical hardware to make Kraftwerk feel a little insecure. He is joined upstage left by the Cecilia String Quartet. The rest of the stage is filled with a number of small sets, four cameras, and a small army of puppeteers, cameramen, and the like, with the results of their action shown on a large screen at the back of the stage. But this basic description doesn’t come close to describing the joy of seeing magic as it’s performed and the magician’s perspective at the same time. It’s a process that serves as a metaphor for the piece itself: extraordinarily complicated but made to seem easy, almost effortless. That is one of Kid Koala’s gifts.

Puppeteers in Kid Koala's Nufonia Must Fall in the McGuire Theater, April 2, 2016. Photo: Jayme Halbritter Photography

Nufonia Must Fall puppeteers during the performance. Photo: Jayme Halbritter Photography

What makes Nufonia Must Fall really connect is that it never feels precious or dainty. It’s accessible but not cloying, smart but not pretentious. It’s the craftsmanship of an old master handled with the informality of a neighborhood shopkeeper.  It’s an attitude that takes the big invisible wall that lives between the first row of the audience and the stage and tears it down, Berlin-style.

One could argue Kid Koala is a postmodern Charlie Chaplin. More than just a performer, he becomes the architect of the experience, an auteur in the truest sense of the word. Only his version of Chaplin’s Little Tramp is a tape machine robot, always recording but not always experiencing: a piece of out of date technology we can all identify with deep down inside, a robot that is the most human.

This might be kindled from one man’s imagination, but it feels like the full group collaboration that it is. The direction by K. K. Barrett is imaginative and fun and gives real fulfillment to the idea of the motion comic. It’s handled with such subtlety and skill that it makes the whole production feel as though it’s unfolding for the first time.

Like Chaplin’s best work, Nufonia is a story that transcends language. Simple and direct, the work does not have to be seen as a metaphor, despite working as one. And that is one of its points of genius: it can be savored just as an experience, or as something more profound. The viewer simply takes from it what they would like.

In spite of Kid Koala being a musician, this isn’t a piece about the music, per se. The work is more of a digital foley: musical sounds make the soundtrack for his city, the melodic heavy lifting provided by the Cecilia String Quartet.  Never are more notes used then needed; this simplicity reinforces the sheer overall charm of the piece.

It would be so easy for this story to fall into the trap of being filled with an overblown sense of self-importance or preciousness, given the puppets and animation. Instead, the honesty of Nufonia washes away any and all pretense, and connects to our inner kid. It allows us something so rare in art today: to have a sense of wonder and delight, while at the same time pushing boundaries of stagecraft and form, all in an environment that encourages the audience to let go of intellectualism and just enjoy it. I for one had started to forget that art could be delightful… Thank you for the reminder.

Aging Magician’s Theatrical Sleight of Hand

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, Twin Cities-based actor/singer/writer/director Todd O’Dowd shares his perspective on Aging Magican, […]

Photo: Jill Steinberg

Photo: Jill Steinberg

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, Twin Cities-based actor/singer/writer/director Todd O’Dowd shares his perspective on Aging Magican, which had its world premiere at the Walker last weekend. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Going into the McGuire Theater to see Aging Magician, the new opera co-created by Paola Prestini, Rinde Eckert, and Julian Crouch, I had a strong hunch it was going to be good. After all, the creative team is impressive as all get out. Prestini is considered one of the shining lights in modern classical music. Crouch, best known for co-founding Improbable Theatre and co-creating Shockheaded Peter, is a proven director and designer. And I have had a performance crush on Rinde Eckert for a long time; not only for being a hero of modern opera and an amazing performer but also for creating some of the best theatre I’ve seen in my life (including the brilliant And God Created Great Whales). So, as you can see, my expectations were high. What I was not prepared for was an imaginative, delicate, and soaring look into the life and death of an ordinary man that turns into a transcendent experience for him and the audience.

The plot of Aging Magician is as circuitous as it gets. The main plot of the story is about Harold (played by Eckert), a watchmaker who lives a solitary life in his drab studio where he repairs watches, fields calls from his nagging sister, and secretly works on his book, which tells the story of an aging magician who dies before finding an heir for his book of diagrams and secrets. As we see the Aging Magician (or is it Harold?) fighting for his life, we see Harold (or is it the Aging Magician?) on the F train to Coney Island (or is it to his death?) reminiscing about his past, all the while being haunted by the voices of children (played by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus).

This circuitous narrative is part and parcel of Eckert, Crouch, and Prestini’s theme of how time and memories circle back on one another. At one point, Harold laments that clocks are no longer made with gears and hands that move and orbit like planets. So too does the narrative circle back upon itself with references to the planet Neptune, Coney Island, Harold’s father’s death and his mother’s increased Catholicism (in a gorgeous sequence set at a church with the Chorus singing a prophetic bit from the classic Latin requiem mass – “Lacrimosa dis illa / dona eis requiem / Libera Domine”, which translates to “Mournful be that day / Grant them Rest / Deliver me, O God” – calling back to earlier in the opera when the chorus sings similar words in English), and a brief history of the career and death of the early 20th Century magician William Robinson, best known as Chung Ling Soo. Another haunting image that keeps repeating is the image of Harold with his hands up, which is seen in projections, in repeated gestures by the performers, and ultimately in a stage-spanning sculpture that becomes a playable instrument (created by Bang On A Can member Mark Stewart). While the dark themes and imagery could cast a pall on the proceedings, this is far from a dour show. If anything, the magic trick the show is saying is that life is both fragile and strong, depending on the outcome and how you view it.

This fragmented nature of the story gives Eckert and Prestini a chance to take the repeated bits and turn them into musical and textural leitmotivs that are built upon as the opera goes on. Prior to this, I had heard Prestini’s work compared to that of Philip Glass, and I can see it now, especially in how she writes for the string quartet that plays the score (in this case, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble). The other thing that I noticed while watching was how easy the score was for the singers; by that I mean that the Prestini’s score and Eckert’s libretto were written by people who understand how the human voice works as an instrument and built their score accordingly.

It has to be said this is a truly beautiful production; possibly one of the grandest I’ve seen on the McGuire stage. Crouch and his design team of co-scenic designer and costumer Amy Rubin, lighting and projection designer Joshua Higgason, and sound designer Marc Urselli have created a truly unique world, with everything working in perfect clockwork harmony. One of the touches that I was impressed by was that the set pieces and costumes were all black with smudges of light blue, giving the look of chalk drawings or an inverted daguerreotype. The other major defining aspect of the set is the use of paper – the stage is littered with it – as prop (morphed into various shapes, and in a stunning moment, as body of a young boy), projection medium, and both (after a projection of a train on the papers held up by the chorus, they ball it up and hurl it at Harold, singing “Wake Up Harold!”). Crouch and the cast manage to perform some spectacular feats of stage magic and object work (at one point, the cast turns the crumpled up paper into the birds of the “Trick of the 1800 Birds”) and the work is staged with so much sensitivity to Harold and his story that none of the theatrical tricks (and there are a lot of them) never call attention to themselves and – this is crucial in a work that deals with the notion of magic – never pulls you out of the story to marvel at the mechanics of the storytelling.

Of course this story lives and dies on the performers, and Eckert is brilliant as Harold. If the whole point of Aging Magician is finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, then  Eckert literally embodies that point. At first blush, he looks so non-descript in his tan jacket and pants, that were he not seated on center stage in a pool of bright light it would be hard to distinguish him as the center of the tale. But then he opens his mouth, his mighty tenor comes pouring out, and the show is transformed. It’s this dichotomy of heroic voice in an average shell that anchors the opera. He has help, of course, from the brilliant work of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, but it is his beautiful, generous performance that drives this story and keeps the audience with him on Harold’s magical mystery tour.  It’s the kind of work that evokes admirable envy and envious admiration from performers watching the show (including me).

At the end of the day, Aging Magician has many tricks that it plays on its audience. It turns an ordinary man’s life and death into a tale on time’s slippery nature. It uses theatrical sleight of hand to hide the clockwork precision that drives a seemingly intimate tale. And most importantly, it takes everyday people and objects and turns them into something beyond their normal scope in a tale that encompasses us all.

If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.

“Don’t we need goggles?” Gender Tender responds to Halory Goerger and Antoine Defoort’s Germinal

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, choreographer Syniva Whitney and actor Will Courtney of Gender Tender share their perspective on Germinal […]

Germinal by Halory Goerger and Antoine Defoort. Photo: Alain Rico

Germinal by Halory Goerger and Antoine Defoort. Photo: Alain Rico

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, choreographer Syniva Whitney and actor Will Courtney of Gender Tender share their perspective on Germinal by Halory Goerger and Antoine Defoort. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

WILL: Does starting from scratch mean you don’t know anything? Well, they knew who they were…

SYNIVA: …they knew each other’s proper names. They were going by their real names.

W: They knew what a guitar was but they didn’t know what a computer was. No one mentioned their sex or gender.

S: They did all appear to be white….that’s my assumption.

W: This was a really unusual play. It was interesting how the performers had control of the technological aspects.

S: Did they? I thought there was a sense of another somebody or some bodies behind the curtain, or under the floor, following cues about when to do certain things. This was in the program info a quote from the artists in an article by Kate Bredesen:

…we decided to start from scratch. And this itself became the starting point for what would become Germinal. This would be a piece that would build itself.

S: The performance makers identify primarily as visual artists and in conversations about the concepts behind art making we can’t escape discussing creation…making and presenting art means knowing we will always be influenced by and compared with the art, histories and ideas that came before, the art of the now and what is yet to come. I felt an installation artist’s approach at play in a traditional theater space. They were embracing the cheesy nature and limitations of common elements found in black box theaters and the materials afforded artists in these spaces as though they were visual art materials (text, voice, song, movement, technology, props, effects). The black box was approached as a new kind of white gallery cube. I felt the influence of the cataloguing, titling and research tactics of the museum at play in the content of this work as well.

W: I’ve never seen somebody chop a hole in the stage with a pick axe before.

S: That’s true, I haven’t seen that before. What did you think of it?

W: It seemed really dangerous to me…

S: For who?

W: I felt like it was a dangerous thing to do. What if a wood splinter flies off? I’m sure they thought about these things. It seemed dangerous for us all. I was like “Don’t we need goggles? Doesn’t everyone need goggles?” Ondine was like a danger Gallagher. I found it very satisfying to watch.

S: Why?

W: I guess because it was really happening. Something was being destroyed for real. It wasn’t acting like you’re making a hole in the floor it was just the act of making a hole.

S: Isn’t performing just doing, talking, walking, kissing… aren’t we really doing stuff?

W: Yeah!

S: So why was this different?

W: I guess I’ve seen shows where people are miming digging a hole and they just aren’t. I’ve never seen an actual demolition of a built stage before.

S: It was weird…so meta. A demolition of a carefully wrought installation that was a fake stage over a real stage. When it first started and it was all light and space investigations I thought this might just be an installation on a stage run the same way as it would be in a gallery, or in the natural environment, that it might not have a narrative trajectory. That feeling wore away and it became clear this was carefully scripted, more like a magic show with a musical ending. And wow, audience members were laughing so hard through a lot of this. It was awesome to be around people that were entertained and enjoying themselves. I felt a bit awkward because I wasn’t finding it funny.

W: I thought it was genial but I didn’t find it to be hilarious.

S: People around me were REALLY laughing hard. I felt like Grumpy Cat.

W: So did they build a world? From scratch?

S:  I don’t know. They made a play. My point of view as a queer black artist influences my take on this hardcore. Aren’t people always making their own worlds? Directly or indirectly, abstractly or literally, in fantasy or reality. When people exist outside the normative, the safe, the accepted, we have to create worlds for ourselves to move and make in, we have to fight for space for our histories to exist in.

W: Always. I read in the program the title comes from the title of a French book about people on strike wanting a better world by Emile Zola. Something about the desire to make a better world where none exists….

S: The tone of this in the show made me uneasy. It seemed like colonialist ideas about discovery were at play but it didn’t read as tongue in cheek for me…what’s underneath….yikes, such a heavy metaphor with that floor: the literal floor that they bust through to discover what is there they can use onstage like drilling for oil on stolen land.  Human made resources underneath a built structure that has to be destroyed to access them. I kept thinking about burial grounds and decimated cities with new corporate developments being built on top of the survivors, their culture, their knowledge…

W: The underlying thing, the unspoken truth…the dark…

S: Yeah so, maybe it was a conceptual sign of our times. Knowing but not knowing…caring but not caring…

W: …funny but not funny.

S: We know there is always someone behind the curtain. Holograms exist…we know we are usually being deluded. We know people have made some terrifying stuff in the name of investigating what is technologically possible…we know people can make a black hole, a bomb that leaves no survivors.

W: It’s a TED talk…

S: …with a fake hot tub center stage instead of a red dot.

W:(laughs)…in a fake swamp.

S: Right, a TED talk! Germinal was part PowerPoint lecture…categories, groupings, labels, diagrams. Even though it was absurd the performers were soon experts at everything they investigated or presented even when it made no sense. Maybe this is French and Belgian humor lost on me in translation.

W: Was it supposed to be funny? It was presented with a lightness that was surprising but I had a sense from the visual elements that I’d be experiencing a super abstract and serious performance.I thought the performers were excellent, it was really good…but I didn’t think it was laugh out loud funny.

S: I found it melancholy…and everybody around me was laughing their asses off.

Germinal continues in the Walker’s McGuire Theater tonight (Friday, January 29) and tomorrow night (Saturday, January 30) at 8 pm. Halory Goerger will also teach an Inside Out There Workshop on Saturday, January 30 at 11 am in the McGuire Theater.

Starting from Scratch: Germinal’s Recipe for the Universe

Astrophysicist Carl Sagan once stated, “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” French artists Halory Goerger and Antoine Defoort seem to have taken this to heart in making Germinal, a show that completely reconstructs existence itself (on an 8x10m scale).  The show begins its three performance run at […]

Photo: Alain Rico

Photo: Alain Rico

Astrophysicist Carl Sagan once stated, “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” French artists Halory Goerger and Antoine Defoort seem to have taken this to heart in making Germinal, a show that completely reconstructs existence itself (on an 8x10m scale).  The show begins its three performance run at the McGuire Theater this Thursday as the final piece of Out There 2016. The duo’s webpage for Germinal contains a section titled, “WHAT CAN BE MORE INFORMATIVE THAN AN EXCERPT OF OUR INTERNET RESEARCH HISTORY”, and the subsequent hyperlinks would provide a unique glimpse into the foundational elements of this performance, were they not half-defunct and primarily in French. With a little detective work, however, I was able to reconstruct the search results that helped bring this piece to fruition.

AIG337347

In any form of construction, tools are required, and the directors note their perusal of French industrial equipment supplier Manutan in acquiring a “single pouch leather tool belt” (now unavailable) and “baseball diamond hardhat” (an updated iteration of which, pictured above, is now for sale). Research was also put into the acquisition of laminate flooring from French DIY and home improvement store Brico Dépôt. This was presumably used to build the two-ton stage setting in which Germinal’s world begins; Kate Bresedon’s preview piece notes that the performance “follows the discoveries of stage layers and objects, all of which are considered, then used or rejected in this construction of something from nothing.”

c3c_middleages

The performance also gives a nod to Civilization V, the latest installment of Sid Meier’s 1991 strategy computer game series. The game’s goal of guiding an ancient civilization into the future is strongly at the center of Germinal. Another link references the “Abre des technologies” (or “technology tree“), the visual representation of hierarchical resource upgrades present in games such as this. The abre des technologies originated, ironically, in a 1980 board game named Civilization, bearing no direct relation to Sid Meier’s. It’s no wonder that Civilization was one of Germinal‘s working titles.

Perhaps one of the best illustrations of the range of material from which Goerger and Defoort drew is the list’s inclusion of both the French wiki page for solipsism and the professional services section of French Craigslist-counterpart Le Bon Coin. Building a society demands both abstract thought and practical skill, and Germinal has these in spades, using them to create a truly inventive performance. The final defunct link, to the lyrics of the Lou Reed ballad “Perfect Day” (on which David Bowie contributed keyboards), may be best left to christen the final product: a world in which joy can be found in the simplest experiences, provided one is willing to create them.

Germinal by Halory Goerger and Antoine Defoort will be performed in the Walker’s McGuire Theater Thursday – Saturday, January 28-30, 2016 at 8pm. Join director Halory Goerger for a discussion about his past and present projects at Inside Out There, January 30 at 11am.

Press Play, Repeat: Gender Tender responds to Rabih Mroué’s Riding on a Cloud

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, choreographer Syniva Whitney and actor Will Courtney of Gender Tender share their perspective on Riding […]

Yasser Mroué in Riding on a Cloud. Photo: Joe Namy

Yasser Mroué in Riding on a Cloud. Photo: Joe Namy

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, choreographer Syniva Whitney and actor Will Courtney of Gender Tender share their perspective on Riding on a Cloud by Rabih Mroué. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

WILL: My brain is doing flips about this performance. Is this a play? Is all of it true? Is all of it fiction? When I saw the stage set up with the table and chair off to the side, stacks of cassette tapes and DVDs and electronic devices on it and the big white movie screen set up I thought it was going to feel really choppy. When Yasser came out and began to play the films and tapes, to sing, to watch himself on screen, it became immersive. I loved the way these presented excerpts became a singular experience. The convergence of all these possibly un-mixable techniques became one thing. Was this style an attempt to create a performance about what it felt like for Yasser when he woke up in the hospital after he was shot, after he was in a coma?

SYNIVA: Was his brother Rabih there in the hospital?

Yasser (from the program notes and projected introductory performance text): This is my real story yet these are not my thoughts. These thoughts are mine, yet this is not my real story.

WILL & SYNIVA: Is the director intentionally using this mix of devices used to remember things (stories, songs, photographs, recordings) to create an atmosphere of remembering? We keep thinking about the things we are told Yasser did to come to grips with what pretending means.

WILL: Oh, like when he was talking about going to see plays and saying if somebody died on stage he would shake and cry and be sure that they really died and then be really confused when that dead person came out for their bow at the end of the play. I wondered if that was a true story.

SYNIVA: Wasn’t this written and directed by his brother Rabih? Did any of these stories even happen? Yasser also talks about hanging out with Lenin and Tchaikovsky and that’s impossible. He also mentioned letting his brother the director pick out some videos from many he’d made during his recovery. He talked about using a camera to document things to help himself understand the difference between knowing what a thing is in real life (for example, he had no problem with knowing what a knife was when the knife was there with him but when he saw an image of a knife in a photograph he wouldn’t know what it was).

WILL: Am I going to cry?

SYNIVA: You’re discussing this performance like it’s a documentary. I don’t think it was, I definitely think Yasser and his brother are sharing art inspired by life with us but I doubt this is anything but poetic. I can’t tell if the details are real or imagined…like losing his virginity to a nurse in the hospital while he was recovering. The films throughout were beautiful, surreal…weird. I couldn’t tell if these were really from the supposed collection of videos Yasser made while relearning representation or if these were films his brother made for this performance. There was the film that showed images of a location we are told is the actual building where the sniper that shot Yasser was hiding. A film of Yasser putting his injured hand on a torturous looking wooden board from an impossible angle. Watery images of people walking down city streets, wavering, blurring, images of static, images of television test patterns. These were not pieces of story they were pieces of art.

Rabih Mroué: (from an interview on the Walker website): For me, how I understand art, art cannot heal any person or people or group. On the contrary, art is like a tool to make things more complex. It’s trying to understand, but at the same time by seeking understanding you bring up more things. It’s exactly like when you ask a question and then you try to answer this question.

WILL: I keep thinking about Yasser saying he couldn’t tell what was real or not after the brain injury.

SYNIVA: Could he tell what was real or not before the injury?

WILL: Was he saying his brain re-learned what is real? Or did he just learn to tell himself…”ok, let’s say that’s real”?

SYNIVA: Like an actor does. They are aware of doing it. They are aware they are part of the created story. They are aware they are fictional.

WILL: Does he look around at everyone and read their faces like a script and wonder…is everyone else freaking out? No? Ok, I guess what I’m seeing isn’t a thing to freak out about.

Rabih Mroué (from the interview, again): Actually it [art], has no aim. It’s just the pleasure of thinking, of being a human being. It’s thinking and being a human being. It’s the celebration of the human.

WILL: I was in a weird in between sort of magical place with Riding on a Cloud. It was a movie and it was a play, Yasser was playing himself but Rabih directed it, Yasser was acting like himself but he was also really himself. Fiction and reality. This is a fake real story…or a real fake story. This was present in the structure. There were so many…

SYNIVA:…fragments. How can we, the spectators, construct anything except poetry from bits and pieces?

WILL: It reminded me of the structure of memories. Slivers that you can piece together. Fragments that everybody watching might piece together differently.

Milan Kundera (via poem hunter on the internet): ‘I think, therefore I am’ is the statement of an intellectual who underrates toothaches.

SYNIVA: Wisps, shreds. I loved this performance.

WILL: Sometimes things would overlap that didn’t have anything to do with each. Other. Things. Non-sequential.

SYNIVA: Yasser’s physicality was controlled, methodical. He’d take a tape out, put it in the player, speak, record his voice, play it back, put a DVD in, press play. Talk. Sing. Eject, get the next one ready, press play, eject, press play.

WILL: The way the brain jumps from thing to thing, like, oh! That song makes me think of this.

SYNIVA: That Kundera poem makes me think of that.

Hamlet and Yasser Mroué and Shakespeare: The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation/Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;/To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;

SYNIVA: History is like this, too. We think we remember but we are really retelling stories we’ve heard, describing images we’ve seen but not experienced. We end up putting the pieces together. We rely on the memories of others. We rely on the face looking back at us in the mirror to know we are getting older. But we can’t see ourselves getting older.

WILL: This performance was like being inside the images inside of someone’s thoughts. Like being able to watch somebody think. I keep thinking about watching Yasser watch himself projected on screen…did he cease to be a performer at that point?

SYNIVA: Could he even recognize his own face?

***

Riding on a Cloud continues in the Walker’s McGuire Theater tonight (Friday, January 22) and tomorrow night (Saturday, January 23) at 8 pm. Rabih Mroué will also teach an Inside Out There Workshop on Saturday, January 23 at 11 am in the McGuire Theater.

Watching Them Listen: Gender Tender Responds to Daniel Fish

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoingRe:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, choreographer Syniva Whitney and actor Will Courtney of Gender Tender share their perspective on Daniel […]

Photo: Paula Court

Photo: Paula Court

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoingRe:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, choreographer Syniva Whitney and actor Will Courtney of Gender Tender share their perspective on Daniel Fish. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

The stage was filled with bright yellowish green tennis balls. As we entered the theater the multitude of orbs were ordered in a grid-like manner across the entire stage; tennis balls created a weird modular snow drift upstage. A loud machine to the far left served even more tennis balls that continuously ricocheted off of a poster taped haphazardly against the exposed back wall of the theater. This was the first image of a person present. Not an image of Wallace himself but of a white blond tennis player I didn’t recognize caught in the midst of returning a ball, hair flying out behind them, racket in hand ready to go. As the performers entered the machine was turned off and we lost it’s rhythmic puffing. They entered casually as though arriving for a weekly tennis lesson. Two people were mixing the audio recordings of Wallace’s voice right there out in the open as well. They faced center and were seated on black meditation cushions at a small sound board table to the far right.

The ghost of the author’s voice was present. In the beginning we could hear a bit of what I assumed to be Wallace’s voice (noticeable but not understandable) coming out of the ear pieces from the mound of headphones lying on the floor center stage. As the performers put them on his voice left the space and we were suddenly in the loud silence of watching them listen. They began to give this simple act of listening a presence and then a voice. They began to speak aloud interpretations of the words of a literary artist I’ve just discovered decided to commit suicide after a lifetime of struggling with depression. A meandering anxiety ensued in layered voices and singular voices, voices dropping in and out, voices occasionally repeating text over and over again, sometimes in unison, sometimes monologuing excerpts from his writing with the feeling of a deadpan Shakespearean aside in a casually choreographed, possibly improvised, muffled and ridiculous shifting field of felted rubber balls. Simple lighting changes cued reconfigurations of people, action and text. At a halfway point in the action the performers took a generous amount of time rounding up the pool of balls that had been taking up most of the stage using their shoveling arms, throwing hands, an actual broom and a lot of picking up and sending them all to the back wall. The result was the creation of an even more menacing drift of accumulated mass produced fluorescence. This simple, wave-like action transformed the space gently, anxiously and without fanfare, without voice.

We rushed home buzzing after Thursday night’s performance of Daniel Fish’s A (radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again After David Foster Wallace. Inspired by what we saw Will and I traded a few questions we came up with in reaction to the work. This is our exercise in giving each other a bit of our voice, our style…a bit of textual material for another body to interpret. Instead of redelivering the text as the performers did we will respond to the other person’s questions. We will then chose one word (THE WORD IN ALL CAPS) from our response and share only that word with the original question writer who will then write a poetic and non-traditionally formatted footnote in response to the singular word. Extensive and tangential footnotes were a trademark of Wallace’s. We admit we’ve never read any of his books.

-Syniva

WILL: Where was the physicality of the performers movement coming from?

SYNIVA: Sometimes I felt like the movements were devices they’d come up with to remember the structure of certain pieces they’d heard many times before. Similar to the way a spoken word artist uses their arm movements and vocal pauses to create rhythmic interest for the listener and to memorize poetry. I also thought the movements could be the unthinking result of only focusing on speaking the text rapidly and fidgeting with the considerable pressure to get it right and make it clear.

W: FIDGETING: Can also be referred to as shuffling, twitching or jiggling. May lead to such physical activities as “bouncy knee”, “slide foot”, “air grabs” and excessive blinking.

S: How can something be expanded and condensed at the same time?

W: Signals are required. The pressure must be increased. Flattening occurs. Stuff spreads out. It’s bigger on the inside.

S: STUFF: See The Story of Stuff, a documentary film I’ve been told is great but have never taken the time to view. You might want to. Consider sitting in the middle of your living room and taking a mental survey of all of your stuff. Start with with the things you can’t see, like the stuff under your bed or the contents of the junk drawer in your kitchen. Begin to italicize in your mind the stuff you’d be sad to lose in a fire. Also consider things and junk.

W: Is that Steffi Graf?

S: No I think it’s Tracy Austin, the tennis player from a Wallace text we heard delivered in the performance. I take it from all the tennis talk and from the set design David Foster Wallace was a big tennis fan. I’ve never heard of her (Austin) but I loved the quip that Wallace thought tennis was more abstract than boxing…that it was combat at a huge, geometrically pleasing distance.

W: ABSTRACT: A bunch of different colored cubes. Or it could be a bird. Or feelings.

W: Will someone get hit with a tennis ball?

S: Yes and no.The possibility of tripping and falling hung over the action as the performers rushed across stage, sat on tennis balls, and generally seemed to be dealing with the objects under their feet and their unknowable rolly-ness. At one point a performer did about a thousand jumping jacks while delivering Wallace’s text about all the privileged people in a men’s restroom and lists of possible bathroom related bodily functions. I was afraid  they’d trip over the headphone connector box center stage and sprain their ankle.

W: JUMPING JACKS: There are over 47 varieties of Jumping Jack. Do you want all of the dates? The record for consecutive jumping jacks in a row is 27,000 (citation needed).

S: When does the story become the character?

W: The exact moment the eyes blur and look up. And in. I’m looking right at you but I’m also at the pool, in the bathroom or at the game. The stage ripples. An optical illusion made by a grid of soft round shapes.

S: BLUR: Blur is an English rock band, formed 1988, London. Blur is a band I thought I liked when I thought Jell-O shots were a good idea. The feeling of failing at focusing.

A (radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again After David Foster Wallace by Daniel Fish continues in the Walker’s McGuire Theater Friday – Saturday, January 15-16, 2016 at 8pm.

The Walker will also present a free film screening of Daniel Fish’s Eternal on Saturday, January 16 at 1pm in the Walker Cinema.

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