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Simplicity of Movement, Directness of Address: Remembering Trisha Brown (1936–2017)

“Dear Sue, I would like to dance at the Walker again. Sounds simple doesn’t it?” So begins the late American choreographer Trisha Brown in a 1973 letter to Suzanne Weil, then director of the Performing Arts department at the Walker Art Center. A few weeks later, Weil writes back: “I would like you to dance at […]

Trisha Brown, _Accumulation_, Walker Art Center, 1978

Trisha Brown, Accumulation, Walker Art Center, 1978

“Dear Sue, I would like to dance at the Walker again. Sounds simple doesn’t it?” So begins the late American choreographer Trisha Brown in a 1973 letter to Suzanne Weil, then director of the Performing Arts department at the Walker Art Center. A few weeks later, Weil writes back: “I would like you to dance at the Walker again—how’s that for being as simple as you are.” Their exchange is direct, straightforward, a bit playful. Reading it some 40 years later, I’m struck by how the tenor of the correspondence seems in some particular way to capture an essential quality of Brown’s work. Simple.

This is an assertion, perhaps, in opposition to much of the scholarship or reviews on her choreography, and, indeed, there is no denying the rigor of her movement vocabulary or the depth of her embodied and intellectual experiments. Trisha Brown was never simple in the banal way: an idea easily understood or a concept without difficulty. Rather, her choreography had an ease to it—the left arm rises, the elbow bends inward toward the face, and then the arm falls back down—and a pulse to its structure, which meant, if you watched closely enough, you could glean a part of what she was proposing. As her choreography shifted from the arch simplicity of her early pieces—in which the title of the work often articulated exactly what was to transpire (Man Walking Down the Side of a Building)—to her more intricately choreographed productions for the stage, her work was always marked by a directness of address. In Accumulation (1971), and its subsequent development as an ensemble work, Group Primary Accumulation (1973), and then finally Accumulation with Talking Plus Watermotor (1978), she created a choreographic structure in which movements (and spoken ideas) were added incrementally, making the process of choreographic creation eminently apparent. Here is the first move, here is the second, and then, watch closely, we will do them both again, and then add a third. Hers was a dance practice that sought to reveal itself; her simple never lacked.

November 9, 1974 Loring Park, Minneapolis

Trisha Brown, Group Primary Accumulation on Rafts, November 9, 1974, Loring Park, Minneapolis. Photo: Boyd Hagen

Brown’s letter continues as she muses to Weil what she might present. In later letters between the two, she mentions she might show some of the new work she’s been exploring since leaving behind the “equipment pieces”—works like Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (1970) or Floor of the Forest (1970) in which contraptions like harnesses or horizontal scaffolds allowed performers’ bodies to invert the rules of gravity. Since creating Accumulation a few years earlier, Brown writes, she has kept returning to that idea of revealing the choreographic apparatus to the viewer through the dance itself. A new work, Group Primary Accumulation, will be presented soon in New York, she writes: “Are you interested in this piece for Minneapolis?” This initial correspondence, though, details an entirely different idea: “I have mulled over a piece titled manscape or humanscape for 2 years now. The piece consists of 100 people lined up abreast across the stage. To begin, the person on the right steps forward & says I am 100 years old (and is) the next person steps forward & says I am 99 years old (and is), etc. down the line to a one year old.” That’s the dance: so simple and straightforward—and poignant now as I reread this letter in light of her passing.

Since beginning her career in the 1960s, Brown returned many times to the Walker. She first came in 1971 as part of Grand Union, the experimental performance collective often described as one of Judson Church Theater’s key progeny (the core group of which included Trisha as well as Barbara Dilley, Douglas Dunn, David Gordon, Nancy Lewis, Steve Paxton, and Yvonne Rainer). Like Judson before it, or even Black Mountain College, Grand Union has proven important to the development of contemporary interdisciplinary art, collapsing, as the group’s members did, distinctions between dance, theater, play, sculpture, and visual art. If, often, their version of that collapse ended up looking a bit like a mess, it was a particularly glorious one. In November 1974 she returned as a solo artist—this is the visit to which her letter alludes. Eager to explore the full array of performance venues the Walker could offer, Brown and her three dancers (Carmen Beuchat, Caroline Godden, and Sylvia Whitman) performed in the galleries, on the stage, and in Loring Park, a public park adjacent the center. For the next several years, the Walker’s programming was to be punctuated by visits from Brown.

In 1978 she presented a series of solos, and, then, in ’79 she premiered Glacial Decoy. A Walker commission, Glacial Decoy is pivotal in her oeuvre as it marked her near complete shift to the stage and to using the various theatrical trappings of such spaces (sets, elaborate costumes, lighting). Robert Rauschenberg, a longtime friend and a frequent collaborator with other noted choreographers like Merce Cunningham, created the décor and costumes: long, sheer, white nightgowns. Glacial Decoy was to be the last work created for the all-women iteration of the Trisha Brown Dance Company (indeed, as the piece premiered at the Walker, she had already auditioned male dancers to join the company), and those white gowns, in retrospect, seem to not-so-obliquely critique classical histories of women dancing in white: Swan Lake, Giselle, or La Bayadére. Throughout the 1980s, ’90s, and into the 2000s, she and her company presented works like Set and Reset (1983), a piece which in 2008 was performed by students in the Dance Department at the University of Minnesota and retitled Set and Reset/Reset, as well as her last piece, I’m going to toss my arms—if you catch them, they’re yours (2011).

Trisha Brown, _Line Up_ (Trisha Brown, far left), Walker Art Center gallery, 1974

Trisha Brown, Line Up (Trisha Brown, far left), Walker Art Center, 1974

Brown’s time at the Walker was always one of active exchange, not simply sharing her work but reaching out to the community to teach workshops, invite local dancers (like Elizabeth Gerran) to join her company, and train students and dancers to perform works from her repertory (Set and Reset/Reset as well as PLANES, from 1968, which was remounted in 2008 at the Walker). This legacy of community engagement and co-learning marked not only Trisha’s time here but is intrinsic to her legacy as a choreographer. The logic of her practice has always been that of the gift. It is dance offered in the spirit of generosity, surprise, perhaps unknowingly, and, like the act of unwrapping a gift, there are layers to uncover. If you catch them, they are yours. For nearly 40 years, Brown kept the promise of her letter’s simple assertion: I would like to dance at the Walker again. Her last visit, and her last performance, came in 2008.

Dubbed the Year of Trisha, 2008 included a gallery exhibition, stage performances by her company, and restagings of some of the notable pieces she had presented at the Walker. Conceived of by then-Visual Arts Curator Peter Eleey and Philip Bither, the Director and Senior Curator of Performing Arts, the exhibition So that the Audience Does Not Know Whether I have Stopped Dancing focused on Brown’s drawings, long a part of her larger arts practice. For its opening, she performed It’s a Draw/LiveFeed (2002) in the Walker’s Medtronic Gallery. Dressed in a black shirt and pants, she held charcoal in her hands and between her toes, moving her way across an expanse of white paper, leaving pigment traces of her dance behind.

Trisha Brown, _Floor Drawing/Performance_, 2008

Trisha Brown, Floor Drawing/Performance, Walker Art Center, 2008

The drawing produced from her performance, and indeed her oeuvre of drawings more broadly, reveal the trace of her movements, whether the small gesture of moving pen across paper or the sweeping act of spinning in circles across the floor-sized canvas. The word “trace” references an ephemeral act—the footstep that preserves the memory of the absent walker. Traces are also quite material. We have the drawing to hold on to. A trace is also, of course, an imprint, a mark, which once made creates a shift, a change. Trisha Brown has left just such an imprint here at the Walker, in contemporary art more broadly, and, most keenly, in dance.

She writes on white paper with a black pen. Her handwriting is rushed, the words drawn out as her cursive spreads across the page. Her letters, though, are short, as though eager to get on to the next letter and the next. Like her drawings, like her choreography, the archived letter—preserved now in a plastic sleeve—articulates yet another trace of her presence. And, if we let her, it articulates, across the decades, a philosophy of dance.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Camera as Body: An Interview with Charles Atlas, Rashaun Mitchell, and Silas Riener

Co-commissioned by the Walker and the Experimental and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC), Tesseract is the creative product of  longtime Cunningham collaborator and visual/media artist Charles Atlas and former Merce Cunningham Dane Company dancers Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener. A live dance-technology hybrid featuring seven dancers and 3-D video, Tesseract—performed March 16–18, 2017—weaves together dance, sci-fi narratives, and live film segments edited […]

Kaleidoscope2_Production shot

Charles Atlas, Rashaun Mitchell, and Silas Riener, Tesseract (2015) production still; Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York

Co-commissioned by the Walker and the Experimental and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC), Tesseract is the creative product of  longtime Cunningham collaborator and visual/media artist Charles Atlas and former Merce Cunningham Dane Company dancers Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener. A live dance-technology hybrid featuring seven dancers and 3-D video, Tesseract—performed March 16–18, 2017weaves together dance, sci-fi narratives, and live film segments edited by Atlas in real time. Toggling between the corporeal and the digital, this revolutionary work disorients one’s sense of space and time in playful and unpredictable ways. In a 2015 interview with  curator Victoria Brooks, first published in the catalogue for the Walker-organized exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time, the collaborators discuss the film that preceded the live version of Tesseract, creating work for cinematic, theatrical, and museum contexts, breaking the rules of 3-D filmmaking, and the legacy Cunningham left for the world of dance film.

Victoria Brooks: Can we begin by discussing the differences in approach between choreography to camera and choreography onstage for a live audience? Your new work, Tesseract, will incorporate both, and the conditions of production of each part will certainly be inscribed into how we’ll experience the work in the end—not necessarily in an overt way, but in the differences in the affective relationship of the dancers’ bodies as they are mediated by the camera and presented to the audience live. Of course the influence of Merce Cunningham has been key for each of you in the development of your work—Rashaun and Silas as dancers with the Cunningham company, and Charlie through your extensive collaborations with Merce over several decades.

Charlie, if we could start with you, would you talk about the early years with Merce and how the two of you developed a new language that enhanced the relationship between the camera and the body beyond the technical?

Charles Atlas: In 1973 or 1974, Merce invited me to work with him after having seen some of my Super 8 films. We were going to make video, but he didn’t know video and I didn’t know video. So I learned it from a book—Spaghetti City Video Manual, actually. Then I taught it to him. Before we ever made our first piece, we spent practically a whole summer working every day with a camera and a student dancer, putting the camera at different levels and seeing what the camera did to the body. At that time, we were working with a three-camera setup with live switching. We started out with cameras on tripods, and in a way, that was a good place to start because it’s easer to choreograph for. It’s a fixed space, and you know where the cameras are. Once you start moving the cameras, it starts to be different. That really informed my way of approaching a collaboration. The project with Rashaun and Silas has followed a very similar process. And it just occurred to me that one thing that’s similar to the way we are working and the way Merce worked is that it’s completely natural to work without music.

Brooks: I suppose that’s one of the central themes of the exhibition Common Time. Even the phrase “common time” suggests three separate tracks—the music is one track, the movement another, and the décor a third, and they move in tandem with one another. Maybe you could say something about whether or not that influences your approach here.

Rashaun Mitchell: I think working without music is kind of a given for us. It allows us to observe the rhythmic structures that emerge in the work we’re making, and having that clarity is probably good for us in terms of figuring out how the camera will best capture the choreography, what strategies can best support the inherent choreographic structures.

Atlas: With Merce, I always worked without music, so I edited on the movement. Since then, I’ve worked with music, and music is so demanding on editing that you end up really editing on the music. Hopefully, it works on the dancing as well.

Mitchell: I think that having the experience through our work with Cunningham of coming onto the stage without ever having heard the sound or dealt with the elements of the production, and having to just go with that—I think we’ve digested that. It’s in our bodies, it’s in the way we work now. And I think it’s allowed us to be pretty flexible about the filming process.

Atlas: One thing that’s different is that there’s a certain amount of indeterminacy in your work that was certainly never in Merce’s work.

Silas Riener: We were actually really careful to try and protect that flexibility in Tesseract, especially because once you put a camera in a space, everything wants to become the same every time. The structure of a shoot, of communication between us, the dancers, and the crew, and the desire for identical takes and continuity—all of that doesn’t leave much space for indeterminacy.

Atlas: The great thing about this project is that we had enough time to develop it and work on it. In the Cunningham way, we rehearsed with cameras for weeks. So the camera people really knew the dance even though the dance did change. But I think with more time rehearsing with the camera, you can go with the feeling of the piece—it doesn’t have to be so fixed.

Riener: I was thinking about your earlier comment about our shared histories and individuated histories with Merce. There was always a lot of watching and spending time with the work, and that put a deep sense of shared space and shared time into the choreography and the collaborative model. There was always a central space where you watched the dances over and over and over again. That physical history of deep, repetitive practice is something that Rashaun and I take for granted, because we understand those working models. And we like to work!

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Charles Atlas, Rashaun Mitchell, and Silas Riener, Tesseract (2015) production still

Mitchell: Also, that daily work toward specificity allows for a greater flexibility in the end. For this project, it was really important that we work with dancers we knew, for the most part—people that we could rely on and know that when we threw things at them they were going to absorb them quickly and respond accordingly. If I needed to say, “OK, the camera has moved over here so now you have to reorient your ‘front,’” that would be understood and easily executed.

Brooks: Certainly the production conditions of this project—the long period of development but very limited time with the dancers in front of the full 3-D rig and with the film crew—has meant that everyone has had to be very flexible with changes once we started filming. The constant calculation of convergence adds another layer. In 3-D, it’s the angle from the eye of the viewer to the object on-screen that the camera is focused on, and that needs to be checked for each shot. This added a significant amount of shoot time. Plus, we only had one rig, so you couldn’t get multiple angles at the same time.

Atlas: If you have multiple cameras, you’re not repeating. The dancers don’t have to do it over and over.

Mitchell: That helps with creating one condition that is really essential when you’re dancing—to be able to feel a sense of time and progression, and to be able to respond to that. With the 3-D process it’s been the opposite. You go out there and do a thirty-second take and you barely experience doing that thing before it’s over.

Atlas: In the Cunningham films I did, the sequences were long, and the dancers did get to dance.

Brooks: So the process is really constrained by film time. And of course, you’re not only dealing with the bodies of the dancers but also those of the production team as well as the equipment itself. All the time it takes to rebalance the two cameras, change the lenses, rehearse the dolly moves, or choreograph the movement of the Steadicam operator—it’s an intensive work flow.

Riener: A Steadicam is a mobile camera rig whose weight is distributed through the operator’s vest. Because the apparatus is able to move smoothly with the operator, it behaves much more like a dancer.

Brooks: The first scene that you shot in the summer (which for our work flow purposes is titled “Fog”) was with a Steadicam. However, we had a seventy-five-pound, dual-camera 3-D rig, so the Steadicam operator had to carry a huge amount of weight and learn the choreography of the dancers and be directed to precisely move around them. He had to keep the camera in a dynamic relationship with the two dancers for a seven-minute straight take, but of course there were limits to his strength. This heavy rig would keep moving even when he had stopped. Charlie, did you find the limitations in this balance between the dancers’ bodies, the technician’s body, and the massive apparatus to be challenging?

Atlas: I have to say I never took that into consideration conceptually. I just thought, “It has to be possible to do this.” At a certain point, I did think of wanting to have a crane. But if you use a crane, a shot takes forever to do because you have to rehearse the boom and the crane and the dolly—it’s like three people.

Mitchell: A crane would have given us the possibility of viewing the floor from above, and other unusual perspectives, and we did discuss it, but in the end we decided against it, for time and budgetary reasons but also because using a crane would have created an artificial relationship to the choreography. One of Charlie’s main goals was to create camera movements that were propelled by choreographic or energetic surges. The camera is a dancer rather than a distant observer.

Riener: But the reliance on a body to be able to guide the camera rig brings in the vulnerability that I think is a big part of dancing. I don’t mind that.

Mitchell: It was really confusing for me once we started with the Steadicam. I felt like I had just wrapped my mind around the idea that when you make dance for camera, the dance is seen from a fixed position. You only get to look at what the frame is telling you to look at, and the dance somehow orients itself around that. When we started working with the Steadicam I felt like it completely changed that because everything could move in relation to everything else. It was like there were these two planetary bodies rotating around each other.

Brooks: I think what’s beautiful about the footage you got from that shoot is that you feel the body because the camera is a body. It’s a completely different experience from watching a film shot from a fixed viewpoint, where you’re constantly thinking about what is off-screen. With this situation, you are much closer to being there.

Atlas: Looking at the footage of “Fog” in both in 2-D and 3-D, I feel like it only works in 3-D. In 2-D I feel as though I want it to go faster because it doesn’t have the added spatial quality, so you have to substitute something for that.

Riener: It’s good to hear that from you, Charlie, because the spatialization of things is something we think about all the time. I think of space as an agent in the dance. You can create something completely different depending on whether you impose distance between two actions or close in on one of them. Space is a sort of meaning buffer that generates its own layer on top of the movement. But this is all skewed by the camera because the way the eye of the camera looks at bodies and the space in between them is completely different from how the human eye sees them.

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Charles Atlas, Rashaun Mitchell, and Silas Riener, Tesseract (2015) production still

Mitchell: That kind of intrusion into the choreography is what is most exciting to me—having something that changes a thing that you think you know already. It’s a duet, but now it’s a trio. That kind of transformation of the choreography is what most excited me about working with you, Charlie—being able to see how what we had made could grow or take on a new life.

Riener: That ties us back to Merce. Charlie can see the phrase points and changes in a dance because he has that education through watching Merce’s phrase-driven world—a meticulously organized segment-by-segment view of the world through his dances. I think about Merce’s way of constructing dances all the time, and it has primed me for thinking about how events follow each other. Charlie and Rashaun and I deeply understand the way a dance can be structured from studying and performing in or filming Merce’s dances.

Atlas: I really remember the third piece Merce and I did in 1976, Squaregame Video. Merce sat with me in the back, where I was editing, and we went over every take because I couldn’t tell what a good performance was. Dancers see things in a completely different way. They see technical things, or things they know are really hard to do but look easy.

Mitchell: But it’s interesting for us to see it through your eyes, because I think you see energy, and you see an expression of space and time.

Atlas: Over the years I think I internalized Merce.

Riener: In this film, there is also a choreographic connection to Merce’s work that is more apparent than in some of the other things we’ve done recently. We’ve been working in more intimate spaces with improvisation and indeterminate ideas, structures, and movements, some of which we felt wouldn’t show up as well on film. I think the camera wants an energetic scale that approaches a kind of virtuosity that we sometimes want to shy away from in our work, or that we’re critical of. But it was pretty clear from the beginning that everything needed to be more amped up, more exacting.

Mitchell: There’s a linearity to the movement that I think we’ve avoided in the past, just because we associate it with Merce’s physical choices.

Atlas: You mean shape?

Mitchell: We actually had 3-D geometric shapes built for one of the sets because, as we became more sensitive to the demands of the camera, we found ourselves having to deal with shape in a more direct way than with other works we’ve made. It was a kind of surrender.

Riener: And as soon as you start making shapes, you’re in a territory that’s already been well traversed by others. I felt like Merce was really in the room for those times. But we also went toward it because it’s what the camera wanted.

Mitchell: We really tried to create as wide a spectrum of movement in this piece as we could, but those “Merce-y” moments are definitely in there.

Atlas: It also helped that the concept of this piece was that each of the six chapters was conceived as a different world, because then we could make different rules for each world.

Brooks: Maybe you could just explain those different worlds—what your approach was when you first started collaborating, and how this is being structured as you’re going on.

Mitchell: When we first started talking, I said I wanted this new piece to be about what I was already working on. At the time, I was making a piece dealing with science fictional elements concerning space travel and time travel and evolution, and that led us toward creating a series of different worlds or settings.

We don’t really work with narratives so much, but there are lots of mini-narratives in our work, which get so overlaid that they become diffused and abstracted. With the film process, we didn’t have time to think about that sort of thing, so our process became more of an investigation of form, structure, time, and space as they relate to 3-D technology. So we decided to construct different worlds with really distinct visual elements and different rules in terms of the vocabulary of movement. For example, one scene deals with slow time; others are concerned with circularity, symmetry, disorientation, and so on.

Charles Atlas, Rashaun Mitchell, and Silas Riener, Tesseract (2015) production still

Charles Atlas, Rashaun Mitchell, and Silas Riener, Tesseract (2015) production still

Riener: In our approach to making a film for the first time, I think we created what I like to think of as versions of camera fantasies. What would it be to make a 3-D film? What’s the craziest thing you could do, or what’s the most beautiful thing you could do, and how can you make the entire space express this body that is moving inside of that?

Brooks: We’ve all been watching a lot of 3-D Hollywood blockbuster movies, which for the most part are big-budget action or fantasy. The differences in the filmmakers’ use of convergence and parallax in these movies has been an ongoing conversation throughout this production—how 3-D effects appear to have shifted from a focus on the spectacle of everything flying out of the screen at you (negative parallax) to a beautiful depth that creates a window behind the screen plane (positive parallax), as in the most recent film we watched together, Mad Max Fury Road. How have these cinematic experiences influenced you?

Atlas: Well, I’ve been watching films forever. I never went to film school, so watching movies was my education. I had always wanted to make a 3-D film, but it always seemed like a fantasy. When I realized I was actually going to do a 3-D project, I started watching 3-D films in a different way, and I was surprised at how much they broke all the rules that I thought were supposed to be the rules.

Brooks: Can you talk more about these rules of filmmaking? Was there a particular set of parameters you followed in this project?

Atlas: I think it just comes down to camera space, really. If I was being really strict, we wouldn’t have done a lot of the things we did, so I think their [Silas and Rashaun’s] intuition about what would work for 3-D was right on. A lot of exploitation of deep space, and lots of layers of space, both in the sets and the movement.

Mitchell: I think for us, a lot more happens in much less time in these scenes than we are normally used to in our work—that kind of camera time is a really different experience than choreographic time. The camera doesn’t really want you to see change that happens over time. But in terms of space, I think there are lots of rules. If I’m choreographing for live performance, a lot of what I am interested in is seeing the space around the thing that’s happening. I think that gets lost with the camera. In yesterday’s shoot I was really interested in the floor space and how much of a problem it was for Charlie that the screen wasn’t filled up with bodies. I kept thinking, “But I love space! I want to see space!” And yet that space seems to deaden the energy. I think when you’re in live performance there’s something about the visceral liveness of it that creates the energy around the space.

Atlas: I think a good solo performer onstage commands the whole space. You feel the person alone in that space.

Mitchell: And you feel your own breath and the person next to you.

Atlas: And that doesn’t translate on camera.

Mitchell: So trying to figure out how to create that same level of energy within the confines of camera space was a big challenge.

Atlas: One of the big problems of filming dance is that when you watch a great dance performance you really have a kinesthetic feeling in your body, and when you translate that into 2-D you have to add something to replace that energy. The goal is still to give the audiences that kinesthetic response, but there’s a different way of doing it.

Brooks: To bring you back around to the accompanying live piece, which you will be working on throughout 2016 and 2017, how do you feel that your approaches are going to shift from the camera to the stage? As the 3-D film and the performance are related and will be presented together, what do you see as the friction between those two parts?

Charles Atlas on set of Tesseract

Charles Atlas on the set of Tesseract

Atlas: I think it’s an open question. We know we’re doing a piece that’s going to be on the same program as the film, but it can be as different as we want, or related in some way, or in no way. But we do know this: none of the things we made for the camera are going to be OK for the stage.

Riener: We are definitely interested in departing from that kind of framed idea, but a lot of the physical explorations we’ve begun will probably continue to evolve for the stage performance.

Mitchell: It’s going to feel completely different, hopefully.

Riener: I have an instinct for it to be a little more cohesive or concentrated, as a counterpoint to the multiplicity of ideas and visual images in the film.

Mitchell: There’s also a question about how the performers should relate to the live cameras on stage versus to the live audience. I’m not sure how to deal with that yet. That’s going to be the next big challenge.

Riener: I think we understand how to make live dance, but what are these other bodies [the cameras and their operators] in the space going to be doing, and how are they going to render the choreography, and how is that going to be mixed in relation to what we’re doing without them?

Mitchell: I’m also worried about the scale of things. When you’re looking at a giant screen and something is popping out at you in 3-D, and then the next thing you see is a small body in the back of the space, what is that effect?

Atlas: That’s something we really have to look at, and that’s one of the reasons to put up a scrim, at least for part of it. If we have the scrim in the front of the stage so that we can project images onto it, then we can play with the scale of what is projected in relation to the dancers live onstage.

Brooks: All of you have worked within a cinematic context, a theatrical context, and a museum context. This new project seems to address all of these conditions of viewing. At the premiere, the two parts (the 3-D video and the live performance with 2-D cameras) will be presented together as an evening work. Later, you plan to edit the 3-D materials for the cinema, on one hand, and for the museum on the other. But in a museum, viewers experience moving images in a completely different way than in a cinematic or theatrical presentation. They might enter the work in the middle of a scene, or only stay with it for a few minutes, or watch it multiple times.

Riener: Rashaun and I are always responding or reacting to the kind of opportunity and, particularly, the kind of space and time that a project presents. So we packed it all in for the film component. Certainly any eventual theatrical performance or museum performance is going to take its sensibility from how and where the viewer will experience it.

Mitchell: When we were working with Merce, we mostly performed in giant proscenium spaces where you would look out and not see another body. You were performing to a sort of vacuum, or to an idea about an audience. And then the same work would be seen in a museum setting for an Event. It didn’t feel right to perform it in the same way. You had to think about scale. You might actually make eye contact with the audience because they were right next to you, so you wouldn’t want to project far out into the rafters in the same way.

Atlas: I remember when the company moved to Westbeth and they started having studio performances. It was so weird for the dancers. They didn’t know where to look.

Mitchell: We did so many of those at Dia: Beacon. We had a really small stage and people would be two feet away from us. And yet we were clothed in the same performative material. I think Merce’s material works on both scales. But we as individuals, as performers, had really different challenges.

Brooks: Maybe we can circle back around to sound, which I know is a very open question at the moment. Will you proceed in the way Merce worked—the music or sound and the choreography are produced separately from each other, without necessary coordination?

Atlas: For the film, I think the sound is going to have to really relate directly to the picture. Either someone agrees to make sound that I can manipulate, or someone scores sound for the film.

Riener: There are so many different rhythms that the camera and the cutting will provide, and there are a lot of different kinds of rhythms in the dancing as well. I imagine that the sound will have to be somewhat fuller for the film than it would need to be for live performance.

Atlas: These decisions are very intuitive. But we don’t know much yet.

Mitchell: We really don’t. We’re starting at the beginning.

Exploring Visual Dimensions of Tesseract with Silas Riener and Rashaun Mitchell

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

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

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

The Art Newspaper on Tesseract

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

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

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Melissa Toogood. Photo courtesy the artists

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

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

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

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

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

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

EMPAC: Tesseract

Photo: Ray Felix, EMPAC

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

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

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

EMPAC: Tesseract

Photo: Ray Felix, EMPAC

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

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

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

Charles Atlas on set of Tesseract

Charles Atlas during rehearsal. Photo: Mick Bello, EMPAC

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

Paul Harding on Mbongwana Star with ZULUZULUU

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, Paul Harding from Foreign Currency on KFAI shares his perspective […]

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Mbongwana Star. Photo: Courtesy the artists

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, Paul Harding from Foreign Currency on KFAI shares his perspective on Mbongwana Star with ZULUZULUU. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Mbongwana Star brought the remarkable cacophony of Kinshasa to the Cedar Cultural Center Friday night.

Opening up was the local emerging ZULUZULUU, which struck me as an insightful pairing. Their layers of frequently gritty analog-sounding synths offered a spaced out, soulful counterpoint to the guitar-driven Congolese headliners. A sound equal parts pioneering and archetypal of the Minneapolis black sound, they foreshadowed the sonic thickness, complexity, and sense of locale that Mbongwana Star would also deliver. Both groups used multiple independent vocal parts to create depth and intricacy, reaching occasional feverish heights.

My sense of the elusive saga of Mbongwana Star took a new turn before they took the stage, when the Cedar’s Director of Operations told me their guitarist had spent the two previous nights in the hospital recovering from malaria. It was still unclear whether he’d be able to perform at this first show on their U.S. tour. Almost 6 years ago, visa problems prevented Coco Ngambali and Theo Nzonza and their band at the time, Staff Benda Bilili, from playing here. They founded that group homeless and paraplegic from childhood polio, launching into meteoric international recognition, and eventually disbanded.

Only when they took to the stage was it clear that their guitarist was able to perform, and also that Mitchell Sigurdson of Black Market Brass—called the night before and having rehearsed with them all day—would play with the band too. He added even more to their already surprisingly full sound given the simple instrumentation. Coco and Theo sang and danced excitedly in their wheelchairs alongside yet another singer, the two guitars, bass, and drums. Their energy swelled into a clamorous rhythmic force.

Mbongwana Star takes the Kinshasa sound further into the future. From Congolese rumba, through soukous, and the rumba funk sound of Staff Benda Bilili, they carry forward elements into a visionary arena. With the bubbling trance-y chaos of Konono No.1 and the groove of a Koffi Olomide tune (after a six minute prelude) with just as many individual voices fighting for your attention, they drove home their unique sound to an exuberant crowd.

Mbongwana Star and ZULUZULUU performed on Friday, March 3, 2017 at The Cedar.

Patrick Marshke on Music for Merce: Night Two

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, musician and composer Patrick Marschke shares his perspective on Music for […]

Music For Merce, Night two. Photo: Gene Pittman

Left to right: George Lewis, Zeena Parkins, Christian Wolff, Fast Forward, David Behrman, Joan La Barbara, Philip Selway, Quinta, Ikue Mori, and John King performing night two of Music For Merce, February 24, 2017, in the McGuire Theater. Photo: Gene Pittman

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, musician and composer Patrick Marschke shares his perspective on Music for Merce: A Two-Night Celebration. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

It would be easy to interpret “Music for Merce” as an answer to the question “whatever did happen to Indeterminacy?” It could have easily been a night of  “Music After Cage.” Those angles would have completely made sense within the context of Merce Cunningham: Common Time, but unlike the incredible archival materials found in the gallery or the jarringly pristine performances of Cunningham’s choreography throughout the exhibition, this night of sound making went beyond documenting a time and place, beyond putting Cage or Cunningham on (yet another) pedestal, and transcended what could have easily been billed as historical performance. The night captured what (for me and hopefully some of you) is incredibly special about experimental and improvised music: the performers completely embodied what self-actualization can look and sound like and epitomized the idea that virtuosity can be more about perceiving an incredible amount of love/compassion in the environment an artist creates rather than simply being about how skilled a performer is at a thing.

So what does sonic self-actualization look like?

For George Lewis in his piece Shadowgraph, 5 it was quadraphonic signal processing of Joan La Barbara’s tactile vocal iterations, Fast Forward’s literal kitchen of instruments, and Zeena Parkins’ sometimes extended harp techniques with subtle accompaniment by Ikue Mori’s own digital sound palette and thoughtful and subtle piano played by Quinta. Sounds whirled around, sometimes with clear correlations to what was happening on stage, other times not (a theme of the night). It sounded like what one would expect “sonic research” to sound like. What set this piece apart from the novelty of 4.1 surround sound and Lewis’s digital effects was how perceivable the performers’ listening was (another theme of the night): compassionately listening to their own sounds, Lewis’s sounds, and each others’.

The love that Zeena Parkins has for the sound of the harp is palpable. Captiva for Acoustic Harp and Processing, performed with assistance from David Behrman on the processing component, framed Parkins’ incredibly physical playing with distinct electronic landscapes. The work had a sense of direction and narrative that differentiated it from the improvisation/indeterminacy of the rest of the night.

Behrman remained at his computer for his piece Long Throw. Electroacoustic music is tricky in many ways, a primary reason being that one has access to any and all sounds: an infinite palette of sorts. Another being how to compellingly incorporate acoustic instruments. The instrumentalists in Long Throw seemed secondary to Behrman’s sonic landscapes at times, but rather than detracting from the work, the disparate and patient iterations contributed to feeling of sonic time lapse before evaporating into silence.

Ikue Mori’s subtle laptop keystrokes completely contradict the intense kinetic and frenetic sounds that her laptop produces — a sonic arsenal that is nearly impossible to keep track of, all somehow being individually triggered by the same interface one would answer an email with. The depth and complexity of timbres are astounding, which made for a bit of a shocking entrance by Christian Wolff’s slightly acontextual clapping. The duo took a moment to calibrate, but eventually the prepared piano and electronics blended and morphed into a cohesive whole.

Earle Brown’s December 1952 / November 1952 stood out as the only purely acoustic performance of the night and the only piece by a composer outside of the group. The work deserved a bit more context, either as a program note or a simple glimpse of the piece’s stark graphic score, which is interpreted by performers simultaneously. It was the most “historical” of the performances of the night, one whose sparseness was welcome.

Fast Forward’s graphic score Octopoda (for four arms) ended up being a bit indiscernible from Shadowgraph, with the only thing setting it apart being Philip Selway’s first appearance of the night. Selway seemed uncomfortable, as did his ocarina tooting ‘xylosynth’ and the queasy jangling of a coat rack tucked to the back of the stage. Perhaps this unease was made starker next to Fast Forward’s performative and aural confidence with his mass array of metallic objects being perpetually sent down Lewis’s quadrophonic rabbit hole. Forward’s take on indeterminacy invites the audience to chuckle a little, warming up a medium that can be a little more distant than it means to be.

Each individual performer’s voice had come into focus at various points throughout the night, particularly in the kaleidoscope of the large group improvisation at the end of night, but the individual personas never clouded the communal joy that perpetually radiated from the stage.

In a time when ‘individualism’ has been commodified to the point of parody it seems especially poignant that art collectivism and community is a thread that ties Music for Merce together. It pops up in the program, where many of the artists appear in each others bios and discographies. George Lewis literally wrote the book on the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and David Behrman is a founding member of the Sonic Arts Union. Notice the empathetic listening and generous sonic support that is inherent in improvised music of this caliber. Then notice the collective aesthetic of Cage, Cunningham, and Rauschenberg that is currently enlivening the Walker galleries. It keeps going — all culminating in the realization that when an artist’s work so clearly comes from a place of compassion and love it becomes natural to extrapolate that love and compassion out onto others, enriching an arts community person by person — a truly inspiring model for what a community/society can look like, all stemming from experimentation and exploring the fringes of sound/art. It could feel like a bit of a stretch, but for me, Music for Merce proved that experimental/improvisational music isn’t a fixation on the individual, but in fact a model for a society in which individualism strengthens rather than stifles community.

Music for Merce: A Two-Night Celebration was presented  February 23 -24, 2017 as part of the exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time, on view in the Walker galleries until July 30. 

Adam Zahller on Music for Merce, Night One

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 Adam Zahller shares his perspective on the first evening […]

Left to right: Quinta, Ikue Mori, Philip Selway, Christian Wolff, David Behrman, Joan La Barbara, John King, Zeena Parkins, Fast Forward, George Lewis. Photo: Gene Pittman

Left to right: Quinta, Ikue Mori, Philip Selway, Christian Wolff, David Behrman, Joan La Barbara, John King, Zeena Parkins, Fast Forward, George Lewis. Photo: Gene Pittman

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 Adam Zahller shares his perspective on the first evening of Music For Merce: A Two Night Celebration. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Large swathes of the audience didn’t need John Cage’s stage backdrop to be reminded of this ancestral spirit’s presence in the room. The spotty but spunky crowd who turned out for the evening—youngsters with finger tattoos, aging arts boosters, and local emissaries of the AACM among them—clearly knew the score: Grandpa Cage is watching over us. From the look of his hauntingly beautiful etching, it would seem that Grandpa, prescient as always, had in return understood something of our present situation: others are watching, too. The intermittent black strips looming from the rafters resembled the redactions of a leaked NSA surveillance document, brought to life as titanic phantoms. I imagined Cage foreseeing that his benign timers would metastasize into iPhones, that his warmly hissing magnetic tapes, shortwave radios, and Victrolas would ossify into Macbooks. I could see him peering at us through the tiny cameras that crowded the stage, chuckling.

We chuckled, too. During curator Philip Bither’s unwitting anacrusis to Cage’s famous Indeterminacy lectures, we chuckled knowingly at the comment that the evening’s culminating EVENT would be “a world premiere every time it’s performed.” This was good; it showed esprit de corps.

Bither promised us that the concert would be “breathtakingly historic.” My inner Cageian imp tells me that so is every ascent of a sufficiently steep flight of stairs. No matter. This was a touching and unifying occasion, a jovial tribute to Merce Cunningham’s not-to-be-underestimated musical legacy, and a reminder that art makes a loving family for us at home here on the stolen prairie, just as it does for those out East, on the coastal lowlands and barrier isles.

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Set 1: Christian Wolff’s Or 4 People

Wolff at piano, with melodica and other toys; Behrman mostly playing tenor recorder and harmonica; Lewis on trombone/mutes; King on Stratocaster

After a slightly faltering start, the players found each other in one-mind continuity, building a distended klangfarbenlullaby of gorgeous spectral harmonies, passing pitches across the stage from tonecolor to tonecolor, drip by drip, like stalagmites forming in air, occasionally punctuated by skronches, clacks, and gritty hammer-ons, articulating space. Four gray-haired men became happy little boys as they grinned to find themselves concluding together.

Set 2: Joan La Barbara’s Solitary Journeys of the Mind

La Barbara, voice and microphone

Miracles of amplification! Not just the microphone boosting the subtlest details of La Barbara’s endlessly flowering virtuosity, candle-flame upper-partials dancing above her sonorous mezzo, but her hands amplifying in gesture the spinning-out of musical ebb and flood, and her breath itself, amplifying the internal structure of its exalted chamber with each practiced inhalation, exhalation. Hearing this, one understood better what it was, centuries ago, that etched those beasts onto the cave walls at Chauvet.

Set 3: Philip Selway/Quinta: Yaasholl, One Note Arpeggio, and Of Course I Do

Mori on xylosynth (first tune only); Selway on xylosynth and piano; Quinta on synthesizer, musical saw, xylosynth; King with “assist” on synthesizer (end of last tune)

Selway’s connection to Merce Cunningham dates back to a much-hyped 2003 Sigur Ros/Radiohead collaboration with MCDC titled “Split Sides.” At the time, Laura Shapiro from New York Magazine characterized the music as “art rock on its best behavior. Mild, a bit tentative, sometimes disconcertingly reminiscent of New Age, the music was nowhere near as scary as the work of Cunningham’s usual collaborators.”

Fourteen years later, if anything, the music has tamed further. It was pleasant, in the washy sort of way that advertisers like for making soaps, pills, and software feel “inspiring.” In its finest moments, its saccharine pan-ionian harmonies and moody upper-neighbor-tones gave even my prickly heartstrings a slight tug. Quinta’s intonation on the musical saw (when she picked it up, another knowing chuckle emanated from the crowd; I’m not sure why) was revelatory. By far my favorite sound, though, was the tap of mallets against the xylosynth, slightly audible above the gentle thrumming of the music.

Set 4: John Cage’s Fontana Mix, Aria, and Indeterminacy, performed simultaneously

Mori & Behrman, laptops; La Barbara, voice; Fast Forward, narration

Enter Grandpa, radiant. Despite Fontana Mix feeling a bit hemmed in by digitization, this set came on just like the big game after a commercial break. To the kind of people that come to an event like this, this is straight-up classical music, and I, for one, am a fan.  Fast Forward gave voice to Cage’s well-worn anecdotes with the same gusto that Heifetz puts to a Brahms concerto, proving that there are still hilarious wonders in these slightly yellowed scores. The serendipitous ending: “I know you’re very busy. I won’t take a minute of your time.”

Set 5: David Tudor’s Untitled

John King on Laptop

Whippoorwills and vampire bats caught in quadrophonic black holes fluttered erratically around the theater, the volume tastefully cranked. John King, propelling these creatures from the ease and comfort of his Macbook trackpad, was clearly having fun, rocking back and forth, smirking. The whirling of these sounds around our heads provided a potent counterpoint to the far more delicate spatialization essayed in the night’s opening work (Wolff’s Or 4 People). It made me think, however, that a whole computer universe couldn’t equal the complexity or spiritual heft of a melodica, a recorder, a Stratocaster, and a trombone.

Set 6: John King’s petite ouverture en forme de mErCE CunninGHAm

Wolff/Behrmann on piano; Lewis on trombone; Quinta on violin; King on Stratocaster

This piece started out as a piano solo written for Cunningham’s 90th birthday, and has apparently been arranged for chamber ensemble by the composer. The title is a nod to Erik Satie, one of John Cage’s most touted idols. Its capitalization scheme reflects the work’s use of “musical cryptogram,” in which letters from a name create a musical motif, a longstanding practice in classical music, predating even Bach (who used it famously). In true Cunningham/Cage tradition, repetitions within the form are determined by dice throw.

If this all sounds a bit academic when explained, it does in musical realization as well. Absolutely delightful, however, was watching Wolff and Behrman share a piano bench, plodding along with the piece’s pachydermic triads, using absolutely zero pedal. Hearts beamed.

Set 7: EVENT

Full ensemble: Behrman, Forward, King, La Barbara, Lewis, Mori, Parkins, Selway, Wolff

Watching musicians old enough to be my parents or grandparents cue one another to thumb their smartphones in tandem, then proceed to punch furiously at their laptops, set me reflecting amusedly on my mother’s love for Facebook and solitaire apps. Unintended as it may have been, the presence of all these mobile devices on stage made a fitting update of Cage’s running commentary on technology in daily life—it’s here to stay, so we might as well practice listening to, even loving, it. Nonetheless, I was silently hoping that someone would receive a call and have to walk offstage.

Inevitable balance issues arose from the preponderance of digital signal paths, but on the whole the EVENT’s chaos was organized nicely. Center stage, gleefully taking the helm, was a decidedly “analog” Fast Forward, tossing handfuls of sticks at various drums. His energies were greatly appreciated. Every once in a while, one could hear an isolated plink from Christian Wolff at the piano, or Zeena Parkins at the harp (otherwise absent from the night’s program). It was wonderful to hear their voices piping up through the din.

Overall, the musicians kept things short, sweet, and cordial. Smiles abounded, onstage and in the crowd.

At the end, clapping people stood, probably trying to get up closer to wherever Merce is now.

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 The Twin Cities crowd that appeared for this performance was visibly thrilled to be able to see so many venerable masters of the New York and London experimental scenes on one stage, in our own town. Excitement and gratitude were palpable in the room, and I was happy to be able to contribute my own. We did a great job, I think, warmly receiving our esteemed guests, who in turn offered a moving tribute to one of our city’s most welcome new residents: the legacy of Merce Cunningham, as embodied in his archives.

It was an engaging retrospective—a window into other cities, other scenes, other times. Now our task is to shift our gaze forward and carry musicking for Merce into the future. I know some local “experimentalists” who are up for the challenge.

 

Music for Merce: A Two-Night Celebration was performed in the Walker’s McGuire Theater February 23-24, 2017.

Mbongwana Star and the Changing Rhythms of Congolese Music

Rhythms pulsing like a rapid heartbeat, so infectious you can’t help but let your body be carried along; soulfully wailing vocals that call you back to a place you know; a mixed up electronically-driven funk that throws you into the bouncing night of a busy city or underground club. These are just a few of […]

Mbongwana Star. Photo: Courtesy the artists

Mbongwana Star. Photo: Courtesy the artists

Rhythms pulsing like a rapid heartbeat, so infectious you can’t help but let your body be carried along; soulfully wailing vocals that call you back to a place you know; a mixed up electronically-driven funk that throws you into the bouncing night of a busy city or underground club. These are just a few of the feelings evoked by From Kinshasa, the debut album from Mbongwana Star that landed on many of the top-50 charts for 2015, including the New York Times, NPR, and SPIN.

The two central figures of Mbongwana Star, Yakala “Coco” Ngambali and Nstuvuidi “Theo” Nzonza, were originally key members of the legendary band Staff Benda Bilili, which began on the streets of Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Soon after achieving major international success, Staff Benda Bilili disbanded. Now, Mbongwana Star offers a fresh, new look into Coco and Theo’s hometown, which boasts one of the most lush histories of music to be found anywhere in the world.

Western media perpetuates unfavorable impressions of the Congo by latching onto news about political issues like child soldiers and violent warfare. Yet underneath this one-sided perception, a rich and vibrant branch of Congolese music history has shaped popular music throughout the continent, and the broader world.

The perceived inaccessibility of the Democratic Republic of Congo, with its extreme poverty, ongoing conflicts, corruption and lack of basic public facilities, provides a barrier to musical tourists. The irony is, of course, that the music is joyful and uplifting; anything but dark— although there is also a rich tradition of social and political commentary in Congolese music.
                                                                                                                    —The Guardian

Dating back to the 1930s when Afro-Cuban rumba traveled back across the Atlantic, Congolese music has been at the forefront of innovating new sounds and musical culture. Driven by the influx of jazz from Europe along with the rhythms of rumba, musicians in the Congo became masters of combining different elements to create their own style. Today the most popular, lasting form of the rumba is known as soukous, derived from the French word secouer—”to shake.” It is defined by its syncopated rhythms and intricate contrasting guitar melodies, which the Congolese adapted from the rumba’s drumbeats.

Before the rise of popular bands like Mbongwana Star and Staff Benda Bilili, Franco Luambo Makiadi—the king of Congelese Rumba”—ruled the airwaves, producing 100 albums and close to a thousand songs. “His style of music, a blend of Cuban rumba and authentic Congolese rhythms, wowed both the old and young. His influence can still be heard in Congolese music, which remains popular in nightclubs all over the continent” (BBC). Franco’s popularity reached across international borders and helped solidify Kinshasa’s prominence in pop music. In addition to being a masterful musician, Franco used his talents for political advocacy. Franco’s way of creating music that speaks to the community resonates with the work of Mbongwana Star today; clearly this is a band that plays homage to its origins.

Combining electro-funk sounds and distorted grooves to the classic rhythms of rumba has helped skyrocket Mbongwana Star to fame. From Kinshasa doesn’t just bring sounds from Africa, but influences from Cuba, Paris, American Jazz, punk, rock n’ roll, and beyond—defying traditional genres and appealing to a broad spectrum of people from around the world.

While many challenges still face the Democratic Republic of Congo, with looming political issues and the rise of combatants and rebel militias, Mbongwana Star continues to persevere with a message of hope and a desire for change (mbongwana is a Lingala word meaning change). The band’s popularity and critical acclaim has changed the way many view their home country, bringing awareness and recognition to the realities of contemporary life in the Congo, and illustrating the fact that even when faced with hardship, music and history can be shared.

This Friday, Minneapolis will welcome Mbongwana Star for the first time. The Walker planned to present Staff Benda Bilili in 2011 as a part of Despair Be Damned: New Music and Dance from the Congo, but unfortunately that tour was canceled due to Visa complications. Our current political climate makes opportunities to embrace artists like Mbongwana Star more important than ever.

Mbongwana Star performs with Minneapolis-based Afrofuturist band ZULUZULUU on Friday, March 3, 2017 at 8 pm at The Cedar.

Collaboration and Inspiration in Joan La Barbara’s Creative Process

Joan La Barbara has created more than 120 compositions throughout her career as a groundbreaking composer and performer, and she has worked with some of the most notable names in contemporary music. A pioneer of vocal exploration, she’s known for her remarkable and distinctive vocabulary of sounds and compelling sound experiments. Across her career her work contains […]

Joan La Barbara with Plato, January 2009 photo: © 2009, Mark Hahaney

Joan La Barbara with Plato, January 2009. Photo: © 2009 Mark Mahaney

Joan La Barbara has created more than 120 compositions throughout her career as a groundbreaking composer and performer, and she has worked with some of the most notable names in contemporary music. A pioneer of vocal exploration, she’s known for her remarkable and distinctive vocabulary of sounds and compelling sound experiments. Across her career her work contains an expansive range of diversity in its form, content, and presentation—driven, at least in part, by her infectious curiosity. La Barbara—along with fellow Merce Cunningham collaborators John King, David Behrman, Fast Forward, George Lewis, Ikue Mori, Zeena Parkins, Philip Selway, Quinta, and Christian Wolff—will perform at the Walker this week in Music for Merce, a two-day celebration honoring the important musical influence of Cunningham and his lifelong partner John Cage.

Like Cunningham himself, La Barbara’s work demonstrates a deep appreciation and interest in other art forms. Whether it is working collaboratively with her contemporaries or taking inspiration from something seen in a gallery, she channels ideas from other mediums into her own work. In a recent interview, La Barbara spoke about some of these inspired works and reflected on the value of working beyond one discipline.

A selection of Joan La Barbara's Scores photo: © 2009 Mark Mahaney

A selection of Joan La Barbara’s scores. Photo: © 2009 Mark Mahaney

On Sound Painting

I’ve done a series of works that I call sound paintings. Essentially, I tend to see sound when I make it, so a lot of my scores include graphics as well as musical notation (depending on what I need). If I need to communicate particular pitch information, then I’ll use musical notation. If what I’m interested in is more a kind of gesture—a sonic gesture—then oftentimes I’ll draw a graphic into the score. When I look at works of visual art, I stand, sometimes sit, and spend time with the painting. Whether it’s looking at its form, looking at color, or just absorbing what you’re getting from it… some people will walk closer to the painting to see details, some will walk back from it. I know Philip Guston felt there was a particular distance from a painting that was the “perfect” spot. I don’t know that we can all find that perfect spot, but each of us tries to understand a work of visual art by moving to it, moving away from it—looking at brushstrokes, looking at the thickness of the paint, as well as looking at the whole structure and construct of what we’re receiving. I look at a great deal of contemporary art, but I think it is very similar with classical works of art: you’re looking at structure; you’re looking at the hue, the particular color scheme that the painter used and why; you’re looking at how the painting is structured. We do similar things when we listen to music (and sometimes when we perform): we will sometimes listen for melody, we will sometimes listen for the expertise of the musicians playing the work—so we listen to things in different ways just as we look at paintings in different ways. And sometimes we’ll sit there and let it wash over us. We’ll sit there and have an experience. I think composers like Bach and Morton Feldman are very much like that; you’re listening to a kind of overall experience and sometimes then you’re also listening to detail. These are the things I think we have in common when we experience a work of visual art and when we experience a work of music.

On the Sound Painting, Klee Alee

There have been several [of my sound paintings] inspired by very specific paintings, like the [Paul] Klee painting that I was inspired by was a work called Hauptweg und Nebenwege (Highways and Byways). What I try to do when I’m inspired by a particular work of art… it’s not exactly translating, but it’s expressing what I feel in experiencing the work of art, using the tools I have—my musical tools. With Klee Alee, what I saw was almost like a wall of color blocks, so what I created on multi-track tapes (I was working on analogue tapes at that time, but it could also done be easily in digital) was what I considered to be blocks of sound. The painting has a lot of blues and greens in it, so I was altering the vocal sound that I was making to create a kind of sound that I would consider blue or green. Not that I necessarily see color when I see sound—some people who have perfect pitch actually see colors when they hear specific pitches—but what I was creating was a kind of color wall. What Klee had done was to paint very thickly onto the canvas, and then obviously he used a sort of sharp tool to etch into the thickness of the paint. I then used a different vocal technique to, as it were, “etch” into the vocal sound blocks that I had previously made. So in a work like that I’m using a very specific technique and building a sonic painting based on an actual visual painting. In other cases, I’m dealing more abstractly and I create sound paintings that I want people to experience in the way they come and look at a work of art. [In these works] what I’m doing as the composer is to record all of the material that I want and then, in the mix (in post-production), I go in and I will mix it, edit it, layer it, so that I’m drawing the listener’s ear to a particular aspect of the overall work. In other words, I’m directing where you stand and look at the painting—I’m directing what you are actually hearing, very specifically. With that what I’ve tried to do is to create…I won’t say stasis, but I create a work where everything exists from the very first moment to the last moment. Where there’s nothing like development. It is all of the sound material that I use in that particular work, then what I do is bring certain elements forward and bring other elements into the background. So I’m directing how you hear that work.

Label text for Agnes Martin, Untitled No. 7 (1977), from the exhibition Art in Our Time: 1950 to the Present, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, September 5, 1999 to September 2, 2001. Copyright 2000 Walker Art Center

Agnes Martin, Untitled No. 7 (1977). Photo: © 2000 Walker Art Center

On the Sound Painting, In Solitude This Fear Is Lived

I first saw [Agnes Martin‘s] work in around 1976. I was doing a concert in northern Italy for a gallerist, and he had some of her works. [They were] small, sometimes graphite on canvas work, and I was just completely overwhelmed with the simplicity, the focus, the kind of quiet energy that was in those works. Sometime later I picked up a catalogue that had a lot of those works in it— works from the sixties. A lot of them are very, very simple—just lines. I wouldn’t exactly call them grids, but just a lot of horizontal lines. Very, very thin, sometimes painted on canvas, sometimes graphite and paint. I wanted to do a work that was inspired by those paintings in particular, and it seemed to me that it would be a wonderful work to do with orchestra, because the orchestra is so vast in its potential but it also has the ability to make very fine, very intricate sounds—which is what I felt about her paintings and her work. She had the ability to do very large works, but she also had the ability to focus into this very delicate work. It took quite a while, but in 2010 I was commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra to write a work (they were doing a series of concerts of nontraditional orchestra works), and what I wanted to do for this piece was to place the musicians around the audience—and actually place some of the them in the audience—so that the audience was actually in the center of the orchestral sound. A lot of times visual artists will prepare the canvas by putting a wash of some sort over the canvas, so what I did was prepare a kind of wash of sound. [In addition to the musicians] I had audio speakers around the audience, and the wash consisted of breath sounds from the voice, instrumentalists breathing into their instruments, the pianist just rubbing his open palms over the strings inside the instrument, and the harpist doing the same thing. It was a very airy, non-tonal sound, which is what I feel the wash is. Kind of a way of neutralizing the canvas, so that when you start to put whatever you put on it—whether it’s color, big splashes of color, or simple lines—that it goes onto the canvas in a certain way. [After I prepared the] wash, I added one instrument at a time—and I started with the string instruments (the violins)—they just played a single note, and I separated them out so you didn’t have a section. You had them as individual soloists, and they were around the sides of the concert hall. So back and forth you would get a kind of call and response of a single pitch, being drawn or played very very delicately. Essentially what I was doing was not only placing the audience inside the orchestra, but I was also placing the audience as if they were beneath the canvas, and that canvas was actually being drawn on in space above them. The idea was [to imitate] doing individual strokes on the canvas, and the technique that I used with strings is something called flautando, which means that they just very, very lightly draw the bow over the strings to create the note—non-vibrato—so it imitates in a way, in sound, what I felt she was doing with the graphite (or the ink, or oil, whichever it was). It had the delicacy. Gradually I began to create a very very minimal melodic line that developed, but the initial gestures were as close as I could get to these just very simple gestures on the canvas.

On Sounddances and Cunningham

I also have done “sounddances,” and they were very much influenced by the work of Merce Cunningham. Because of my association with John Cage, I started working with the Cunningham company in the early ’70s [at the same time] I started working Cage. So I saw a lot of Cunningham dance over the years, and what struck me about Cunningham’s work is that as an audience member you make choices: you could look at individual dancers and the specific movements they were making, or you could take a wider view and look at everything that was going on and try to get a sense of the form. So again it’s this kind of large perspective as opposed to a detailed perspective. I was also fascinated with how Cunningham felt that whatever way the dancer was facing was forward. It didn’t matter whether they were facing upstage or downstage: wherever they were facing, they were performing their action. I thought of that as I mixed certain specific pieces. There’s a work of mine called Autumn Signal, and another work called quatre petites betes, and with each of them I thought of sound almost like characters—or dancers, or figures—and moved them around [as such]. In the case of both of these works they were done in quadraphonic sound (four speakers, around the audience), so I was able to move the sounds around. As one particular kind of sound is walking around the periphery, then different kinds of sounds were flying overhead. In the case of quatre petites betes I created a kind of clearing in a field with four little beasts, each of whom had their own language. They made their own particular statement, then countered each other and had this little battle in the middle of the field, and then flew off into the sonic atmosphere. So I don’t think traditionally as a composer. I really am very affected by different art forms, different mediums, and what I try to do is to try to use my interest and my fascination with different kinds of art—use my understanding of them, use my way of translating them—into a sound art.

On Medical Phenomenon and Inspiration

There are also pieces that I have done that are, let’s say, more traditional—that do start out with melodic ideas and then develop melodic ideas—but I’m influenced by a number of different things. I did a work called Awakenings for chamber ensemble that was inspired by the book by Oliver Sacks [of the same title], about the people who, during a flu epidemic, had fallen into a coma and were kept alive in a vegetative state. At some point their doctor used a particular medicine and it woke them up—unfortunately for only a limited period of time—and it was almost like a Rip Van Winkle thing, where they went to sleep in a particular time and woke up some 20 or 30 years later with the world having changed. They had to then experience the world that way, and then they gradually drifted back into the coma. In this work I’m using a phenomenon, a medical phenomenon, to inspire a musical work. And the way I translate it is by translating [their experience] into sound: starting from a kind of meditative or sleep state, to [moving to] a point of more discovery/energy/activity, and returning into this kind of solemn/calm/meditative state. It’s just a way of working… We could talk for hours about what inspires people: why one writes a certain kind of work. Wagner, he was enamored by Norse legends. Other composers work with texts or poetry, while opera composers deal with stories and how you tell that story both through voice and text and orchestration.

Joan La Barbara and John Cage playing chess before a rehearsal at his loft photo: © 1976 Michael McKenzie

Joan La Barbara and John Cage playing chess before a rehearsal at his loft. Photo: © 1976 Michael McKenzie

On Collaboration and Simultaneities

I’ve done a number of collaborations with other artists, and they’ve been very different one from the next. I’ve done a lot of work with choreographers. In most cases it’s been more real-time, back-and-forth exchange. But, I worked with a filmmaker one time, Aleksandar Kostic, and we applied the Cage/Cunningham principle, where I said, “OK, we’re going to work for 30 minutes, and the name of the piece is Persistence of Memory.” We did not work out the form; the only thing that I did stipulate, since he oftentimes does a lot of realistic storytelling, is I said, “I don’t want realism in this”—that I would prefer it much more abstract. And I did say what I was dealing with are extremes of weather. Extreme events. I didn’t tell him specifically what I was dealing with, but I was dealing with avalanches, cyclones, and car crashes—events that would happen and then ricochet. We performed it in Berlin in 2012, at the opening of the Berliner Festspiele. We actually put it together, in the Cage/Cunningham tradition, in the dress rehearsal. I had my ensemble with me—the seven musicians of Ne(x)tworks—and he had the film. The film was simply projected and we performed.

What was astonishing, which is something that happens very often in the Cage/Cunningham simultaneities, is that you get things happening that seem so absolutely right, seem absolutely to have to have been planned, but they weren’t. It’s a kind of magic, and I don’t know if it’s something that’s because of our perception that we deal with it that way, or if it’s this kind of magic [that happens] when two artistic collaborators are true to their own art form, their work flowing together in a remarkable way. Also, when I did an Events performance with the Cunningham company in ’76, there were a number of remarkable things that happened. Merce told me what the time was that we were dealing with, and I had planned several of my works accordingly. One of them was a work called Circular Song, which is for solo voice, inhaled and exhaled vocalizing. Just as a matter of coincidence, at the moment that I started Circular Song, Merce came out with a solo of his own. And it so remarkably mirrored the form and, for me, the shapes that he was making. It was one of those dances where he moves his foot forward and then part way back, and then another foot forward and part way back, and that mirrored for me the sound that I was making. I also had a work of mine called Thunder [performed with Cunningham’s company]which was for six tympani and voice with electronics—and the dancers told me afterwards that it was a really remarkable influence. The work that they were doing at that particular moment in time was Summerspace (which was originally done to very sparse and quiet music of Morton Feldman), and they said when they did it [with Feldman’s music] they were sort of fawns in a field or something, but when my work was played with the same dance it was more like a jungle, because my work was so much louder and more reactive.

On Going On

I’m working right now on developing an opera. It’s inspired by the work of Virginia Woolf and by Joseph Cornell—two very different artists, obviously one dealing with words one dealing with visuals. But Cornell also worked from his dreams and kept written journals, and Woolf said that she heard her work first as music and then translated it into text—so you know it’s just this is sort of an ongoing experience I have of working. And it will go on.

Joan La Barbara will perform at the Walker Art Center on February 23 and 24, 2017, and at MCA Chicago, February 25 and 26, 2017 as part of Music for Merce: A Two-Night Celebration.

Ray of Light : Penelope Freeh on CCN-Ballet de Lorraine

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

Ballet_de_Lorraine_SOUNDDANCE_2016-17_03_PP

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, dance artist Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on CCN-Ballet de Lorraine’s performances of Fabrications, Sounddance, and Devoted last night. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

The CCN-Ballet de Lorraine program opened at Northrop with Devoted, a dance by choreographic duo Cecilia Bengolea and Francois Chaignaud. Wearing variations on an emerald green leotard, the nine women on pointe also had geometric face paint, corsage-like bows on their shoulders, and/or a single stocking on one leg.

Devoted was fierce and challenging, to dance as well as to watch. It opened with the dancers doing distorted chaine turns, lower backs arched and arms unhelpfully behind them like low wings. Set to music by Philip Glass, the dance was as relentless as the music, and then some.

This work placed extreme ballet tropes (running and jumping into the splits, distorted chaine turns, balancing in sous-sus for forever) alongside pop cultural clichés like the moonwalk, twerking, and breakdance-esque partial spins on the back with legs splayed then folding. The combination of these aesthetic forms was a fun surprise and well handled, formal and casual. Repetitive passages unfolded, varied, developed. The movement was athletic, leggy and wildly difficult technically, mostly due to the pointe shoes, though it’s fair to say that some technical feats are in fact easier when fully up on pointe versus demi pointe, when the calves strain with responsibility.

There was a nice dynamic shift when a quartet occurred. Three women balanced like tree-statues while a soloist glided among them. Her entirely backwards vocabulary was mesmerizing, particularly in how it navigated pointe work.

The piece ended with the music finishing and the dancers continuing, the sounds of their shoes audible, a reminder of the hardness and the work.

Next up were two works by master dancemaker Merce Cunningham. Fabrications featured a painted upstage scrim by Dove Bradshaw that had drawings resembling both mechanical objects as well as chambers of the heart. The fifteen dancers, clad in gender specific street clothes, accomplished the Cunningham style cleanly and neutrally. They let the work speak for itself, exemplifying the patience it takes to enter in.

Arms were often held in a neutral open 5th low while the legs extended, balanced, tilted, rotated. The movement resembles ballet and is indeed incredibly technically challenging, but there is a grounded difference, something about the relaxed torso, the frank expression, those arms finished with hands, just hands, not flowers of articulated fingers.

Coupling images emerged in unsentimental partnering, lifting and supportive balances. At one point all the couples did the same slow counterbalanced phrase but in different phases so that we could see all of it at once. The use of plié was magnificent, and I wished I could’ve seen its full expression had it not been for those dresses.

There was a blur of a running trio, identical dynamically fast footwork in triplicate. This was my favorite tiny moment exemplifying Cunningham’s mastery. His layering of events is just enough. There is a lot going on simultaneously but somehow the eye doesn’t get tired, it gets an education. All that movement adds up to something, and one can’t help but be moved by the sheer force of dancers doing what they do, mining the grand physicality.

Sounddance closed the show, and I am so glad I changed seats in order to view this at closer range. The work had me at hello with its decadent curtain-collage décor in pale peach. Its heavy folds and sensuous curves both framed and participated in the dance.

The ten dancers entered singly, adding in to the space with aplomb as they burst through the center curtain of the set. It’s so satisfying to watch people repeatedly enter this way, unabashedly flashy yet in the context of a Cunningham work it was business as usual, neutral and not commented upon.

This dance too had lots of coupling, with nice movement diversity and panache. There were variations of lifting and turning, each couple occupying their own timing and spacing. Groupings of dancers regularly came together for en masse sculptural moments. These blended beautifully with the drapey set, placing the bodies in relief against it for brief, baroque stillnesses.

The music by David Tudor supported and propelled this dance ever-forward with its driving electronica. The accumulating effect was one of suspense as one by one each dancer exited as dramatically as they had entered, through the drapery, flapping it wildly. The piece began and ended with a male soloist, soft, fluid, precise and young seeming.

This seminal work premiered in 1975. I felt a thrill at the reminder that, from baroque to classical to post-modern and beyond, dance is a living art, wonderfully and heartbreakingly ephemeral. I spent the whole piece thinking it was aptly titled Sundance. I have since noted my mistake but will always think of it as a piece of light, a fractured, radiating hope.

CCN-Ballet de Lorraine’s performances of Fabrications, Sounddance, and Devoted was copresented by the Walker and the Northrop on February 16, 2017 as part of the exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time, on view in the Walker galleries until July 30.

Behind the Scenes: A Closer Look at Merce Cunningham’s Fabrications

MCDC Fabrications 1987
MCDC Fabrications 1987

Jed Downhill, Merce Cunningham, Patricia Lent, Helen Barrow, Victoria Finlayson, and Karen Radford in Fabrications. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives, Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection

In this week’s performance by CCN-Ballet de Lorraine, co-presented by the Walker Art Center and The Northrop, Merce Cunningham’s Fabrications returns to the same stage where it saw its world premiere 30 years ago. That 1987 performance culminated the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s (MCDC) three-week residency in Minneapolis and was the first of three Walker-commissioned dances from the company. Such commissions are just one component of the Walker’s longstanding relationship with Cunningham, which includes another eight residencies, a total of 17 separate engagements, and the acquisition of the 4,300-object Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection.

Since the company’s Legacy Tour in 2010–2011, Cunningham’s pieces are licensed exclusively by the Merce Cunningham Trust to a select group of world-renowned companies, including CCN-Ballet de Lorraine, whose dancers are taught the work by former Cunningham company members. Fabrications was staged for CCN-Ballet de Lorraine by Patricia Lent (pictured above), who performed in the work’s premiere at Northrop and now works for the Trust. In addition to Fabrications, CCN-Ballet de Lorraine will perform Sounddance (1976) from the MCDC repertoire as part of the Walker’s Merce Cunningham: Common Time exhibition.

“It is our hope, of course, that this residency will serve to be the pilot project for a continuing ‘second-home’-style relationship with the Walker Art Center and and the City of Minneapolis.”

—Art Becofsky, MCDC Executive Director, in a letter to the Walker’s then-curator of performing arts, Robert Stearns, April 9, 1986

Fabrications is not only an important work in the Walker’s relationship with Cunningham, but marks a unique period in the artist’s choreographic repertory. The piece has a notably stronger sense of narrative than much of his other work, which is a tone that is expressed through distinct choices in the design elements in addition to the arc of the actual choreography. The company’s long-time archivist David Vaughn has described Fabrications as somewhat “reminiscential”—Cunningham’s version of an “aging-artist-looks-back-on-his-past ballet.” The way the composition of the work moves between duets, trios, and group work hints ever so slightly towards a traditional ballet structure rather than the more chaotic and unpredictable puzzles of some of his other pieces, even though Cunningham used a process influenced by I Ching to formulate it. One reviewer for the New York Times went as far as to say that Fabrications has “a highly emotional resonance–surprisingly close to Antony Tudor’s ballets about young love, or more precisely, love recalled through the haze of memory.”

Draft of the program for the 1987 MCDC performance at Northrup, including Fabrications

Draft of the program for MCDC’s 1987 Northrop performance, which included Fabrications. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

These kinds of interpretations were not endorsed by Cunningham, who was firm about stating that he does not put stories in his choreography. In early notes from making the work, however, he separates the piece into scenes whose names imply acknowledgement of the dance’s emotive potential: sorrow, anger, fear, and odiousness. Similar narrative tones in another work that premiered that same year, Shards, led critics to wonder if this marked the beginning of a new era of “emotionalism” for Cunningham. In Merce Cunningham: Creative Elements, company archivist Vaughn reflects on an interview with Cunningham after the works premiered in New York:

“Did his dances have stories? Was there, as the reviewers were saying, a new emotionalism in his work? No, he replied. His dances had no stories, never had stories, and if people we seeing a new emotionalism in his work, ‘it’s just their eyes.’ Or maybe it was there, he said, but ‘I don’t put it in the piece. My choices are made in the movement.’ Movement, he went to say, could have a strong emotional resonance. ‘Movement is expressive. I’ve never denied that. I don’t think there’s such a thing as abstract dance.’ In his dances, though, the movement was never ‘expressive of a particular thing.’”

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performance at Northrop Auditorium, 2/21/1987

Merce Cunningham observes the dancers rehearse Fabrications at the Northrop Auditorium in 1987. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

The design elements of Fabrications were crucial in influencing the audience’s experience with the piece, following the company’s rich legacy of commissioning works from fellow contemporary artists. Cunningham’s artistic advisor for this piece was the artist Dove Bradshaw, who created the original backdrop that will be transported to Northrop from the Walker’s collections storage for CCN-Ballet de Lorraine’s upcoming performance (the company usually tours the piece with a replica). Bradshaw was appointed as an artistic advisor to the MCDC, along with William Anastasi, in 1984, overseeing the production of numerous pieces until 2012. Her experimental work with indeterminacy, chance structures, and natural forces were appealing to both Cunningham and Cage, who believed her almost scientific approach to working with time and chance resonated with what the company was doing. During her time with MCDC Bradshaw designed sets, costumes, and lighting and was responsible for all three of these elements in Fabrications. The color palette for the piece–incorporated in both costumes and décor–is a reduced-Constructivist theme of red, blue, black, and white, which contributes to the period-piece feel along with the collection of mixed thrifted and couture fabrics. The costumes were a particularly notable departure from the standard androgynous unitards: for this work, Bradshaw costumed the women in vintage WWII–style silk dresses and men in loose pants and shirts. The backdrop is an enlarged segment of one of Bradshaw’s collages in which she drew and painted on images from medical, architectural, and mathematical books. To adapt the image to the dance she added on top of her enlarged collage intertwining spirals and targets to emphasize the effect of the dancers’ twirling skirts. Bradshaw’s final touch to the set design was to impart a warm tropical feel with the lights, complementing the light flowing fabric and rich colors.

Dove Bradshaw 2011.248 drop for Fabrications. Cunningham Collection. Scrim is a reproduction of Dove Bradshaw's mixed media work "Without Title" (1986). FIRST PERFORMANCE: Northrup Auditorium, Minneapolis, MN February 20 ,1987. Walker Art Center Commission. COSTUMES: Dove Bradshaw. MUSIC: Emanuel Dimas de Melo Pimenta "Short Waves" Hi-res file stored on 2015 WAC PC 050 cd.

Dove Bradshaw, décor for Fabrications (1987) paint on scrim.  Photo: Gene Pittman, courtesy Walker Art Center Archives, Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection

Original music for Fabrications was composed by Emanuel Dimas de Melo Pimenta, who will be arranging the sound live onstage during this week’s Ballet de Lorraine’s performance. The piece, titled Short Waves (1985), further contributes to Bradshaw’s tropical ambiance with its recorded short-wave radio sounds captured in the Amazon forest. The snippets of human voices in his recordings are often attributed as key in influencing some audience’s narrative interpretations. Throughout the dance the sound moves in and out of radio, music, and static without large swings in tempo or volume. Vaughn characterized the feeling as “like something heard from a distance.” In addition to his sound compositions–which have been performed by other legendary avant-garde musicians associated with the company like John Cage, David Tudor, Takehisa Kosugi, and Christian Wolff–Pimenta is known for working on a diverse range of projects in visual arts, architecture, intermedia systems, photography, and urbanism. His work often interweaves art with science and technology and overlaps with Cage and Cunningham in his experiments with time and space.

There was minimal communication between Cunningham and the designers while they were creating, consistent with his Artaud-inspired belief in not explicitly coordinating the various elements before their completion. The separation wasn’t as extreme as in other work, however, resulting in a notably more cohesive theatrical feel. Before the season even began Bradshaw asked Cunningham if she could use dresses at some point, which he agreed could work with one of the pieces he had in mind–so despite the absence of any explicit discussion about a narrative, there was some common understanding about the tone of this specific dance.

Fabrications is a distinctive example of Cunningham’s ability to evoke interest and feeling with calculated abstraction. Even in this work that leans uncharacteristically towards a narrative, Cunningham leaves enough unsaid that we’re not limited by a specific plot. Rather the space given by his abstraction opens our eyes to the power of a complex and multidimensional experience. However, this taste of emotionalism was fleeting for Cunningham, and as Vaughn mused, his next season (including works like Eleven and Carousal) could have been titled, “There is No New Emotionalism in My Work.”

CCN-Ballet de Lorraine/Fabrications by Bernard Prudhomme

CCN-Ballet de Lorraine performing Fabrications. Photo: Bernard Prudhomme

CCN-Ballet de Lorraine performs Fabrications, along with Cunningham’s Sounddance and Devoted, by Cecilia Bengolea and François Chaignaud, on Thursday, February 16, 2017 at 7:30 pm at Northrop. Merce Cunningham: Common Time is on view in the Walker galleries through July 30, 2017.

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