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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 […]


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.

Walker Cunningham Events: Meet Participating Twin Cities Musicians

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 8: Mankwe Ndosi/Nick Gaudette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 31: Douglas Ewart/Laura Harada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 6: Toby Ramaswamy/Adam Zahller

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

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

Friday, April 7: Patrick Marschke/Tara Loeper

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

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

Saturday, April 8: Davu Seru/Jeremy Ylvisaker

Sunday, April 9: Cody McKinney/Leah Ottman

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

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

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

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

Stillness and Spectacle: An Interview with Maria Hassabi

“I am concerned with the separation between the spectacular and the everyday, between subject and object, between bystander and viewer—while addressing the ways in which dance and the spectacle of performance are presented in theatrical and exhibition contexts.” For Maria Hassabi’s Walker-commissioned performance STAGING (2017)—performed continuously during gallery hours, February 8–12 and 14–19, 2017—eight dancers will […]

Maria Hassabi STAGING (2017) Installation view, Walker Art Center Performer name is Kennis Hawkins Photo by Gene Pittman

Kennis Hawkins performing Maria Hassabi’s STAGING (2017); installation view, Walker Art Center. Photo: Gene Pittman

“I am concerned with the separation between the spectacular and the everyday, between subject and object, between bystander and viewer—while addressing the ways in which dance and the spectacle of performance are presented in theatrical and exhibition contexts.” For Maria Hassabi’s Walker-commissioned performance STAGING (2017)—performed continuously during gallery hours, February 8–12 and 14–19, 2017—eight dancers will inhabit various locations within the Walker Art Center, including the galleries of Merce Cunningham: Common Time, creating a sculptural movement installation. Occupying a space between live performance and visual art, her art explores the tension between human form and artistic object through stillness and sustained motion. Here, in an interview with curator Aram Moshayedi, first published in the Walker-designed catalogue Merce Cunningham: Common Time, Hassabi discusses her live-installation work, her approach to institutional spaces and the body, and the relationship between the spectacular and the intimate.

Aram Moshayedi: It makes sense to begin our conversation with PLASTIC (2015), a work that you first presented at the Hammer Museum for a month in February 2015. As an “installation” of choreographed movement for four performers, it’s a work that inhabits slowness. In some sense, it relies on its performers to move almost glacially or tectonically slow. This characteristic was something that I was first drawn to when I saw you perform Intermission (2013) at the 55th Venice Biennale as part of the Cyprus and Lithuania Pavilion. Can you talk about the relationship between these two works and any conceptual ties that bind them?

Maria Hassabi: Both PLASTIC and Intermission belong to the format I call “live-installation.” This is a term I coined in collaboration with my team, Hristoula Harakas and Paige Martin, when we were asked in Venice to describe the kind of work we were presenting. In principle, live-installations have an ongoing presence in an exhibition space, and their duration is determined by the opening hours of the institutions in which they are presented. These works lack any dramaturgical arc (usually necessary in theater), as there’s no definite beginning and ending.

My works in general are characterized by their slowness, even though slow per se has never been my concern. I’m interested in creating a space where the viewer is given plenty of time to see and be, a space where even the smallest details of motion can become visible. In order to do so, I pare down my material and slow its rhythm.

Maria Hassabi INTERMISSION (2013) Installation view, Cypriot and Lithuanian Pavilion, 55th International Venice Biennale, May 28 – June 4, 2013. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Robertas Narkus. Exhibition view includes artwork by Phanos Kyriacou, Eleven hosts, twenty-one guests, nine ghosts, mixed media, 2013.

Maria Hassabi, INTERMISSION (2013); installation view, Cypriot and Lithuanian Pavilion, 55th International Venice Biennale, May 28–June 4, 2013. Exhibition view includes artwork by Phanos Kyriacou: Eleven hosts, twenty-one guests, nine ghosts, mixed media, 2013. Photo: Robert Narkurs, courtesy the artist

For a long time now I have been preoccupied with stillness and the paradox of this idea in live performance. Working with stillness, and finding a way to support it, has turned my attention toward how to move, uninterrupted, from one place of hold to another (which can result in a “tectonic” appearance). I find the only way to succeed in this un-interruption is to approach movement very precisely, with full awareness of its image. The performers need to be aware of the representations their bodies are producing at any given moment. This takes time, both for the performer to inhabit this awareness and for the viewer to observe it.

This approach results in material that is detached from more typical rhythmical patterns. I try as much as possible to avoid any accentuated rhythms in my work, as that tends to create a hierarchy among movements, and can inadvertently turn the attention of the viewer toward a search for meaning.

Moshayedi: Given that the commitment of time and the expectations of viewership are different in works presented in a theater, such as PREMIERE, would you say your interest in “the image” still applies? I ask because, in some sense, the experience of static images also lacks any determined duration.

Hassabi: Yes, definitely, it applies. When my works are presented in a theater, I’m still dealing with images and their representation. I consider dance to be an abstract art form, yet it is one that is represented by human beings. The material of dance is people. This means that dance cannot avoid representation, especially with works like mine that tend to be so static. In terms of time and expectation, I think the biggest difference between a theater work like PREMIERE and a live-installation like PLASTIC is the nature of the tension between performer and audience. The closed space of a theater contains anticipation in a very particular way—the audience and performers are locked together for a shared experience that lasts for a specific duration. In an exhibition context, performers are present at all times, while the “visitors” come and go as they wish. This removes the nervous tension the performers usually carry within a theatrical presentation, which in my works doesn’t evaporate easily. Also, in my theatrical works I tend to exaggerate the idea of seeing, theater being the seeing place, by adding lights that are very bright and are treated as another sculptural entity in the space. They also produce a lot of heat that is felt throughout the duration of the work and intensifies the shared experience within the enclosed space. This is an element that I don’t involve in live-installations, even though at the Hammer iteration of PLASTIC an idea of this was materialized in the gallery space. So works like PLASTIC and Intermission tend to be less about the tension created and rather about the constant presence of the performers in the space.

PLASTIC (2015) Installation view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, February 21-March 20, 2016. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Thomas Poravas.

Maria Hassabi, PLASTIC (2015), installation view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 21–March 20, 2016. Photo: Thomas Poravas, courtesy the artist

Moshayedi: How does the idea of an image translate specifically to your conception of the choreography and the role of the performers you’re working with?

Hassabi: When I began creating PLASTIC, for example, there were specific images I had in mind as well as concepts—rounded torsos, a falling body, an overall plasticity of the body. There were also specific images of sculptures made by other artists that were very present in my mind while I was creating the movement. One in particular came from a conversation with you while we were looking at an exhibition of three solid stainless steel figurative sculptures by Charles Ray at the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York.

For some works, including both PLASTIC and Intermission, I first make the material myself—they are solos, after all—and later on I teach it to the dancers. This gives me the opportunity to understand the images I’m thinking of and to really explore their physicality at a point when I’m not yet ready to articulate ideas very clearly to my collaborators. So I work alone for a while, and once things become clearer the collaborators come into the process. Everything changes immensely once they translate the movement I’ve created. Each physical body is very different, with its own limitations, abilities, and temperaments, and this is something I find very exciting, as it brings information into the process that I could not develop on my own. As far as the people I choose to work with, I’m drawn to them instinctively, while being aware of their technical capacities. I also pay attention to gender, ethnicity, age, and body type, as those are critical aspects of the images created. That said, some of my collaborators are consistent, such as Hristoula Harakas, who has performed in my work since 2002.

Moshayedi: This attention to both the technical ability and “look” of your dancers is an interesting one. In her book on Yvonne Rainer, Carrie Lambert-Beatty makes a distinction between Merce Cunningham’s company and Judson Dance Theater on the grounds of pace—how the pedestrian pace of a choreography by, say, Steve Paxton, or the slow-motion movement between poses in another by Yvonne Rainer, might lack the surprise, glamour, and sparkle (in Paxton’s words) of a work by Cunningham.1 How relevant is this tension today? Are there trajectories of dance that are more loyal to one lineage and theory of movement than the other?

Hassabi: I suppose there are, but honestly I’m not so concerned with historicizing my work in any way. I make the work I make. Yes, it has its influences—in fact, all the names you mention have influenced what I make today: the pedestrianism of Judson, Cunningham’s approach to time-space.

Maria Hassabi: PLASTIC (2015) Installation view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY. February 21- March 20, 2016. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Thomas Poravas.

Maria Hassabi, PLASTIC (2015), installation view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 21–March 20, 2016. Photo: Thomas Poravas, courtesy the artist

And you know, I never really found Cunningham’s work to be “glammed-up.” Yes, he had bigger production values, fancier costumes, sets, and many people on stage—for sure a different economy in terms of production. But for me, his work still always had the feeling of investigation and experimentation of form, even in the later productions.

Moshayedi: Specifically with regard to Cunningham, to what degree are you tied to his legacy and what challenges does your participation in an exhibition of this sort at the Walker pose to the way you conceive of your work?

Hassabi: I love his work. I always have, even when I didn’t enjoy being part of the audience. His work lacks any sense of entertainment or concern with being entertaining. That’s one of the things I love about it. My most direct tie to his work, at least for my approach toward this exhibition, is in relation to John Cage and his interest in silence. I find it similar to my understanding of stillness in dance.

Moshayedi: The notion of silence, or rather muteness, might also be used to describe the reticence of images. Of course, there is a relationship here to Tacita Dean’s film Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS (in three movements) to John Cage’s composition 4’33” with Trevor Carlson, New York City, 28 April 2007 (six performances; six films) (2008). This film is interesting in terms of your practice because I think that up until recently your work has been characterized within an art context according to a sculptural logic, one inherently tied to objects and the body as sculpturally bound. In line with your thinking, Dean’s film of Cunningham considers the image of movement rather than fixity of form. Do you think your new work—particularly in relation to your evocation of Cage and a different idea of what constitutes noise or sound in relation to dance and movement—might start to elicit a new language around your practice?

Hassabi: I started making this style of work because I was interested in creating images within live performance. Dealing with how to support images while avoiding easy theatrical tricks—change of lights, change of costumes, etc.—became my objective. Stillness, and a quiet and detailed way of transferring from one place of stillness to the next, was what made sense to me. Yet the more I worked with stillness and precision, the more I realized that what was produced was very sculptural as opposed to being a framed image that is very much bound to its framing. The body in live performance is three-dimensional, and I feel very comfortable with this idea of sculpting the body in each passing instance.

Maria Hassabi PLASTIC (2015) Installation view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, February 21-March 20, 2016. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Thomas Poravas.

Maria Hassabi, PLASTIC (2015), installation view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 21–March 20, 2016. Photo: Thomas Poravas, courtesy the artist

I often talk about the paradox of stillness in my performances, because stillness can’t really exist—we are breathing, and even if it’s imperceptible, it’s still a movement. Certainly this is congruous to the paradox of silence as John Cage understood it. I see them as the same concept rendered in different materials. This is something I want to continue pursuing in the new work I’m making for Common Time. What I’m planning to create will be heavily sculpted. It will also be the first work of mine in which I am not performing, and I hope that this will allow me to sculpt every passing second even more, since I will be outside of it. And, yes—I hope I do discover something new.

Moshayedi: To date, your works have sought to inhabit different contexts according to specific registers of time—how performers move and occupy space according to the conditions on offer. How much is location a factor in determining the contour and pace of a given choreography?

Hassabi: The context of where my works are presented is crucial to how I conceptualize them.

For museum works, I’m interested in an ongoing presence as it relates directly to the format in which the other art is exhibited, and one that allows the visitors to continue their patterns of behavior in these spaces. It’s up to the individual visitor to decide what they prefer to view, in what order, and for how long. I find this arrangement much more democratic than asking someone to take a seat in a specific location and watch us for a particular duration. Instead, we (the dancers) are there and fully committed to our product beyond any unscripted interactions that may occur with the visitors.

The kind of attention that visitors pay to a live performance changes depending on whether they view it in a theater, a museum, or some other kind of public space. Even so, sometimes the approaches used in a work can be portable across those contexts. For example, on a few occasions I have presented a “theatrical” work—one with a specific duration, a clear beginning and end, a dramaturgical through line, and fixed seating for the audience—in the context of a museum. Pretty much the only thing that changed was the overall color and scale of the piece, due to the switch from black box to white cube. The attention required of the audience remains pretty much the same.

Moshayedi: With regard to PLASTIC, how much of the choreography is determined by the conditions of the space when it’s re-performed in different contexts? What were the constants and what were the variables in each of its iterations at the Hammer, the Stedelijk, and MoMA?

Maria Hassabi PLASTIC (2015) Installation view, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, January 31-March 1, 2015. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Thomas Poravas.

Maria Hassabi, PLASTIC (2015), installation view, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, January 31–March 1, 2015. Photo: Thomas Poravas, courtesy the artist

Hassabi: It was pretty constant, but there were variables due to changes in architecture and crowd flow. A simple example: the difference in the number of stairs at each of these institutions required me to add or cut material from its original presentation at the Hammer. MoMA is a much busier museum in terms of attendance, so for that iteration I also added more performers. At the Hammer, a very crucial element of PLASTIC was the gallery project—a single dancer, throughout the duration of the piece, who was situated within an installation of sequenced light and sound. Neither the Stedelijk nor MoMA had gallery spaces in the same way, so that aspect of the project was not able to be remounted. But for MoMA, I made a new part for the work, which occupied the atrium area; it was loosely based on the Hammer gallery project. So there were variations, but the overall identity of the work did not shift.

Moshayedi: As you moved PLASTIC from one institution to the next, how concerned were you with some idea of an audience and its ability to apprehend, experience, or even just receive the work?

Hassabi: There is a through line in all my work, despite the context of presentation. I am concerned with the separation between the spectacular and the everyday, between subject and object, between bystander and viewer—while addressing the ways in which dance and the spectacle of performance are presented in theatrical and exhibition contexts. What shifts are concerns of duration, whether or not there is a clear beginning and ending, and my approach to addressing the audience and our shared intimacy.

A good friend mentioned to me awhile back that in theater we tend to treat the audience as a single body, because you cannot consider each audience member individually. In a gallery or an open space, this doesn’t have to be the case. Without a framed beginning and end, the performer is not aware of when visitors enter a gallery, when they pass by, or how they will choose to behave. This changes the intimacy between performer and viewer, and even the work’s intensity and temporality. But in a gallery or museum setting, there’s a feeling at times that we are performing for just one person, or for one body, and I think this can be quite luxurious for both the viewer and the performer.


1 Carrie Lambert-Beatty, Being Watched: Yvonne Rainer and the 1960s (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 60.

Ocean: How a Cunningham/Cage Collaboration Was Reborn in a Minnesota Quarry

Charles Atlas’s film Ocean (2011)—which captured the 2008 performance of Merce Cunningham’s Ocean (1994) in a granite quarry in central Minnesota—screens February 9, 2017, as part of the opening celebration for the exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time. In conjunction with the screening, we share this essay by Walker Performing Arts curator Philip Bither from the Walker-designed exhibition […]

left to right: Robert Swinston, Daniel Squire, Brandon Collwes, Rashaun Mitchell, Daniel Madoff, and Silas Riener performing Ocean (1994), Rainbow Quarry, Waite Park, Minnesota, September 11, 2008

Robert Swinston, Daniel Squire, Brandon Collwes, Rashaun Mitchell, Daniel Madoff, and Silas Riener performing Ocean (1994), Rainbow Quarry, Waite Park, Minnesota, September 11, 2008

Charles Atlas’s film Ocean (2011)—which captured the 2008 performance of Merce Cunningham’s Ocean (1994) in a granite quarry in central Minnesota—screens February 9, 2017, as part of the opening celebration for the exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time. In conjunction with the screening, we share this essay by Walker Performing Arts curator Philip Bither from the Walker-designed exhibition catalogue

Ocean was conceived in 1990, the year John Cage was invited to make a special work with Merce Cunningham for a James Joyce/John Cage Festival in Zürich. Long inspired by Joyce’s writings, Cage accepted immediately.When he discussed the idea with Cunningham, they both recalled mythologist Joseph Campbell’s speculation that if Joyce had lived to write another novel, it would have been about the sea. With that in mind, Cage named the new work Ocean. He imagined an immersive, ninety-minute piece realized within a constellation of concentric rings. At the center would be a large, circular dance stage surrounded on all sides by audience members, who would in turn be encircled by a large orchestra. Since Joyce’s final two novels, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, had seventeen and eighteen parts respectively, Cage and Cunningham decided that Ocean should have nineteen sections. Cage thought the work deserved an orchestra of 150 musicians, each of whom would be playing her own individual score with a musical structure based more on time than on notes.2 He also wanted his longtime collaborator David Tudor, who was at that time music director for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC), to create an electronic soundscape that would be played live, simultaneously with the acoustic orchestral score.

In the end, no suitable venue in Zürich could be found to meet the work’s unique demands, and the idea was shelved.3 Then, in 1992, not long after Cage’s death, Laura Kuhn, director of the John Cage Trust, suggested to MCDC that the score for Ocean be completed posthumously so that the project could at last be realized. To do the work, Kuhn suggested Andrew Culver, a composer who had worked as Cage’s assistant since 1981. Culver and Cage had discussed Cage’s ideas for the music for Ocean; since Culver had stored notes from their conversations on his computer, he was confident that a score could be created that Cage would have approved. After commissioning funds were secured from several European festivals, Culver went to work, using the indeterminate theoretical concepts and early compositional ideas favored by Cage.4

Rigorous conception guided Culver’s score, which he titled Ocean 1–95 (1994). Culver explained its complex structure:

Ocean 1–95 consists of 32,067 events spread over 2,403 pages divided [among] 112 musicians. There is no score, no place where all that will sound simultaneously can be viewed simultaneously. There is no conductor. […] Played throughout are five simultaneous but non-synchronous sequences of compositions, the players jumping from place to place, layer to layer, as they become available, each of the five layers having nineteen compositions in sequence, hence the ninety-five compositions referred to in the title. Each time a player enters a new composition he or she will find it composed according to a different set of rules and parameters (1 of 20), and that it must be performed according to 1 of 7 sets of performance practices. Ocean 1–95 is my homage to John Cage.5

David Tudor took a different tack to create his electronic score. Soundings: Ocean Diary (1994) is an otherworldly soundscape made from the processed sounds of gurgling water, barking seals, arctic ice, whale calls, and other underwater effects, providing Ocean’s most literal connection to its title.

Rashaun Mitchell and Marcie Munnerlyn (foreground) and Koji Mizuta performing Ocean (1994), Rainbow Quarry, Waite Park, Minnesota, September 11, 2008

Rashaun Mitchell and Marcie Munnerlyn (foreground) and Koji Mizuta performing Ocean (1994), Rainbow Quarry, Waite Park, Minnesota, September 11, 2008

Cage’s plans for Ocean focused on the immersive sonic allure of having an audience surrounded by a complex construction of overlapping acoustic and electronic sound. Cunningham now took up the challenge of devising a movement score of equal complexity. In a sense, it was a given that he would do so; aside from his Events, which were often realized in museum galleries and public spaces, he produced very few large-scale choreographed pieces meant to be performed outside of standard theaters, and no substantial works in which the audience was seated on all sides. The 360-degree viewing environment required an entire reevaluation of his approach to choreographing movement. Years later, Cunningham recalled that when Cage had first suggested he create a dance in the round, he had agreed, even though he had had no idea what that would mean. “I prefer ‘yes’ to ‘no,’” he explained. “‘No’ cuts everything off; with ‘yes,’ you can go on.”6

In hindsight, it is clear that working in the round was less a departure for Cunningham than a dramatic expansion of two strategies he had long employed: rejection of the conventional, centrally oriented proscenium stage (for him, every foot of visible stage space held equal importance); and the embrace of Einstein’s belief that there are no fixed points in space. He called the process of creating Ocean “an extraordinary experience for my psyche. … It was absolutely, incredibly difficult, but it was fascinating.” To accustom his dancers to a creation that strove to be “constantly in the round, constantly moving,” Cunningham told them, “You have to put yourself on a merry-go-round that keeps turning all the time.”7

In the end, Cunningham constructed 128 different movement phrases. He began by making one for each of the I Ching’s 64 hexagrams, and then doubled the total so he would have enough movement variety to fill a ninety-minute work.8 He organized the phrases into solos, duets, trios, quartets, and dances for groups of any number from five to fifteen. He used tossing of dice and the I Ching to determine not only how the 128 phrases would be choreographically sequenced for each dancer but also which way each dancer faced, which entrances and exits they used, and when they used them. “For reasons of practical sanity,” Cunningham also split the stage into twelve different areas and used the I Ching again to decide where the dancers would be placed onstage.9

Notions of time and space were visibly reinforced by Cunningham’s decision to place large digital clocks on the four “corners” of the stage, which counted down the work second by second from ninety minutes to zero. These bright numbers not only provided cues to musicians and dancers but also confronted audiences with constant evidence of the unstoppable passage of time, even as the unfolding sound and movement of the piece did the opposite—it stretched, condensed, or distorted one’s temporal perception, reinforcing the Einsteinian ideas that were foundational to Cunningham’s thinking. The time-based structure also served to create dramatic tension—a sense of breathless kinetic and sonic energy that built as the work raced toward its full ensemble climax.

Rashaun Mitchell and Marcie Munnerlyn performing Ocean (1994), Rainbow Quarry, Waite Park, Minnesota, September 11, 2008

Rashaun Mitchell and Marcie Munnerlyn performing Ocean (1994), Rainbow Quarry, Waite Park, Minnesota, September 11, 2008

Ocean premiered at the Kunsten Festival des Arts in Brussels on May 18, 1994; two months later it was presented in Amsterdam as part of the Holland Festival.10 Both productions attracted a high level of international attention, but in later years the work was produced only infrequently; thus, it became a pilgrimage for Cunningham’s ardent fans and something of a holy grail for live arts producers, festival directors, and programmers tempted by its scale and inherent challenges. With each of the subsequent nine productions, Ocean took on greater rhythmic complexity as Cunningham found further solutions to the problems of choreographing in curved space and even discovered new ways to choreograph curvature within the human body. He later reflected that Oceans success gave him confidence to take on other complex challenges that required new choreographic or conceptual solutions, and often, as with Ocean, demanded tremendous perseverance to solve.11

During MCDC’s 2005 residency at the Benedicta Arts Center at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minnesota, MCDC executive director Trevor Carlson was given a tour of some local sites by Benedicta staff, including the nearby Rainbow Quarry. Upon seeing it, he thought it might be a remarkable place to produce Ocean, although at the time he couldn’t foresee the complexity of such an undertaking. But Cunningham was also intrigued, so the staff began exploring what it would take to produce the massive work at the site. It soon became clear that the difficulties would be extreme, perhaps insurmountable. If it were to happen, a lead producer would clearly be needed.

As the central beacon for Cunningham and Cage in the Midwest since 1963, the Walker Art Center was the logical choice to take on the challenge; as the Walker’s curator of performing arts, I jumped at the chance when Trevor and longtime Cunningham friend and patron Sage Cowles came to meet with me about it. For eighteen months, the Walker’s staff threw itself fully into the challenge, raising a half million dollars, mobilizing hundreds of volunteers, and overseeing, with the quarry managers and workers, the building of new roads and parking lots around the site and the hiring of dozens of transport buses to carry Twin Cities audiences the 108 miles from the Walker to the quarry. The partnership with Rainbow Quarry’s corporate owner, Martin Marietta, local managers, and hourly workers was an unexpected joy. Although at first skeptical, they ultimately embraced the utopian undertaking with gusto. On September 10, 2008, quarry staff and their families nearly filled the 1,200 seats for the final dress rehearsal.

Three performances of Ocean took place September 11 through 13, 2008. All shows sold out, and nearly five thousand audience members got to experience the enigmatic, cool beauty of Cunningham and Cage’s conception. The choreography alternated between statuesque stillness and flowing circularity and ranged from solos and duets to sections featur ing the full ensemble of thirteen dancers.12 The combination of the orchestral and electronic music, in tandem with the constantly evolving gestural language of the dancers, produced a remarkable energy, even though only a fraction of the kinetic and sonic information being delivered could actually be absorbed by any one viewer. Cunningham and his lighting designer, Andrew Coop, devised a dramatic finish: during its final eight minutes, the surrounding quarry cliffs, which had only been dark silhouettes though most of the piece, were fully and spectacularly lit up while the stage was flooded with white light—a dazzling effect suggestive of an unnaturally long lightning strike. At the exact moment the last dancer departed, the lights were extinguished and the audience, plunged into darkness, erupted in applause.

There was unplanned drama, too. Unseasonably cold and wet weather dogged every rehearsal, requiring us to install heaters in the dressing room tents and around and under the stage. Thousands of gallons of rainwater, which threatened the stage and seating area, had to be removed by industrial-size pumps. The rain stopped long enough to fully realize the first two public performances, but on September 13, during the final performance, a light drizzle turned into a downpour and the various parts of Ocean slowly disintegrated. String players scrambled to pack up their valuable instruments while others musicians forged on; dancers continued to perform even as the audience fled for shelter in waiting buses; and the show was ultimately cut short by twenty minutes. In hindsight, it seems fitting that nature and chance played such large roles in the final performance ever of this monumental piece.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing Ocean (1994), Rainbow Quarry, Waite Park, Minnesota, September 11, 2008

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing Ocean (1994), Rainbow Quarry, Waite Park, Minnesota, September 11, 2008

As with all site-based producing, the process was part of the creative act for everyone involved. Cunningham had wanted more than just a successful production in a stunning natural setting; he also hoped that this Ocean would inspire people creatively and generate a sense of discovery and ownership, particularly within the communities that surround the quarry. In the months leading up to the performance, talks, presentations, and information sessions with a wide range of central Minnesota civic and community groups were offered by the staffs of the collaborating copresenters: the Walker, Northrup Dance at the University of Minnesota, and Benedicta Arts Center. In addition, MCDC company members offered classes and talks during their final two-week residency. These activities, combined with the involvement of 150 classical musicians drawn mostly from that area of the state, led to a work that would be widely embraced throughout the region. In the end, Ocean was the largest, most complex single performing arts project in the history of the Walker Art Center. It may never be surpassed.

Alone for a moment backstage following the last performance, the normally reserved Cunningham was visibly moved as he thanked me, telling me that the production was one of the artistic highlights of his life. Although he always preferred to look ahead rather than back, I sensed that he was allowing himself a moment of reflection on his long creative and personal life with Cage. Certainly for me, and I think for the thousands who attended, this mounting of Ocean in an unforgiving but awe-inducing setting felt like a moment of completion in the life of one of the most fearless, inspired artists of our times.


1Cage was particularly taken with Joyce’s final literary work, Finnegans Wake, which inspired his 1979 composition Roaratorio and the 1983 dance-music collaboration of the same name with Cunningham.

2Because of cost and complexity, the original producers balked at the requirement that the orchestra include 150 musicians, so Cunningham and Culver compromised at 112. This was the number used for all subsequent Ocean productions until 2008, when the Minnesota production realized Cage’s original concept of 150 for the first time.

3 Instead, Cage and Cunningham created the repertory work Beach Birds for the Zürich Festival. David Vaughan, Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, ed. Melissa Harris (New York: Aperture, 1997), 258.

4John Rockwell, “Reporter’s Notebook: A Valedictory Dance from Cage and Cunningham,” New York Times, July 4, 1994.

5Andrew Culver quoted in “News,”

6Cunningham, interview by Sage Cowles, September 7, 2008, Walker Art Center; transcript, Walker Art Center History: Cunningham Collection, Walker Art Center Archives, Minneapolis.

7Quotes in this paragraph are taken from Cowles and Culver (see notes 5 and 6).

8Known in English as The Book of Changes, the I Ching is an ancient divination text and the oldest, most influential of the Chinese classic texts. Cage and Cunningham used it as a system for chance operations, because they felt it would offer fresh approaches to structuring their works.

9Cunningham, interview by Sage Cowles, September 7, 2008.

10Following the presentations in Brussels and Amsterdam, productions were mounted between 1997 and 2006 in Venice, Belfast, Berkeley, London, São Paulo, Miami, New York City, Montpellier, France, and Niigata, Japan.

11Cunningham, interview by Sage Cowles, September 7, 2008.

12According to former company director Trevor Carlson, Ocean was always intended as a work for fourteen dancers, although there was a short time when there were fifteen dancers in the company because two were needed to dance one role due to the departure of a major company member. However, the work was performed in Minnesota with only thirteen dancers because company member Andrea Weber sustained an injury a few days before opening. Carlson, telephone conversation with the author, May 31, 2016.

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

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

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

Photo: Martin Argyroglo

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

Conceived by Philippe Quesne, a theater director by way of set designer, the premise for La Mélancolie des Dragons is very compelling – seven metalheads are stranded in the forest and build an amusement park for a single visitor and car mechanic: Isabelle. So absurd you have to see it.

Details, details, details. From the meticulous construction of the remote and snow covered forest, to the didactic explanation of each attraction – what it is made of, how it functions, how visitors engage with it – the power of the performance comes from a thorough attention to detail. The result is more like a diorama than a play.

La Mélancolie des Dragons confounded expectations. When a hiccup in the plan could be disastrous, it instead provides an opportunity for generosity. The hard metalheads have a gentle disposition and are eager to share the many features of their amusement park. These diverse, understated interventions are meant to attune the visitors to their own senses and the natural environment. A kind of anti-amusement park that seeks to inspire reflection over thrills.

The fantastical situation is made believable by startling realism in design and performance. It allows you to accept and appreciate things for what they are.


This show was originally performed in 2008, (sigh) such a different time. Signifiers of 1980s metal culture were heavily featured, along with some classical music. Their wigs and denim/leather outfits recreated stereotypical metal, hair-band outfits. 0/5


Each attraction was thoroughly explained by the group. They described how the technology worked and the intended effect before demonstrating it. Self-awareness was used as a tool to invite the audience into the action. At times, the cadence of the dialogue and thoroughness of explanations were tedious. Overall, each element was offered both to Isabelle and the audience in bite-sized pieces. 1/5


The performers strive to be appear natural, crossing the stage as they would cross a street. The movement is not stylized or overly structured. However, the characters do perform choreographies of their own, developed as attractions for the park. 1/5


Ranging from 80s classics to cinematic scoring, sonic environment effectively created an overall feeling of magic, especially toward the end, when the attractions were presented simultaneously to create huge, operatic images. 4/5


The show opens with a bummy highlight: four dudes drinking Hamm’s and Grain Belt, eating Lay’s, in a crowded Volkswagen Rabbit. They live a transient lifestyle, traveling the world with their melancholy installations. The world that Quesne created was quite detailed– using both cheap objects and current technology. La Mélancolie des Dragons toes the buminess line. 5/5


This group seems like they know how to throw a party and have the true party spirit in their hearts. Potato chips are almost pizza. The characters are perfectly pizza. They are generous with what they have, earnest, and good natured. 5/5

TL;DR Nice metalheads are weird artists. Set design was on point.

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


For those of you who have followed these reviews, here’s some insight into our categories! They were originally devised when Tom Lloyd challenged DaNCEBUMS to a dance competition. It was legendary, we hope you were there.

These days, the categories moonlight as a lens to consider performance. They help us to focus conversation and pit it against certain elements that are important to our personal dance-making preferences. In a way, the rubric doesn’t so much evaluate the performance, but uses the experience to evaluate the categories themselves.

ReLEVANCE: This category evaluates how well a performance engages with current events, performance practices, and/or our personal journeys. Is it topical? Did it change our lives? Will we talk about it later?

HaRDNESS: Hardness is challenge. This could be physical or performative. This could consider how challenging a performance is for an audience member. Is it easy to follow or digest?

DaNCINESS: DaNCINESS is a disputed category, encompassing the choreography of bodies, space, materials, sounds, and light. The question of “what is dance and why is it important?” can swallow you whole…

MuSICALITY: We love dancing to music. We use it a lot in our work. In this category we ask two questions: 1) What is the role of music and sound in the piece? 2) How do the performers relate to and embody the music. We also look for an overall groove.

BuMINESS: We come from a DIY community and we value an air of casualness in our work. We are equal parts serious and lazy. Tattered edges and pop elements are endearing; but we also appreciate polish when it’s called for. This category is about aesthetic and attitude.

PiZZA: Pizza stands for universal enjoyment – as a theme and an experience. In the context of performance it may be hard to discern, but pizza is something deeply known. Would we eat this for dinner? If the answer is yes, then it’s definitely pizza.

TL;DR Too long; didn’t read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the Walker commissioned Okwui Okpokwasili to create her new newest work, Poor People’s TV Room—a work deeply rooted in her thinking around race, gender, and her Nigerian-American identity—it wasn’t known that one of her January 19–21 performances would fall on the day of President-elect Trump’s inauguration. In light of this development, we invited Okpokwasili to share her reflection on […]

Okwui Okpokwasili. Photo: Peter Born

Okwui Okpokwasili. Photo: Peter Born

When the Walker commissioned Okwui Okpokwasili to create her new newest work, Poor People’s TV Room—a work deeply rooted in her thinking around race, gender, and her Nigerian-American identity—it wasn’t known that one of her January 19–21 performances would fall on the day of President-elect Trump’s inauguration. In light of this development, we invited Okpokwasili to share her reflection on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. 

For me, this is a moment in our nation’s history where hope threatens to be replaced by fear, curiosity replaced by ignorance, and where the value of an individual is not measured by their commitment to fighting for justice and the well-being of those who are suffering, but measured by their ability to extract profit from that suffering, driven by a self-interest that is staggering, egregious, and amazing. 

So I wake up every day with a new break in my heart, a new scar. And the only comfort that I have right now is that there is a vast community of people I know and do not know, who are also waking up every day with some new splintering. And many of them work every day to keep from normalizing racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, islamophobia, xenophobia, threats to the fourth estate, a raging and unfettered capitalism, climate-change deniers and an emerging kakistocracy. It is with them that I join the ragged shards of my heart to build a bigger and more resilient heart that continues the work of building greater empathy, of seeing in each other the promise of our future, and inspiring in each other the will to work to build that future. 

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

“Maybe that’s what I’m also trying to generate or facilitate: the potential for a body to be possessed. What have we transferred through skin? Through genetics? What of pain? What of confusion? The body has these tunnels, these secrets, these pathways that can be opened up.” In  a multi-disciplinary performance work created by dancer, choreographer, […]

Okwui Okpokwasili in Photo: Mena Burnette of xmbphotography

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

“Maybe that’s what I’m also trying to generate or facilitate: the potential for a body to be possessed. What have we transferred through skin? Through genetics? What of pain? What of confusion? The body has these tunnels, these secrets, these pathways that can be opened up.”

In  a multi-disciplinary performance work created by dancer, choreographer, and writer Okwui Okpokwasili, this is one of the multiple ways that the body and performance are discussed. The work subtly weaves together recent and historic women’s resistance movements in Nigeria with gestures of memory. Working in collaboration with director Peter Born, Okpokwasili began the process of creating Poor People’s TV Room in 2014 amid the heightened visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement, the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria by Boko Haram terrorists. Commissioned by the Walker, the Minneapolis debut of Poor People’s TV Room will be presented as part of Out There 2017. Performed by an all-female cast—Okpokwasili, Thuli Dumakude, Katrina Reid, and Nehemoyia Young—Poor People’s TV Room explores the intersection between installation, theater, and dance in an effort to highlight collective action.

The following is an excerpt from a wide-ranging conversation between the Walker’s Mellon Interdisciplinary Fellow Danielle Jackson and Okwui Okpokwasili. Using Poor People’s TV Room as a point of departure, the interview traces the choreographer’s expansive research process including the history of Nigerian protest practices and its relationship to the performance, conditions of the body, and recent works presented by Okpokwasili.

Danielle A. Jackson: I thought we might begin with you speaking more generally about how you begin your projects conceptually?

Okwui Okpokwasili: Overall, my concerns are with visibility and the nature of performance and the body and how bodies are read—how bodies can undermine or reaffirm those readings. Brown and black bodies on stage surface a kinetic architecture weighted with pain, pathologies, resilience, joy. I’m interested in the dynamics of legibility and trying to confound easy readings. So even though I may begin projects with a kernel inquiry, or question, and, even though the DNA or genetic material of that initial seed remains, ultimately the moment of encounter between performers and audience, during performance, takes precedence. My love is with brown bodies—maybe it goes back to childhood—this sense of always looking for some reflection in the larger world of an experience that might resonate with mine, and a body behaving in ways that reaffirm what I believe about bodies and at the same time challenge that belief.

For Poor People’s TV Room, I was reacting to the kidnapping of 276 girls in northern Nigeria (the Chibok schoolgirls) by Boko Haram, sparking the #bringbackourgirls movement. I applauded the attention given to these Nigerian schoolgirls who disappeared, but I also felt that we were losing a sense of who the initiating voices of this outcry were: the mothers, the women in Nigeria. That fact belies what people’s assumptions tend to be about African women. They aren’t framed within the lens of agency and self-advocacy. They’re generally framed as victims that need to be saved.

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

Okwui Okpokwasili. Photo: Mena Burnette of xmbphotography

I’m Nigerian-American, and I’ve always been interested in what was visible or not visible about ideas of West African women. And that sprung into this question of whether there’s a legacy of collective action? I looked into evidence and forms of embodied protest practices that, in a sense, the women in northern Nigeria were also an extension of. There was the Women’s War in 1929, in Nigeria, where thousands of women came together to protest what they considered the violent and disruptive actions of a colonial government on their being, on their culture. As I looked into some of these forms, I saw that there were protests where women stripped themselves naked. In precolonial culture, it was fine for young girls to be bare on top, but after marriage you’d cover yourself, especially after you’ve had children. So actually older women were stripping themselves bare in order to shame the person watching them. There was also something called “sitting on a man’s head,” where the women would go to a compound in villages in Eastern Nigeria. It was considered a private space, but the women would go into the compounds of elders or people who had certain amounts of power. They would stay in their compounds, sing songs denigrating them, making fun of them, complaining to them, telling these officials “step up” or asking, “Why are you insulting us?” It was a deeply embodied action. As I was looking into all of this, Ferguson happened, the Black Lives Matter movement was taking off—again, another movement that, even in its dispersal, that’s been helmed by African-American women. I felt this resonance with these bodies, in motion, together. The events in Nigeria, around the Women’s War in 1929, were sometimes referred to in Igbo language as the “Grand egwu.” “Egwu” means “dance,” so this collective action is linguistically linked to the language of dance, or performance.

The first thing that I did was build a collective song with the help of my partner, my collaborator, Peter Born. It was a 50-minute song that I sang in a solo, and we constructed an environment that was encased in a box that was covered in plastic, and there was a projection on the floor, a series of trailers from Nollywood movies, creating a shifting source light. I wanted to see if I could, within my own body, resonate with multiple voices. So I built this song that was meant to evoke a collective cry or a shout-out.

Jackson: Women spearheaded these resistance movements, and the performers in Poor People’s TV Room are all women.

Okpokwasili: Yes, that’s right. It was a female thing!

Jackson: Is that an outcrop of your research? There’s also an intergenerational component to this piece.

Okpokwasili: We span at least three decades. Late 20s, early 30s, mid 40s, and 60s. I wanted to have some sort of generational spectrum. I feel there are certain things that are carried and marked on the body that, even if you’re not speaking to those things directly, they surface, and working with these women is also about finding these compelling singular individuals. Our resident elder [Thuli Dumakude] has a full performance life. She’s won an Olivier Award and been on Broadway. She’s created her own singing groups and bands. She was a part of the company that organized the entertainment for Nelson Mandela’s inauguration. She left South Africa and returned to vote in the country’s first democratic election in 1994. The younger women have multidisciplinary practices and bring powerful and singular vocabularies that come from their individual work as movement makers.

Maybe you’re right in saying that having this group of women is also another outcrop of this initial generating seed that began with the research I was doing into the Women’s War. A lot of my discursive thinking and expansiveness is activated by my ongoing collaboration with Peter Born. I think as a director, as a kind of co-facilitator of the work, he and I can engage in conversations around what the form and structure of these investigations should take and try to find ways to explore together the kind of vocabulary that we need. He has a very expansive way of considering what can happen in the theater.

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

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

Jackson: I was present for when i return who will receive me, performed in June 2016 as part of the River To River Festival at Fort Jay Magazine on Governor’s Island. It was a performative installation on a two-hour durational loop. You presented fragments from Poor People’s TV Room there. How will the Walker iteration differ?

Okpokwasili: The Walker iteration is actually going to be in the theater proper. All of the women in Poor People’s TV Room were also in when i return who will receive me. Peter and I have been writing a narrative to facilitate a feeling, tone, and mood, so in that sense it’s similar because the River To River performance was about generating a kind of energetic field in the room. It will be different in that it has a specific beginning, middle, and end, and it’s in a space that you come into and have a very clear and stable physical or architectural position to.

Jackson: You reference the Women’s War of 1929 and the #bringbackourgirls movement, but often with your performances the research isn’t immediately recognizable to an audience.

Okpokwasili: I don’t know that I want it to be.

Jackson: You don’t want to make documentary work, but you don’t want these histories to be forgotten either.

Okpokwasili: Right. The work has its own engine and its own demand. I want to have all of my attention focused on addressing the demand of the work rather than any polemical or didactic concerns that might have started me on my journey. I’m really concerned about how bodies can resonate in a space and leave a deep imprint. I think if the concerns are only with getting a particular story out, or at least getting a story out only in the text, then I lose something about what the impact would be. I am working in a medium where dance is a part of my vocabulary, and I feel a very unique and amazing thing that [dance] can facilitate is some kind of body transference, where you can feel like you are in another person’s body.

Bodies can get really weird and strange and confusing but still compelling. We don’t necessarily know why a body is moving the way it’s moving, or where it’s going, or how it began, or why it’s ending the way it is, but we can see that a moving body can create a kind of vortex, and we can be spun in, even in our confusion. There’s something about that that’s a kind of critical space in performance. I’m always concerned also with memory and with the idea that some things may surface on a cellular level, or in the skin. There’s something about the River To River/Fort Jay piece that started to feel like a shrine. We come into this ritual and we may not know or understand why it’s using this particular language. You go into church and you don’t always understand the liturgy, you don’t understand exactly why or what everything means, but there’s another understanding, of occupying sacred space, of the need to listen intently. It is a space where all strangers are family in a moment and come together and commune over non-literal language designed to open up a channel to a spiritual awakening. And of course, there’s music, a critical centripetal force.

Jackson: Energetic forces are always present in your work. The first piece I saw you perform was Bronx Gothic at New York Live Arts. In Bronx Gothic you are already on stage when the audience enters. You stand in a corner shaking to the point of exhaustion and your shadow is projected onto the wall. I paid close attention to your movements. Most of the audience didn’t seem aware that the performance had begun. Fifteen minutes later, everyone tuned in. I left Bronx Gothic feeling a change in my body—a feeling that I haven’t been able to fully articulate in words. Affect was so present.

Okpokwasili: That’s what I want. I want some change! Even if it’s not like, “Oh, I went to this performance and now I’m different for the rest of my life.” I want some granular shift that is so deep inside that I will never be able to know what that shit was or locate where it happened, but I felt that shit!

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

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

Jackson: Poor People’s TV Room, where did the title come from?

Okpokwasili: It comes from a novel, Foreign Gods, Inc. by Okey Ndibe, that I was reading. There was a wealthy and corrupt government official in a village in Nigeria, who, when pressed about what he was doing for poor people in the village with his ill-gotten gains, talked about how he provided them with a TV room. He called it the poor people’s TV room. It was an air-conditioned room on the outer edges of his home where people would come in and sit and watch reruns of basketball highlight videos from the late ’80s. That made me think of questions I had when I went back to Nigeria and visited my parent’s home village and saw the disparity in wealth and the lack of labor protections and labor laws. There’s also a nod to something that I think is amazing—Nollywood, which is the second largest movie industry in the world. Africans, particularly Nigerians, are starting to take narratives into their own hands; instead of pirating western popular movies, they’re like, “Well, we can do this!” Considering that electricity can be hard to come by in Nigeria, or at least inconsistent, to think that they’re generating millions of movies a year and finding ways to work around a spotty electrical infrastructure—how they’re making that happen is pure fucking genius! So, there’s also a bit of that.

Jackson: In a recent interview with Jenn Joy, you had an interesting moment where you discuss the idea of possession, sustaining a tie between the living and the dead, and how the body functions within that.

Okpokwasili: Maybe that’s what I’m also trying to facilitate: the potential for a body to be possessed. What have we transferred through skin? Through genetics? What of pain? What of confusion? The body has these tunnels, these secrets, these pathways that can be opened up. Or maybe I just want to be possessed, as an audience member? Again, that’s maybe connected to the vortex. What’s flashing through my head is Maya Deren and her film Divine Horseman: the Living Gods of Haiti, which brings up questions. Who owns the body? Who can claim the body? What does it mean to have a god inhabit your body?

Of course there is a desire as a performer, as a choreographer, as a maker to find an engine to facilitate instances of possession and dispossession. It’s weird: I want to claim and hold on to something and then I want to let it go. I want to be in a state of dynamic coming together and letting go, coming together, and falling apart.

Possession is a big thing!

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

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