Blogs The Green Room

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.


Notes

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.

Notes

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,” mercecunningham.org.

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.

Relevance

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

Hardness

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

Danciness

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

Musicality

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

Buminess

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

Pizza

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TL;DR Too long; didn’t read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okwui Okpokwasili. Photo: Peter Born

Okwui Okpokwasili. Photo: Peter Born

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

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

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

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

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

Okwui Okpokwasili in Photo: Mena Burnette of xmbphotography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okwui Okpokwasili. Photo: Mena Burnette of xmbphotography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Possession is a big thing!

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

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

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

OT_Driscoll_Faye_PLAY_2016-17_13_PP

Photo: Maria Baranova

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

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

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

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

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

Hardness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ways of Playing with Faye Driscoll

This week, choreographer/director Faye Driscoll will return to the Walker as a part of the 2017 Out There festival of theater alternatives. Driscoll’s work is well-suited to Out There: often characterized as daring, original, and imaginative, she’s been called a “post-millenium, postmodern wild-woman.” Her newest work, Play, is the second in a trilogy called Thank You For Coming that proposes […]

ot_driscoll_faye_play_2016-17_22_pp

Thank You for Coming: Play. Photo: Maria Baranova

This week, choreographer/director Faye Driscoll will return to the Walker as a part of the 2017 Out There festival of theater alternatives. Driscoll’s work is well-suited to Out There: often characterized as daring, original, and imaginative, she’s been called a “post-millenium, postmodern wild-woman.” Her newest work, Play, is the second in a trilogy called Thank You For Coming that proposes performance as a shared political act, where performer and audience co-create reality. The first piece of the series, Attendancecaptivated Walker audiences in February of 2016; this second installment is co-commissioned by the Walker.

 Driscoll describes Play as an investigation into the consumption and fabrication of personal stories that make our lives coherent, yet broader definitions of play permeate her work well beyond this particular piece. The word “play” itself is dynamic and multifaceted, offering a relevant frame/perspective through which to view Driscoll’s work.

fd_youreme

You’re Me. Photo: Sally Cohn

To amuse oneself by engaging in imaginative pretense

Multiple elements evoke the “playful” feeling people describe in Driscoll’s performances, and humor is a prominent theme. In a conversation last year with the Walker’s Director and Senior Curator of Performing Arts Philip Bither, Driscoll said that she views a visceral response such as laughter as a cue that there is something interesting happening within the material. Achieving that kind of impulsive physical response is what interests her, rather than intentionally striving to make work that is humorous. Within this approach, audiences may find themselves laughing in reaction to any number of things, including those that might just be strange, uncomfortable, or unnerving. In an interview with Feministing she describes playing with a darker form of humor in her work:

“It rides the line of the deep pain from being alive, being human, and trying to connect to other people. For me it’s often an edge-that feeling of laughing and getting opened up and getting stabbed in the heart at the same time. I try to ride that line a lot.”

Driscoll’s creative process is rich in the search for these potent physical and emotional responses. With the help of imaginative games and improvisational scores, her performers construct distinct physical and emotional states that give them their dynamic presence during performances. One such game, which she developed along with her collaborator Jesse Zaritt for the piece You’re Me, involved the two performers standing across from each other attempting the impossible task of becoming the other person. Through this somewhat absurd and insistent process a third presence emerged: a warped middle-ground between Driscoll and Zaritt whom they named “Chad,” with the practice cleverly referred to as “chadding.”

Some of her games are performed live in the work, as with the puppeteering in her piece 837 Venice Boulevard. In a section of the piece, performers manipulated each other from behind as if one were a puppet, illustrating whatever the puppeteer wanted to say, or what the puppet might want to say but can’t — hinting at the subtle and not-so-subtle role manipulation can play in our interpersonal relationships. Both puppeteering and “chadding” reflect her complex humor in how they can be simultaneously amusing and raw. Through the rigor of these experiments both on and off the stage, Driscoll’s work shares an imaginative pretense that is nevertheless anchored in substantive inquiry.  

Thank You for Coming: Attendance. Photo: Maria Baranova

To be cooperative

Addressing the vulnerability, authenticity, and overall complexity of human experience in performance is a recurring interest for Driscoll. Within her work audiences are confronted with questions about how our individual human experiences overlap with others, reflecting the complex nature of our relationships. The scenes that are played out on stage are metaphors for our broader social experience, using live performance as a tool for digging deeper into various qualities of human interaction. Her research begins with the unique histories of her performers, drawing on them with a range of writing exercises and improvisational scores.  Through these kinds of exercises she fosters an ongoing interest in how the chemistry between people can be made palpable on stage. For 837 Venice Boulevard  she explains how the text comes from a very personal place for each person, and how the improvisations, games, and writing are her way to explicitly develop it with them.

Driscoll’s work also seeks to incorporate the audience in these relational dialogues. She strives to build a shared world/culture/alchemy between choreographer, performer, and audience. Anyone who experienced Thank You For Coming: Attendance can likely testify to this effort, wherein the format and presentation of the piece actively asked the audience to engage rather than simply watch. Her next piece in the Thank You For Coming series continues this effort. 

Play picks up the flag thrown by Attendance and deepens, complicates, and continues that our personalities not only change but activate in response to other people.” -Columbus Underground

Thank You for Coming: Play. Photo: Maria Baranova

To fiddle or tamper with

There is undoubtably a certain “capriciousness” in Driscoll’s work. A profile in the New York Times describes it as “a sense that any preconceived contract between audience and performers could be rewritten at any moment, in any way.” Such is the case with Thank You For Coming: Play, where she doesn’t stop with the initial interest in how narrative and stories function, but takes a step further to wonder how we dislodge them—seeking the tension in exploring unknown territory for both her and the audience. This same tension is often achieved through a kind of ambiguity, either in the narrative or the presentation. Through uncertainty and unexpected turns within the work, she opens up the opportunity for a multiplicity of responses. As an audience member, Driscoll hopes you won’t just sit back and be entertained—throughout the work you’ll notice your own way of perceiving and the assumptions that come along with it.

“I often use text to seduce the viewer so they might think, ‘I know what is happening and who those people are,’” she wrote in a feature for Dance Magazine about using text in dance. “Then I flip things on their head so that the viewer is left in the uncomfortable attempt to relocate him or herself.”

It’s about playing with the way we enter and act in the theater, with a social construct we’re familiar with. Sometimes her pieces are unpredictable in content, where at times the movement itself displays momentum thwarted, actions being cut-off before they are allowed to complete themselves; other times it’s a new kind of non-proscenium presentation that plays with our expectations.

fd_837veniceboulevard

837 Venice Boulevard. Photo: Steven Schreiber

To put on or take part in (a theatrical performance, film, or concert)

Driscoll’s works are often called “plays” rather than “dances” (or “highly theatrical” dances). She attributes this characterization to her inclusion of elements that are more culturally associated with theater, such as facial expressions, singing, and speaking. Her performers are encouraged to take advantage of these performance tools in addition to their dance vocabulary when they’re investigating ideas or images for a piece, which become iconic components of the spirit of playful exploration that she’s known for. Driscoll’s own theatrical talents have been aided by her collaborations with theater artists like Young Jean Lee, Cynthia Hopkins, Jennifer Miller, and Taylor Mac (she choreographed Lee’s Church and Untitled Feminist Show, both commissioned and presented in previous Out There Festivals by the Walker).

Driscoll has described these collaborations as a way to step out of her usual way of working and try out a variety of palettes, taking inspiration from the differences in how directors realize their vision. In both pieces of Thank You For Coming, she includes herself as an active director throughout the performances— handing out costumes, giving feedback, or welcoming the audience.  She’s also notably unafraid of using props, which tend to show up in unexpected configurations to support the scene at hand. With her anything-goes approach, what she uses can vary wildly from moment to moment—even what you assumed was the stage may suddenly become a prop.

Driscoll is diving head first into her theatrical tendencies with Thank You For Coming: Play, which one critic described as “replete with dance, song, caricatured accents, incredible costumes, a movable and deconstruct-able set and truly versatile performers.” With this new work, the subject of play seems to be an apt frame through which to view the diversity of Driscoll’s choreographic skill, complete with all the bold and lively elements that have enchanted audiences thus far.

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

Overnight Re-view: DaNCEBUMS’s Eben Kowler and Karen McMenamy on YOUARENOWHERE

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, Eben Kowler and Karen McMenamy of DaNCEBUMS share their perspective of […]

Andrew_Schneider_YOUARENOWHERE Invisible Dog, Coil festival 2015

Andrew Schneider in YOUARENOWHERE. photo: Maria Baranova

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

YOUARENOWHERE takes place in the present, literally. The protagonist is a melancholy and frenetic leading edge Millenial. Born in 1981, he could also be a Gen-xer. We meet Andrew Schneider in a white void, his presence is switched on. He sings us a 50s pop song and then speaks directly to us, the audience.

Part physics lecture, part mental breakdown, part series of personal anecdotes, part rupture in space-time. The narrative jumps around forward or backward a few seconds or minutes, in a “time is a flat circle” way. The atmosphere is permeated with a sense of inevitability, the protagonist already knows what is going to happen because it’s happened that way before. Simultaneity, destiny, chance, and his own singular existence and death are what keep this guy up at night.

We can’t get into it much more because this is a very spoilable show. Instead, here’s how YOUARENOWHERE rates based on DaNCEBUMS’ Standard Performance Criteria:

Relevance
Schneider has a lot of hype. There are SO many write-ups about his work and this show in particular. In this case hype=relevance. The lighting evoked the red, blue, and green pixels of televisions. Bright white lights recreated the glow of cell phones, and laptops. Any reference to screens, screen culture, and screeniness is relevant. He seemed pretty melancholy, which fits the post-2016 vibe. Relevant.

However, after the awe of the tricks wore off, neither of us felt like the content resolved in an impactful way. 3/5

Buminess
There were two bum-y elements, costuming and a nosebleed Schneider gets toward the end. The pants Schneider wore looked like they came from his closet, which made him feel human in an otherwise stark environment. Having a nosebleed and making no attempt to clean it up, or being totally unaware of it, is bum-y in a rock-n-roll, no-fucks-given way.

Other than that, YOUARENOWHERE is precise and professional. High-quality. 1/5

Pizza
This show was engaging from start to finish. There were a few surreal glitches and precisely executed tricks that felt very magical. Minus one pizza point for reminding me of my intro physics lecture. 4/5

Hardness
The physical feat of YOUARENOWHERE is enough to give full points for the “Hardness” category. Schneider rapidly moved around the stage and switched in and out of various modes of performance. Additionally, Schneider and company pulled off some insane moments of coordination which we won’t spoil here. 5/5

Musicality
Comprised of effects ranging from deep sonic rumbles to the familiar ding of a fresh IM, the soundscape was tightly integrated with every element of the piece. The performance was fast paced and the performers never missed a beat. There was even a song in the first act. 5/5

Danciness
A mid-show Robyn dance break was the danciest section of the show. Throughout the performance the treatment of the space was very choreographic, every movement had purpose and intention. Movement and the space affected each other, which is danciness. 4/5

TL;DR
When we were paying for parking we talked to another audience member for a minute. He said the show reminded him of one time in college when he tried mushrooms. And that seemed accurate to us.

YOUARENOWHERE continues at the Walker through Saturday, January 7.

No posts

Previous
Next