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Islands of Imagination: Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, dance artist Blake Nellis shares his perspective on Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson’s performance of […]

Photo: Paula Court

Photo: Paula Court

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, dance artist Blake Nellis shares his perspective on Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson’s performance of  Night Stand (2004), part of Composing Forward: The Art of Steve Paxton. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

SPOILER ALERT: This piece will never be the same.  If you saw it last night, you should go again. Keep in mind that what I am about to write happened last night between 7:50pm and 8:57pm (give or take an hour).  It was a time warp in a theatrical jungle filled with wise, old children, living props and movable obstructions for the imagination.  Oh, and they danced.

We line the staircase, buzzing with excitement.  The lobby seems full of people eager to witness something unknown.  What we do know is that we are here to watch Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson inhabit the McGuire Theater for an eight o’clock show.  And it’s almost eight.  What they will do and how it will look is a mystery to us all, including the veterans of improvisation already on stage.

And so it begins… We enter the theater together, some carrying coats, others still wrapped up tightly to fend off the wintry air they carried in from outside.  We hang our coats and head to our seats.  There is a beautiful lightscape happening on stage.  It’s very dark, but there appears to be a moving constellation spiraling towards us.  The piece has been happening, before we came through the doors and long before we arrived here tonight.  The last few audience members trickle in and a few brave souls wander to the stage to sit (with great alignment) on a few pillows that have been placed in front of the first row.  “Oh cooooool,” I hear a woman next to me say.  I look at her and see that she has just realized that Paxton and Nelson have been on stage the entire time.  The lights fade and the second scene begins (or was that the prelude?)

Nelson is wearing a black and white striped t-shirt, dark pants, dark stocking cap and bright red socks.  She is almost comical, but holding a stick she becomes a serious sort of wizard.  Paxton sports a dark top and bottom with his signature slippers.  He looks a man who has been dancing for more than fifty years and understands how he works (he’s the same age as the Walker Art Center, 75).  The two dancers take in the space and move carefully.  Nelson is nimble, articulate, and spritely.  We ask ourselves, almost audibly, “and how old is she?”  Maybe we have traveled time and space.  They move these carpeted flats around stage, creating new rooms and do-si-do-ing smoothly while we watch and listen. The sound is spacious, even sweet at times.  The invitation to observe is clear and generous.  We see them building something and watching each other, as we watch them. This is a gift.

In this beautiful museum we are watching a living exhibit.  It has an exquisite light design by Carol Mullins which was highlighted during my favorite moment in the piece.  It’s what Nelson calls “an event.”  This is one of the few things that Paxton and Nelson expect to happen during the course of the evening.  Even though it may be apparent from the outside as well, its beauty and play allows us to get lost deeper inside their world.  The sound collage morphs and warps through moments of French, whispering and moaning.  It’s nostalgic and ephemeral but sometimes strange and emotional.  Paxton and Nelson never seem in a hurry to show us any one thing.  (Will they get to that box of tissue and five-gallon pail? Who knows.) Their consciousness shifts like a group of children deciding to play a game.

Night Stand transcends narrative.  It allows us to look in from afar or join them on their islands of imagination.  The demeanor of these two performers inspires exploration and curiosity.  They design playfulness, attention, and friendship.  They infuse just enough weird with the beauty.  Images linger in my mind, during and now.  As they are ending, I feel confident and content.  But how do we know this is the end?  They have taught us how to see again.

AFTERWORD: Nelson and Paxton joined the community for: drinks, questions, compliments, laughter, the usual.  I approached and asked for an autograph.  (What else could I do?!)  But instead of handing over the pen I proposed we make a 60-second drawing together.  They obliged.  Each of us with one hand on the pen, waiting, listening, wondering “what the heck is happening?”  In the end, I have two drawings, one by Steve & me, the other by Lisa & me.  They look like memories of the night I saw Night Stand.

Composing Forward: The Art of Steve Paxton continues tonight, November 22, 2014 with Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson’s second performance of  Night Stand in the McGuire Theater.

Winter Processes: Dawn of Midi + Nils Frahm

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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, Dylan Hester shares his perspective on Saturday night’s performances by Dawn of Midi and […]

Dawn of Midi (left to right: Qasim Naqvi,  Aakaash Israni, Amino Belyamani).  Photo: Falkwyne de Goyeneche

Dawn of Midi (left to right: Qasim Naqvi, Aakaash Israni, Amino Belyamani). Photo: Falkwyne de Goyeneche

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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, Dylan Hester shares his perspective on Saturday night’s performances by Dawn of Midi and Nils Frahm, a Walker co-presentation with the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series at the Amsterdam Bar and Hall in St. Paul. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Dysnomia, the second full-length album from Brooklyn-based experimental trio Dawn of Midi, is a single suite made up of nine individual tracks. On paper, it’s avant-garde jazz informed by classical minimalism, a 47 minute record that works just as well in headphones as it does on a loud stereo. In person, it’s a stirring and immersive nine-part cycle.

Bassist Aakaash Israni starts, and Amino Belyamani joins shortly thereafter on electric piano. Both repeat one note over and over. Qasim Naqvi then enters with a bass drum, creating an off-kilter polyrhythmic structure. From here the band’s sound transforms further: it’s jazz, then funk, techno, math rock. At times, I’m not sure whether I trust my own ears.

As their final song (“Dysnomia”) grew softer, I thought I heard the sound of a low-quality cell phone video a few rows behind me. But I was wrong. Actually, I was only hearing the soft ambient chatter and bar sounds from the back of the venue. After spending an hour immersed in Dawn of Midi’s intricate rhythmic structures, my sonic palette had been completely jarred.

Nils Frahm. Photo courtesy the artist

Nils Frahm. Photo courtesy the artist

Berlin-based composer Nils Frahm‘s most recent work is Spaces, an album which juxtaposes the analog and digital, live and studio, acoustic and electronic. Though occasionally referred to as  modern classical, it also touches on minimal synth, glitch, and even dub. It is a testament to his music’s versatility and precision that set opener “Says” also appeared on  a recent mix by Swiss techno dj Deetron. Nils closed with “For–Peter–Toilet Brushes–More,” Spaces‘ seventeen-minute centerpiece which involves the use of toilet brushes as percussion. It won him a standing ovation.

The first time I encountered Nils Frahm was in a title of a song by his friend Peter Broderick. “Hello to Nils” is the last track on Broderick’s How They Are, an album that helped get me through my first winter in Minnesota. Nils’ music likewise helps to ease the melancholy and emphasize the transcendence of the winter months. He does not shy away from sentiment: at one point last night, he introduced a song from his Screws album as a “little bit cheesy” piece of music he wrote after breaking his thumb. But he played it with complete, moving sincerity. It was only appropriate that a fresh layer of snow had appeared outside by the time the show ended.

Potential Energy is the Best Kind: Blake Nellis on Bound by Steve Paxton

  To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, dance artist Blake Nellis shares his perspective on Jurij Konjar’s performance of Steve Paxton’s Bound (1982), […]

 

Jurij Konjar in Bound. Photo: Nada Žgank

Jurij Konjar in Bound. Photo: Nada Žgank

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, dance artist Blake Nellis shares his perspective on Jurij Konjar’s performance of Steve Paxton’s Bound (1982), part of Composing Forward: The Art of Steve Paxton. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

The piece begins with sound and darkness.  The lights take their time fading up.  And then we can better see the four 2×4’s strewn (or placed intentionally) about the edges of the black floor.  Against the upstage wall there appears to be a rectangular screen covered in camouflage material.  In walks Jurij Konjar, dressed in red tights, white t-shirt, and suspenders holding a cardboard box around his midsection.  He appears to be a tired a superhero from a lesser known comic book.  His face is expressionless, although intriguing and handsome, as he stands motionless for us to look at him.

Konjar begins to unfold his cardboard box revealing flaps covered with camouflage material.  He is careful in transforming his box, but not too careful.  To complete his persona he donnes a vintage pair of sunglasses and black swim cap.  Now, it appears, we are ready for take off.

I wonder “how would Steve dance this if the year was 1982?” as my eyes dart around the black stage finding wood, camo, and a projector being rolled to center stage.  The back wall becomes an optical illusion, almost.  Konjar places himself in front of the screen, virtually disappearing.  The movements here are accurate, specific, and spell-binding.  We know this is being made up.  We understand the power of improvisation.  We are waiting patiently as this dancer points, stretches, and carves the space without giving us too much to digest at once.  He faces away from us so we can see the projection on his white shirt and find his arms extending ever so slightly from those short sleeves.  It’s time for him to move the projector.  He gathers the chord, pushes it off to its resting place stage left and walks diagonally behind the curtain.  We will see the projector again.  And we will see this piece being composed in front of us.  Konjar takes his time, like Paxton always does, to let us guess what might come next.  The potential energy is palpable, even though in the back of our minds we know this could be the Bound climax.

The dancing flirts with gesture, repetition, and surprise.  The dancer searches the space for another place to almost do something.  It is a pleasure to watch him calculate and observe.  He finds a rocking chair and baby cradle, both wooden and slightly creaky.  This becomes a game of sound, rocking with a few swift pushes from his hand.  Audience members begin coughing, clearing throats, even melodious sneezes add to the sound score.  (My partner and I are distracted and shifting in our seats, hoping that the “coughers” will take a breath.) We see nothing fazes Konjar.  He rocks until his heart’s content.  We know he’s on to something.

My favorite part of the work felt like a dancing dream, complete with costume change (Konjar wears all white for the remainder of the show).  The “White Section” has what we hope every dance piece would have: a person on stage inspiring us, dancing in a way that we cannot, or at least we cannot fully predict.  We can follow the dance like we can follow jazz, best if we close our eyes.

Here I take the time to imagine the Paxton/Konjar journey:

shifting dynamics

energy ascending the spine

playing with gravity

being serious with gravity

listening for rests

[                       ]

looking for the end/beginning

Konjar navigates the stage like a firefly trapped in a man’s body.  He jerks and twists and slides across the floor.  I know these sensations.  His physical intelligence is gripping and still mostly filled with potential energy.  Like a young Steve Paxton, Jurij Konjar invites us to see each move for the first time.  His physical orientation is often mysterious and off-balance.  I enjoy watching as his head whips around to see what is behind him.  It seems to surprise him, too, and his body torques and recovers like a fish out of water for just a moment.  All the while, an expressionless face.  [Could his body possibly express even one more thing without his face finally breaking just a little to reveal some inner secret?]  But we keep watching as the sweat soaks through the white t-shirt.

The effort feels generous.  The spine and signature of Paxton, present just enough.  Konjar unravels a spool of twine as he walks backwards and then forwards.  With his swim cap he makes his way to the finish line.  It is beautiful and poetic.  We remember now the unfolding of the cardboard box as we realize we have seen the unfolding of a master’s piece.  A new piece has been made.  Bound (2014).

Composing Forward: The Art of Steve Paxton continues with Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson’s performance of  Night Stand (2004), Friday–Saturday, November 21–22, 2014 in the McGuire Theater. Writer Blake Nellis is a Twin Cities based dancer, choreographer and educator. This year’s Choreographers’ Evening, curated by Kenna Cottman, will include an improvised work by Nellis and long-time collaborator Taja Will.

Deceptive Rhythms and Accidental Influences: An Interview with Dawn of Midi’s Amino Belyamani

Dawn of Midi look like a standard contemporary jazz trio: bass, drums, piano, v-necks, and scruffy beards. After forming at the California Institute of the Arts in 2007, Amino Belyamani (piano), Qasim Naqvi (drums), and Aakaash Israni (bass) put out a full-length album called First in 2010 and a live EP in 2011, both of […]

Frahm_Dawn_of_Midi_2014-15_06_PP

Dawn of Midi: Qasim Naqvi, Amino Belyamani, Aakaash Israni. Photo: Falkwyne de Goyeneche

Dawn of Midi look like a standard contemporary jazz trio: bass, drums, piano, v-necks, and scruffy beards. After forming at the California Institute of the Arts in 2007, Amino Belyamani (piano), Qasim Naqvi (drums), and Aakaash Israni (bass) put out a full-length album called First in 2010 and a live EP in 2011, both of which were freely improvised. On those records, the band sounded roughly like a modern jazz trio; which isn’t to say their music wasn’t brilliant and unique. It was, but Dawn of Midi’s early recordings definitely had more in common with the Craig Taborn Trio than electronic musicians like Aphex Twin or minimalist composers like Steve Reich. You can’t say the same for the trio’s sound on their second album, Dysnomia, which they will perform in full at Amsterdam Bar and Hall in St. Paul on Saturday, November 15 in a co-presentation by the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series and the Walker Art Center.

Dysnomia is a fully composed, forty-seven–minute piece of looping hypnosis. The textures are deep and synthetic. Naqvi keeps fishing wire taped under his drums, giving them the buzz of an 808 snare. The only cymbal he uses is his hi-hat. Belyamani manages to give his piano an electronic timbre by muting and manipulating the piano strings with his left hand. More often than not, Israni plays bass harmonics to match the higher frequency of the piano. Their acoustic instruments breathe organic life into the sonic palette of electronic music.

The album begins with a simple, repeating bass line, and eventually a muted piano drops in, sounding like a synthesizer that’s oscillating just barely out of time with the bass. A kick drum fades in with another off-kilter rhythm. It’s strange at first, the pulse of the “deceptive” rhythms, as Belyamani calls them. But as the piece builds, the disjointed beats slowly starts to swallow you, and soon enough, you’re dancing.

Cover art for Dawn of Midi's Dysnomia( 2014)

Cover art for Dawn of Midi’s Dysnomia (2013)

Sam Segal: I first came across your music in a 2010 radio session Dawn of Midi did on WFMU. At that point, you guys were making this quiet, spacial improvised music that seemed to be working more inside of the jazz idiom. Can you describe how you moved from that sound to the tight, composed, electronic-influenced music you are making now?

Amino Belyamani: As thrilling as it is to be immersed in the risk of each single moment, when playing freely improvised music, it is almost impossible to reach those golden musical moments at every concert. The majority of the music we love listening to is structured pretty heavily, if not entirely composed. If one wants to guarantee that kind of listening pleasure, for the audience as well as for the performers, then everything needs to be worked out beforehand.

Segal: What was the compositional process on Dysnomia like?

Belyamani: By the time we started working on Dysnomia, and understood the kind of compositional endeavor we were about to dive into, we put our improvisational skills to the side and began focusing on “deceptive” rhythms. I wrote the majority of the piece, sometimes bringing into rehearsals fully worked out parts for all three of us. Other times, since we recorded and documented every single rehearsal, we would decide on certain parts based on trial and error. Our bassist, Aakaash Israni, contributed to some of his parts.

Segal: It seems like in the contemporary jazz world, the idea of “the band” has fallen out of style. Musicians will form different combos, make a couple of records, and then disperse. That’s not the case with Dawn of Midi. Was maintaining the fellowship and group aesthetic of a band something that you guys deliberately set out to do?

Belyamani: I believe the real value is friendship. We were tennis mates for over a year before we even played music together. It just happens to be that our common aesthetic was the foundation of our friendship, as well as for our musicianship as a band. We got lucky. Even the name of the band was not deliberately meant to be a foreshadowing of Dysnomia, just a light-hearted joke about this time before MIDI came to be.

Segal: Dysnomia is a piece that really transcends any sort of gimmickry. You guys aren’t performing some parlor trick where all you do is fool people into thinking an acoustic band is an electronic producer. Could you talk about some of the non-electronic influences on the album?

Belyamani: Actually, what seem to be electronic influences were, once again, an accident. It was only after recording ourselves and hearing the sounds we were making that we noticed that it kind of reminded us of electronic and dance music. The intention, all throughout the compositional process, was to translate North and West African music into the western instruments we played. Growing up in Morocco was a great environment for absorbing what I call “deceptive” rhythms. That is, music where the underlying pulse is where you least expect it, where the silences are. Then in college at CalArts I studied heavily with this amazing Ghanaian master drummer named Alfred Kwashie Ladzekpo, who has retired back to Ghana now. The Moroccan and Ghanaian influences are what make up Dysnomia.

Frahm_Dawn_of_Midi_2014-15_10_PP

Photo: Falkwyne de Goyeneche

Segal: There’s a looping, rhythmic quality to Dysnomia that makes it very danceable. Do you ever wish jazz/experimental music audiences were more willing to bust a move or two?

Belyamani: Absolutely! I believe that dance and music are inseparable. In fact, in many African languages, they only have one word that encompasses it all; dance, music, poetry, and style. Those “deceptive” rhythms I talk about are there for that reason; they don’t come from an intellectual or compositional process. They exist so that the dancer fills up those empty spaces, that would be the pulse, by their body, and that’s how trance is achieved.

Segal: Could you give us a hint about the direction of your next record? Can we expect another tightly composed piece, or are you guys stepping back into a more improvisational mode?

Belyamani: All I can say, without spoiling the surprise: Dancing will be mandatory.

Segal: Finally, if you could see any band/artist in any year, who would you see and when would you see them?

Belyamani: I would have loved to be at the Kalakuta Republic, in Nigeria where Fela Kuti resided, in 1974 and see his band blow my mind.

Steve Paxton and the Walker: A 50-Year History

Steve Paxton is one of the most radical and influential  American artistic innovators alive. His impact on the field of dance, stretching more than 50 years, has been felt around the world: as a principle dancer for Merce Cunningham in the 60s, a founding member of the legendary Judson Dance Theater (’62-65) and of the […]

Video project with Steve Paxton

Video project with Steve Paxton at MCAD, October 6, 1975, during a residency at the Walker. Courtesy Walker Art Center Archives.

Steve Paxton is one of the most radical and influential  American artistic innovators alive. His impact on the field of dance, stretching more than 50 years, has been felt around the world: as a principle dancer for Merce Cunningham in the 60s, a founding member of the legendary Judson Dance Theater (’62-65) and of the Grand Union collective (1970-76),  and as the inventor of Contact Improvisation (in 1972), a technique now practiced and taught globally. His influence on the current generation of dance and performance artists has been profound particularly in New York and across Europe.

–Philip Bither, Senior Curator of Performing Arts

2014 marks 50 years since Steve Paxton’s first visit to the Walker Art Center. Over the course of the past five decades (and beyond), his influence on and contribution to the postmodern and contemporary dance movements as a dancer, choreographer, and movement innovator runs undeniably deep. Paxton was part of José Limón’s company in 1960, and from 1961 to 1964, he danced for Merce Cunningham. His involvement in both Grand Union and Judson established him as a major figurehead in the dance world. These groups were arguably the most critical influences on the development of postmodern and contemporary dance in the latter half of the twentieth century, relentlessly shattering and reshaping expectations of dance creation and performance. That impact remains prevalent today.

Through residencies and visits to universities with Grand Union, Paxton began developing a technique that emphasized uncensored flow with another body where, as he wrote in an article in 1975, “[e]ach party of the duet freely improvises with an aim to working along the easiest pathways available to their mutually moving masses. These pathways are best perceived when the muscular tone is lightly stretched to extend the limbs, although not to a degree that obscures the sensations of momentum and inertia. Within this flexible framework, the shape, speed, orientation, and personal details of the relationship are left to the dancers who, however, hold to the ideal of active, reflexive, harmonic, spontaneous, mutual forms.”1 He named this technique Contact Improvisation and introduced it to New York in 1972.

Since the 1980s, Paxton has rarely performed, devoting his time to writing, teaching,and leading workshops. For this reason, his visit and performances for Composing Forward: The Art of Steve Paxton at the Walker over the next two weeks are a rare treat. To commemorate the momentous event of his return (after an absence of over sixteen years), I thought I’d share with you some Paxton-related material from the Walker’s archives (click on any image to get a closer look).

1964: Performance with Merce Cunningham Company

Paxton was first presented by the Walker on February 25th, 1964 when he performed with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) at the Guthrie Theatre. This was  MCDC’s second time performing for the Walker, and only a year after the company’s first visit. Most of the dancers who went on to form Grand Union studied with Cunningham. Three had previously danced in his company, including Paxton. In the 1964 performance at the Guthrie, Paxton danced in Story and Antic Meet:

MCDC1964ProgramMCDC1964Program_Reverse

1965: A Judson Residency that was not to be

On July 6th, 1962, Robert Dunn’s dance composition class (which included Yvonne Rainer and Paxton) performed a concert – it was out of this concert that Judson Dance Theater was born. Judson, which derived its name from the church in New York in which the collective performed, continued to produce work over the next two years that challenged the established modern dance tradition of the time. Plans were in place for Judson to complete a residency at the Walker in 1965 but the group dissolved in 1964, before the residency could happen.

1975: Grand Union Residency

The Grand Union collective existed and produced work from 1970 to 1976 and was comprised of experimental and improvisational dance artists. Grand Union evolved in part from Yvonne Rainer’s work Continuous Project-Altered Daily and included many of the dancers and performers who had worked together in the Judson days. Grand Union visited the Walker for a residency in 1971, but Paxton was unable to join because of prior commitments. However, from October 5-10, 1975, Grand Union returned with Paxton to complete another residency which included workshops, solo performances, and group performances at the Guthrie Theater and in the museum lobby. In addition to performances, Paxton led a video workshop with students from Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

GrandUnion1975Program

Below are some notes on possible residency activities with Paxton, also from the 1975 residency with Grand Union (the photo at the beginning of this blog post is from his video project with MCAD students):

PaxtonResidency(GU)notes

Here’s Paxton performing at the Walker, also in 1975:

Steve Paxton with Grand Union, 1975

Steve Paxton during a performance with Grand Union, Walker Art Center Auditorium, October 6, 1975. Courtesy Walker Art Center Archives

After the residency, Paxton wrote a letter to Sue Weil, the Performing Arts Coordinator at the time. Below is Paxton’s hand-written letter, along with Weil’s response:

LetterStevetoSueLetterSuetoSteve

 1980: Jeff Slayton, Lisa Nelson, & Steve Paxton

On June 20, 1980, Paxton, Jeff Slayton, and Lisa Nelson performed works choreographed by Slayton and Viola Farber. Farber was originally supposed to perform but was unable due to an injury. Lisa Nelson has long been an improvisational dancer and she and Paxton have been artistic collaborators since the 1970s. Though they come from different backgrounds in dance, their work together comes naturally. As Brian Seibert wrote in 2013 following the premiere of  Night Stand at Dia:Chelsea Gallery, “Their attunement was so fine that you felt it more when they avoided each other than when they joined in an awkward ballroom dance. A hand proffered and accepted might lead anywhere or nowhere.”

 

PaxtonSlaytonProgram1980

1998: Improvisation Project: Chris Aiken, Steve Paxton, and Friends

In October 1998, then-local Contact Improvisation artist Chris Aiken was joined by other artists in the field: Kirstie Simson (London/Boston), Ka Rustler (Berlin), and Ray Chung (Berkeley, California) for a series of performances at the Southern. This was Paxton’s last visit to the Walker, before his return this week.

Improv project 1980 inside

 

And a photo of Paxton during his 1998 performance:

Improvisation Project, October 24, 1998 with Chris Aiken and Steve Paxton

Steve Paxton in The Improvisation Project, Southern Theater, October 24, 1998. Courtesy Walker Art Center Archives.

2001: White Oak Dance Project

On September 27th, 2001, Paxton’s pieces Satisfyin Lover and Flat were performed as part of PASTforward, a project directed by Mikhail Baryshnikov and written by David Gordon that celebrated the work of some of the Judson Theater artists of the 1960s. Paxton didn’t make an appearance for this performance but Satisfyin Lover was performed by local dancers, and Flat was performed by Baryshnikov himself, making the project “counter-intuitive, even joyously subversive”, as Performing Arts Curator Philip Bither described it in the program notes.

White Oaks 2001

Composing Forward: The Art of Steve Paxton, a mini-festival celebrating the work of Paxton, begins Thursday, November 13, 2014 with Talking Dance with Steve Paxton, which will also include a performance of his piece Smiling (1967) by Kristin Van Loon and Lisa Nelson. Bound (1982) will be performed by Jurij Konjar on Friday, November 14, 2014 and Night Stand (2004) will be performed by Paxton and Nelson on Friday and Saturday, November 21 and 22, 2014. In addition, Paxton and Nelson will each teach a workshop at the Walker on Sunday, November 16, 2014.

Footnotes

1Paxton, Steve. “Contact Improvisation.” The Drama Review 19.1 (1975): 40-42. Print.

Listening Body: Penelope Freeh on Panaibra Gabriel Canda

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

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Panaibra Gabriel Canda and Jorge Domingos performing Time and Spaces: The Marrabenta Solos. Photo courtesy MAPP International Productions.

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, dance artist Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on Saturday night’s performance of Time and Spaces: The Marrabenta Solos by Panaibra Gabriel Candathe second evening of Tales of Home: Congo/Mozambique. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments! 

There are stations onstage: a chair and amp on center, three microphones on stands in three corners and costume elements near the middle wing stage right. As the lights fade moments before the piece formally begins, a guitar player lays down near his equipment. Lights up and Panaibra Gabriel Canda, his back to us, speaks Portuguese into a mic, translations projected onto the scrim upstage.

Identity is outlined as a major theme here. With a clever trajectory of verbiage we become entangled in the macro/micro crisscrosses and crosses to bear of Canda’s personal history. He comes from a musician father and dressmaker mother from Mozambique, a country colonized by Portugal, turned communist, turned democratic. It is a confusing story that seems to have forced this contemporary dance and performance artist inward. Out pour guttural stutterings and a body wrestling with itself.

Intimate dances occur, accompanied by the virtuosic musicianship of Jorge Domingos. The two performers are always in counterpoint. Very little needs to be communicated between them in order to be completely on the same page. For a work with a subtitle that contains the word “Solos”, this reads very much as a duet.

Canda’s intelligent body holds many qualities and dynamic ranges. Initially making well-muscled arm gestures that repeat with accompanying text, he moves into more sinuous musings, traversing space. The geography is specific and seems to jump from the stage onto Canda’s very skin. I begin to perceive his body as a map, zones, multi-locations with various topographies. Stomping and gentle tapping accompany flinging arms and tight-fists. Grooves are interrupted and swell into eruption again and again, like water lapping.

A slow and deliberate crawl from upstage to down is my favorite moment, executed with profound coordination. We see the body lower then upright, and it is significant in its changing of planes. The bone and muscle dances begin under the low mic. We are reminded of what’s under the skin (that cannot be rubbed off, no matter how hard he tries). We are left with sweat and breath, a silent musician and a darkening space as we listen hard.

The Boundless Journeys of Faustin Linyekula: Deneane Richburg on Le Cargo

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, dance artist Deneane Richburg shares her perspective on Friday night’s performance of Le Cargo […]

Faustin Linyekula performing Le Cargo. Photo: Agathe Poupeney

Faustin Linyekula performing Le Cargo. Photo: Agathe Poupeney

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, dance artist Deneane Richburg shares her perspective on Friday night’s performance of Le Cargo by Faustin Linyekula, the first evening of Tales of Home: Congo/Mozambique. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Entering carrying Sortir de la Grande Nuit by Achille Mbembe and what appeared to be a traditional Yoruban wooden carved stool/sculpture, Faustin Linyekula begins Le Cargo facing the audience at a microphone, contemplating the benefit (or perhaps lack thereof) his storytelling has on those about whom he tells stories. Also woven into this moment are questions surrounding whether or not he has actually ever danced and the politics of determining what is and is not dance according to the ideology that governs the spaces one inhabits. Considering the geographic spaces he has traversed throughout his life (born in Kisangani in the Democratic Republic of Congo, attending university in Kenya, and presenting his work all over the world including Europe and North America), the civil unrest that sometimes incited these journeys, and his desire to create work that speaks to the complexities of his upbringing and his experiences, as Dr. Brenda Dixon Gottschild comments: “Linyekula writes choreography […] his creations are chock full of compound movement ‘sentences’ that often end in ellipses, parentheses, or semicolons, rather than full stops[…] Linyekula makes sense of the complexities of his heritage by using his fierce intellect to interrogate those conditions onstage and in conversation.”

Linyekula invites the viewer on this boundless journey that has no mile markers and no specific end point. Woven into this experience are stories grappling with his identity, that of his Father, the internal journey that led him to return to the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as the physical and ideological corners he was/is pressed to inhabit in Kisangani, throughout Africa, Europe, and the United States. Just as he observes the intricacies inherent in the process of defining/identifying, Le Cargo remarks on the complexities of being via Linyekula’s sophisticated and layered use of space, lighting, storytelling, and movement. The stage is divided into three “regions,” the first is a downstage center area where he places the wooden stool/sculpture, the Mbembe text, and a microphone. In this space he addresses the audience engaging in a very familiar proscenium, performer-audience relationship. This relationship is in contrast to those in the other spaces of the stage. Upstage left are two footlights that, when illuminated, create a corridor of light emanating on a downstage right diagonal. The presence of two footlights and a strong yet narrow path of light create the feeling of introspection and a solitary tension which is reflected in the frenetic feel of the movement he performs in this area. Finally, stage right are a grouping of footlights arranged in a circle; the circle representing a place of togetherness/community/not being alone. As a result of the circular placement of the lights (on the floor lining the circle) each time he enters into the circle, two shadows appear on the back scrim creating the feel and image of two additional ghostly bodies moving in the space together with him. Throughout the work he walks along the circle of these footlights making careful decisions of when to enter the circle and when to remain along its perimeter. The presence of the circle and the manner in which he moves outside and inside of it seem to illustrate the ideal this symbol represents while acknowledging its placement as simply an ideal; not necessarily a reality. Throughout the work it seems in some ways Linyekula’s physical, and perhaps intellectual and emotional travels mirror his journeys on stage between these three spaces.

My personal insights as a result of a question asked 

After sheepishly raising my hand to ask the first question of the post-performance discussion, I realized I’d been trying to find the overall narrative of his work. Soon after asking this question I realized Le Cargo invites witnesses to compile and organize the primary messaging of the work themselves. This is not a work characterized by a linear narrative; instead it invites viewers to uncover their own point of entry—one where they witness emotional/intellectual/spiritual challenges enshrouded in the beauty of a viscerally engaging movement experience.

Dance and Community: Faustin Linyekula and Panaibra Gabriel Canda

In anticipation of this weekend’s performance by dancer/choreographers Panaibra Gabriel Canda (Mozambique) and Faustin Linyekula (Democratic Republic of the Congo), I tagged along to the artists’ residency activities this week. Each dancer’s work—Linyekula performs the solo piece Le Cargo tonight and Canda performs Time and Spaces: The Marrabenta Solos on Saturday, both as part of Tales of […]

Faustin Linyekula performing Le Cargo and Panaibra Gabriel Canda performing Time and Spaces: The Marrabenta Solos. Photos by Agathe Poupaney and Arthur Fink.

Faustin Linyekula performing Le Cargo and Panaibra Gabriel Canda performing Time and Spaces: The Marrabenta Solos. Photos: Agathe Poupaney and Arthur Fink

In anticipation of this weekend’s performance by dancer/choreographers Panaibra Gabriel Canda (Mozambique) and Faustin Linyekula (Democratic Republic of the Congo), I tagged along to the artists’ residency activities this week. Each dancer’s work—Linyekula performs the solo piece Le Cargo tonight and Canda performs Time and Spaces: The Marrabenta Solos on Saturday, both as part of Tales of Home: Congo/Mozambique—deal with home, loss, and the difficult narratives of the violence and tragedy that have wrecked their home countries (Joan Frosch does a great job of describing their work and the connections to their histories here). Both are trailblazers in contemporary dance and have been key to bringing African artists to the forefront of contemporary dance.

Linyekula and Canda arrived a week in advance of their performances and joined us for a series of residency activities including an artist talk with a University of Minnesota dance composition class, a Meet & Greet at Juxtaposition Arts, and a staff lunch discussion at the Walker, as well as a master class led by each artist. In speaking with them and attending these activities, I gained insight on their processes and motivations and got an in-depth view of their perspectives as artists, educators, and collaborators. Taking their master classes allowed me to weave my understanding of what the artists spoke about earlier in the week into their tangible practice as dancers and choreographers.

During his master class, Linyekula, lithe and wiry but with an unwavering groundedness, shared with us his toolbox of movement and allowed us as dancers to utilize and interpret the movement individually. In his own work, his dancers are vital and irreplaceable: “In my pieces, if someone gets injured, we do the piece without them or we cancel the show. We do not replace them.” This same philosophy translates to his teaching.

Canda, a tranquil and solid presence, also shared with us a toolbox; in an intense 45 minutes we learned a set phrase of his choreography and then were given freedom to interpret it in an open improvisation. It quickly became apparent that the importance of trust in one another was vital for success, as in any improvisation. After several tries we got the hang of it, but not without some effort and acknowledgment of the importance of relationships, awareness of space, and awareness of each other—many of the same common elements that I discovered in learning about their work, both as artists and as leaders.

Dance as negotiator of relationships/dance as negotiator of the self

During a visit with a U of M dance composition class taught by Scott Rink, Linyekula and Panaibra talked about everything from childhood memories and corrupt national histories to French négritude literature. And, of course, dance.

Linyekula, shoes and socks off, sat on one knee atop his chair and spoke of relationships. He explained that he has expanded upon Merce Cuningham’s notion that “dance is the motion in time and space.” He sees it as his responsibility as a performer to build and rebuild these relationships (with time, space, and the audience), taking into consideration that they are not a given, and that they will inevitably collapse, continuously.

At one point, he shifted and asked Canda and Rink to move off the stage, leaping up to illustrate the circular relationship with an audience and the ways this relationship is broken in a forward-facing proscenium setup (in an interview with Brenda Dixon Gottschild when he visited the Walker in 2007, Linyekula illustrated the proscenium stage’s connection to colonialism: “There’s never been any reflection on just the stages that we show those dances on. Space is what defines the type of relationships. The proscenium theater is a clear extension of Europe—a colonial stage.”)

FaustinCircle

Faustin Linyekula talking to University of Minnesota students on Monday. Photo: Gabby Coll

Linyekula considers performance an act of responsibility and looks to storytellers as a model. The magic happens in a moment, in the present, and must occur in collaboration with the audience. Without the audience the story would not exist: “You’re choreographing the relationship, in this moment that we spend together … so how do I work with the body to negotiate this relationship?”

These relationships are vital to Linyekula; he spoke of props (rejecting the word “prop” itself as “gross”) as partners, as well as the dynamic between dance and music—two autonomous entities coming together and becoming something entirely different, possible only because they are together in that particular space and time.

Canda also articulated the significance of these relationships, but he sees them from a slightly different angle. Through performance, he stated, “I can begin to understand myself; you can be honest with yourself when you’re projecting yourself. How people perceive you doesn’t matter, but you begin to know yourself. Even if an audience rejects me, you’re helping me understand myself. The viewer becomes a mirror” (emphasis mine).

As Joan Frosch writes, “Panaibra is engaged in a theater of transformation, not reiteration.” Through his work and his movement, his aim is to break from the constraints of traditional dance technique. He utilizes dance to deconstruct history and to more fully understand his own body and self.

As he says, the Marrabenta Solos are a “way of understanding who I am today….[as a] journey through history to understand my own body… There is a potential to reinvent aesthetically and shape my own body.” The piece arose as a means for him to reconcile the history of Mozambique through connections with and translated through the body. “This work is a process of rehealing; to deal with this pain. How do you work from the inside until [you] can still find the energy to recover? It is a question of what is behind the movement. There is an invisible body that is ourself; something that you feel is motivating you. So how do you translate this to movement, this body that is living inside?”

Left to right: University of Minnesota Professor Scott Rink, Panaibra Gabriel Canda, and Faustin Linyekula. Photo by Gabby Coll.

Left to right: University of Minnesota Professor Scott Rink, Panaibra Gabriel Canda, and Faustin Linyekula. Photo: Gabby Coll.

Relationships as tools

Apart from their work as artists, Canda and Linyekula have embarked on important projects in their home countries through Studios Kabako in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and CulturArte in Mozambique, respectively. Studios Kabako provides training to artists, supports and produces several projects each year (as well as Linyekula’s own work), hosts workshops with dance artists from around the world, and operates the first recording studio in the country. CulturArte was established out of Canda’s need for a space to produce his own work and now serves as a training center, an art production center, and  a dance company, as well as an organization that lobbies for governmental support for the arts.

The successes they have accomplished in their work and in their respective organizations would not be possible without the relationships that Linyekula and Canda have fostered, both with each other and with other artists in their communities and across Africa. Speaking to a group of 30 artists, community leaders, and people of all ages at Juxtaposition Arts this week, Panaibra and Linyekula noticed the parallels between the work they are doing in their home countries and the work JXTA does. Similar to the organizations in Mozambique and Democratic Republic of the Congo, JXTA provides training and support for young artists and prepares them for success by teaching concrete creative skills with a strong emphasis on collaboration—through mentoring and sharing space and skills, and in partnerships with other organizations. Both Linyekula and Canda were excited by the work JXTA is doing; Linyekula repeatedly called their organizations “kindred spirits.”

Faustin_JXTAcrop

Faustin Linyekula and DeAnna Cummings, executive director of Juxtaposition Arts. Photo: Gabby Coll

About the importance of collaboration, Linyekula mused: “It’s easier to meet other African artists in Paris than on the actual continent; this is why Panaibra and I need to collaborate and spend time together and think about the work we are doing.” Their institutions in Kisangani and Maputo have collaborated, and they created Pamoja (which translates to “together” in Swahili) in order to connect artists on the African continent to host workshops and to produce, tour, and show their work.

This year, Studios Kabako was awarded the CurryStone Design Prize for its work in Kisangani as well as a project completed in Lubunga whose aim was to map water distribution along the Congo River. Through the mapping of the connections between people and water (lack of drinking water is a major problem in Lubunga), Linyekula realized that “we may not build a physical bridge on the Congo River between the two banks. [But] perhaps if we start building bridges in our heads, start connecting with other people, that may already be a first bridge.”

Canda has also succeeded in creating sustainable change through his work. In 2007 he established (In)Dependence, a project dedicated to training and integrating dancers with disabilities. At JXTA, he spoke of asking questions, including, “What does it mean for a body to be marginalized?” He has managed to find a way to integrate social practice into his art, without becoming a social worker, emphasizing that he “will not take you to the stage just because you are disabled; you need to show me you have artistic quality that can be a part of my own practice. I don’t want to be a social worker. I want to challenge the way people understand [differences].”

When thinking about dance or any performance-based art, creating and nurturing any kind of relationship can appear to be an obvious need. But it isn’t easy. During the Meet-and-Greet, Linyekula noted, “We speak in mother tongues, but we write in foreign ones [in our work]; everyone who is not you is a foreigner to your work.” These artists have managed to take this concept and stretch it so that these relationships gain vitality to accomplish so much more. The infrastructure for art production and sustainability did not exist in either the Congo or Mozambique; yet it is through the building of these connections that Canda and Linyekula are beginning to establish one. The only certainty is that the future is an uncertain one, but, undoubtedly, there is much in store for these artists and for the next generation of artists in their communities.

Faustin Linyekula will perform Le Cargo tonight, Friday, November 7 at 8pm, and Panaibra Gabriel Canda will perform Time and Spaces: The Marrabenta Solos tomorrow night, Saturday, November 8 at 8pm in the Walker’s McGuire Theater.

Story/Time: Bill T. Jones on John Cage

Three decades ago, choreographer Bill T. Jones jolted the New York dance scene. Bucking the prevailing stripped-down postmodernism, he and his partner Arnie Zane created sensational dances collaborating with composers, fashion designers, and visual artists. A new queer aesthetic emerged that was anything but minimalistic. When I worked at Walker Art Center (1988–1996), I presented Jones’s […]

Bill T. Jones in STory/T

Bill T. Jones in Story/Time. Photo: Paul B. Goode

Three decades ago, choreographer Bill T. Jones jolted the New York dance scene. Bucking the prevailing stripped-down postmodernism, he and his partner Arnie Zane created sensational dances collaborating with composers, fashion designers, and visual artists. A new queer aesthetic emerged that was anything but minimalistic.

When I worked at Walker Art Center (1988–1996), I presented Jones’s company on multiple occasions. During this period, the AIDS pandemic ravaged his world, killing lover Arnie Zane (1988) and collaborator Keith Haring (1990), as well as scores of friends, colleagues and dancers. Consequently Jones’ work became politicized. Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land (1990) had him searching for hope as a gay black man in America. Its final resolving tableau included 52 nude bodies of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, ages, and genders.

The conceit of this work proved electrifying, as it included his core company augmented with local dancers on tour. Everybody had to own the nudity, claim the identity politics of survival and transcendence. The work was rapturously received by those who saw it—and picketed by those who feared it.

Jones continued mining his grief and rage in Still/Here (1994). He developed this piece in workshops with people facing terminal illnesses. Newsweek called it “a work so original and profound that its place among the landmarks of twentieth-century dance seems ensured.” Arlene Croce refused to see it, but wrote about it in the New Yorker, dismissing it as “victim art.” No one was neutral.

Jones continues to create iconoclastic dances across a vast array of aesthetic explorations. His collaborators are eclectic: Cassandra Wilson, Orion String Quartet, Chamber Society of Lincoln Center, Fred Hersch, Jenny Holzer, Vernon Reid, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Toni Morrison, and Jessye Norman. The company has performed in more than 200 cities in 40 countries.

Commissions and honorary degrees, a MacArthur “genius” award, and the National Medal of the Arts ffrom President Obama have not tempered this firebrand provocateur. Outside his own company, Jones has created dances for Alvin Ailey, Boston Ballet, Lyon Opera Ballet, and Berlin Opera Ballet. He directed at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and won two Tony Awards for his choreography in Spring Awakening and FELA! Operatic collaborations include Houston Grand Opera, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Munich Biennale, Boston Lyric Opera, and New York City Opera.

As a writer, Jones published his memoir, Last Night on Earth, in 1995 and a children’s book, Dance, in 1998. He also contributed toContinuous Replay: The Photography of Arnie Zane in 1999. This month, Princeton University Press released his Story/Time: The Life of an Idea, a book about the genesis of Story/Time, a dance work commissioned by the Walker and Peak Performances at Montclair State University and performed at the Walker in February 2012. (For more on Story/Time, watch this video interview between Jones and Philip Bither, the Walker’s senior curator of performing arts).

As Jones writes in the acknowledgements: “Story/Time is a meditation on John Cage’s Indeterminacy, a 1958 work in which Cage read ninety stories, each one minute long. … Engaging with this seminal work allowed me to examine and interrogate a system of thought and practice grounded in ideas held by many—myself included—striving to understand how Eastern thought, liberation philosophy, and art could be used to redefine reality for both the maker and his or her audience.”

In advance of his November 4–14 performances of Story/Time at New York Live Arts, I talked with Jones about his new book and projects under development.

John Killacky: Story/Time is such a beautiful homage to John Cage. You are this hot, politically engaged, out gay artist. I think of Cage as this cool, philosophical, quiet, disengaged from the world, theoretical genius. Can you talk about his influence on you and in particular this project?

Bill T. Jones: He literally represented for me everything cool and removed and sophisticated at a time when I was trying to wend my way into the art world. There was a woman that had known Jasper [Johns] and John Cage. She tried to get them interested in what Arnie and I were doing. They were like “No way!” We were too “obvious.” We were too “in your face.” I always felt a little hurt by that. We did meet John later through a mutual friend. I had dinner with John and Merce [Cunningham] and went to a show with him and got to know him as a man. I couldn’t be in that club, but I realized there was a lot to love in him. This book is trying to come to grips with my need to be in the modernist cool club and acceptance that I will not be in that club. You have to build your ideas on your forebearers, and it is sort of Freudian because you are fighting with your father. What happens when I put on that suit of clothing is who I am.

Jones’s staging of Story/Time began a few years back when he decided to return to performing. Building off of Cage’s storytelling, he created a work in which he reads 70 one-minute stories (drawn from more than 170) while his dancers perform around him. Movement sequences are excerpted from existing repertory, rearranged on the day of performance to create a unique work for that evening. Composer and lighting and scenic designers improvise alongside. Jones was then invited to participate in the Toni Morrison Lecture Series at Princeton.

Merce Cunningham and John Cage performing at the Walker Art Center, March 1972. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

Merce Cunningham and John Cage performing Dialogues at the Walker Art Center, 1972. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

Killacky: How did this beautiful book come into being?

Jones: The deal with the Morrison Lecture people was we would do three lectures that would result in a book. I had been struggling with this work, trying to mesh these thoughts and ideas of John Cage with my own theatricality and the way my company moves. The process had been so strange and challenging and scary. I thought the lectures would be a great opportunity to talk theoretically about it in the first and third lectures, and show a version of it in one of those wood-paneled rooms in an august university. It felt very claustrophobic, very much of a throwback to a world that I’ve only seen in movies. I never went to an Ivy League school. We set this thing up as if it were site-specific and emulated something that he [Cage] would have been able to put forward in 1958: sitting alone at a table in a room and reading one story after another. The difference was we had a very sophisticated sound design, a rudimentary lighting design, and Bjorn Amelan drawing on the chalkboards before an academic audience. It was wonderful.

Included in the publication of Story/Time are gorgeous photographs of the work in performance as well as 60 of Jones’s masterful stories, weaving in childhood reminiscences and tales from touring around the world. Observing the mundane, Jones reaches for the profound. Vignettes with Virgil Thompson, Abbey Lincoln, Louise Nevelson, Thelonious Monk, and Cecil Taylor are peppered throughout, as is John Cage—whose theories disrupt, provoke, and inspire him.

Killacky: Your company is still performing Story/Time?

Jones: The work is part of our touring repertory. For the upcoming New York shows, we decided do the classic version and then to get rid of some of the “crafting” and strip the place down a couple of times. And we have guest artists: Kathleen Chalfont [Angels in America, Wit], Lois Welk [founder of American Dance Asylum] and Theaster Gates [conceptual artist]. They wrote some of their own stories; we’ll read mine as well and talk about a personal history.

Killacky: You juggle multiple projects at any given time. Can you talk about some in development?

Jones: The new one for the company is a three-part work influenced by W. C. Sebald’s The Emigrants, the story of a Jewish boy who was a “valet” to a rich German boy; an oral history of my husband Bjorn’s 94-year-old Jewish mother, who survived the war by working in an internment camp in eastern France; and my wild nephew Lance, who had drug problems and was a hustler on Polk Street [San Francisco].

In terms of the commercial art world, I would love to be able to talk with you about it. There are a couple projects on the table, but you know how the producers are: we will see which ones go the distance. One is a major motion picture from some years back that was very successful; now the filmmaker is making it into a musical that I am choreographing.

Jones: For the theater work, there is: “Can I do it?” “Can I make an entertaining thing that has some integrity?” So that’s maybe my pride. There is also hopefully my retirement; because in the dance world, you will not retire with what the dance world has to offer you. The company is the child that Arnie [Zane] and I had. Every time I make a new work, I get this excitement in my chest. I keep thinking, “Ah, this is the way I understand the world.” This is my religion. Something keeps pulling me forward that has to do with art-making as a spiritual activity.

John R. Killacky is executive director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont.

Two Hours with a Room Full of Strangers: Miranda July and the Awkward Encounter

Perhaps you’ve heard of the porcupine’s dilemma. It’s an allegory dreamed up by Arthur Schopenhauer, nineteenth-century German philosopher, that elegantly illustrates the problems posed by the necessity of interpersonal intimacy. Imagine a cluster of porcupines huddling together for warmth on a cold winter’s day. The heat from the bodies of the other porcupines are keeping […]

Miranda July. Photo: Todd Cole

Perhaps you’ve heard of the porcupine’s dilemma. It’s an allegory dreamed up by Arthur Schopenhauer, nineteenth-century German philosopher, that elegantly illustrates the problems posed by the necessity of interpersonal intimacy. Imagine a cluster of porcupines huddling together for warmth on a cold winter’s day. The heat from the bodies of the other porcupines are keeping each one alive, so they bunch closer and closer together as the temperature drops. There’s just one problem—they’re all covered in quills. The more compact the huddle, the more they prick one another, forcing the porcupines to maintain a safe distance, maximizing mutual warmth while minimizing mutual pain.

Though it leaps from discipline to discipline, one consistency throughout Miranda July’s work is its tendency to mine this tension between vulnerability and self-preservation. July is perhaps best known for her 2009 Caméra d’Or-winning film Me and You and Everyone We Know, but this multifaceted filmmaker, writer, and performance artist has also produced interactive art objects and installations, written a book about people she’s met through the classifieds, and created an app that recruits strangers to deliver personal text messages on behalf of the sender. No matter the project, July’s work tends to focus on the quiet messiness that characterizes human lives—something vastly underappreciated in a world that values glamor, perfection, and efficiency. Whether it’s a sculpture that compels strangers to stand on a pedestal and hug, as with Eleven Heavy Things, or a short story that inserts a naive first-person narrator into a sex scene (often of the non-normative variety), one thing audiences can expect from July is an awkward scenario. Her latest performance piece, New Society, capitalizes on this very thing. Because it relies so heavily on audience participation, the piece is different every time it is presented, but can be summed up in one of two ways: 1) It’s two hours with a room full of strangers, 2) It’s, as the Boston Globe puts it, “an exercise in accidental community.” The latter is well phrased, but the former, for July’s work, rings more true. Many “relational” artists fabricate situations for encounter that, in an attempt to “repair the social bond,” as Nicolas Bourriaud might put it, gloss over the distress audiences experience when thrown together with people they don’t know. July, however, goes right to the source of discomfort, sticks a finger in, and probes the wound.

The virtue of the awkward moment is that it inevitably produces mutual vulnerability. It opens each party up by traumatically disrupting the rhythm of scripted social behaviors. Cultural theorists such as Sarah Ahmed have written extensively about how emotional states can actually be thought of as the residue of interpersonal contact, shaping the boundaries between “I,” “We,” and “Other” by making those boundaries apparent. Consider the porcupines: The experience of bodily pain makes the critter in question aware of its cutaneous borders and allows it to mediate between inside and outside by, say, recoiling from its neighbor’s quill. Similarly, discomfort with strangers comes from the temporary violation of the boundaries between Self and Other that we routinely and vigilantly police. Inasmuch that a performance creates a space removed from everyday affairs (or, given that many of July’s projects deal with the mundane, we could say that her performances and projects bracket everyday moments, lending them the air of the remarkable), July’s works establish a context in which it is socially permissible for audiences to enter into a vulnerable state and feel its full force—to have their personal boundaries violated in order to feel the warmth of another.

In Schopenhauer’s time, the answer to the paradox of the isolated self versus the peril of vulnerability was found in what he called “politeness and good manners,” or the sense of decorum that regulated social interaction and kept the intensity of intimacy at bay. We, citizens of the 21st century, a newer society, are tasked with finding answers to the porcupine’s dilemma all over again. In the midst of globalization and a digital revolution, the politeness and good manners of yesteryear have given way to a much more ambiguous protocol. We still feel compelled to stave off loneliness in the presence of others, but the cultural mores regulating such interactions are continually in flux, failing to keep apace with the social changes wrought by revolutions in technology and more. “We’re all dealing with a lot more strangers due to the web,” explains July, in an interview with The Rumpus, “When you’re physically interacting with someone, it forces you to be more present and probably a little more uncomfortable… I’m interested in what the virtues of all those things are.”

If you plan to attend Miranda July’s New Society performance at the Walker this week, expect to be called upon to participate. Expect to look a little foolish in front of people you don’t know. Expect to make eye contact. Expect to be present—and probably a little uncomfortable.

Miranda July’s New Society will premiere at the Walker October 30–31, 2014.

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