21 Jan

Fifty Years Already?!

FT_post-BTJ

Fresh Tracks is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. Like anything (or anyone) five decades old, it’s gone through its share of transitions and name changes. The program, created to support the work of emerging choreographers, dates from the very beginning of Dance Theater Workshop (DTW), which was formed in 1965 by a collective of young choreographers and dancers. That same year, they began holding a series of informal performances at co-founder Jeff Duncan’s loft on 215 West 20th Street.

In an article in the August 1965 issue of Dance Magazine, giddily titled “Excitement on 20th Street,” photojournalist Lida Moser reported on DTW’s Studio Series, as the precursor to Fresh Tracks was then called. She was taken aback by the bare-bones stage—“an open space surrounded by folding chairs”—but goes on to say that “the performances were so engrossing that I became an aficionado and attended regularly. I was never disappointed.”

In contrast to the current Fresh Tracks’ selection process, those early days were audition-free.  Ze’eva Cohen, one of DTW’s original artists, recalls, “we were a fairly small group, we knew each other’s work, and there was a mutual trust that whatever we wished to experiment with was accepted.” Each program featured new work by five to eight choreographers, and the popularity of the series grew rapidly with both audiences and aspiring artists. Wendy Perron came through the doors in 1969 as a recent college graduate from Bennington: she had a casual audition, showing a short solo from her senior year to Jeff Duncan and Rudy Perez, who was just finishing his own rehearsal and stayed to pull up a chair.

In 1975, DTW moved to 219 West 19th Street and David White became the organization’s first full-time employee (he remained as Executive Director until 2003). In comparison to Duncan’s loft, which was definitely a live-work situation (Wendy remembers, “it was his shower, his refrigerator, and his studio space that we used”), the new location boasted a 100-seat theater, rehearsal studio, and even a lobby. Studio Series was renamed “The Choreographer’s Showcase” and presented a total of 12 artists annually (fall and spring programs of six artists each). An official panel of judges presided over the audition, and the program became a significant stepping stone into the Dance Theater Workshop “downtown dance” scene.

The Choreographer’s Showcase attracted young artists from disparate backgrounds and styles. In 1977, Bill T. Jones was part of a Showcase with Donald Byrd and Catherine Turocy, who was then producing her own modern choreography in addition to the Baroque dance she is now known for; at the time, Bill T. was struck by her “experiments with sound and gesture.”

David White memorably made the calls to the selected artists himself. Tiffany Mills (1996) recalls “a thrilling phone call announcing our acceptance,” which sent her and fellow performer Ursula Payne “jumping up and down in the snow.”  Patricia Hoffbauer (1990) was simultaneously laughing and crying over the message David left on her machine, “saying the piece was a mess, chaotic and confusing and the props were awful…and that people really felt that way about my work (not just the panelists). Then he took a breath and said, ‘but we took your piece, but you HAVE to work with [set designer] Candy Jernigan who will help you fix your props…if you are unwilling to do that…I am not sure.’“

And as for his famously direct delivery, Maura Donohue (1995) remembers that David “told me I needed to ‘lose the guy.’ I had included my current boyfriend in the piece (though it had been created as a solo). I took David’s advice in more ways than one.”

FT_post-Maura

Since 1965, this program has launched and supported the careers of over 500 artists, influencing each generation of dance makers and performers. The roster includes a slew of well-recognized names—Bill T. Jones, Mark Morris, David Parsons, Meredith Monk, Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker, Doug VaroneDavid Parker, Doug Elkins—and many other, lesser-known artists who have gone on to become established choreographers, performers, teachers, historians, and writers.

What comes through an admittedly scattershot survey of participants is the long-term impact of being selected for Studio Series/Choreographer’s Showcase/Fresh Tracks. Below is a selection of observations by former participants ranging from 1970 – 2009.

For Wendy Perron (1970, 1972), “That period was the beginning of defining myself as a dancer and choreographer. “

Catherine Turocy (1977) affirms, “Appearing on the Choreographer’s Showcase was a big stamp of approval for some one like me, fresh out of college.”

Bill T. Jones (1977) appeared at the Clark Center’s Dance Festival at the Mall of the CUNY Graduate Center (W. 42nd Street) in 1976. “I realized that – as for my career origins – these two “solo premiere performances” seem to have no relationship to each other as Clark Center was Uptown and DTW/Fresh Tracks was decidedly Downtown. You might say that my entire career has been trying to resolve these two points of origin that happened within one year of each other.”

Maura Donohue (1995) declares, “In many ways, Fresh Tracks was THE start of things. It opened the door to a long relationship with DTW…it brought me ‘inside the circle’ of working artists in the community. It made me believe this whole life as an artist might be possible.”

Jen Rosenblit (2009) notes that, “participating in Fresh Tracks helped me sharpen the specific cultures around the ways I approach dance making.“

Continued post-merger by New York Live Arts, the Fresh Tracks Performance and Residency Program selects six early career artists annually to receive performance and residency support. The program begins with a showcase performance, followed by a 50-hour creative residency in the New York Live Arts studios along with introductory level professional development workshops.

What Moser said in her 1965 article still rings true about the Fresh Tracks performances, “yes, I liked certain works better than others.  But it is always stimulating to see young talent make its way to exposure.”

We’d love to hear additional thoughts and memories about Fresh Tracks – please share them in the comments below.

With special thanks to Ze’eva Cohen, Maura Donohue, Patricia Hoffbauer, Bill T. Jones, Tiffany Mills, Wendy Perron, Jen Rosenblit, and Catherine Turocy for taking the time to generously share their memories.

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21 Jan

Context Notes: Fresh Tracks

First Impressions and Enthusiasms:
A Compendium to Fresh Tracks 2014-15
by Jess Barbagallo

An artist’s digital ephemera makes a curious body to sift. We (sort of) thrive in an age where documentation of live performance and in-process experimentation is readily available – awesome, but by no means all-encompassing. In the following notes, I attempt slightly expanded readings of micro-moments in a range of past movement scores generated by this year’s 2014-15 Fresh Tracks Artists. By responding to the sensuous possibilities of pre-branded process-oriented work, I hope to maintain my wonder for dance and encourage a model of playful association in others.

***

 To preview a survey of “early works” by this year’s 2014-15 Fresh Tracks Artists is to see an inspiring pattern of raw trying. Studio floors, folding chairs, disposable props, self-run techs, cameras aimed at ideas for two, six, ten minutes. Sometimes I learn these artists through a Kickstarter video, through the curator who just tapes everything, through the CV feature on the choreographer’s website or through a clarification: The song has been replaced … the tone is different … these samples don’t really share a dialogue of inquiry, but there is an active informational share occurring.

Like when Lindsay Reuter tells me about Good Evening, Strangers: “Yes, the solo you watched [at Judson, bearing the same name], which was composed as a letter to my brother Dan, has grown into a duet in which Dan is present. And the device of the letter is perhaps only vaguely relevant / useful anymore…”

She continues: “In terms of inviting him into the piece — he was always there in the composition as a ghost or memory or projection, and when I was invited for the Fresh Tracks audition, I wanted the audience to see the heft and breadth of our relationship, instead of me portraying it. This becomes a tricky field of representation, because Dan is a person with a developmental disability. He’s on the autism spectrum, which he will proudly tell you in conversation …  [but] I do not want Dan assigned as the person with a (dis)ability, since I actually don’t think it is the case.”

In our correspondence, I tell Lindsay I’m writing about movement textures. I observe from her now-discarded draft that she dances like an unusually sensitive game of charades. And this makes sense when she explains the essential role of listening in her collaborative work. Other impressions: elbows up in abstracted spar, the world’s gentlest boxer. The words jogging, squared, butch. While watching A Line Story, performed with Kate Kernochan at Gowanus Arts in the fall of 2013, I’m musing: “What could be fun alone is better together.”

Work-in-progress kernels strike me like x-ray maps of the future.

Niall Jones at The Invisible Dog in the summer of 2014. He steps onto the bumpy white marley and makes his wrist actively limp. Limp wrist becomes long arm becomes extended hip. He reaches the downstage and something I cannot see (he has been partnering all along in this solo, we discover) ignites a deconstruction of his preen. This lightly played hands-over-head, coy beefcake pose stolen from the club or runway gets questioned, rewritten, falters right there on the body. I ask myself, “What is at risk when he dances how he likes to dance?” When he steps into the eager audience at Catch 63 and asks them to lay hands on his body. In that moment, he is very much here. So the participants lead him back to the stage.

The beauty of the phrase “lights up, lights down.” More props.

In studio-exclusive excerpts from Buoys for Escapees, Julie Mayo, clad in black athletic shorts and sleeveless button-up, rails against her life supports and leans into a small clutter of objects onstage: backpack, pink coat, black coat, two chairs not one; she removes her shirt. She clutches an iced coffee like the Holy Grail, explaining with tremendous focus: “These … they … can help with a lot of things.” This devotion buckles Mayo; the caffeinated dance literally puts her on her back. Totally absurd, totally great. And in the next moment, she is rushing to a stereo to play The O’Jays “For the Love of Money,” a manic energy fusing disparate elements into a gut-acceptable logic of nonsense, as she dances the ultimate full-body party dance.

In an interview with Jeanine Durning at the David R. White Studio at New York Live Arts in March 2013, Mayo explains this gelling energy that makes fragments feel of a whole: “There is something driving the work that isn’t visible to the eye … part of my practice is performing so there is this ‘happening, but structured’ element to the work.” In this equation, the x factor or cohering force is Mayo, and a joyful work ethos emerges, destabilizing the stuffy divide between rehearsal preparations and performance readiness. Liveness cannot be rehearsed. But through live practice, you can learn how to listen to a room.

Particularly if you insist on quiet.

Choreographic work that speaks to “off-ness” (see the plastic cup, the limp wrist, the phantom) makes a space where I can situate myself. A self-proclaimed awkward, clumsy mover, I gravitate toward the order of a clear composition. The physical organization of complex emotional states – one working definition of dance – allows me to hold and take what conventional, talky theatre (my habit) rarely can encompass.

For example: the feeling of unease that permeates the work of Same As Sister, a performance collective led by sister duo Hilary Brown and Briana Brown-Tipley. Teasers for Women Times Three (a riff on Vittorio de Sica’s Woman Times Seven featuring seven variations on a theme starring one actress) pulse with intimations of uncanny secrecy, the sound of water and suspenseful motions. One sister’s explosive tip and fall from a chair at the hands of her sister leads to an indefinable shaking and hints at lurking, unpredictable ever present anywhere violence. The juxtaposition of these elements with dream-like music by Beau Mullis (I’m reminded of Ariel Pink the way the sound moves between motifs, becomes blissfully blissed out) and video by Kit Tipley creates a wholly new universe on-stage that revels in a perverse celebration of the ominous.

How does one joyfully investigate the conditions of a nightmare?

Hilary Brown tells me the pair began their extensive research with the following question: “Is it possible to form a dance vocabulary that truly evokes feelings of horror?”  Source material ranges from the films of Dario Argento to personal experiences of the horror genre to pictorial depictions of sirens throughout history in order to better understand predator and prey embodiments, and the seductions of terror from multiple vantage points. The emphasis on siren mythology particularly allows me to anticipate a feminist reclamation of the traditionally misogynist horror scene, as S.A.S. explores the terrain of female potential for victim and perpetrator status.

Finally, something entirely different, I might use the word elemental. He Jin Jang’s floor-centric compositions lead her back to the ground again and again, and through time. I watch work from her graduate days at Hollins University. Titles read like gentle philosophical treatises that also read like poems: Of the presence of “us-ness” (nowhere to hide), A practice of being together, Practice of Cost-effectiveness, Ethical Goodbyes (unread) … Fast forward to 2012, back on the blond floor at Judson, Jang shows an excerpt of a then work-in-progress for migrant-self the speed of the door. Fascinated spirals lead her from contemplative knee pose to her back and that return sticks with me. In this first exposure, Jang increases my consciousness regarding the air above my head.

I wonder about a process of return, fussily considering the passage of time between Jang’s Judson iteration of migrant-self … to her Fresh Tracks premiere of the work, both bearing the same title. I am moved by the model she teaches me, gently reconfiguring my understanding of time. Or the purism of practice-as-performance: “This piece is a “diagnostic piece” of which structure and contents shift as time passes by and I age. The version in 2012 will be different from the version 2015 and will be different when I perform this piece when I am 60-years-old (which I am planning on.)”

***

Sorting through these inquiries, looking for a pattern of investigation among disparate creativities, I have something better than thesis: anticipation. And an enthusiasm, generously supplied by Niall Jones. He writes:

how does subjectivity form the body
and then or before that
how does the body form choreography
and then or before that
how does choreography form the subject
and when do i swap the term subject for object?

He closes:

wish we could’ve chatted before this correspondence.
i can say more, lots more.

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12 Jan

Context Notes: Taylor Mac

The Historical Taylor Mac
by Paul David Young

One thing you can say for certain about Taylor Mac: he doesn’t think small. His breakthrough marathon was the five-hour The Lily’s Revenge. His work-in-progress A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, six hours of which are being presented at New York Live Arts as part of a first-time-ever marathon show, will, when completed, traverse American history, from the Declaration of Independence to 2016 in a 24-hour extravaganza of song, history, costumes, and commentary.

For Mac, there seem to be two important aspects to the duration of his shows. He believes that the unusually lengthy performances make the audience members into stronger collaborators. “The audience is my collaborator. Everybody says that, but what the audience brings to it is what creates the show.” He cited the preparation the audience has to do in order to make it through the many hours. It becomes “more than just another piece of culture they’re consuming.” He noted that for his run at Live Arts the first show to sell out was the marathon performance. “People want that durational experience.”

The other important aspect that we discussed was the effect on him as the hours take their toll. Like the audience, he experiences deterioration. His voice cracks. He gets tired. His memory falters. The progressive failure is part of the experience for both audience and performer.

I was interested to note that he embraces the word “theater,” a term that many involved in “performance” or “art performance” and even theater run away from, as if it were Ebola. “I always liked the theater because it’s dorky. The art world so often seems to be about cool kid culture, separate form of society and elitist, and I find that disturbing.” He admits, though, that “the theater in general is really far behind everybody else on gender parity, the ideas—it’s so far behind progressive culture. I’m working at being one of the artists who are trying to get theater caught up..” He attributed part of the problem to the subscriber orientation of many producing companies which have adopted the philosophy of giving the subscribers what they want. “But of course the job of the artist is to give the public what they need, not what they want. You don’t tell the plumber how to fix the plumbing. You let them do their job, because they know what to do.”

I had watched Taylor Mac’s meteoric career with awe. He has been invited to play in any number of important venues and received torrents of adulatory press. His reviews read like hagiography. I wondered how that felt. He demurred lightly, “I’m famous below 14th Street. Maybe in the past couple of years I’ve been moving up the blocks a little bit.” He said that he had matured about seeking approval. “Praise and blame are really exhausting, rather than fulfilling, or filling that hole in your soul that can never be filled.” Having detailed the unsanitary conditions in his dressing rooms even at prestigious venues, the modest pay, the cockroaches, and the struggle, he said he also found himself skipping down the street recently when he found out his play would be published in American Theatre magazine. While sometimes he feels, “Wow! It’s amazing that I’m doing this,” at other times, he’s singing along with Peggy Lee: “Is that all there is?”

The broad historical scope of the Live Arts production and the American focus made me ask whether Mac was doing a bit of flag-waving. “I was raised in a world in which we were supposed to be patriotic. I don’t understand that. I understand wanting to make things better, which doesn’t mean it’s not good. I’m interested in the joy of improvement.” He said that he wasn’t putting himself out there as an historian. “It’s my subjective historical account. I’m using the material to get to how imperfection fosters community.” He explained that he wanted to address the visibility of homosexuals in the historical records. “I went to one of the worst school districts in the nation but even in that school district we learned about civil rights, women’s rights, immigration, lots of things they often censor out of the history. But there wasn’t one single mention ever of homosexuals.” He continued, “Of course, we are all over history. There’s very little acknowledgement of that. The show is a lot about trying to find the queers in American history.”

In terms of his own place in history, Mac won the Ethyl Eichelberger award in 2005, the first time the honor was bestowed by PS122. I recalled being deeply impressed by Eichelberger’s strangely serious drag performances at PS122 and elsewhere. She sometimes accompanied herself on the accordion and, while also comic, interpreted major works of classic tragedy. She worked with Charles Ludlam, another of my theater idols, whose Ridiculous Theatre Company produced delightful send-ups of the theater canon and was graced by the talents of many now legendary downtown figures, such as Black-Eyed Susan, Lola Pashalinski, and Everett Quinton. Though Mac never saw Eichelberger perform, “What I’ve learned is that she influenced a lot of people that influenced me.” Mac noted that, like himself, Eichelberger was a playwright, performance artist, drag queen and a musician, and they even attended the same acting school. “She’s the big one for me. I feel like she was my drag mother even though I never met her.”

With the promise of Taylor Mac’s performance still two months away, I visited the Park Avenue Armory studio he shares with Machine Dazzle, who was trained as a visual artist and designs Mac’s costumes. The Park Avenue Armory is itself steeped in history and art. Its ornate, dark wood interiors designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany and Stanford White are dotted with paintings of military commanders, and the drill hall has been turned into a performance venue. It’s hard to imagine a grander setting in which to work or a more regal studio, though its functionality as an atelier is limited by the crepuscular lighting. Beneath its coffered ceiling and under the cheerful gaze emanating from the oil portrait of a nineteenth-century officer outfitted in a jolly decorative uniform, Machine’s costumes for Mac were taking shape out of the mounds of fabric, spangles, and eccentric objects heaped on the tables. The ancient clock in the studio had stopped, and the remnants of time expressed themselves in the periods of Machine’s costumes. It would be unfair to give away the surprises they concealed or to detail how they managed to allude to the tragedies and traumas of the American Century, while also leaving plenty of room to giggle. Seeing the dresses waiting limply on their hangers made me look forward to the moment when Taylor Mac would slip them on and let it roar.

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25 Nov

Context Notes: Neil Greenberg

The Meaning of “Meaning”: Neil Greenberg
by Paul David Young

When I met Neil Greenberg in the auditorium of New York Live Arts, he was munching on a salad. Barefoot and in track pants, he was from the start quite affable and welcomed my presence at his first time to try out This in the space in which it would be performed. He had unexpectedly been given an early opportunity to explore the piece in the theater at Live Arts for one day and generously invited me to join them.

I was immediately impressed by the openness and warmth of the rehearsal. In conversation with his lighting designer, Joe Levasseur, who was proposing to install a slew of lights across a wall, Greenberg embraced the experiment on the spot. “Try it. Let’s see,” he said. Later, when choreographer Juliette Mapp arrived to observe, it was hugs all around and murmurs of appreciation.

For this day, the lighting was left to the imagination. Two pairs of chairs represented the locations of clusters of lights that would occupy the stage and illuminate it. For the rehearsal, plain white lights shone uniformly over the entire space. Theatrical lighting gives form and color to the shapes and movements of dancers’ bodies; without it, I could not know what would eventually be seen and how we would see it. The dancers wore their own clothes, depriving me of an understanding of how the costumes would affect my understanding of This. It was like looking inside a machine as it is being built, in order to guess how it will function.

As I watched the run-through, my mind kept wandering back to Greenberg’s Artist Statement, in which he talked about “potencies, the ‘meanings’ (quotation marks original) of the dancing itself.” At times the dancers seemed to be operating in separate worlds, performing their own sequences, and yet my eye and my mind wanted to put them together. Perhaps that’s what he meant by “meaning.” I found myself becoming so involved in watching the particulars of the individual dancers and the uniqueness of their movements, that I often missed the entrances and exits. Likewise, I somehow neglected to mark the presence and absence of music or sound. What I saw at first appeared to me more strange than facilely beautiful, and then it seemed to become more beautiful the longer I looked. I distrusted myself and questioned whether I was seeing the inner harmonies of the choreography, or my mind was imposing a structure on a set of phenomena that were occurring simultaneously. Which was the “meaning”?

I talked with Greenberg on the phone the next morning. He explained that in This, he was “allowing things to grow. I have a tendency to build continuities in certain ways. Things reappearing, connective tissue. In this dance I’ve been daring to not do that as much, to accept the materials as they are, in and of themselves. This is not to say I don’t experience continuity in this dance – I do. I don’t experience it as haphazard. Part of the challenge is how that’s going to play out for viewers.”

I couldn’t resist wading into deep waters. What did he mean by “meaning”? “I’m really talking about experience,” he said, and added, “The meaning of it is the sensuous surfaces, to quote Susan Sontag.” He was referring to Sontag’s famous essay, “Against Interpretation,” in which she argues against the assumption that art needs to be interpreted or decoded for the public to have an experience of it. Like Sontag, Greenberg was steering away from interpretation and instead saying to himself, “let’s really get into ‘this.’ Hence the title.”

Some of the “this” in This is the process that Greenberg used to arrive at the choreography. He and the other dancers improvised on camera according to rules and ideas that he established, including for the first time duet improvisations. After a meticulous editing and ordering process, selected parts of the filmed improvisations were learned for performance. In a later studio rehearsal I attended, though they already knew the movements and sequences, the dancers returned to reviewing the video under Greenberg’s direction and sought to mine it for as yet undiscovered details, a practice Greenberg somewhat jokingly referred to as “forensic movement science.” He is after the “facts.” He wants to show “this, this person, this constructed performance moment.” The individual parts of This “resist interpretation, but also interpretation plays through them.” Greenberg said he had come to acknowledge recently that “part of any ‘this’ includes its referents, and the associations each viewer will bring to it. I think I previously was trying to be too ‘black and white’ about it, looking for things without referents, which is nearly impossible, maybe completely impossible.”

As I watched the rehearsal, I was reminded of how Merce Cunningham had constructed his dances, the independence of movements, dancers, sound, light, and stage design. Indeed, Greenberg spent his formative years dancing with Cunningham. “In this piece I’m daring to get a little closer to Cunningham-like for me.” He made plain, though, that his methods differ significantly. “Chance mechanisms are not a device I’m using here. There’s a different kind of choosing and placing going on.”

Having already waded into the deep waters of the meaning of “meaning,” I recklessly forged ahead and asked him what made his work special. His answer was consistent with what we had talked about with respect to This. It was specific, peculiar to him and his history. “I’m very interested in looking at the thing itself. Why? From growing up gay in the ’60s in Minnesota and not at first having a strong awareness of how wrong that was in the world, and then coming to see that painfully clearly. Somehow I think this part of my personal history figures in my investment in how to experience myself and other people in a way that doesn’t fit with the label that’s been given the thing. I want the experience to be of the thing in its specificity and its label-resistant complexity. What is this thing? Not just how it’s being translated or interpreted by the world.”

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03 Nov

Context Notes: Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company

By Chance
by Jedediah Wheeler

By chance, I was working for an artists’ management collective at Westbeth (NYC) in the seventies. Merce Cunningham’s studio was located down the hall. The building had been part of Bell Labs and its president used our offices. My job was to find performance opportunities for avant-garde artists such as Richard Foreman, Robert Ashley, Alvin Lucier, David Gordon, Lucinda Childs and Mabou Mines. One artist in the collective already had a formidable performance career and I was told that he did not need my attention. His name was John Cage. John Cage was mushrooming worldwide on his own!

That I “met” him is my way of saying I did not know him, but acknowledging that I had had the privilege of being associated with him; however tangentially.

After meeting John Cage, I began to follow his work. And in the following I came to think more fully about “possibility” – the act of believing in the unexpected. For possibility to take root, opportunity had to exist. John Cage epitomized a fusion of opportunity and possibility in which accidents become creative stepping stones in making new work.

Contemporary performance in America is often held back by the lack of time, space and money to really create. In my career as a producer and artist manager, I had realized numerous works under less than optimum conditions. With that experience very present in my mind, I set out to fashion a new performing arts program at MSU. Not only would time, space and resources be available to all sorts of artists but they could work in an environment that championed creation without compromise.

I had my opportunity.

The first artist to make new work in The Alexander Kasser Theater was Bill T. Jones and the Bill T Jones/Arne Zane Dance Company who came to Montclair State University in 2005 to make Blind Date.

Bill T. Jones and his collaborators entered The Kasser with ideas on high alert.

Possibility filled the space!

The ideas that Bill explored at the beginning of the extended residencies
evolved considerably until Blind Date opened and, crucially, continued to evolve
from first public performance to the last which was uniquely two years later in
the place it began: The Kasser.

Since that first residency/workshop/premier, Peak Performances has served as a
home where artists do create without compromise. Our commitment to BTJ/AZ
blossomed even further with A Quarrelling Pair (2007), Story/Time (2012) and in
due time Analogy (June, 2015).

Inspired by John Cage’s Indeterminacy which consists of ninety stories to be
read aloud with or without musical accompaniment paced so that each story
takes one minute, Story/Time is wholly unique without being one of kind. Bill
reads sixty plus stories culled from his life experience set to musical and dance
accompaniment.

And what a work it is!

The complexity of Bill’s transformation of Indeterminacy into Story/Time is
astonishing. Seventy plus dances created and then selected by a pre configured
computer program set to inspired personal stories no more than 60 seconds in
length, with a bold set, light design and sound score is jaw dropping. Most dance
shows are dependent on specificity not random selection.

Story/Time underscores what I believe to be Bill T Jones’ vision of what a
satisfying performance should be for the artist and the audience: a journey of
surprising moments that expand the personal experiences. Chance encounters
of the mind and body that reveal the unique human capacity to imagine.

The pleasure of seeing a show that sets the bar so high and works so well is one
reward. But to consider Story/Time as an extension of John Cage’s notion of
performance through chance is all the more fulfilling.

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23 Oct

Context Notes: Gisèle Vienne

Gisèle Vienne: Disturbance in Representation

By Bernard Vouilloux

The French-Austrian artist Gisèle Vienne (b. 1976) has made the stage her primary artistic material. Deceptively theatrical, her pieces function as tableaux or cinematic shots, hybrid representations of what is inexpressible in human relations. An analysis by Bernard Vouilloux, professor of literature and the visual arts at the Sorbonne.

For over a decade, beginning in 2000 with Jean Genet’s Splendid’s, Gisèle Viennehas been building up a fascinating body of work, piece by piece, that is both spellbinding and disturbing. It captivates us for the very reason that it forces us to examine the unclear connection that we maintain with both our fantasies and with the dark part made up of manipulation, domination, and violence that forms interpersonal relationships. To advance along this perilous course, Gisèle Vienne – who sees herself as choreographer, puppeteer, director and visual artist all at once – uses these means of representation as her medium. Whileshe has recently appropriated the more or less defined working methods of the art installation (“Last Spring: A Prequel”, at the 2012 Whitney Biennial in New York), exhibition (“Teenage Hallucination”, as part of the Nouveau Festival at the PompidouCentre in 2012), and even the book (40 Portraits, 2003-2008, published in 2012 by Éditions P.O.L), the venue and format to which she has usually devoted herself since her debut are those of the performing arts.

Althoughvery little is verbalized, works such as Kindertotenlieder (2007) and This Is How You Will Disappear (2010) are built on the intricate librettos created by Dennis Cooper, the American writer whom Gisèle Vienne has collaborated with since I Apologize (2004). The “action” of these underlying stories, far from yielding an unequivocal version, makes available all potentialities. What we are shown seems to conform to rules or laws whose sense eludes us. The subject matter on which each of Gisèle Vienne’s productions has been constructed is not unlike what anthropology designates as “myth”, that unrecoverable narrative whose inscrutable – and even contradictory – variationssustain rituals.

With few exceptions, notably Une belle enfant blonde (2005) and Jerk (2008), the “theatre” of Gisèle Vienne is a laconic one: the spoken word does not really exist there; to the extent that it does occur, it does so in the minimal form of monologue, often murmured, addressed to oneself or to someone who cannot hear, one who is absent or deceased. Jerk suggests what would be spoken in Vienne’s other shows if it were to be uttered; and at the same time, because it is a narrative, performed by a psychopathic narrator, and containing dialogues (entirely carried off by the impressive Jonathan Capdevielle), the spoken word of Jerk provides access to the underlying framework of the productions conceived by Gisèle Vienne based on the written texts of Dennis Cooper. One should imagine all of Dennis Cooper’s sources of inspiration, from another continent and another culture, when he tells stories of beautiful, ambiguous teens brutally tortured, young women manipulated, lovers gone missing, as though commissioned by Sade and Sacher-Masoch (invoked in Showroomdummies, 2001-2009), revised by Genet and Bataille, and then reworked by the Robbe-Grillets with, on the horizon, “Freudian psychology in the light of postmodernism” as specifies narrator of Jerk.

Writing that feeds from images of all sorts is itself a powerful trigger of images, whether it be those that develop on the stage or those that the spectator imagines or recombines from what s/he sees and hears, or even from what s/he reads (e.g. the fanzines distributed to the audience at the beginning of Jerk, 2008, or at the end of The Pyre, 2013). In the work of Gisèle Vienne, however, the image on stage is unique in that it is mobile, its plastic qualities have been highly elaborated, and it is coupled to an almost uninterrupted flow of music (by the duo of KTL). Neither opera nor filmed theatre, but rather dream images, images from silent film, and accompanied by music and spoken word as if from off-stage, from “another scene” (Freud), as it were … The “theatre” of Gisèle Vienne primarily deals with all that is neither looked at nor listened to, the silent images that haunt us, flooding back onto the stage.

Gisèle Vienneas well as subsequent critical comment on her workhave often cited the genre of tableau vivant: onlookers (you, me) assume the poses, the postures, and sometimes the costumes of the painted figures of a familiar scene. Except that there is no original tableau that this can be traced back to, one whose recognition would reassure us. The actors themselves play along, their displacements having the effect of saturating the performance space, of mobilizing all of its dimensions, by a rigorously constructed total environment. All of the body’s speeds are utilized: quick staccato dance (in The Pyre), quasi-gymnastics (in This Is How You Will Disappear), displacements that are fast, slow, or broken down.

But “actor” and “performer” are words that in this case are ill-suited – and not only because most of the figures activate the resources of choreography. In Jerk, the mechanism of representation is reduced to its most minimal state: it is enough that the body of the narrator-puppeteer is doubled, that the mute voice that is designated “subject” is bifurcated and reflected off itself. The puppets are the projections of this process of fission. Gisèle Vienne herself has touched on this in her account of how in sixth grade she began to create marionettes and perform with them. The puppets and mannequins point to a more advanced stage of this process: on the set of Kindertotenlieder, the ten motionless silhouettes, with hoods pulled up over their hair, hair falling down over the face, and heads bowed down (a recurring motif, seen again in the series of 40 Portraits), seem to be those of the young audience at a black metal concert. The final stage is that of living persons who also wear masks. Don’t their gestures and movements sometimes seem to be mechanized, whereas, conversely, the animation of the puppets, and even of the mannequins, make them seem alive? The same disturbing thought troubles us when faced with the figures of a tableau vivant, or of wax: the most familiar becomes the most strange. Indeed, under the direction of Gisèle Vienne, there are neither actors or performers nor even people, but figures which are at the same time apparitions, geometrical forms, and rhetorical operations tuned in to the Unconscious. The generalized uncertainty plays on this stage set of simulacra.

The fantasy material set into motion by Gisèle Vienne as by Dennis Cooper takes this uncertainty to a state of additional complexity: the ambiguity of age, between infancy, childhood, adolescence, and post-adolescence. It is also that of gender – for example the young androgynous boys of Jerk, in contrast to the powerfully sexual bodies of the female dancer and the trainer in This Is How You Will Disappear. But still more disturbing is the uncertainty of the subject itself, above all when it speaks as in Jerk or Last Spring: A Prequel. On this subject, reduced as we are to conjecture, we can only resort to projections.

“The question of the status of Gisèle Vienne’s pieces – theatre, or spectacle – remains open.”

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21 Oct

2014 New York Dance and Performance Bessie Awards

Big congratulations to all of the 2014 New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Award recipients! Special congratulations to John Jasperse for winning Outstanding Production for his piece Within between, Stuart Singer for winning Outstanding Performance in John Jasperse’s Within between and Rebecca Serrell-Cyr for winning Outstanding Performance in Donna Uchizono’s Fire Underground. Read the New York Times Review of the Bessies.

Rebecca Serrell-Cyr in Donna Uchizono's "Fire Underground" - Photo by Ian Douglas

Rebecca Serrell-Cyr in Donna Uchizono’s Fire Underground. Photo by Ian Douglas.

Stuart Singer in John Jasperse's "Within between" - Photo by Ian Douglas

Stuart Singer in John Jasperse’s Within between. Photo by Ian Douglas.

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10 Oct

Context Notes: Cynthia Oliver

Language As Step, or Language Stepping to the Step: The Body as Storymaker in the Work of Cynthia Oliver
By Jess Barbagallo

“Words set to rhythm are like gravy on meat: The sum is greater than the parts.”
-Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance

Cynthia Oliver is a self-described storyteller, her need to “new narrativize” energizing and tangible. Born in the Bronx, raised in St. Croix, and currently a professor of dance at the University of Illinois, Oliver holds multiple subject positions with a grace and clarity that has sustained her career as a performer, choreographer, educator and scholar for over twenty years.

A trademark theatricality oozes from her body, and those she makes works upon. Scrolling through still images of her work, I am struck by her smile, her eyes, that charismatic-indefinable-unteachable that every great performer possesses; there is as much dance happening above her shoulders as below them. And you know it from your comfortable seat when you feel this face in motion: the seductive force of a dynamic presence calling you to come hither.

The warmth of a genuine invitation is notable sometimes for its rarity, and its energy has the potential to unseat you. In because she was, a manic 2003 solo, Oliver channels a village of conspiratorial island women in alternating gestures of “sizing up” and spastic glee. Gossip and chatter are no idle matters here. Motions of fast talking, giggling and pacing seem to come from a place of deep engagement with her core, a physio-spiritual merger that almost makes my own spine tingle and undulate in fan-induced mimicry.

Closer Than Skin, a trio work made in 2006 with Leslie Cuyjet and Maria Earle, features another breathtaking solo by Oliver, but this is no repeat exercise in levity. A haunting soundtrack of manipulated voices drives her body as mysterious violence threatens to consume her, dramatic and urgent. Her unwavering focus remains on the audience as her feet patter paranoia quick across the floor – what does she see out there? Is the violence just beyond the room? Or inside the room, inside her…suddenly Oliver takes her face by the thumb and guides it to her shoulder, proceeds to shake the upset from her head and this gesture sets her reeling, as she becomes an avatar for recoil and release. And what of this torrent of language, echo-ey, metallic, haunting, the one element her quaking body cannot seem to shake?

Oliver has long been an advocate for the importance of the spoken word and its place in her oeuvre. Describing her work, in a 2009 interview with Gia Kourlas, Oliver, loquacious, laughs and says: “I can’t keep my mouth shut…I’ve always been interested in the way language can dance.” A key oil in her choreographer’s palette, the sounds of words seem to carry as much weight as their content. They start a fire, they kick something off, they grease the machine.

Consider 2009’s Rigidigidim De Bamba De: Ruptured Calypso. Six women give voice to breath and begin a movement phrase, imploring percussion with a simple dialogic exchange, illustrated across their bodies as though one arm was speaking to another. The call is “Eh!” and the response “Wha wha?” These kernels compose the first loop of a sound cycle that will amplify and evolve throughout the course of the dance. With the snap of their unison fingers and an invigorated slap of thighs, the rite has begun. Dressed in orange, yellow, pink, blue, and gold, against a backdrop of cerulean sky and clouds, they move in synchronized pattern across the bare floor. Expression begins in the hips and moves into the shoulders in contained gestures of throwing and lifting, opening the chest until each body becomes a fully expressive vessel. It’s so joyful, you want to know the steps, the uninhibited rocking of your own pelvis. And when they do finish their sequence, the dancers—residue of movement still present in hips that can’t quite let go of the beat—proclaim: “Rigidigidim de bamba de! Rigidigidim de bamba de! Rigidigidim!” It’s uplifting, exultant, and wonderfully infectious.

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09 Oct

Context Notes: Jennifer Monson

Inside the Archive with Jennifer Monson
by Paul David Young

“Dancing is my tool to generate research on the landscape,” Jennifer Monson told me.  It is an “embodied relationship with the world and how we understand it.”  We spoke as she was beginning to rehearse for her restaging of Live Dancing Archive at New York Live Arts and her thoughts about what she would present were evolving.

What Monson means by research involves investigation into hard science as well as spending time at swamps and beaches, filming, watching, and dancing.  Her BIRDBRAIN project, which provides part of the background for Live Dancing Archive, entailed this kind of multipronged approach, in this case specifically with respect to the migration of the osprey, a coastal raptor.  Hundreds of volunteers and a morphing assemblage of collaborators engaged in direct observation and documentation in the outdoors.  By reviewing the films and improvising, Monson transformed these observations into dance, which itself evolved in form as it moved from the wilderness to the stage.  Robin Vachal’s video installation, now on view at Live Arts, documents this process, as does the online archive by Youngjae Josephine Bae.  Monson stressed that whatever happens on the stage is only one component of the total piece.

Though she has danced outdoors, she has returned to presenting her work in conventional performance spaces.  “Dancing outside, the flow of energy is really vast.  The impact is in relation to other movement going on.  There is a way that the energy continues and disperses.  Dancing outside is always destabilizing you,” she said.  She was “very moved” by the way the dances that she staged outdoors disappeared into the landscape in which they were created, like “white on white.”  Inside the theater, she explained, there is “a tighter border, a concentration.  I am able to negotiate and communicate in a more focused way.  The dancing can be quite different.”

The AIDS crisis and queer activism motivated her early career.   Since 2000, her work has drawn from migratory behavior in the wilderness, even as her understanding of the wild has itself shifted.  She said she started out with a simple view of untouched nature, but her experience showed her that it was a more complex thing, sometimes disturbed by human intervention and sometimes restored.  She discovered the border spaces of compromised ecologies and saw that they could be productive environments where rebirth and reinvention are possible.  In our dialogue, though she occasionally uses such terms herself, she was dismissive of any specific terminology, such as “the wild” or “nature,” that might be used to approximate her nuanced understanding of the subject matter of her work, saying that she wants to “de-naturalize” such words.

Live Dancing Archive has been presented several times in different venues and forms, including just last year in New York at The Kitchen.  The addition of two new dancers, Niall Jones and Tatyana Tenenbaum, is Monson’s focus for this new iteration at Live Arts.  For her, the vital question is how and/or whether she will be able to convey the embodied knowledge of the dances that evolved out of the BIRDBRAIN project to these new dancers who have not had the same years of experience, observing and improvising.  It has historically always been true for dance that someone teaches someone else how to do it.  In this re-presentation, it is uncertain what Monson can transmit to others, how much is lost in the transmission, and what has to change or might fruitfully or accidentally change as that body of knowledge is transferred to and re-performed by Jones and Tenenbaum.  The model of the “archive” might here be understood as a process that manifests itself in time-based work, through the always imperfect replicators of human bodies, dancing, moving and vocalizing.  Inevitably the archive reveals itself to be porous, faulty, and unstable, and therefore interesting to investigate, as both a dancer and a spectator.  The similarity of biological and ecological processes springs readily to mind.  In evolution, the variances in DNA transmission create biological diversity and change the species and the world around it.  Ecologies, the collective repositories of life forms and their systems of interactions, are constantly morphing, whether as a result of human intervention or otherwise.

Jeff Kolar contributes a score for Live Dancing Archive that is site-responsive: he controls a handmade chain of radio transmitters responding to electromagnetic frequencies as they are affected by wireless systems surrounding New York Live Arts.  Monson’s creative process involves an analogous sensorial response to the elements in the wilderness.  In her dance she seeks to reveal the agency and materiality of the phenomena that her research has discovered.

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02 Oct

Context Notes: RoseAnne Spradlin

The Raw Wilderness Inside: An Independent Study of RoseAnne Spradlin

By Jess Barbagallo

The first time I encounter RoseAnne Spradlin’s work is from the floor of the blond studio theater at Brooklyn Arts Exchange where we are artists-in-residence together. The room is full, the lights are up. My memory is murky, illuminated by these slippery flashes I am grateful for, two years later: the relentless pattern of women crossing space (my friend Tina likes how “tightly” they are costumed, then uncostumed); dancer Rebecca Warner’s gaze nodding along to some invisible internal dialogue she’s having with her body; bare legs on a diagonal coming toward me, I inhale. The dancers keep breathing and in turn I suspend my breath. All the subsequent activations are dominoes—you pull back your chin to straighten your neck, only to find you’ve lifted your chest, where you keep your lungs and your heart. The open, consumptive torso becomes a more porous expanse to receive all this…call it honest energy.

Later I ask about process and the stakes of being so present (and the body-altering gift of this presence). Warner tells me: “It’s kind of this thing you have to trust is important even if you don’t know why…I originally was drawn toward [RoseAnne’s] work because it felt like a departure…more raw, still demanding and intense, but in an abandoned way. I wanted an experience of power.” She trails off in half a question, “I don’t know if it was a feminine power…” 

Over and over, I watch an excerpt from 2012’s beginning of something. The piece bears a loose relation to the movement I witnessed in the studio showing, now dressed up with a live brass and strings ensemble. In some part of myself, I am compelled to formulate an essentializing thesis about women and dance, as I watch flesh shake over bones. Instead, so seduced and overwhelmed by the sharp physical turns overtaking the blue-black of the floor—raised up like a runway, but playfully nullifying commerce’s imprint with its parade of old mink, tartan skirt and tape bra—I phrase this an aesthetic ethos of independence.

***

In dim light, four dancer bodies dutifully spread garments in color-coded patterns over white marley. These figures, hypnotically fascia-conscious and driven in the first movements of Spradlin’s 2006 Survive Cycle, now perform a mundane chore. Are they drying clothes or recovering from a storm? They complete their task with the precision and intensity of a rescue team recording damage. On the back wall of the theater, performers’ faces are projected in confessional, describing the process of making the piece, searching for words to describe the unsayable dynamics of a collaboration. Each indicates the journey has been fraught, or like an atmosphere so thick it is difficult to tease the self from the stew. 

Paige Martin: I’m trying not to get caught up in that, this time around.

Walter Dundervill: From my perspective there’s a …there’s a sense of being…I don’t want to talk about it, but…I can talk about it, I just don’t know how…It’s hard to verbalize it, this…it’s like being pushed.

When people watch performance, sometimes they perceive the machinations of artists as “brave” because they appear to be the embodiment of devotion galvanized to indiscernible ends. Audaciously, the disciples of such performance practice ask: what is a dance that pushes past the tenable? How do I find it? And then, for those of us lucky enough to watch, reap: what does it mean to dance the ego-defying dance? And they do it while they’re in the dark!

***

I ask my friend, a dancer-for-life, to tell me in a sentence something about Spradlin’s choreography. She says, What I love about RoseAnne’s work is that for me it is about the ungoverned body, or seems to be trying to access the complexity of the raw wilderness inside. 

She goes on to recount a conversation we had about a life lived in dance, the complications.

I remember our conversation about verbal expression versus the other less socially normative modes of communication.

I was able to express to you my frustration that verbal strength dominated our construct.

It feels as though a translation process has to happen first before I can speak to people. Ideas occur first to me as sensations attached to a movement/sound/visual which is very clear. 

Then to translate it into proper English language is difficult. 

The challenge of assigning descriptors to work you admire. A recurrent motif of talking around dance, perhaps with the knowledge that nothing can be known until it is done. And some yearning to remain in those psychic moors; “a tract of land used for hunting.”

***

On making g-h-o-s-t c-r-o-w-n (working title), Spradlin writes:

“These dancers, performers, they are putting everything into their performance.  One dancer said doing one of the sections, which is 18 minutes long without a break was kind of ‘scary.’ But then we both laughed and agreed that performance should be scary! Not just scary, of course, but you really want what you’re involved with to take you out of the ordinary. Or that’s what I want anyway. When one performs something that’s so challenging that it’s scary, I think one feels like a different person when the run is over. And then there’s this feeling of not being able to go back, or not wanting to go back. And that’s what keeps artists going forward, even though it’s so hard in many ways to continue.  But the performance time is when the performer’s cells evolve and change and one never wants to go back to the way they were before, because—well frankly you don’t want to leave the heightened state that is so compelling, you just want to stay there.”  

***

Around 8pm on a Wednesday night, I visit a rehearsal for g-h-o-s-t c-r-o-w-n (working title). Spradlin apologizes that the technicians have gone home and I probably won’t see a run. Five dancers stretching, they are framed by a dazzlingly severe sculpture (created by Glen Fogel) that resembles a black leaf or spade of rings. Spradlin is unassuming in the third row of the house. 

We briefly chat about the influence of Balanchine’s first ballet Serenade on the work, its current relation spectral, but to be noted. Shocking audiences in its US premiere in 1934, Serenade is striking for a principal’s choreographed fall; The Waltzing Girl appears to die on stage, then she is resurrected in a lift. Six male dancers carry her away as she gracefully arches her back in an offering to the Beyond. Spradlin’s eyes become animate as she tells me the story and its intrigue. Then, politely, she returns to her blocking rehearsal. 

The dancers run a pattern several times, calling moments of traffic, congestion and success. One dancer, new to the work, struggles to execute a turn and the company troubleshoots. Spradlin observes, “If your arms are doing equilibrium response, it means it’s not flowing through.” Natalie Green follows, “People are detaching their knees and therefore it’s an erratic structure.” Spradlin steps onto the stage and gets down on her own knees to touch the dancer’s leg, explaining, “You just need to feel it.” Watching the adjustment I feel just the slightest envy as she sends the dancer off; they confirm that the move is so much easier to execute with this awareness, as Spradlin says, “It actually keeps you organized, but granted it is very hard.”

She says it like a couplet, or like a highly distilled frontier poem.

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