A Compelling Way of Understanding the World: A Conversation with Jacqueline Shea Murphy | By Marie Tollon

At the beginning of the performance part of SHORE, Minneapolis-based choreographer Emily Johnson stands on a wooden box and tells the crowd gathered outdoors: “There’s a story that I’ve been meaning to tell you for a really long time, except that I don’t remember the beginning, which makes me think about all the things in my life that I don’t remember.” She pauses, before asking: “Do you remember?” She goes on, telling a story that connects her, and her viewers, to the land she is performing on. With her narrative, Johnson touches upon a collective memory bank – the stories, events, feelings that exist within our DNA. In addition to conjuring up links to an archaic past, the artist also exposes the transformative power of live performance: its ability to engage us as active participants in a journey of remembering and rediscovering essential pieces of our identity.

Emily Johnson  in "SHORE" Photo by Erin Westover

Emily Johnson
in “SHORE”
Photo by Erin Westover

Of Yup’ik descent, Johnson, whose piece SHORE in Yelamu (San Francisco) will be presented at ODC next week, is one of the Indigenous choreographers that scholar Jacqueline Shea Murphy evoked during her presentation of Here and Now: Indigenous Presence and the Contemporary Choreography of Emily Johnson/Catalyst and DANCING EARTH at Stanford Colloquium on Dance Studies last May. Shea Murphy is an Associate Professor of Critical Dance Studies and Chair of the Dance Department at UC-Riverside. She is the author of “The People Have Never Stopped Dancing”: Native American Modern Dance Histories (University of Minnesota Press, 2007).

In anticipation of SHORE, and Minneapolis-based choreographer Rosy Simas’ We Wait In The Darkness, which will be presented at ODC in October, Shea Murphy and I talked about contemporary Indigenous dance over the phone early this summer.

Marie Tollon: How did you come to research and write about Indigenous dance?

Jacqueline Shea Murphy: I came to write about Indigenous dance through literary studies. I was an English PhD student. As part of my literary studies, I was studying narrative theory and I was looking around for ways of thinking about storytelling and narrative that were different from what I was being taught. I became interested in and started reading a lot of Native American literary theory about Native American narrative. At the same time, I was looking at dance as a form of alternative narrative, a way of telling stories that wasn’t what I had been taught in graduate school. Because I was reading Native American literary studies, thinking a lot about the ways that storytelling connects people, and because I was also writing about dance and thinking about the way that dance connects people, how it works to make meaning in a way different perhaps than writing- I put them together. Eventually, I started to think about how they were working in similar ways.

Jacqueline Shea Murphy Photo by Bashir Anastas

Jacqueline Shea Murphy
Photo by Bashir Anastas

Then I was reading about Martha Graham who made a famous comment in one of her essays about “the Indian and the Negro” as sources of great importance in American modern dance. There were quite a lot of dance scholars writing about African American dance, but no one was writing about Native American dance and its contribution to American modern dance history. So my first book was provoked by that comment and made me want to understand why no one was writing about Native American dance history in relation to modern dance history. And that sent me on a long journey to study the history of Native American dance in relationship to dance history and to U.S. and Canadian political history, and to get to know and learn from and with and about contemporary Native American and other Indigenous choreographers. In the process of researching that book, I met many Native choreographers — and that was a number of years ago, in the late 1990s. Since then, I have been following the work of Indigenous choreographers in the US, in Canada, and New Zealand. So –I was drawn very intellectually to Indigenous studies because it provided a way of understanding the world that seemed compelling and important and different from what I was being taught in my academic programs.

MT: There is obviously a multiplicity of voices that make up the Indigenous dance world. What are the common characteristics that these works share?

JSM: Indigenous is such a troubling word. The scholar Mary Louise Pratt has remarked that people only become “Indigenous” when the colonizers arrive. Before that, they are just “The People.” So the very term is constituted through colonization, and is incredibly broad — as you note, it includes a huge diversity of peoples. Other scholars have argued recently that it is most helpful not as an identity category but as a term that can be useful for articulating a way of being in the world, so it’s more a way of doing, being, seeing, or enacting a way of being in the world rather than it is a state or category for what one is.

I do think that there are some shared approaches to understanding things that I have noticed in the choreographers that I follow. Some of it has to do with enacting situations of relationship or relationality. The dance is about coming into relationship with one another. And maintaining that relationship in a reciprocal way so that dancing isn’t just for entertainment of someone who comes to the performance, watches then leaves –although there is certainly a relationship in that as well, in that it’s foregrounding the relationships that can get made through the performance and through the making of the performance. The idea of reciprocity is central, that you support one another and that there is an understanding of shared responsibility in meaning making. By the way, these thoughts are also not my individual ideas– they have evolved through long-term discussions and continuing exchanges with many, many others–though multiple observations, and continual dialogue.

Through these, I’ve also come to see how storytelling is something that is also central to a lot of the dancing. There are stories that choreographers and dancers brought forward, through their experience as Indigenous people, whether they are creation stories –say, the Haudenosaunee story of the Woman who Fell from the Sky- or some or part of a transformation story, or some other particular story from one’s people or experience. Some choreographers work in those ways, with specific stories. Even those like Emily [Johnson] who aren’t working with storytelling in quite that direct a way are still bringing stories from their experience and from their background into the dance performance as a central part of what they are doing. And if “Indigenous” is a word that is constituted through the arrival of colonizers, one commonality is that the stories often are about that relationship as well, in some ways, even as they are also articulating worlds that are outside of that experience.

Rosy Simas in "We Wait in The Darkness"

Rosy Simas in
“We Wait in The Darkness”

MT: There is something very specific in these choreographers’ relationship to time –Emily Johnson’s piece spans over the course of a week; Rosy Simas’s We Wait in The Darkness addresses her female lineage and engages past, present and future. Would you say that these choreographers’ relationship to time is also what characterized their work as Indigenous?

JSM: I think of it as an expansive and layered sense of time. So that time isn’t just existing in this one minute or this one moment, but rather, here and now also has in it these layers or different realms of connections to other times, which sometimes get called past, present and future. What does an artist do? An artist is a visionary who brings forward a vision of the world that they see. I feel that this understanding of time as not being quite so finite as it is usually represented in the world that we inhabit –with weeks, years, minutes, clocks- is definitely there. It happens in Emily’s idea of having this dance piece not just be the dance piece. First of all, it’s not just the staged dance. There are the other aspects that are choreographed as part of it: the reading, the community volunteer action, the feast. There are also all of the performances that came before, and the people who are being accumulated into it. Then there’s the other two parts of her trilogy that came before and that are layering into it and there’s the reverberation that continues after. The conversations that continue and the way the piece might affect people and reverberate out. This way of understanding time is encapsulated within its structure, this idea that time and space are more connected and more expansive than is usually seen.

Rosy Simas’ work is doing that as well. Her piece notices the layers – like the sounds of colonization and trauma on her ancestral land–in the layers of her body. And then, she has talked about noticing who from her family, who has passed on, shows up at each performance. So there’s definitely an awareness of those kinds of connectivity in the dance and its performances to other times and realms and places. It’s also connecting from one time to another time by leaping across it without having to really travel in a linear way, without having to account for every moment in between.

MT: There is also a sense that not only time is expansive but also space, that boundaries are flexible. This is true of SHORE, which happens in many locations, but also of Rosy Simas’ performance which happens along and converses with an exhibition –All my relations: a Seneca story- which consists of objects that belonged to her family.

JSM: I went to that exhibit. It included a number the changing maps of the Seneca reservation and memorabilia from her mother and grandmother, and then excerpts of the dance were performed there as well. I sensed that she was commenting – well, on a lot of things –including the shrinking political boundaries of Seneca land in relation to the U.S. government’s broken promises, and how unconscionable that is, yes—how those boundaries have shifted. But one more abstract thing I sensed, through the multiple maps, was the misguided faith that we seem to sometimes have in the written document as stable. Things written on paper and supposed to be archival are not actually really that stable-they mark change and power relations, not a stable historical truth or reality. In a way, the dance may be a better form or site of archival history. I think there is some commentary about how we hold memory, about how knowledge is understood to be considered valid. I understood the exhibit and dance to be suggesting that dance holds knowledge in some ways that are perhaps more trustworthy than a written document. They are both different forms of holding histories and memories.

MT: You have mentioned that Indigenous choreographers are using contemporary dance in ways that strengthen and assert Indigenous knowledge. Would you say that this last point –accessing and validating these memories- is one example?

JSM: Definitely. To answer the first part of it, I think a lot of older ideas about Native and Indigenous history and culture is that it is about loss, about trauma, and the ways that colonization has depleted Native culture. On the one hand, that’s of course true and irrefutable: Native peoples and cultures have experienced incredible trauma and loss through colonization. But what I am seeing in these choreographers’ work and other contemporary native artists’ work is that’s it’s also about enacting particular Indigenous ways of being in ways that are strengthening for the future. So they are not only about enacting a healing of the past –although perhaps that too- but also and more so even, a strengthening and enacting of an Indigenous future in the now.

Rulan Tangen Photo by Henry Weinstein

Rulan Tangen
Photo by Henry Weinstein

You are asking about using somatics or bodily exploration to find knowledge. I see that happening in ways that connect to Indigenous experience. If you have been cut off from your family or your language or your tribal culture through these colonization processes, you can still locate fragments of knowledge within your body or within your process of dance making. Rulan [Tangen, Artistic Director of DANCING EARTH] asks her dancers to go back to their family, to talk with and gather stories and information from family members, from their language, and also from the internet – basically, from wherever they can — to research and bring whatever knowledge they can access in to the studio. And then, she has them explore it through their body and has them bring it forward, so that the dancers can feel the power of, connect to, access, put forward and share that knowledge. So it’s strengthening to them in that sense. And it’s kind of a nice side effect that it also reverberates to the audience. It might not be the primary goal but it has that effect also, for those witnessing. Colonization is a process of wiping out, of trying to wipe out, and this dance making counters that by locating and strengthening and creatively engaging with Indigenous knowledge that is there. I think that part of why Indigenous contemporary dance is so exciting in this process is because it is a practice that values experimentation and bodily exploration into what one finds. It is a creative, alive, process.

MT: Some non-native contemporary choreographers perform rituals and include community within the making of land-based work. I am thinking of Anna Halprin’s planetary dance as an example. Would you say that the difference between these choreographers and Indigenous choreographers is that the latters’ work is tapping into a specific body of memory, history and lineage?

JSM: This is interesting because this is a question that is really frequent. What makes this different from that? A lot of contemporary choreographers are working with experimentation, land-based work, and stories. Once, I came from Rulan Tangen’s workshops at Riverside, landed at the airport in Oakland, and went to Anna Halprin’s planetary dance– which in a lot of ways felt similar, because the language that she is using felt similar. But it also felt so different. When Indigenous peoples engage with these practices, they are addressing specific political histories that almost invariably involve how specific family, tribal, genocide and dislocation have impacted their lives in ways that are really different from the way they have impacted non-Indigenous dance makers. The dance making that they are doing is infused with understandings that are specific to their political histories, and it reverberates into the dance making. The knowledges that centuries of survival have brought, that have sustained indigenous practices through these years of colonization, come into it too. It’s not so much that the ritual is different as that the experience and history and embodied knowledge are different. Maybe the intention is different too. There’s a different intention when there is someone who is tapping into their lived experiences of colonization and accessing tools that have sustained their people in order to survive through that.

MT: In Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, author and scholar Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about the way some Native elders spoke about European settlers’ relationship to the colonized land: “The problem with these new people is that they don’t have both feet on the shore. One is still on the boat. They don’t seem to know whether they are staying or not.” Can you talk about how Indigenous dance relates to land and location?

Emily Johnson's "SHORE" Photo by Erin Westover

Emily Johnson’s “SHORE”
Photo by Erin Westover

JSM: It’s interesting because there are two ways of thinking about that quote. Many, if not all, of the choreographers whose work I’ve followed make the work in attention to where they are from. For Emily, it is the land of Alaska, for Rosy the Seneca land, for Rulan a disconnection from land that is part of this colonizing history. At the same time, there is attention to landing where you are and connecting to that land there, both perceptually—noticing and appreciating how it looks, sounds, smells on the ground where you are now — and politically. There are protocols and practices for doing that. You acknowledge the people of the land. When you arrive somewhere you acknowledge whose land it is and recognize that you are a visitor to that land and you connect to it through that relationship of visitor/host. This is something that happens at many Native events, including performances – a speaker will open by thanking the people of that land for welcoming those who are there, for permitting our presence on the land. It’s a practice that is intertwined within a political relationship that recognizes the relationship that one has with other people who have been there before you. Calling out and insisting that these host/visitor protocols be practiced is something that Jack Gray, a Maori choreographer from Aotearoa [New Zealand], works directly with in bringing his work to places like the U.S. It can be challenging sometimes, in places where there are long histories where Native peoples have been disempowered-but also really transformational –to insist that these relationships be enacted. And then, in addition to connecting to the Indigenous people of the land where you are, you study and connect with your own ancestry, your own people. My family has ancestry from Wales. What can this study of Indigenous dance here make me understand about the indigeneity of my Welsh background? I think that in some ways what Indigenous dance does is twofold: one, it makes you aware of the land that you are on and perhaps if you are not an Indigenous person, how you are not really of that land or how your relationship to that land is one with a very deep political history. Two, it prods you to become curious, interested, and wanting to deepen and strengthen your own connection to your own ancestry.

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Summer Sampler Program Notes | By Marie Tollon

Summer Sampler’s program juxtaposes a multiplicity of verbal and non-verbal languages that convey narratives of love, betrayal and dislocation.

ODC/Dance in Kimi Okada's "I look vacantly at the Pacific ... though regret" Photo by Margo Moritz

ODC/Dance in Kimi Okada’s
“I look vacantly at the Pacific
… though regret”
Photo by Margo Moritz

For both of her pieces, Kimi Okada researched the multiple ways in which the body speaks through signs and gestures. Thus the material that constitutes Two If By Sea is developed from non-verbal languages, such as Morse code, flag semaphore or Navajo code. For I look vacantly at the Pacific… though regret, Okada wove insulting gestures from around the globe into the movement vocabulary to explore miscommunications in the context of cultural differences. A third generation Japanese American, Okada grew up in the Midwest, isolated from any Asian community. Curious about her Japanese heritage, she spent a year in Japan in college, and felt that she was “always doing the wrong thing: I was trying to shake hands when you are supposed to bow; I was using language that only men use; I found myself really isolated and felt lonely.”

Adding to the sense of inadequacy that being in a foreign land can trigger, voices from instructional tapes of English idioms for Japanese businessmen create a quirky sonic background for the first section of I look vacantly. In both Okada’s piece and Brenda Way’s Scissors Paper Stone, the spoken word adds an intricate layer of meaning to the language of dance. Scissors starts with an excerpt of A Street Car named Desire’s script. As the piece progresses, the tension between the three performers escalates to the poetic violence of Jimi Hendrick’s Hey Joe. The O.J. Simpson trial was unfolding when Way was creating Scissors, and its narrative “fueled the direction of the trio toward a violent mode,” Way shared.

Gestures, movements, signs and words combine to offer multi-layered portraits of individuals whose successful or failed attempts to communicate and relate to each other speak to the inner need for human connection.

ODC/Dance presents Summer Sampler at ODC Theater, from July 23 through July 25.

Reading the Other: A Conversation with Kimi Okada | By Marie Tollon

A few months ago, “This Life” New York Times columnist Bruce Feiler wrote about how young people are increasingly losing their ability to read nonverbal communications and develop other skills that are essential to social interactions. He reminded of the innate and crucial ability of humans to “read” each other:

“Reading nonverbal communication is an underappreciated skill. For most of our history, humans had no choice but to communicate face to face. With so much experience, we honed the ability to detect sometimes-lifesaving information from facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice and posture. Though these cues may vary in different cultures, reading them involves decoding what people think less by their words and more by their raised eyebrows, downcast gazes or rolled eyes,” writes Feiler.

Kimi Okada's "Two If By Sea" Photo by Andrew Weeks

Kimi Okada’s “Two If By Sea”
Photo by Andrew Weeks

Kimi Okada’s Two If By Sea, which received an Izzie award for outstanding achievement in choreography and will be presented during Summer Sampler at ODC Theater next week, exemplifies Feiler’s words. In the piece, the survival of the two protagonists depends on their capacity to communicate and understand each other in non-verbal ways.

Okada and I sat down last week to talk about her two works that are featured during Summer Sampler.

Marie Tollon: Both of your pieces on the program are about communication. In Two If By Sea, the survival of the two protagonists depends on their capacity to communicate to each other in non-verbal ways, while I Look Vacantly at the Pacificthough regret is about miscommunication in the context of cultural differences.

Kimi Okada: Yes, it’s about communication or lack of. In Two If By Sea, it’s really about personal and professional communication. It’s also about a relationship that connects to an outside world where communication is not only imperative but urgent. I was interested in a “do or die” aspect and the idea of imminent danger. It was not just about a very personal physical language with someone you love but I wanted to put it in a larger context. That’s what Two If By Sea was really exploring, using all kinds of different non-verbal languages and physical codes.

MT: What about the genesis of I Look Vacantly?

KO: The piece started with my experience as a Japanese American. I grew up in Minnesota, in the Midwest, in a community that didn’t have a Japanese American population. I didn’t speak Japanese. My grandmother was Japanese, first generation, but she lived in another city. I never really used Japanese as a child. I was always interested in my Japanese heritage but really never looked at it.

My junior year, I went to Japan and was completely miserable for the first few months: everybody assumed that I was the Japanese translator because I looked Japanese. So I was always feeling incredibly awkward because I didn’t feel American, I didn’t feel Japanese, I was in a cultural identity limbo. I felt that I was always doing the wrong thing: I was trying to shake hands when you are supposed to bow; I was using language that only men use; I was trained as a dancer, my feet are turned out, how I walk is not how Japanese women walk. I was a weird person to the Japanese. They didn’t know how to respond to me and I didn’t know how to respond to them. I found myself really isolated and lonely. I think when you go to a foreign country, there’s a deep desire to communicate and to be responsive and open. When you don’t have language skills or understand cultural etiquette, you can feel completely lost.

Kimi Okada's "I Look Vacantly..."  Photo by Margo Moritz

Kimi Okada’s “I Look Vacantly…”
Photo by Margo Moritz

At the same time, I was fascinated by Japanese pop culture and the veneer of Western culture that overlays Japanese culture. I started collecting Jingrish -hilarious English translations of things that you see in public places which have a very funny use of the English language. I also started collecting shopping bags, pencil boxes and t-shirts that all had a twisted use of English. I’ve always found them really funny and fascinating, because on the surface they make no sense but they do have a weird logic.

The title [of the piece] comes directly from a pencil box that I have. One of the other sound sources consists of teaching tapes for Japanese businessmen to learn English idioms. I used three different dialogues from the tapes. Each part of the conversation crams as many English idioms as possible into an implausible, so they are pretty silly.

MT: The piece has three sections. Can you talk more about each one?

KO: The beginning is called “Language Class.” There is a sensei -the teacher- and the students, and it’s the impossibility of understanding a language when too much information is thrown at you. At the beginning, you just feel completely at sea. There’s a kind of befuddlement and a lack of clarity to being in a foreign country. In the piece, the sensei does wild improvised things that everybody has to copy as best as they can. They start with the legs, add the arms, then strange head movements. It’s silly, but it’s the physicalization of how you feel when you are learning a language.

The second section goes to a slightly darker place. It’s called “Honorifics and Insults.” I did a lot of research on insulting physical gestures from many cultures and behavior that is offensive in some cultures, but not in others. The piece is pretty much about Japan and being Japanese American but I don’t want it to be limited to that. It’s essentially about being a foreigner in a strange country. It’s like going to a foreign country and not speaking any of the language. For the second section, I took 2 couples -one Asian and one that I imagined would be a couple from Texas- and it’s about the awkwardness of not knowing how to greet somebody. They go to shake hands, but the others bow. They try to be respectful but are always making the wrong choice.

I wanted to frame it in Japanese pop culture so while those dialogues are going on, there are stereotypical Japanese pop culture things [going on in the background]. There are algorithms phrases that Japanese school kids do, there’s Godzilla, there are ninjas… I wanted to frame it in how we see Japan too, in a pop way that is very much [on the] surface but also very funny.

"I Look Vacantly..." Photo by Margo Moritz

“I Look Vacantly…”
Photo by Margo Moritz

It gets darker. I did a lot of research about insulting gestures. In Indonesia for example, it’s hugely insulting to show anybody the bottoms of your feet, I took all of these weird offensive gestures and built them into more physical phrases. There’s also a moment where Jeremy [Smith] gets really tall and everybody else is short. This references my friend Dana who was 6.5 feet tall and had bright red hair. He was more than a foot taller than everybody else. In Asia, when you don’t look Asian, you really stand out in a crowd. So mothers would point at him to their children, as if he was a circus freak. He was very shy and he ended up leaving Japan because he felt that whenever he went outside, people would stop and take pictures of him. That was a reference to how you feel out of place, and it turns into this kind of crazy merry go round of obscene gestures. It’s about not knowing where you are and feeling a hostility against strangers.

The last section, “culture shock,” is about being in a culture and just doing whatever you think is right. All the physical material was developed based on an English idiom: “Throw up one’s hands,” “up to one’s elbows, ” “speed freak,” “bad vibes,” “keep both feet on the ground,” “ruffle one’s feathers.” The dancers came up with wonderful material. We started with a very literal interpretation and made it much more abstract. The pace of it is very frenetic. I want people to identify with being overwhelmed and then just winging it. You don’t have to be in another culture to feel that.

"Two If By Sea" Photo by Andrew Weeks

“Two If By Sea”
Photo by Andrew Weeks

MT: In both pieces, you are using gestures and humor. Did your background in theater, physical comedy and circus inform these two works?

KO: Definitely. I love physical comedy. The kinds of things that engage me often end up being humorous, but I don’t really start there. For Two If By Sea, I started with tap dance and Morse code, and then took it further. Working with physical comedians -Bill Irwin, Geoff Hoyle- I think that there’s a great possibility to engage and communicate with an audience when things are funny that makes people responsive, which is what I like about physical comedy. I’m not a huge fan of outright slapstick but physical comedy has the potential to be pretty sophisticated. And I think the best physical comedy is actually dark, and has much greater resonance than just a laugh. The greatest clowns have that. It’s the task that may be ridiculous, but the intention and the commitment of that person doing it are humorous. I love Buster Keaton for that reason, because he is just brilliant. He is absolutely serious but the situations get the better of him. His genuine attempts at coping are the basis of the humor. The best comedians that I know are absolutely serious about what they are doing as they are doing it. I think I want people to identify with seeing some of their own experience in there. The difference between my work and straight theater, which is often literal and in real time, is that I like to really abstract an idea and take it out of the realm of logic, play with it. This is this is why I love form: you can really abstract something in a way that is not bound by reality.

Humor in choreography comes from a situation. It’s very fun to direct the dancers because it’s not necessarily how they are used to work, there is a lot of acting. There are different kinds of languages: there’s a very theatrical, pedestrian language; there’s a gestural language and then there’s a very dancy, abstract language. These three are interwoven. When I direct dancers, I’m trying not to have them try to be funny. It’s a fine line and we hope it works!

Stirring the Practice | By Marie Tollon

Poised to unravel, dancer Brandon Private Freeman, dashes forth, head first, and pushes his entire body weight into dancer James Gilmer. Towering a foot taller, with a long body and sphinxlike poise, Gilmer receives and redirects Freeman’s electric charge with the contained calm that a tai chi master might use to divert an assault. Freeman leans into Gilmer and collapses onto his side, only to be brought up and held by the taller performer. Are they a father and a son, the latter rebelling against his parent? Two sides of a same man, boyhood and manhood, exposed? Their striking duet, so precisely crafted that it recalls a defined sculpture whose edges have been softened by time, was part of a preview of Sketch 5: Stirred presented at the Joe Goode Annex two weeks ago.

Rachel Furst in  Amy Seiwert's Imagery Photo by David DeSilva

Rachel Furst in
Amy Seiwert’s Imagery
Photo by David DeSilva

Each summer, the Sketch series, created and curated by Bay Area choreographer Amy Seiwert since 2011, offers artists the challenge to step out of their comfort zone and explore new choreographic avenues in contemporary ballet. During the past two iterations of Sketch, Seiwert and the participating choreographers investigated their relationship to limitations (Sketch 3: Expectations) and to music structures (Sketch 4: Music Mirror). This year, Sketch 5: Stirred is about collaboration within the creative process. For this edition, Seiwert and ODC Co-Artistic Director KT Nelson are editing each other’s work and interrupting each other’s process, to co-create Starting Over at the End, which will be presented at ODC Theater next week, along with Seiwert’s Traveling Alone (2012) and the premiere of Back To.

Seiwert and Nelson’s idea of collaborating arose while they presented work at the Walla Walla Dance Festival last summer. In lieu of lecture demonstration, Nelson proposed they create a piece together while in front of the audience. “I was terrified at first,” Seiwert recalled during the work-in-progress showing at the Joe Goode Annex. “We went into the studio, took some material each of us were working on, spent an hour working together and had some lovely moments.” Back in San Francisco, and some months later, they decided to do it again, this time “more seriously.”

Although Seiwert has collaborated with many artists before, including composers and software artists, she had yet to make a piece with another choreographer. On the contrary, Nelson has been involved in several collaborations with other choreographers in the recent years, including New York-based choreographer Kate Weare and ODC Artistic Director/Founder Brenda Way in 2013 for Triangulating Euclid, and again with Way for the evening-length piece boulders and bones in 2014.

James Gilmer and Sarah Griffin  Photo by David DeSilva

James Gilmer and Sarah Griffin
Photo by David DeSilva

Along with stylistic and aesthetic differences, Nelson and Seiwert approach the creative process and the autonomy of dancers differently. Seiwert usually starts her process with music, which in turn plays a role in generating the material and potential direction of the work. Alternatively, Nelson wants her dancers “to experience the physicality of the movements without being influenced by the music. I want dance to have an equal voice, and not the music to be the driver,” so she often asks the dancer to research movements in silence.

“We began the collaborative process with each choreographer generating a gestural phrase with the upper body. Those gestures were manipulated individually by the dancers, then edited and composed by both choreographers together and separately. The dancers acquired each other’s manipulations, combined into partnered and group interactions, and only then applied musicality,” writes dancer Sarah Griffin about the process.

During the showing, Seiwert iterated that it takes committed dancers to perform in Sketch. They need to be open to experimentation, and in this case, able to navigate two artistic voices and at times conflicting directions. Throughout the talk, Seiwert and Nelson shared how schizophrenic the process could feel for dancers, especially when the choreographers “would see a problem and each try to fix it.” Nelson mentioned going to Griffin at one point and asking her to change one section. Puzzled, Griffin turned to Nelson and said: “Amy just asked me to change it this way.” In this short video, Freeman explains that working with two choreographers on a piece is alike “the mom and dad thing, when mom says one thing and dad says another,” but “working with two of my favorite choreographers at the same time is pretty dreamy.”

Brandon Freeman and Rachel Furst Photo by David DeSilva

Brandon Freeman and Rachel Furst
Photo by David DeSilva

Seiwert’s biggest hope for this collaboration was “to be influenced in some ways.” “KT made me rethink a lot of musical and port de bras choices,” explained Seiwert. Nelson had always wanted to work with pointe shoes, and by working with Seiwert, she also discovered to work with “nuances and let your imagination be in that one point.”

For Seiwert, Sketch 5 is an exploration of the fine line between having one’s creative habits challenged, yet retaining one’s artistic voice. Giving up a part of one’s autonomy within collaboration “can be alienating and disorienting but if you are open to being lost, it can be exciting,” Seiwert stated. The work shown at the Joe Goode Annex demonstrated that both choreographers are succeeding in making choices that integrate both of their visions in a graceful and powerful way. As Nelson shared, “I think the piece does have both Amy and KT in it, as opposed to some composite. We are still both there.”

Going Solo: A Conversation with Miki Orihara | By Marie Tollon

After performing for many years, dancers likely retire from the stage, explore their choreographic voice, go on teaching or change careers altogether. Yet, as the traditional model of the single-choreographer-run dance company is dwindling, dancers are taking new performing paths upon their retirement, thereby subverting the traditional invisibility of the aging dancing body and prompting dance writer Wendy Perron’s latest blog post Aging Dancers: An Alternate Vision. This trend was clearly demonstrated when Wendy Whelan retired in her late forties from the New York City Ballet last fall, after dancing for the company for thirty years. Rather than stepping out of the spotlight, she commissioned four contemporary dance duets for her project Restless Creature, which she has been touring since last year. Similarly, after dancing with the Martha Graham Dance Company for nearly 30 years, principal dancer Miki Orihara recently started her own project, an evening of solos entitled Resonance. Premiered at La MaMa in New York in 2014, it was presented at the Theatre of Yugen in San Francisco last month.

Miki Orihara in "Resonance" Photo by Kenji Mori

Miki Orihara
in “Resonance”
Photo by Kenji Mori

The program featured Orihara’s breathtaking versatility. She easily morphed from the mischievous character of Martha Graham’s Satyric Festival Song (1932), to the sorrowful aging ballerina of Martha Clarke’s Nocturne (1978). The program also included Maenad from Jose Limon’s Dance for Isadora (1971), Prologue, a piece that Orihara choreographed for this program and New York-based choreographer Adam Barruch’s Memory Current (2014). With a program that spans over 83 years of choreographic landscape, Orihara intends to show the continuity and lineage between modern and contemporary dance, as she explained in her program notes.

Originally from Japan, Orihara came to the United States to pursue her dance studies. She joined the Martha Graham Ensemble in 1983, and the company a few years later. She was promoted to principal dancer and performed many roles of the Graham repertory. Orihara and I sat down to talk about her evening of solos while she was in San Francisco.

Marie Tollon: You perform these five solos in chronological order but initially you had the order reversed. Can you tell us how you decided on this specific order?

Miki Orihara: My concept is that you learn new things by learning old [ones]. So I wanted to do from new [work] to old [work], instead of old to new. But it didn’t work. I tried different orders, but it didn’t work, mainly because of my energy level. The hardest piece within the five solos is the Limon’s piece. The placement of standing is completely different in each dance. Martha [Graham]’s is very much on your heels. Limon’s is a bit forward, and Martha Clarke’s is all forward, but at the same time the weight is under here [she demonstrates under her hips]. I had a great time discovering all these subtleties.

Also it was appropriate that I started from Martha [Graham]’s work because I was showing my training and background. I am from Japan and studied modern dance in Japan. My teacher was one of five pioneers of Japanese modern dance. When I came to New York, I studied at the Alvin Ailey School, I studied Limon technique, then I got to the Graham school and it made sense to me. La MaMa [Theater in New York] said to me: “Why don’t you show who you are now, so this performance shows the process of becoming who you are.” So I wanted to do Martha [Graham’s work]’’. I used to take class at Limon. I wanted to do a piece by somebody new, and chose Adam [Barruch]. I danced Martha Clarke’s piece about 7 years ago and I really like it so I asked her if I could perform her solo during this program. I wanted to cover the whole essence of dance.

One beautiful thing about this particular program is that I got to work with the artists. I worked with Carla Maxwell, who is the Artistic Director of the Limon Dance Company. She was the original dancer for that particular section. I also went to Martha Clarke’s apartment and we worked together on the solo. I knew Adam [Barruch] from [The] Juilliard [School]. I saw his first composition showcase and he made a parody of Deborah Zall, who was his teacher at La Guardia High School. That was very impressive and I never forgot it. So I asked him to choreograph on me.

Miki Orihara in Martha Graham's "Satyric Festival Song" Photo by John Deane

Miki Orihara in
Martha Graham’s
“Satyric Festival Song”
Photo by John Deane

MT: You mentioned that throughout this project, performing older pieces helped you understand contemporary works better and vice versa. Can you talk more about that?

MO: In Japan we have a word that means “learning new by learning old” because there is so much knowledge in the old. It’s the same for everything, not just dancing. You are not learning anything new. If you study Shakespeare, you learn so much about theater, or lighting, or relationships. So that was the whole idea.

MT: How did your knowledge of Martha Graham’s work inform working with Adam Barruch for example?

MO: You don’t really see it but Martha Graham’s technique is in his piece so much. Adam has a Graham and Limon [technique] background so it worked perfectly for this program. There were a couple things that I couldn’t do in the beginning because I was just imitating. Adam does a lot of arm gestures. But he has long arms, long legs, it really shows well on him. I want to move like that, but I don’t have a body like that so what can I do? I asked him how to do something and after he explained, I understood the movement really came from the center.

MT: How does performing contemporary work help you revisit Martha Graham’s work?

MO: You learn exercises in the Martha Graham technique that you don’t see in the work on stage. Without that kind of training, it’s hard to move that way. All you do on stage is a variation of what you learned in class. When I go see a performance, I’m often impressed by how much dancers move. If I [was to ] do this, I [would] die! Often times, I don’t understand where the movements come from. If I work closely with the choreographer, I understand where they come from. I like that aspect of digging. Some choreographers are purely interested in forms, shapes, and the movements have nothing to do with the internal. As a dancer, you must have feeling when you are dancing that particular movement because you are a human being. If you don’t, you are not dancing. Many dancers don’t even feel anything. They are just told to lift their legs.

Miki Orihara in Martha Clarke's "Nocturne" Photo by Juan Vargas

Miki Orihara in
Martha Clarke’s “Nocturne”
Photo by Juan Vargas

MT: It is a hard program to perform, as each piece is a very strong individual solo. How do you manage the transition from one character to another?

MO: It was an issue at the beginning, but it is not so much anymore. I feel like those five different persons are part of me. I have the mischievous of the Satyric Festival Song character and I have the crazy maenad in me. Martha Clarke’s piece is about aging. In the dance career, I am very old as a dancer. I’m now facing my dance career. Translating it into the dance is actually very hard. I love the acting part of it. I am facing the age so I don’t need to lie.

MT: In Prologue, there is a long sequence of holding, with your fists and feet retracted. You support the entire space with that moment.

MO: That’s also my background of Japanese dance. In Noh theater, you don’t move so much but you contain so much. Martha [Graham] always talked about how the hardest thing is to be still. I wasn’t still, I was moving very slowly, but there was so much tension.

MT: Throughout your career as a principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company, you have performed on large proscenium stages. For this project, you are performing in smaller, more intimate spaces. How does it change the experience for you?

MO: Even though I have been dancing Satyric Festival Song in big theaters, how you project is different. I am not saying that the amount of energy is different but I can contain and bring it to me rather than going out with it. On the big stage, you have to go out. There are two kinds of dancers: the one who is physically out there, the other one who bring people in. And as a dancer, you want to be the second kind.

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