Capturing the Real | By Marie Tollon

Dance photography offers a different lens through which to look at movement. By capturing single moments of a dance and freezing them in time, it acts as a magnifying glass, calling attention to details that can get lost in the unfolding of live performance –such as the specific physicality of a dancer, the elaborate composition of a short section or the mood of a piece.

Katherine Wells

Katherine Wells

Dance and photography both evolve within a visual frame: the square or rectangular format for the photograph echoes the frame of the black box theater or proscenium stage –although that frame becomes more elusive in non traditional performance spaces. Dance’s ephemerality also recalls what photographer Ansel Adams said about photography: It “can only represent the present. Once photographed, the subject becomes part of the past.”

Featuring a series of photographs taken by dance photographer Andrew Weeks over the past year, the current exhibition installed in the ODC Theater lobby gallery reminds us of the similarities and conversation between the two art forms.

Weeks started photographing dancers shortly after meeting his wife, then a ballet student, in Chicago. When she landed a position with the Oakland Ballet, Weeks followed her to California, where he started taking photographs of her dancing, as well as her colleagues and the companies they danced for. “I really fell in love with [dance photography.] The two arts, dance and photography, are a perfect match and together can produce some beautiful still imagery. Getting to photograph dance is [to me] what a candy store is to a 7 year old kid,” Weeks mentioned in an interview over the phone.

For the past two years, Weeks has been working at ODC and taking photographs in the studio, on stage and backstage. Being at ODC on a regular basis over a significant period of time –as opposed to coming in occasionally for a performance – has allowed Weeks to familiarize himself with ODC’s community and values: “ODC is an amazing place.  You walk in and you cannot help but get the sense of community – so many friendly smiles and ‘hellos,’ so many friendships and bonding to witness, it makes me smile every time I walk in.”

It has also allowed him to get to know the Company dancers and the choreographers’ work: “As far as shooting the Company, the most enjoyable part about it for me as a photographer is letting my camera’s relationship with the dancers and choreographers grow as I have become more familiar with their work. Timing and anticipation are such an important part of dance photography, the more familiar you are with the dancers’ and choreographers’ movements, the easier it is to catch the right moment.”

Alex Carrington

Alex Carrington

Rather than coming into the studio with an agenda, Weeks shared that he’d rather “capture real moments with whatever [he] photographs -where the subjects are in their world, [while] doing their thing, not aware the photograph is being taken. I want my photography footprint when shooting to be very small. If I could be a fly on the wall I would!”

Given the copious amount of photographs that Weeks has taken these past 2 years, selecting the 10 works that are displayed in the exhibition was a challenging task. Comprised of soloists or duets in relatively sparse settings, the selection reflects Week’s attention to form, details and emotions, but are also an indication of how he watches dance: “My favorite part of watching a performance is when I get zeroed in on a dancer or a section of a piece of choreography. It is when I forget the outside world and live in the dancers’ movement or a piece’s moment that I love the most. To me, these photographs seem to speak to that.”

Turn Around to See What’s Coming Next: A Conversation with Brenda Way about ODC’s 45th Anniversary | By Marie Tollon

During a residency at the American Academy in Rome, ODC’s Founder and Artistic Director Brenda Way remarked on the way early Romans conceived of the future, not by looking forward but by facing the past. Way noted “in Latin we see the turn of phrase: ‘Turn around to see what’s coming next.’ I have always thought of artists as being the vivid front edge of the past. Now I am moved to consider, which way are we looking?”

Brenda Way

Brenda Way

The question that Way raised in 2009 finds a particular echo this year, as ODC celebrates its 45th Anniversary. Fueled by the collaborative and inquiry-based spirit that permeated the sixties and seventies, ODC started as a collective at Oberlin College in Ohio in 1971. In 1976, attracted by the sense of possibility and invention that San Francisco offered, the group boarded a yellow bus and left Oberlin. In those 45 years of making and expanding, ODC has maintained its intense commitment to community, artistic sharing and civic consciousness. Way and I sat down to discuss ODC’s history and how its future might take shape.

Marie Tollon: What count as some of ODC’s most significant moments in these last 45 years?

Brenda Way: There are so many. I would say leaving Oberlin and coming to the Bay Area in 1976 and a few years later getting a mortgage from Wells Fargo in Walnut Creek to buy the corner building in 1980 after being evicted from our first studio on Mariposa Street. An emblematic moment was opening night at this new space [the New Performance Gallery, ODC Theater’s former name]. We only had half the floors down and the jazz tap ensemble performed on it. We had porta potties on the empty lot, Christmas lights strung up over the floor and chairs on the dirt… the whole thing embodied the spirit of the group: we were doing it ourselves and no matter what happened, we would forge ahead. The review naturally talked about the porta potties.

There have been a series of artistic projects that were important. When my son was diagnosed with a brain tumor, I worked with the dancers on Investigating Grace while I struggled with the question of “why bother to make dance?” The deep relationship of the dancers to the material and the creative process really reaffirmed the value of artistic enterprise for the sustenance of the human spirit. On a lighter note, producing Toe to Toe with Warren Hellman was a big deal, and his spirit was a gift. Choreographing with student athletes from Cal was fresh. Their capacities were deeply focused and very extreme. It was also inspiring how many people could connect to dance through their appreciation of sports. Of course, working in collaboration with KT, as well as with Andy Goldsworthy, Zoe Keating and RJ Muna on Boulders and Bone was an inspiring and invigorating process.

On the touring front, the company selection by BAM to be one of the first companies for the State Department DanceMotion tour of South East Asia was thrilling. We were in Burma before the borders were opened. Although you read about the meaning of art in repressive cultures, it’s very different when you’re there and you see the profound [effect] that dance can have as a diplomatic connector. People who were afraid to be seen at our concert came by the hundreds, slipping in with their heads bowed. Our month-long tour in Russia in 1989 was also a high point due to the strength of dance and its place in the Russian culture.

The opening of the Commons was memorable. So many people participated in the celebration, performing their work all over the building. It was a profoundly generous and exciting event. And when we opened, Rick Coughlin and his crew of health practitioners launched the dancers’ clinic there, which was a fantastic statement of caring for the people in our profession and something I had never imagined. The subsequent collaboration with Rhythm and Motion stands as another critical turning point in ODC’s life and embodied our sixties philosophy that everybody could and should dance. Their spirit fills the Commons with energy on a daily basis.

Seeing the quality of dancers who are willing to put their artistry on the line is a constant source of amazement and delight.

ODC/Dance dancer Natasha Adorlee Johnson

ODC/Dance dancer
Natasha Adorlee Johnson

One of the things that has been the most surprising to me as I look back over all of these years is that when we first came to town we wrote an ambitious grant to the San Francisco Foundation. It basically laid out everything we are now—the school, the company, the theater—in tiny form. I never would have guessed it would expand to such a magnitude. There is intense pleasure in seeing organic growth. Maybe it’s because I’m a mom. You have a child who is growing up but you don’t have any idea of the form or future of her life. To be able to accommodate and help nurture new artistic generations has been a profound pleasure. And I do think it is connected to ODC being women artist led. There is always a consciousness about the human culture, not just the work. Not that men can’t think that way but I suspect our organizational culture may be tied to a deeper sense of family.

MT: What is in store for the celebration of ODC’s 45th anniversary?

BW: There are a few things that stand out as celebratory. It is the first time we are having a piece created by another artist, Kate Weare. It’s a co-commission by White Bird in Oregon and ODC. It celebrates the beginning of a new chapter. KT is making a piece for Private Freeman who has returned after his 8-year walkabout, and certainly that is a celebration of the long artistic relationship one can have with dancers. I’m sure that piece will resonate with a lot of his ODC history but also with what he has accumulated from his artistic life elsewhere. For my part, I am once again working with Paul Dresher after a hiatus of perhaps a decade or more. This is also a celebration of our history. It’s bringing the players that really helped form the aesthetics of ODC to the table again. Looking back to go forward.

MT: You have said: “Individuals have built this organization and individuals will carry it forward.”

BW: There have been some key board members for over 30 years—Lynn Feintech, Sako Fisher—who have been helping keep the business rigorous and entrepreneurial. That’s a huge part of how you can carry on in this world. That and loyalty.

MT: Thinking about loyalty, having the dancers on a 42-week contract is rare in today’s dance community.

BW: That coherent ensemble was very central to my interest in being a choreographer. I’m not sure today’s dancers even want the same thing anymore, but I think a steady work environment can engender commitment and it’s been very important for us to provide that. When somebody chooses to move on, they often come back to teach, to mount repertory, to help work with the Dance Jam. We try to find long-term connections, because their movements, their bodies are still in our repertory, even though they are not there anymore, so I feel loyalty to that, too.

MT: How do you see ODC’s role in the current context of artists and arts organizations being pushed out of the city because of the rising cost of living?

BW: I hope we can work with interested developers, philanthropists or city agencies on the issue of artist housing. I think San Francisco is at risk of losing its deep artistic culture. I hope we will participate in some way in addressing this.

MT: What are the ways that you want to move forward?

BW: I want to try to endow these dance facilities, the ODC Theater and the Commons. I never thought about such long-term things in the past because contemporary art is really about today and I think we feel the need to invest all our energy into that. But now I think I have to make sure that this campus remains viable. If we can raise an endowment that pays the facility overhead, then succeeding generations, both artistic and administrative, can focus on what they want to do programmatically and not be swamped by the hungry demands of overhead. They can focus more on responding to the changes that will come.

Succession is on the horizon, too, although somewhat in the distance. We have enjoyed the stimulation, the give and take of more than one choreographer so we are exploring how that might look in the future.

Anything that we do going forward, I would hope we will remember that there will always be limited resources and that our core mission is built around making work, helping people make work and presenting it. I hope what goes forward as we move on are the values that we built this organization around. New generations will find different forms but I hope the communitarian values, the values of nurturing art and artists, will hold true.

This interview first appeared in the March issue of In Dance and is reposted here with the permission of Dancers’ Group.


A Changing Gayborhood : An Interview with Colin Giraud | By Marie Tollon

Gentrification is deeply changing San Francisco’s urban landscape, affecting the socio-economic fabric of its neighborhoods, and challenging the city’s long time history as a haven for alternative culture and minorities. What role does this new context play in the transformation of the gay neighborhood? In There Goes The Gayborhood? sociologist Amin Ghaziani focuses on how and why gay neighborhoods, or gayborhoods, are changing, “de-gaying and deconcentrating,” across the nation. If, as Ghaziani writes, “the presence of a gayborhood signals a city’s commitment to diversity, tolerance, inclusion, and openness,” then how are these values being carried forward in San Francisco’s current economic climate?

Colin Giraud

Colin Giraud

French Sociologist Colin Giraud, author of Quartiers Gays [Gay Neighborhoods] and D’Arcy Drollinger, Artistic Director of OASIS, entrepreneur and community organizer, join in a conversation to explore these issues on March 8 at ODC. This event is part of “Gender in Translation,” a multidisciplinary, Franco-American operation, dedicated to questioning the notion of gender in the social sciences, philosophy, and artistic fields.

In anticipation of this conversation, Giraud and I talked via email.

Marie Tollon: Why is gender sociology a relatively recent phenomenon?

Colin Giraud: Gender sociology is often portrayed as a new and emerging field in sociology, especially in France. But gender issues, such as social inequalities between men and women, have been brought to the forefront and criticized for a long time now, mostly by feminist groups, writers and activists, rather than by academic sociologists. Most often, converting a social or political issue into an academic and legitimate question takes time and meets opposition. Because Women Studies, Gender Studies or Gay and Lesbian Studies challenge fundamental social roots, masculinity and femininity, but also heteronormativity, they have faced and continue to face many opponents. But things have changed and American research played a major role in the development of gender sociology. Even if pionneering research and anthropological texts have already explored the origins of gender hierarchies, the ’90s constituted a crucial period for sociology. They gave Gender Studies a successful theoretical background through Judith Butler’s book Gender Trouble which provided a new intellectual framework to highlight gender inequalities. I think this book had an amazing influence in both activist and academic circles, particularly in France. For the last decade, Gender issues seem to have interested more and more sociologists in France, and students as well. Today, PhD courses and research focused on gender are burgeoning and it’s a good thing. I also think that French sociology has been obsessed with issues surrounding social classes -which are of course very important-but it has contributed to a lack of attention towards other issues such as gender or race. To be more specific: French sociology is still way behind American Gender studies.

MT: You have written about the “process of gaytrification.” What does this process entails?

UnknownCG: In my book, Quartiers Gays, I have tried to shed a light on the emergence and the development of « gay neighborhoods » in Paris and Montreal. Instead of considering them as established gay territories, I looked at history and considered the social groups who took a part in this urban adventure. Most of the gay neighborhoods in Western cities formed in old, working class and rundown urban areas. This gay migration, back to the inner city, helped gentrify these areas by changing local businesses, urban landscapes and attracting many other groups (private investors, white upper-class residents). Over the last few decades, gay men moved to areas that they in turn deeply transformed. They helped transform local urban life, not only by becoming visible but also by converting a stigma into attractiveness. Gaytrification means this specific urban role played by gay men in urban change, especially in the inner-city neighborhoods of Western metropolis. It affected both North-American cities (San Francisco’s Castro, New York City, Toronto or Montreal) and European metropolis (Paris, Madrid, Brussels or London). That’s why I decided to use this concept.

MT: In There Goes the Gayborhood? Amin Ghaziani looks at the way gayborhoods are changing –and notably deconcentrating- in today’s ‘post-gay’ era where sexual minorities are assimilating into the mainstream. What are the most significant changes the gay neighborhoods you have observed are undergoing?

CG: Ghaziani’s book points out what I have also observed in Paris and Montreal. If gayborhoods emerged as marginalized areas where gay pioneers could find safety and a sense of identity, they also changed their destiny. During the ’90s and until recently, gayborhoods have really been the hub of local gay scenes, but there is a price to pay for visibility and my research shows this ambiguity. Because of the gay gentrification, rents and prices have drastically increased in le Marais (Paris) and le Village (Montreal). More and more gay bars, bar owners and residents are priced out of these very central locations. I also pointed out this process of deconcentration, in the North East of Paris for example, since the beginning of the 2000s.

In my book, interviews with gay men underline another key factor. Gay men I met, especially among younger generations, seem to be less and less attracted by the idea of a gay ghetto. While first gay generations have moved to gayborhoods as -what they call themselves- “refugees,” the young gay population has been socialized in a “post-gay community” era. That can explain why they say they don’t need this specific area. Most of the time, they prefer gay-friendly and mixed places, they appreciate diversity in terms of gender, sexual orientation and represensations of homosexuality. They also consider le Marais or le Village as stereotyped and old-fashion environments. Of course, social and legal changes in France and Canada played a crucial role for them. But most of them have also both social and cultural capital, they can live as gay in other tolerant and friendly places and circles: it’s necessary if you want be gay far from the ghetto.

Another point is the role of the Internet for gay men. Gayborhoods have also been a place for meeting or sexual encounters, but they are now in competition with the Internet, Grinder, etc. Why would you go to a bar if you can find sex from your own home via the Internet? That’s something I have heard when interviewing gay men. These multiple factors explain what has changed for the gay urban population. But it does not mean the end of gayborhoods : they still have the highest number of gay bars in Paris and constitute a place for international gay tourism. They have also become open museums for gay history: in Paris and in Montreal, for example, guided tours are organized and celebrate this gay local identity.

MT: What are the main differences you have observed between North American and European gay neighborhoods? And what are the cultural and historical roots of these differences?

CG: What is probably different in North America and Europe -at least in France- is the link between neighborhood, community and identity. In Montreal, I’ve been really surprised by the way gay men living in le Village consider their neighborhood as a territory for their community. They talk easily about their “community” and claim their identity as members of a gay community. That phrase made sense for them and most of them seem to be proud of it: they also moved in le Village for that reason and said it clearly. Furthermore, most of the North American gayborhoods also have political roots and LGBT activism played a role in their development as well. For example, in le Village, first generations of gay bar owners had links and organized events with gay associations or groups. These groups gathered in a local community center that offered social services, sport clubs or a gay choir.

I think Paris’ gayborhood is really different because of the French political tradition and its complex relationship to communities and minorities. Gay men from le Marais seem very embarrassed by the word “community:” they criticize the idea of a gay community, they don’t accept this sense of belonging, they are French, citizens, men, but refuse to define themselves as gay. In France, gay neighborhhoods and the idea of a gay community have always been seen as a threat to national and urban cohesion. This fear became an obsession in French political debates in the 1990s : minorities are not truly recognized in the French Republic and it affects sexual but also ethnic minorities. I think it also affected gayborhoods such as le Marais where gay political activism, urban and social visibility have always been criticized, denounced and banished, especially by conservative people (lobby groups, residents’ associations, political leaders). This “lack of identity” is probably one of the main differences between France and North America due to very different conception of what a community means : a group providing resources or a threat to society ?

On Questioning | By Marie Tollon

Last November, Hope Mohr’s Bridge Project presented Reorganizing Ourselves, a three-part performative lecture featuring choreographer Deborah Hay and philosopher and cognitive scientist Alva Noë. Hay discussed the importance of questioning in her dance-making process. Noë elaborated on the relationship between art and philosophy and the role that imagination and negative space play in both. The last part of the lecture was facilitated by dance curator Michèle Steinwald who encouraged audience members to each raise a question. Questions poured from the audience while Steinwald and Noë dutifully wrote them down. Remaining unanswered and unused as a starting point or trigger for a dialogue, the questions formed a peculiar collection that became a performance in itself. The viewers thus relinquished their traditional audience passivity to become active participants and co-authors of the lecture. They were thus not only reproducing the mode of working that Hay has championed (using questioning as a mode of creative reorganization) but also practicing a common activity shared by philosophers and artists: delving into questions and more often than not, leaving them unanswered, navigating the space of possibilities and uncertainties that a question offers.

Trajal Harrell in "The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai" Photo by Yi-Chun Wu

Trajal Harrell in
“The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai”
Photo by Yi-Chun Wu

The same month that Reorganizing Ourselves was taking place, American choreographer Trajal Harrell was in the Bay Area for a week-long residency hosted by Cal Performances. His show, The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai will be presented on March 18 and 19 at Zellerbach Playhouse. Harrell’s most recent piece –Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church – explored the following: What would have happened if the voguing ball scene in Harlem, as portrayed in the documentary Paris Is Burning, had come to the Judson Church and performed next to the postmodern dancers in the early sixties?

In both Twenty Looks and The Ghost, Harrell revisits significant moments in dance history and creates alternative historical possibilities in the present context. In The Ghost, he organizes an imaginary meeting between Tatsumi Hijikata, the founder of Butoh dance; Dominique Bagouet, the leader of the Nouvelle Danse in France and Ellen Stewart, the founder of La MaMa in New York city.

While Harrell was in town, Cal Performances Associate Director Rob Bailis facilitated a conversation between the visiting artist and four Bay Area dance makers: Monique Jenkinson, Nicole Klaymon, Shinichi and Dana Iova-Koga. The conversation was meant to be informal, an opportunity to share perspectives and create a dialogue. Although all the artists present in the conversation have very different styles and aesthetics, similarities surfaced in the way they each address history and artistic training.

The Yova-Kogas revisit, expose and question their early training in Butoh and combine it with new aesthetics in their work. Similarly Klaymoon places street dances such as popping, locking, or hip hop within the context of concert dance by way of improvisation or Documentary Theater. With her drag persona, Fauxnique, Jenkinson has put drag in conversation with other dance forms such as contact improvisation or ballet.

The five artists discussed their lineage and process before sharing excerpts of works they have created. Rather then attempting to summarize the 4-hour exchange, I have chosen to reproduce the spirit of the third act of Reorganizing Ourselves and share the questions that were raised by the artists during their conversation.

What does it mean to hold opposing philosophies in one’s body?

How can the clichés and tropes of one genre inform another?

 Is it possible to honor the tradition where one comes from without being limited by it?

How much does terminology and label trap one’s work?

By creating an instability in one’s practice, does one make it impossible to adequately convey what one is doing?

What role does resistance play in art making?

Can the impact of one’s training be considered as a vantage point, rather than a prison?

 How do you deal with orientalism? What is my fascination with orientalism? Can I locate where I am, what I bring to it and not disown it?

Can we revisit performance as a way of archiving?

How is our training inscribing our dancing body?

How does this piece of clothing necessitate that I dance?

What is my native [movement] language?

Where does my body go to when I improvise?

The questions created shared paths between the artists, while revealing differences of approach to the creative practice. Both Reorganizing Ourselves and the conversation moderated by Bailis reminded participants of the possibility to use questioning as a way to co-author a work with the artist. When questions remained unanswered, they offered each one the opportunity to delve into a space rich with possibilities and imagination. As Harrell stated in an interview with Gérard Mayen, the dramaturg of The Ghost, “We find a freedom also in not knowing.”


Hervé Koubi’s What The Day Owes To The Night: A Quest for Origins and Identity | By Marie Tollon

This past fall, several Bay Area choreographers presented work that featured male casts and focused on gender issues, particularly the perception of masculinity in our culture. With its 12-member cast comprised of 11 men, Risa Jaroslow’s Resist/Surrender investigated power and vulnerability in maleness. Similarly, James Graham’s Homeroom, performed by Graham and Sebastian Grubb, exposed the many facets of masculinity, including tenderness and playfulness.

Compagnie Hervé Koubi in "What The Day Owes To The Night" Photo by Didier Philispart

Compagnie Hervé Koubi in
“What The Day Owes To The Night”
Photo by Didier Philispart

For the past 7 years, French Algerian choreographer Hervé Koubi has been working primarily with 12 male dancers, who will perform What The Day Owes To The Night at ODC this weekend. Yet, for Koubi, the piece is not so much a study of gender but rather a quest for origins and identity.

Koubi, who holds a PhD in clinical biology, grew up in France where he trained in ballet, jazz and contemporary dance. It is later, at age 25, that he learned he had Algerian origins. Until then, his understanding of Algeria was through the Orientalist prism of Western culture, and mainly influenced by 19th century Orientalist painters and writers. So upon learning about his ancestors, Koubi decided to confront his preconceived perceptions of Algeria by visiting the country and selecting a group of dancers to work with. Four years later, he premiered What The Day Owes To The Night, whose title is borrowed from writer Yasmina Khadra’s novel. Similar to Koubi’s process of discovering his place between two worlds, Khadra’s novel tells the story of a boy who grows up within a French-Algerian family and slowly discovers his country from the perspectives of both cultures.

Of the 250 dancers who attended Koubi’s audition in Algiers in 2009, 249 were men, which influenced Koubi’s decision on a male cast. The majority of the dancers were highly versed in hip hop and capoeira, but Koubi ultimately chose to work with the dancers who demonstrated the ability to be “porous and available to other dance practices,” he explained in French via email. “The dancers I chose were not stuck within a particular technique or aesthetic.”

Koubi mentions the “horizontal relationship” he has with the dancers, who are listed as “choreographic artists” in the program. “I like to call this group of dancers mes frères retrouvés [my found-again brothers]. The bond that we have is not a typical choreographer-dancer one. We have a real human connection.” Since 2009, the company has created 6 pieces which are the product of the dancers’ creative response to Koubi’s choreographic propositions.

Photo by Ahmad Dahglas

Photo by Ahmad Dahglas

What The Day Owes To The Night is a journey into the unknown and an exploration of differences, not only for Koubi but also for the dancers. Most of them, trained in the streets, were used to hip hop shows and battles, where “the energy is intense but usually concentrated within a short period of time. Dancing with the other is not the priority,” Koubi shared. The dancers had to practice endurance, attention and clarity to perform a piece like What The Day Owes To The Night, which lasts one hour. They had to learn to dance together, listen to each other and develop “a musicality of the body rather than one dictated by a melody or an even beat.”

Koubi’s journey into familiarizing himself with the culture of his ancestors has helped him better understand his parents. “They had wanted to raise me in a Western way but hadn’t lost their roots. They had kept this little body accent, this attitude, which somehow were not in harmony with the image that they wanted to convey,” he explained. It has also helped him discover “the formidable fraternity that exists within [Algerian] culture and that can overcome the hardest challenges.” The past few years of discovery have also reminded him that “each culture contains beauty. The greatness of a civilization derives from the mélange of cultures, not from the claim to a singular identity.”







Choreography as a Colonizing Force: Gerald Casel’s Splinters in Our Ankles | By Marie Tollon

There is a recurrent scene in the first section of GERALDCASELDANCE’s Splinters in Our Ankles: the seven dancers gather downstage, in uneven groups -two duos and a trio- to form a long row. Yet, they do not form a “human wall,” a common motif that appears in many dances -the most recent example being dawsondancesf’s punctus contra puctum where performers aligned, even-spaced, and performed in unison downstage at several moments in the dance, three weeks ago at ODC Theater. In Splinters in Our Ankles, the line the dancers create is curiously asymmetrical, each group staggered from each other. The line has gaps and interruptions, resisting a sense of visual cohesion and completion. It dissolves before any sense of wholeness can be achieved.

GERALDCASELDANCE in "Splinters in My Ankles" Photo by Andrew Weeks

“Splinters in My Ankles”
Photo by Andrew Weeks

While watching rehearsal last week, this scene evoked the unsparing challenge of trying to piece together the past, when only disparate memories and parcels of stories are available. Such is the case for many who attempt to fill in the blanks in the history of ancestors who saw their entire culture and identity repressed and erased by colonialist forces.

My reading of this particular scene in Splinters in Our Ankles was certainly influenced by my earlier conversation with Gerald Casel, who discussed the consequences of colonization on the Philippines, the land of his ancestors. Casel and I talked about appropriation, cultural erasure and amnesia, themes that he explores in Splinters in Our Ankles, which premieres this week at ODC. Through his research, Casel came to question choreography as a colonizing force. After talking to him and analyzing the way I was reading into his work, I was prompted to consider which types of appropriating structures one puts into place as a kind of lens when (re)viewing art. Below is the transcript of our conversation.

Marie Tollon: Can you share some of the research you did for this dance?

Gerald Casel: The piece is inspired by the Filipino folk dance Tinikling. The genesis of it was the premise whereby this folk dance is taught and disseminated to lots of people –at weddings, cultural events… For years and years, I’ve seen this dance, which is one of the most famous emblems of Filipino culture.

However they don’t discuss that it was during a time of colonization, a time of slavery, in the Philippines [that the dance originated]. So I brushed up on the legend and looked around at the literature that I could find. There’s nothing cut and dried about what happened, how the dance evolved. There’s this mythology around it that says that it was inspired by a bird called the tikling. The dancers emulate the footsteps, speed and agility of this bird, evading the farmers who set up traps in the fields because the birds were eating the rice.

In my mind, that’s a metaphor for capture. You are escaping being captive, enslaved. If my ancestors were doing this to escape some sort of oppression, why is that not part of the discussion? When we talk about capoeira or other forms of dance that have resistance built in, it’s discussed. However in this case, it’s not. I’m not saying this is the truth, but I’m unveiling something that’s been covered up. I wonder if it was an act of resistance. In order to perform this, you have to conceal it within a dance.

MT: How familiar were you with Tinikling when growing up?

GC: I never learned it so I’m very ignorant of it and don’t know where it started. That was the springboard.

MT: The title of the piece, Splinters in Our Ankles, brings to mind the brutality and injuries that colonialized Filipinos who worked in the rice fields suffered, notably on their feet, for not obeying the settlers. This is one of the stories of origin for Tinikling. Is the title referring to that story and violence?

GC: Absolutely. I’m looking at the leftovers. What did those splinters represent in terms of Filipino culture, identity and history? And how do we tell our story? I’m trying to reclaim my sense of what it means now to be a contemporary Filipino artist. How do I honor traditional forms like this without getting angry, but by acknowledging [this story] and saying perhaps there was a reason why [it was told that way]. This is another part of the piece which I call “cultural amnesia:” Why did we forget? Was it too dramatic or was it more convenient to forget? Is it easier to move on without the pain of colonization?

MT: In most colonial relationships, the colonizers impose restrictions on the indigenous bodies and movement in one form or another. Was it the case with Tinikling?

GC: No, but as a choreographer in the 21st century, I have come to thinking about choreography as a colonizing force. When we teach dances to other bodies than our own, we are asking them to adapt to an individual body or a style or a belief system that is not theirs. And there is always an undiscussed agreement that dancers will obey what the choreographer is giving. So I’ve been trying to challenge that. There are two sections in the piece. In the first, I made almost no steps.

Photo by Andrew Weeks

Photo by Andrew Weeks

MT: So everything came from the dancers?

GC: Yes, except a little bit toward the end because I got very frustrated that I had to finish the piece! I feel the choreography is the oppressing force. It’s not really dark and ominous in the way I am portraying choreography but I am thinking that as a form, we can rethink how we give or take away agency from the dancers and how they allow us [to do so]. What is that process of inviting an agreement between 2 or among 6 or 7 bodies?

MT: For Dwelling you used a random movement generator to produce movement. Did you use choreographic systems when making Splinters in Our Ankles?

GC: Not in a systematic way like I developed the format in Dwelling but I invited a lot of movement response from the dancers. One task was to speak for 5 minutes while drawing for 5 minutes and then generate a movement response to that process – not to the content but to the splitting of the brain. When you are describing something in a narrative way and you are drawing, both halves of your brain are working at the same time and it disrupts the process where one usually goes and starts with the body. Because you are trying to track several processes you are distracted. I’m a meditator so I work a lot with the mind. I’m always aware of the quantity of information that one gathers and all the stories that you tell yourself, and how those forms are so subjective. When you are creating movement, you have the same liberty but we take it away. You’ll see it in the beginning of the piece where [the performers] are talking and moving at the same time. It’s inspired by Jeanine Durning [although] her process is much more about tracking or getting ahead of your brain. Here I use it as a wall of energy.

MT: So you are using text again in this piece?

GC: Yes, in a big way. I’ve had them work with rondos and we created limericks from the words that we gathered from this writing assignment. I’ve been thinking about these classical and Eurocentric musical structures. Why must we always look at art or dance or music through that lens? I process it and filter it through that device. Inside of it you’ll see a rondo, you’ll see a fugue, there’s a lot of simultaneity or counterpoint happening with the voices, but also with the movement.

Another thing I have been thinking about is the way dance ethnography is researched. We apply cultural anthropology on top of the lens of dance. Again this is a Western construct. I wonder if it is always valuable to write it down and put words into it, when dance is actually trying to escape words, is ephemeral and subjective.

MT: One of the themes present in the piece is assimilation. I imagine that is something you also experienced in your own dance training?

GC: Absolutely. Although it was very international, there were not many people of color (in my class) when I was training at Juilliard. We were definitely the minority. We had to learn ballet and modern dance -which are primarily American forms- and this is the classical base of my training. On the side, you would learn Spanish dance, Bharatanatyam, salsa, and other dances but those were always on the periphery and not in the center of the curriculum. I think there are a lot of changes now, where we are deprivileging Western forms and looking at all diverse forms as valid and on equal footing.

Another thing that I’ve been doing is subverting the power structures in dance. So in terms of colonial structure, the colonizer is taking from the indigenous people. What if that was reversed, I ask? What if a person of color steals from a white person? In this case, I steal from white choreographers -Trisha Brown, William Forsythe, Joe Goode, even Jeanine Durning. What is that process of taking someone else’s intellectual property, putting it on yourself and claiming it as your own? In fact, I’m not trying to do it in a negative or pejorative way but I’m calling attention to what would happen if the power structures were reversed.

Is it stealing when you are saying it out loud? I’m pointing to the fact that it happens all the time. When you do ask permission, how difficult is it to share information? Do choreographers have that kind of power over their work because dance is so temporal and vanishes? I can take the object of choreography and put it into my structure.

Last year I traveled to the Philippines and this past summer to Hawaii to conduct research. Being around a non-Western place kick started my research – seeing how Hawaiians talk about their ancestors and how the process of colonization is embedded in Hawaiian culture. The same thing [happened] in the Philippines. These legacies endure. We are left to our own devices. There is a lot of soul searching that I’m doing through this choreographic process. Whether or not I’m arriving at what’s Filipino culture, I’m definitely lifting cobwebs. I am also looking at how I perpetuate these assumptions about who we are.

MT: What guided your choice when picking the white choreographers you “stole” work from?

GC: There was no guiding principle in how I chose the white choreographers. I simply noticed that when I look to those who inspire me (within the context of modern dance), most of these figures are white – which says a lot about the dance community within which I work and see myself belonging. I also think that this “stealing” is more like an homage to these choreographers rather than a plagiaristic act. I didn’t actually steal their steps but was more inspired by what they were thinking about through their process. Because of the porous nature of sharing our work through performances and workshops – and how choreographers often share dancers, information gets transmitted through the body whether or not it is intended. I suppose I am calling attention to this process in this work.

MT: Another theme that you explore in Splinters in Our Ankle is mimicry. Can you talk about it?

GC: I’ve been thinking how unison is very much related to this idea of mimicry or learning material from another body. As an immigrant to this country, you try to assimilate, especially when you are a little kid. You don’t speak the language, you don’t look the same as anybody else. There are a lot of contentious emotions there that I am teasing out. But also, I’ve been reading about Asian American identity, particularly [the writings of] David Eng about this idea of mimicry. It’s always an assembly of things that don’t really come together and therefore you have this sense of ambivalence and melancholia. This really hit me when I was in Hawaii because one of the speakers described this Hawaiian dancer as being reserved. And someone asked: “Then are they really free?” And I really had a hard time with that, because it’s hard to know what someone else is going through and what this “reserved” looks like, or what freedom looks like in a body. How can we reduce it to these words?

And even when Hawaiians describe how the settlers came and raped their villages, they call it “contact”, the “first contact with the West.” I raised my hand and asked “Why do you use the word contact?” That feels like a very safe (and consensual) word when in fact this process is very violent: you are being taken over; your land, your resources are being taken over; your identity is stripped. How is that contact? And he couldn’t answer me.

James Graham’s Homeroom: A Look At How Men Exist | By Marie Tollon

Among the many cultural offerings happening on December 10 in the Bay Area, two events, although non-related, share thematic intersections. One is the opening of Gender in Translation, a multidisciplinary series of events dedicated to investigating the notion of gender in the social sciences, philosophy, and artistic fields. American philosopher Judith Butler and French sociologist Eric Fassin are two of the thinkers involved in this conversation that spans between December 2015 and the fall of 2016, at institutions such as UC Berkeley, California College of the Arts, the San Francisco Art Institute and ODC.

James Graham and Sebastian Grubb in "Homeroom" Photo by Robbie Sweeney

James Graham and Sebastian Grubb
in “Homeroom”
Photo by Robbie Sweeney

December 10 is also the premiere of James Graham’s Homeroom, an evening-length duet which is the culmination of a three-year project in which Graham and long-time dance partner Sebastian Grubb have been exploring male relationships, masculinity and human connection. Although not part of the Gender in Translation program, Homeroom touches upon gender issues by questioning how masculinity is portrayed in our culture and how performance can subvert traditional representations of maleness. In the piece that opens next week at ODC, Graham and Grubb revisit We Would Sit Together in Homeroom (2014) and Michael and Roland (2015), which have been slightly modified in order to segue into a third duet which they recently completed.

Graham’s three-year investigation is also reminiscent of art works that concentrate on a specific group of individuals observed over time. Recent notable examples include the work of photographer Nicholas Nixon who photographed the Brown sisters every year for forty years or filmmaker Richard Linklater who shot the cast of his epic Boyhood on a regular basis between 2002 and 2013. These works address the marks that time imprints on the body as well as the emotional and psychological evolution of its characters and narrative. Although Homeroom’s research covers a time span much shorter than Nixon’s or Linklater’s works, it features the same two individuals revisiting past gestures and performing new ones. Those who have seen the first two inceptions of the project will certainly appreciate how the performers’ artistic relationship has developed and deepened over the past three years.

Graham and I sat together last week to talk about the piece.

Marie Tollon: We Would Sit Together in Homeroom (2014) was the first duet you choreographed and performed with Sebastian. Did you have in mind then that it would become the first inception of a three-year project?

James Graham: Not at all. I knew I wanted to work with Sebastian. But the original idea was to do a small piece, something short. We made the first duet in a month [beginning in December 2013]. I enjoyed the process and was proud of what we made. I don’t remember the exact moment when I decided to make a second piece, but by then, I had the intention of making a series of three and presenting them together as an evening.

MT: The first two duets appeared within the context of an evening with other choreographers’ work. Can you talk about revisiting these two pieces, creating a third one and combining them into an evening-length work?

JG: There are many compositional considerations. Each section has a beginning and an ending. But if we present them as one piece, one evening, you don’t need a beginning or an ending in the middle of that evening-length work. So, I have had to rethink or rework this material so the experience is one piece and not three separate pieces.

It’s also interesting to honor the fact that the first section was made and presented two years ago, and the second a year ago. Some of the scores would be very different if we did them now; our relationship has changed and evolved, my sensibility as a choreographer has shifted.

Is the work archived and set, or is it alive and changing? I think it has to be a bit of both, but leaning towards the later. Our strength is being fresh and present with each other, listening and interacting; it is not as interesting to me to simply recreate the choreography of what we did two years ago. These live presentations were a part of the development of this work that we continue today.

The first duet was the most personal. It’s about me and Sebastian: how we are friends, what we think of each other, how we move and support each other. The second one is about power and control; the roles that we inhabit as choreographer and dancer, as makers and artists, as animals. And the newest section is more general or inclusive. It is about the roles that men inhabit as uncles/nephews, best friends, teammates, lovers, frat brothers, etc… We move in and out of these different roles and spaces, and explore how men accept these roles of behavior or not.

I’m interested in how men interact, how men exist, and how some of it is good, some not so good. I’m interested in how gay men and straight men can learn from each other and love each other. I’m interested in the difference between sexuality and sensuality. I’m interested in the way men are raised, how women raise men, how men raise men. I’m interested in how we might get rid of talking about men as being “men”; how does talking about masculinity and maleness become a self-perpetuating trap, reinforcing the very notions we seek to disassemble? Do we/I contribute to this dialogue hoping to offer a varied point of view, but risk contributing to the stereotype and expectations of male roles in our culture? I’m interested in how two humans connect, are real and honest, see and honor each other. This is the most difficult, beautiful and profound thing to me.

Photo by Robbie Sweeney

Photo by Robbie Sweeney

MT: To come back to the question about masculinity as a trap, what are the ways in which you have been able, through movement and/or text, to address stereotypes often associated with masculinity such as power or heroism, and subvert them?

JG: We subvert the hell out of it! It’s not interesting to me to try to flip all the obvious masculine stereotypes that we can think of. Rather, we explore some of the ideas of being a man that are interesting to us.

I think seeing two men on stage supporting each other physically, touching, loving each other, having fun together is subversive itself. The first moment we began this process up until now during our premiere, we have been operating inside of a subversive landscape. Men don’t dance. Men don’t touch. Men don’t question. Men don’t explore what it means to be a man. It’s all bullocks, and it’s a story we -our culture- agree on. However, when I walk among the greater population, I know that being embodied and touching another body, especially male, is subversive in our culture. Owning your [male] body on stage is a powerful act, doing that with another male body ups the ante.

I also believe, and have seen in the development of this work, that whatever I do, as a male-bodied person, is masculine. Or that at the very least a male has done the act. So there is no ideal male or masculine behavior. The definition of maleness is not the birthright for only muscular men, or straight men, or big-dicked men, or white men, or men with 20/20 vision or whatever. Any version of male could equally claim maleness, man, or masculine.

What I love about humans is what I love about good work (choreography). We are complex, words often fail us, definitions do not seem quite right… there is ambivalence or confusion, doublethink, and a lack of clear answers about human existence. Also, this way of feeling…How can I feel short and tall at the same time?! The complexity and dualities are what is interesting to me about humans and inside of choreography.

MT: Who are your main artistic influences?

JG: Joe Goode has been a huge influence. I’ve worked with him on and off for the past ten years. I’ve always deeply admired his ability to craft a world and/or characters that easily transition between text and song, and movement.

Definitely Ohad Naharin. It’s not necessarily a one-to-one choreographic inspiration…but more Gaga – the sensibility of full-bodiedness, pleasure, really being in your skin on this planet- and how that informs the research, the development, and the performance of my work. Gaga and Ohad’s sensibility through Gaga permeate every step.

I feel Hope Mohr’s organization and her attention to asking herself: What do I want? How do I get more of what I want? What I am interested in in this moment? That rigor, that self-questioning, that way of working come through in my process as well.

MT: An artist recently mentioned that she uses movement when words fail. What is your approach to text?

JG: I came to be a dancer from acting and singing, so it comes from the same place inside of me to speak or to sing or to have emotion on my face when I’m moving. I have always liked dance theater. It feels like the natural way for me to present work and ideas.

In tending to audiences, [text] allows people more avenues into your work. If your movement doesn’t allow that, maybe text will. Or maybe it may wake them up, if the movement lulled them.

Delivering text on stage is a different craft. It’s something people study for their whole lives. You need to find the balance between realism, naturalism, conversation and projection, delivery, presentation. It’s like movement. You are not just walking down the street. You are on stage. I don’t believe simply because we speak in our every day lives, that it is an easy and natural application of that onto the stage. We, as dancers, should seek training, advice, and knowledge about the ways to deliver text.

MT: The text you use is mostly very personal. How is it created?

JG: There’s no one way that we’ve created text (or movement or lifting sequences). Some text I come in with, some text comes from free writes, and some is prompted.

The “Uncle” text [in the first section] came from Sebastian and me having an hour-long conversation about intimacy, touch, sexuality, family, vulnerability… I recorded our conversation and excerpted these words.

The “I want to make a piece with you…” text came from actual ideas that I had been collecting for years and also some that we came up with and edited in the studio. Sebastian is great to work with in many ways, but one of those ways is that he and I work well at bouncing ideas and text back and forth; we have a lot of “What if we said this?” moments in rehearsal. We polish or improve what the other suggests. We will then craft them over time, including repetition, adding a gesture, feeling what is right for an on stage delivery. We often keep the text alive, or in a shape that we can play inside of, rather than a set script.

Instead of getting lost in the text, I back up and try to think of what the text is in service of: Is it about showing a deeper emotional place, sharing exposition or backstory, connecting us more, offering humor?

MT: Do you have choreographic tools that you use when making work?

JG: Yes, many… it’s a mixture. I video, keep notes/journals, do free writes, improvise, etc. Early on I play with improvisation scores, ideas, prompts and video a lot, then pull out qualities, lifts, durational ideas or relationship structures from the videos and we re-learn them. Surprisingly little remains in the final piece, but it’s a starting off point and helps us find what resonates most.

In the most recently created duet, there’s what I call the “spotlight series,” which is made of 13 little vignettes. These came mostly from the videos. In the same duet we worked with handshakes. How do different men -father/son, soldiers, boss/employee- shake hands? We were exploring how personal and intimate the scale, the range, and the physicality were. In the beginning, I also worked with ideas that were ritualistic and slow in terms of time and quality, and other ideas that were kinetic and chaotic. Very little of these early ideas are in the piece, but it definitely fed what came later: the ideas of the roles we play, step into, or go towards permeate throughout this section.

An interview with Katharine Hawthorne and Matt Parker | Guest Post by Megan Wright

Below is an interview with composer Matt Parker and choreographer Katharine Hawthorne on computers, artistic creation, and the embodied emotive throughlines in their work. Parker’s 2015 album The Imitation Archive is a series of musical compositions based on his 126 sound recordings from the historic computers at Bletchley Park, the site where British mathematicians, scientists and spies broke German’s military codes during World War II. Hawthorne’s new dance Mainframe, which premieres at ODC Theater December 3-5, uses Parker’s compositions in its score.

Suzette Sagisi in Katharine Hawthorne's "Mainframe" Photo by Ben Hersh

Suzette Sagisi in Katharine
Hawthorne’s “Mainframe”
Photo by Ben Hersh

Megan Wright: Matt, hearing the analog sounds of these digital machines at Bletchley Park is the literal crunch of numbers, as you put it. Can you describe how those sounds get made by Colossus, for example, used in WWII code-breaking? 

Matt Parker: The Imitation Archive is a collection of over 100 sound recordings taken from a large number of different machines at Bletchley Park and The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC). Colossus, the world’s first digital programmable computer, operates as tube technology. Several hundred valve tubes are used in its design and they get very hot when in use, so part of the noise of Colossus is the fans being used to cool it down. The unique sonic characteristics of Colossus are of course the rhythmic rotations of the key-wheels, which make up the programmable aspect of the device, and the tape-reel feeder which makes up the data source of the device. These objects are on larger mechanical scale than in our small present-day computers, and create a huge amount of noise when in operation.

MW: Did the history of use assigned to individual computers (mathematical calculation, code-breaking, etc.) influence the final compositions made from those computers?

MP: I wasn’t so much influenced by the mathematical uses of the machines when developing the final compositions of The Imitation Archive as much as I was interested in the human interaction with these devices. Something I was keen to try and explore was how human interaction with these devices has always been a contentious issue, whether it being the top secret, stifling and silent operative conditions of the WRENS (all-women cryptography intelligence personnel that operated the Colossus and Bombe machines) or the alienation experienced when interacting with remote servers. The connection between humans and computers is a fascinating area for me.

MW: Katharine, the score for Mainframe uses Matt’s compositions alongside solo piano and other sounds from the digital age. Can you talk about the process of putting the score together, how you came across Matt’s work, and what role Siri plays in all of this?

Katharine Hawthorne: In making Mainframe, I asked myself, “how can I theatrically create a mainframe onstage, using just the five dancers and minimal set/props?” After workshopping a number of movement ideas in the spring, it became clear to me that the only way to effectively suggest these incredibly large and powerful computers was through sound. I originally planned to make my own audio recordings and then edit them together, but while researching existing recordings of old computers (particularly mainframes), I came across The Imitation Archive. I had an immediate, physical response to Matt’s compositions, and then when I read his artist statement, I recognized a like mind and intention. Although we work in different media, our interests overlap and complement each other.

The dance production revolves around the performers’ interactions with six old Macintosh monitors. I wanted to contrast the mechanical computer sounds of Matt’s score with something more melodic and immediately recognizable as “music,” that would also contain the possibility of humor. The Beethoven piano sonata contains structure, rhythm and repetition that are very human and heroic. I intentionally limited the sound palette to solo piano music to highlight the use of the hands – when we interact with computers we primarily use our hands, and there is of course the literal keyboard (typing) to keyboard (piano) connection. When I first learned to code in high school (as one of two girls in the AP CS class), one of my classmates used to sit in the back of the classroom and blast Beethoven from his computer speakers while we all worked. Perhaps in some part of my mind I had made this association (Beethoven – computers), but I did not recall the memory until part of the way through the process of creating this piece.

Mainframe looks at how computers are like us humans and how we are also like computers. Using voice and language became a natural way to humanize computers. After experimenting with a number of computerized voices (including Fred, the voice in which the original 1984 Macintosh says “Hello”), I decided on Siri. Her voice appears in a number of places throughout the score.

Matt Parker Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Computing

Matt Parker
Photo courtesy of the National
Museum of Computing

MW: Matt, you’ve talked about how the experience of being alone in a museum at night to make these recordings lent a “brooding” quality to the work. Can you talk about the process of documentation?

MP: I tried to explore each device in any and every way which I could, be it capturing an ambient recording of it in the space, working with vibrations using contact mics’, taking it apart and getting ‘under the hood’ with coil tap microphones that pick up electromagnetic frequencies. I aimed to get as comprehensive a collection of sounds as possible and tried to be quite objective in my approach. This isn’t entirely possible as the time of day, the weather and my personal interpretation all need to be considered in the final documentation. Moreover, with almost all of the devices on display, I had no idea how to operate them initially so the time spent with engineers/volunteers who could demonstrate the machines was vital to my knowledge and understanding of the machines and also to my perceptions of what each machine ‘stood for’ within the collection.

MW: Do you consider yourselves digital visitors or digital residents? Has this influenced your art making, and if so, how?

KH: I would say both, or neither. I guess I’m more of a digital nomad, in that I like to explore and wander the web but I don’t necessarily feel like I have roots there. As a dancer my richest experiences are still the ones in the studio and on stage, when I am fully in my body, seeing and feeling other people in real time. I also commute on my bicycle which forces me to be totally present and in the moment. Most of my good thinking and imagining occurs while riding my bicycle or walking my dog. I relish these experiences precisely because they contrast with my digital life. My creative work comes from my instinct to move. At least for now, being a digital resident requires too much sitting still and looking at a screen to fully engage me.

MP: I’m very materialist in my process. I am interested in the noises of computers as something that represents emotive connections between technologies and people. Some people I have heard even describe the humming of computer fans to be calming, soporific even! The unintended byproducts of sound from computers represent this kind of connection but also a waste or byproduct of the energy required to power computers. This ‘noise’ of computers is aligned to materialist ideas of ecology and so I am reminded of rare earth minerals and other mined resources that go into powering these machines which grow in sophistication constantly. I guess I am a digital resident as the digital for me is therefore a product of materials from the earth as much as the non-digital.

Katherine Disenhof in "Mainframe" Photo by Ben Hersh

Katherine Disenhof in
Photo by Ben Hersh

MW: Katharine, in making The Imitation Archive, Matt has created a catalog of sounds from old computers. If you were to create a catalog of movement from the history of computing, what would you want to save? Matt, are there any that you’d encourage Katharine to consider?

KH: In dance there is not a distinction between hardware and software, i.e. between movement and the body performing it. Imagine what a true movement archive would be: a dancer who never learns or ages, sitting in a glass box, performing a movement at the tap of a button. It’s a hardware problem – the only way to create an archive of movement would be to disembody it.

MP: I saw the Babbage Difference Engine at the London Science Museum and it is just cased inside a glass box. The one made at the Computer Museum in California is a working device. I hope to visit it at some point. I could imagine it could encourage a fascinating movement piece. I think that perhaps there is a really interesting set of movements to be taken from the ‘Heath Robinson’ codebreaking machine that is being reconstructed at The National Museum of Computing which runs two lines of tape data simultaneously. The whole idea of the tape is that each line runs in synchronicity and one acts as a codex and the other as the script, but each tape roll falls out of sync with the other as the tape becomes stretched from use and it creates all these imperfections in the data it produces (a failure in its design, but also a necessary precursor to Colossus). I like the idea of two tapes trying to communicate with each other but falling out of sync constantly.

Megan Wright is a contemporary dancer based in San Francisco. She is a current member of the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, a founding member of Maurya Kerr’s tinypistol, and a frequent collaborator with Katharine Hawthorne. Megan has toured both nationally and internationally as a member of the MJDC and with other work. In 2014 she served as choreographic assistant to Katharine Hawthorne at Springboard Danse Montréal, and assisted the New York-based collective I AM A BOYS CHOIR with their production at La MaMa Experimental Theatre. In 2015 she was awarded an ODC Administrative Fellowship to work with Hope Mohr Dance. Megan graduated cum laude from the Walnut Hill School for the Arts and is also a graduate of the Lines Ballet Training Program.

Still Life In Movement | By Marie Tollon

Pieter Claesz "Still Life with Silverware and Lobster" 1641

Pieter Claesz
“Still Life with Silverware and Lobster”

In his still lifes, Dutch painter Pieter Claesz (1596/97-1660) would paint the corner of an everyday table, dressed hastily with heavy white linens, its content displayed lavishly. Objects that do not necessarily relate -a musical instrument, seashells, books, a cooked lobster on a silver plate- appeared side by side in a matter-of-fact manner. The angle of the picture gave the impression that the scene was noticed from the corner of the eye, as if captured furtively while walking through a room. Most often, Claesz placed an object partly hanging over the edge of the table, in a precarious balance. Combined with the realism of the painting, and the play between light and shadow, this conveyed the sense that something was about to happen, thus inciting an animate quality to the atmosphere of the work. In Still Life with Silverware and Lobster (1641), the reflection of the painter on the carafe seems about to shudder, and the lobster’s tail to twitch as if still grasping onto the promise of life.

The capacity to straddle between the animate and the inanimate is equally present in Bay Area choreographers Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg’s Still Life Dances. Although their series is inspired by 19th and 20th century paintings found in the permanent collection of the De Young Museum in San Francisco, it displays a similar attention to details and composition as Claesz’ work. With the Still Life Dances, Simpson and Stulberg reinvestigate the small, the minute, the quirky and play with duration and modes of seeing to create a style of their own.

Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg in "Still Life For Two No. 1" Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg
in “Still Life For Two No. 1”
Photo by Robbie Sweeny

In both Still Life for Two No. 1 (SL1), presented during RAWdance CONCEPT series last December and Still Life for Two No. 2 (SL2) featured during ODC Pilot 65 last April, the two choreographers perform a duet that explores intricate partnering and peculiar movements. In both pieces, they fluctuate in and out of synchronicity and glean small gestures such as the hiccup of a chin or the jerking motion of a wrist. Fingers drum the floor, heels swivel, while the rest of the body stays still. Some of the movements appear involuntary and recall the reflex of a limb jerking during sleep.

Despite similarities in composition and mood between the dances and the paintings that inspired them, Simpson and Stulberg’s dances function on their own, and it is not necessary for the viewer to be familiar with the still lifes that were at the impetus of the creative process. Based on Raphaelle Peale’s Blackberries (1813), SL1 is slightly more abstract than SL2, which is inspired by William Harnett’s After the Hunt (1885) and features recognizable gestures, such as fingers mimicking a gun, and a role play between two shooters. Still Life No. 3 (SL3) based on David Ligare’s Still Life with Grape Juice and Sandwiches (1994), was presented earlier this month as part of JuMP 2015. Although the piece is performed by FACT/SF five dancers, it exemplifies the same choreographic research and inquiries as its two predecessors.

Simpson and Stulberg also play with and reverse traditional ways of seeing, thereby creating ambiguous compositions that push the medium of dance into the visual arts realm. In SL2, Simpson and Stulberg have rotated After the Hunt’s vertical composition: the work unfolds horizontally, with both performers on the floor the entire length of the piece. In SL3, the two choreographers have reversed front and back: the dancers spend a large portion of the piece with their backs to the audience. Their black jackets are buttoned backward, giving the odd impression of a body whose face is missing its feature. Another possible nod to visual arts, the scene also brings to mind the strangeness of surrealist painter René Magritte’s work.

René Magritte "Not To Be Reproduced" 1937

René Magritte
“Not To Be Reproduced”

At one point during SL1, the two dancers drop to the floor, roll to their side and catch their balance, their arms and legs hovering off the floor. Hanging on their flank momentarily, the performers are poised to fall forward. Such as the plate precariously positioned at the edge of the table in Claez’ still life, the moment captures the liminal space that exists between stillness and movement, between two and three dimensions.

Similarly, one scene of SL3 features the dancers lying sideways onto their right forearm in a diagonal facing upstage left. They are motionless for a long minute, enough time for viewers to get accustomed to the stillness of this tableau. Suddenly, the performers drag their right palm very quickly slightly forward. After a long pause, they repeat the movement. And on they go, alternating between a quick shift and stillness, until their right palm, which previously appeared glued to the floor, is in front of their torso. It is not a perceptible slow drag of their hand, but a ‘quick drag and freeze’ type of movement, which is so perfectly in synchronicity and imperceptible that you wonder if your eyes have betrayed you. The moment is reminiscent of trompe l’oeil, the technique that creates the optical illusion that painted objects on a flat surface exist in three dimensions.

Highlighting such details would not be feasible without an astute use of timing. Immobility and movement are weighted equally and in a sea of motionlessness, the details of the lift of a shoulder, the pull of an arm, or the drumming of a finger become heightened. There is no grands ronds de jambes, no sensational lifts or other traditional vocabulary borrowed from ballet or modern dance here, but a complex study of the body mechanics -joints bending, muscles flexing, eyebrows lifting- and a refreshing use of pedestrian movements, realized with tremendous craft and precision.

Simpson and Stulberg in "Still Life For Two No. 2" Photo by Pilot 65 artists

Simpson and Stulberg in
“Still Life For Two No. 2”
Photo by Pilot 65 artists

Mostly performed in silence or with a soundscape that exists separately from the movements, the performers are attuned to each other, taking their cues from a breath, a gaze or a movement. Sometimes the bodies come into contact, as in SL1, when Simpson and Stulberg find themselves torso against torso, and adjust their chin on each other’s shoulder. The adjustment takes a while, they look as if they want to find the perfect fit, and it is a delicious moment that lingers.

An art critic said of Pieter Claesz’s paintings that the objects depicted were carefully selected to “point to the ephemeral and fragile nature of life: the wilted flower, the watch, the skull, the upturned glass and the guttering candle.” Similarly, movements and rests are carefully selected in Simpson and Stulberg’s work. Together, they not only remind the viewer to pay attention to the small, the ephemeral, but also to the renewed possibilities that artists offer to rewrite the language of the body.

JuMP: Creating Support and Dialogue for Bay Area Dance Makers

Over a year ago, FACT/SF Artistic Director Charles Slender-White initiated JuMP, short for “Just Make a Piece.” A program that offers selected choreographers the space, time and resources to create and present a piece during FACT/SF’s fall season, JuMP represents a creative response to the increasingly challenged environment surrounding the art making practices.

FACT/SF in JuMP 2015 Photo by Kegan Marling

FACT/SF in JuMP 2015
Photo by Kegan Marling

This year, the program is co-presented by ODC, as a way to support Slender-White’s initiative and recognize JuMp as a valuable platform that furthers dance in the Bay Area, contributes to the sense of a shared economy and creates opportunities for artistic exploration and development with pay for the choreographers and dancers.

23 candidates applied to JuMP 2015. A panel of artists selected 4 applicants to participate in a 2-hour lab with the FACT/SF dancers, who then voted to select the collaborative duo Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg as resident choreographers. True to JuMP collaborative nature, this year’s program was mentored by Sheldon Smith and Maurya Kerr.

Slender-White, Simpson, Stulberg and I discussed the program that opens on Thursday at ODC Theater.

Marie Tollon: You started JuMP a year ago, with choreographer Liz Tenuto as the first resident choreographer. I’m curious about the residues of that first program. Did it inform your work or the way you approached the second edition of JuMP in any way?

Charles Slender-White: One of the nice things that came out of JuMP was that my relationship with Liz Tenuto deepened. I knew Liz before JuMP but we had never collaborated before. After JuMP, we kept meeting somewhat regularly to discuss what projects we were doing. I found our conversation to be so useful, interesting and supportive, with a sense of camaraderie that I think a lot of choreographers don’t necessarily have because they mostly work alone. We thought that people might like to join, so we started “Choreographers Have Coffee” [an open invitation to choreographers to gather once a week]. We ran it from June to September and it’s on hiatus now for a bit as we are deciding on how to restructure the gathering.

Also, it was very nice for the FACT/SF audience to see work from someone else. A lot of people who see our work don’t see a lot of dance. But I see my work in a dialogue with other works happening in the Bay, in the country and in the world so JuMP was a way to propose another way they can think of work in relationship to each other. They also get to see the company members doing someone else’s work.

I think the dancers really appreciate JuMP because they get the risk and the challenge of someone else’s [choreographic input] within the supportive and structured environment, as well as the working standards, that we have cultivated inside the company. Having already gone through JuMP once, they understand more readily how to support the choreographers who are coming in and what they need to do so that Jenny and Lauren can have a fruitful, productive working environment.

When we started the program, we thought it might be useful to the Bay Area dance community. All the feedback that I’ve received within the two years since we initiated the program reaffirmed the urgency of it.

MT: Jenny and Lauren, could you talk about JuMP in relationship to your own collaborative process and to the larger Bay area dance platform?

Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg Photo by Robbie Sweeney

Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg
Photo by Robbie Sweeney

Lauren Simpson: Our collaborative process began one year ago and has only involved the two of us (and a musician) making, performing, and developing our movement language and style. JUMP fit perfectly into the development of our collaboration because it came along at a time when we were ready to translate our work from ourselves to other dancers. It’s still our direction and vision, but not our bodies. Our work is so specific and quirky and detailed, we honestly thought it wouldn’t quite pan out. On the contrary, this very skilled company has been able to take what we do and deepen it further. They are one of the few midsized contemporary companies with a consistent group of dancers- they have their own internal methods for learning, communicating, and collaborating. It’s remarkable to watch and rare to find. JUMP has inspired us to think about creating a small company of our own -at least a pick-up style one- in the near future.

Jenny Stulberg: To tag on to what Lauren said, participating in JuMP was definitely a big experiment for the two of us. Not only to see if we could continue to successfully work together and create something on a group of dancers that was interesting to watch, but that also spoke to the specific choreographic and conceptual approach we’ve developed between the two of us. We are both pleasantly surprised that our work and approach have been so well received and embodied by this talented group of dancers. I think they also provided us with the challenge and space to expand our process and vision for this piece. We are both incredibly grateful to Charlie and the entire FACT/SF family for granting us this opportunity and believe that through JuMP, they are providing a truly valuable and rich experience for choreographers in the Bay Area.

MT: You have been co-choreographing and performing the Still Life Dances series since the end of 2014. Did you approach working with FACT/SF dancers the same way you approached working on the Still Life Dances series or differently?

LS: The approach was the exact same from a choreographer’s perspective. We start by identifying a still life painting. Then we study it for its compositional rules, determine what we think its aesthetic values and priorities are, maybe do some background research on the work and/or artist. From there we have the tricky but fun job of using instinct, impulse, and kinesthetic response to translate those ideas from a static painting into our time based medium, movement. Whenever we are stuck in the choreographic process, returning to the painting is sometimes helpful. The main difference between our process as a duo and with this group is that we don’t voice all of our logic and decision making processes with the dancers. But we definitely source a lot of our logic and decision making from watching them and asking them questions. They are a smart bunch and the instincts they have as dancers inside the work are crucial.

Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg Photo by Robbie Sweeney

Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg
Photo by Robbie Sweeney

JS: I think being on the outside of our work for the first time has been really interesting for both of us. You experience some disconnect from the movement and process, but it also provides a lens and sense of fulfillment to see the greater picture from the outside. I think it’s always a blessing and a curse being in your own work as you get to physically experience it and are essentially the one to bring it to life, but you miss a lot conceptually by not being able to step outside of yourself and really see what you’re creating. Lauren and I have established a great collaborative and equal partnership and I think this was exciting for us to be on the outside together. Not only were we able to work more efficiently -two brains, four eyes!- but being slightly removed from the work allowed us the chance to experience the piece from the audience perspective and see angles and opportunities for the dancers that we would have otherwise missed.

MT: Can you talk about the piece you are creating for JuMP?

LS: Still Life No. 3, much like No. 1 and 2, is formally driven: much of the movement is determined by our efforts to closely obey the compositional rules we set up for ourselves -Well, let me say that I tend to be rigorous about obeying the rules and Jenny likes to break them, which is one reason our collaboration works well. The work faces upstage and exists upstage right for a long time, their movements are small and precise, they must listen very hard to each other as there is no music and there are strange timings throughout. In our attempt to only focus on line, space, time, speed, and scale, and ignore all elements like relationship, emotion, narrative, feeling, their humanity is obscured. However, I believe it is impossible to completely abstract the body because these five dancers are people. And their humanity peeks through at times which have become my favorite moments of the dance.

JS: Absolutely. Witnessing those moments of pure synchronicity and precision between the dancers is incredibly gratifying -and these five have worked diligently to achieve it. But as Lauren said, seeing the human behind the dancer makes the experience that much richer.

MT: Charles, the piece you are creating for JuMP is partly informed by your recent trip to Eastern Europe. Can you talk more about it?

CSW: I knew that in 2016 we would make a piece about the Romani Diaspora. I’m Roma. My great grandparents were more involved in the Roma community, but my grandfather moved away and assimilated with white America. It is a piece of our history and heritage that we don’t talk about very much.

In June 2014, I was watching the Working Families Summit. Michelle Obama was talking about her experience as a lawyer. Mentioning having to work part-time once she had a family, she said “she got gypped” in that deal. And I thought: ‘Here we are in 2014, this very powerful woman, who is also an ethnic minority herself and surely understands oppression in many forms, very casually uses this ethnic slur.’ Gypped comes from gypsies [which is a misnomer] as people thought they were from Egypt, but they are not. They come from India. When I started my grant writing process, I was dismayed because I realized that I couldn’t describe the project without using ethnic slurs [like gypsy] because so few people know what Roma means or who Roma people are. The group is so dispossessed of identity that they can’t even use their own term to describe themselves.

FACT/SF in JuMP 2015 Photo by Kegan Marling

FACT/SF in JuMP 2015
Photo by Kegan Marling

At the same time, as the public attention was focusing more and more on issues such as police brutality or displacement in San Francisco, I started to feel that my art was not doing anything, that it needed to do something. The ballet we made last year for JuMP was nice but it was very academic and self-referential. So I felt an obligation to participate in the dialogue and contribute in some ways. I talked to Julie Phelps at CounterPulse. She is part of a group of presenters in Eastern Europe. They had some funds in their travel grant and I was offered the opportunity to go and do research for two weeks. I went to Serbia to study Roma language and culture. I also went to Bulgaria, and met with NGOs, local organizers, municipal governments, and people from the US embassies in Belgrade and Sofia.

For someone like me who is mixed, it dovetails to other issues, like passing and code switching, but also race and oppression. How do you make a dance about it that is not reductive, offensive, or pedantic? The piece is becoming about my experience trying to process such complex information more than the situation with the Roma itself. CounterPulse will be co-presenting a 2-week run in May, and I thought that I could use the commission that I’m doing at the University of San Francisco and JuMP to start to work toward the show at CounterPulse.

MT: With so many complex ideas to explore, where did you start?

CSW: I started by teaching the dancers some words in Romani language. Language is one of the first things people take away from you if they don’t want you to have power. So maybe there is something powerful even as a group, knowing a few phrases or being able to count. During the first few rehearsals, I shared my research about what I learned, and questions I still had: Is integration a goal? And if it’s a goal, whose goal is it? Is it different than assimilation? I have some opinions but no definite answers. We started making phrases without real purpose. We had just finished the dance lab, and Nicole Peisl, who used to dance for Ballet Frankfurt and the Forsythe Company, taught a lot of Forsythe Improvisation Technologies. We used those as tools to start moving.


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