a chair in a room, a room in a house…

I spend a lot of my time thinking about composition. About how things come together, how they find form, how those forms take shape. About how bits and pieces and passages connect to create a whole that is, if I may borrow the cliché, more than just the sum of its parts. About what all this business of making things and arranging them has to teach us about who we are and why we are even here in the first place. And I’m always on the lookout for kin whose work explores the fascinating territory of compositional principles and illuminates them in a way that offers me a new window, and new way in.

Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen used to design not only buildings, but the furniture and rugs to go in them, in keeping with the philosophy of architecture and design at the turn of the century. He is known for designing the Railway Station in Helsinki, The Cranbrook Academy outside of Detroit, and advising his students to “always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”

Saarinen House Dining Room, designed by Eliel Saarinen (Courtesy Balthazar Korab/Cranbrook Art Museum)

Knox Martin, a living legend of a painter from the New York School, talks about the importance of each passage in a good painting having at least seven different roles, or compositional functions. If we look at his painting, Crucifixion (below), we can see this in action. Take that small red circle in the upper right hand corner. Notice how it has an upside down twin in the opposite corner. Together they act like pins, holding up the composition as if tacked to a wall. That red dot also happens to be the same color as the candy cane striped passage that draws the eye down on a steep diagonal. It also rhymes with several other round little shapes throughout the canvas, like the beady eyes of the beast at the top, the blue buttons along the lower right edge and their white and green counterparts just up to the left, while simultaneously acting as an understated counterpoint to the splay of yellow fingers on which it rests. I’ve lost count now…how many was that? It doesn’t matter, because the eye keeps moving, finding new pathways, new connections; the painting keeps opening up. In this way, Knox asserts, the painting creates for the viewer an experience of infinity, where the subject matter is creation itself.

Crucifixion, Knox Martin (acrylic on canvas 9'X11')

My long time collaborator and fellow Architect, Lisa Gonzales, encourages students to notice the fact that they are always and already in relationship to something: the floor, the air, the sound, their mood, the architecture in the room. If you’ve ever taken her class, you may have seen her brilliant and hilarious demonstration of how plentiful are the possibilities when you tune into the many layers of relationships available for your consideration at any given moment. One instant she’s standing there talking to you, and the next she’s thrown herself across the room, in a funny physical running commentary of the myriad unfolding relationships: between her feet and the air, her heart and the floor, her voice and the ceiling fan. Before you know it, your attention, body and the room itself are enlivened and ready to engage, compose and relate to and with everything in and around you.

Lisa Gonzales (photo by Bill Frederking)

As I sift through these examples, what I love most about them is the presence of a thread, a through-line… a chair in a room, a room in a house… a link from one thing to another thing… every passage having seven roles creates a dynamic infinity… an energetic connection ...the floor, the air, the light, your heart: you’re in relationship to everything…a continuum along which our attention can move…

And there….there is the word that points to the thing that really wakes me up, really makes my heart sing: move. I love how much movement dances through these different examples of compositional research.  And how that movement, of our bodies and our attention, is the thing that allows for these compositional connections to be made.

I take these ideas into the studio with me, fascinated by how deep the research can go, especially when practiced in the context of ensemble work. As I am improvising, what happens when I perceive what I am doing as being a chair in a room, a room in a house, and so on?  How can this guide me as I warm up my attention from the inside out, from myself and my own movement impulses, out into the space, to other bodies, other movements?  Can I dig into and shape my material so that every gesture, every phrase has seven connections, seven compositional functions?  (Will I make myself crazy even trying?) How far can I widen the relational frames when I generate movement, when I make a choice?  How far can I stretch my compositional attention into the macro, without losing any of the care, concern and love for the detail in the micro?  This is what I’m after, this is the work that I came here to do.

Because what I do affects what is around me. My actions, movements, and intentions all have consequences. We are always in relationship to something, whether we are dancing, painting, planting, building, planning, living or dying. Everything we think, say or do is in some relation to everything else that happens.  I’ve spoken before about the poetic effect of the choices we make, the importance of paying attention to how what we do ripples out into the piece, the room, and the world beyond.  As I keep practicing this work, I can’t help but wonder: just how far can my attention reach?  How far can I stretch my awareness?

Iroquois traditions hold that all major decisions should be made with the Seventh Generation in mind. In other words, it’s not just about me here now, it’s about the we that will be seven generations down the road (the Seventh Generation being the one which is beyond our direct contact, more than 120 years into the future.)  Even if we can set aside the paradox of time, which is always something of a kicker for the improviser devoted to staying in the moment, that’s still quite a stretch.  120 years into the future?  I thought we were talking about chairs and rooms and dances and composition?  Right.  We are.  We’re also talking about using our attention (and intention) to build connections between ourselves and the world around us, a world that needs us to pay attention now more than ever.  Composing, friends, is choosing.  And while making choices with our attention seven generations out might seem like a leap, I think it’s the leap we all need to make.

notice what you notice

photo by Stephen Aubuchon

Perhaps one of the most profound gifts I have ever received was being introduced to (what would become) my life’s work, when I was an undergraduate student at Middlebury College, back in the ’80s. I can remember the voice of my teacher Penny Campbell, as she guided us through long sessions of eyes-closed improvisational movement research, walking quietly among our bodies in various states of moving, reaching, standing, rolling or resting. To bring our attention to different parts of our bodies, she would name them, inviting us to deepen the awareness, by awakening consciousness through movement.

Notice what you notice, she would say. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Simple and obvious…almost comical. I mean, what else would you, what else COULD you notice, besides what you’re noticing? Yet how much of our attentional space is taken up with the whir of mindless, endless, spinning thoughts that race after and interrupt each other to the point where they build a nearly impenetrable barrier between us and what is happening in the right now? How much of our attention is clogged with white noise that prevents us from even beginning to be able to pay attention in the first place, let alone notice anything at all?

How to break through that wall, how to get to the other side? By noticing what you notice. The words became like a mantra for me, they became the foundation of my ongoing practice of paying attention, the heart of my life’s work as an improviser, and also the underpinning of both my research and my improvisational pedagogy. They have taught me what I could not have learned from any other source, from any other practice, at the same time they have led me to a place where I have learned, (and keep learning) how to let everything I perceive become my teacher.

I say now to my students, as I say to myself: notice what you notice. Notice sensation. Notice what wants your attention, where the attention is drawn. Notice thoughts as they arise. Notice how sometimes you feel like you are along for the ride, simply following the snowballing-ongoing-unfolding of whatever it is you are doing, taking direction from your attention as if it had its own agenda. Notice how other times you find you can direct your attention, you can choose to focus that attention, here in the way the weight pours into your left foot as you hover in a balance, or here, in the energy fields of the bodies moving around you. Or here, or here…or here. Notice how you can move easily back and forth between these two modes, of following and guiding your attention. Notice the subtle differences, if any, in the kinds of things you notice from each approach. Do you feel more drawn to or curious about one or the other? Notice what you notice.

When you commit to the practice of noticing what you notice, you have no way of predicting what you will find, and here’s the thing…you don’t need to. You don’t have to know beforehand. (You can’t possibly, anyway…) And you don’t have to understand whatever shows up. You don’t have to recognize it, defend it or give it a name. You don’t even necessarily have to like it. You just need to be willing to make space for it to emerge, to find form. This is paying attention; this is noticing what you notice.

But what happens when you commit to the practice of noticing, and you don’t, in fact, like what you notice very much? Simple. You notice what you notice, and then you notice that the word notice is not the word judge. Hang on a second. Let’s take that line again. Notice that the word notice is not the word judge. Why is this important? Because when you are noticing, you are open, receptive, available, and able to respond. As soon as you allow judgment into the equation, you have, on subtle and not so subtle levels, put up a wall between you and the world. Between you and all the amazing information that comes your way when you invite the possibility of letting everything around you be your teacher. You have made an assumption about what something is, before you even have a chance of exploring or experiencing it. You have already said no. Noticing opens doors. Judging closes them. And improvisation is a practice of opening doors.

Notice how the practice of noticing, without judging, cultivates a kind of open friendliness with whatever shows up. Thoughts arise continuously, as you move, thoughts about the things you notice. It’s not necessary, or even useful, to label them good thoughts or bad thoughts, good things or bad things, they are merely thoughts, thoughts about the things we notice. When practiced this way, we can move freely through the field of possibilities, expanding our awareness by making choices, honing our craft as composers by noticing what we notice about the poetic effects of those choices. And so on.

I say to my students as I say to myself: Keep going. Keep noticing. Notice everything you can. Intentionally set yourself on edge by trying to pay attention to more than you can pay attention to… so that gradually you can pay attention to more. Yes, this is technique practice…yes, this requires discipline, and effort. Remember, this work is a practice, a life-practice and a life-long practice. And no, it’s not always easy. Except sometimes, when it is. And then we’re talking about being in what some might call a “state of grace.” Or maybe it’s just the “sudden” ease that arrives after hours (weeks, months… years?) of disciplined, determined practice. Easy or hard, the practice is the same: notice what you notice.

Lest we become confused with semantics, or caught up in a misunderstanding, let me say that committing to a practice of noticing without judging doesn’t imply a landscape without action, decision, volition, free will or aesthetics. Judgment is not the same thing as discernment.

In my world, improvising is composing (as opposed to just doing whatever you want without thinking about it, an unfortunate myth about improvisation I’ve been working to dispel my entire dancing life.) Another word for composing is choosing. Composing is choosing how to shape what happens between the beginning and the end, between A and B. Any fool can bumble, stumble and unconsciously schlep his way from A to B. Most of us spend most of our lives doing some version of just that! But to consciously shape the time and space between A and B, to choose to show up and pay attention, to intentionally swim in the infinite field of possibilities and actively participate in the unfolding of forms…this is the joy, this is the challenge, this is the task at hand. This is why I am an artist, why I’ve devoted my life to the practice of showing up and making things, even when it feels like I’m working in the dark.

This, I suspect, is why we are here.

Transcendence at the Radio Bean

Arthur Brooks / Ensemble V at the Radio Bean (taken on my cell phone)

Every Wednesday evening at 7:30, in a dark and funky coffee house at the end of Church Street in Burlington, VT, a group of musicians gather to practice the rare and radical act of showing up. Arthur Brooks, Polly Vanderputten, Nelson Caldwell, Michael Chorney and Anthony Santor are Ensemble V (as in the number, not the letter), an improvising quintet of top drawer/low profile musicians directed by Arthur. On this particular Wednesday, they are joined by fellow improviser and esteemed music heavy, Barry Reese. And I have traveled the two hours from Littleton, NH with my friend Hilary, to be there, because I’m lonely for my people, and hungry for the real.

We’ve arrived early, to meet with Arthur and talk over summer plans of collaborations between Ensemble V and the Architects. Hilary is visiting from Portland, a spur of the moment trip inspired by an out of the blue Facebook chat a few days before. We’d been talking about the importance of finding and cultivating an art community with deep roots, about the challenges of making and supporting experimental work in rural, out of the way parts of the country. About a growing gnawing knowing that this work we do is not some out-of-touch-with-reality luxury of privilege, but a powerful tool for connection, transformation and paradigm shifting. And we’ve just spent two days immersed in a delightful mix of dialogue, writing, shared movement research and coffee-driven art plots/plans/provocations. I’ve given her only the lightest hints as to what we are about to hear, with a casual, “our ears are in for a real treat.” She has no idea what she’s in for.

The members of the ensemble greet each other, set down their coats and grab a beer. There’s not a lot of standing on ceremony here, no pretense in this group, and, once they enter the space and take up their respective instruments, virtually no eye contact either. What for the briefest moment seems like “warming up”, (the testing of a bow, the tuning of a guitar) soon clears its throat quietly and announces itself as having begun. As if simply picking up from where they left off the last time they met, the conversation is underway. Arthur, balancing on a stool, rests his back against the wall, closes his eyes, bows his head and listens. Nelson taps his bow lightly against the strings of his cello, and whispers a quiet winding solo statement. Polly and Michael take turns nodding, swaying, and sipping their beer. No one here is in a rush.

I am struck by the similar posture in each musician’s body as they play: the back is soft, and bent forward, the feet are planted wide on the ground. The head tilts to one side and slightly up, like the open cup of a flower, catching the rain.

I know I am right where I want to be when I find myself simultaneously energized, heartbroken, inspired, fired up, undone, done in and completely awake. Within moments of the Ensemble taking the space, the very air in the room starts to change. We are in the presence of Presence itself. So simple, and yet, so deeply profound, this powerful act of choosing to show up and pay attention together in this way. I can hardly stay still in my seat. Suddenly, it seems, the entire room is alive and dancing in collaboration with the sound, with the bodies and the instruments that are making the sound. Everything is part of what is happening, and nothing is irrelevant.

I let the sound surround me, and in the semi-private cocoon of closed eyes the sounds start to take on shapes. Like lines, but somehow with a spacious volume. Indulge me for a moment, as I loosen the grip on the words, in order to give you the tiniest glimpse of the sweet state that room was in. Imagine, say, watching a film of ice crystals forming on a glass surface, each tiny line, like a finger, branching off into countless others, meeting, layering, fanning out, folding over each other. Now speed that film up and expand the frame, so it’s no longer a two dimensional thing, but starts to fill the room. Imagine that glass surface beginning to bend, expand, inflate and move through the room. Now imagine that the lines are both sound, and light, and you’re not just watching this film, but feeling it in your skin, your lungs, your bones, your blood. Each note a ripple, an undulation that moves through the space, tapping awake the attention of everything in its path. Each note, simultaneously a sound, a sensation, a taste in your mouth. A flicker of light, a pang, a memory and a future shout. And all this is happening and unfolding in glorious real-time, like a Polaroid developing before your very eyes, from the inside out.

A woman enters the cafe and passes just inches from Arthur’s post near the door. Her orange beret bounces a vigorous greeting, and Arthur responds with a smile and a nod. Her entrance reminds me of the world outside, and suddenly, my perception expands and, like pulling wide-open the shutters on a follow-spot, light floods my attention, my attention floods the room, floods the street outside the room, floods the sky above the street…

What is happening here? How you answer that question depends entirely on which perceptual level of reality you’re interested in, or tuned into. What’s your fancy? What’s your fascination? How far down the rabbit hole are you interested in going?

I’ve been scribbling notes in my sketch book, thinking that later I might try to string some words together, to write about this experience. The tip of my pencil snaps, I’ve been writing so fast. I look down at what I have just written, and smile at the words that have appeared on the page:

They are beings of light!! They are beings of shining voluminous light!

They keep going. I look outside and notice it’s started to snow. The very air in the room is alive, the room itself is buzzing: The bartender washes racks of glasses, in perfect tune with the muted trumpet, in perfect time with the talking drum. Anthony’s fingers blur as they chase each other up and down the fret of his upright bass. A bell rings from the kitchen window; someone’s food is ready. Oh right, I think, someone is hungry. Of course. Of course, there would also be hunger here. Deep hunger. Every one of us, hungry for the real, even when we don’t know it.

Suddenly, an ambulance tears past the cafe. Then a fire truck. For a few moments, the punched tin ceiling of the cafe flashes red, as the sirens scream and blast in unison with the sharp cries of Arthur’s trumpet.

I used to hear the scream of an ambulance and think…oh…someone’s life just took an unexpected turn. Someone out there is not having the kind of day they thought they might have when they woke up. Maybe I got this from my mother, a devout Catholic, who used to close her eyes and make the sign of the cross whenever an ambulance passed us on the highway. It stayed with me, this kind of sudden heaviness of empathy every time I heard a siren, until one day I told a friend about it, how the sound of a siren hit my ears like, “someone’s in trouble.” She said, yeah, but if you listen, you can also hear something underneath it, something like… “don’t worry, help is on the way…” Whoa. Paradigm blaster. Tune in, tune in, by all means tune in. Don’t doubt for a second that you are inextricably connected to everything around you. But when you tune in to someone’s suffering or bad fortune, let go of the heaviness: they have more than enough of their own. Send them the lightness they need, send them help is on the way…

Like the cook ringing the pick-up bell, the ambulance reminds me that life doesn’t stop just because six people are playing music, and a handful of people are listening to them. Life goes on. Lives go on. Not separate, but alongside, and there’s always an emergency…an emergence…an emerging, a coming into being, from the formless into form, into the moment, into the right this very moment. As the red glow fades from the room and the ambulance disappears from view, I feel a shift among the musicians, I feel a shift in the room. I feel the threads of this music spilling out of the Bean, and following that ambulance down the street connecting every person in that room with the unknown person for whom that siren tolled. What is happening here? I think of a line from a favorite Rumi poem:

This is love: to fly toward a secret sky,
to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment.

And they keep going. Keep playing, keep sending that sound out into the air. I look at Hilary, who sits next to me, knitting and nodding her head with the music. Her eyes are wide open and bright. We beam at each other. I say, just loud enough for her to hear over the music, which, as it turns out means practically shouting, “This… (motioning towards the huddle of magic bubbling up from the corner of the room) THIS is how you change the world!”

improvising to films (part 2): perception as a practice of patience

It’s been a week since the performance at Sidewalk Tzara/Outpost 186. There is a wee review in the Boston Phoenix, written by Marcia B.Siegel, who apparently enjoyed the show very much, even if she hardly mentions the presence of the live body in an evening primarily dedicated to films. (Which is curious to me, and raises interesting questions about presence. I would have thought that the live body trumps the virtual body in impact and power any day, especially when those bodies are dancing mere inches from the audience. Of course, as soon as I write that sentence, I question it, knowing how mesmerized our culture is by all things digital and flickering. But that’s a topic for another post…)

I titled this post a week ago, the night before the performance, as a kind of bookmark, a trail of breadcrumbs to find my way back to where I had left off…I had wanted to get at the experience of both creating an improvisational structure/approach to working with August 2009, a minimalist film by George Manupelli, and the experience of actually performing with it.

August 2009, (which had its public premier at Sidewalk Tzara) runs 18 minutes and is comprised almost entirely of a fixed frame, single shot of a summer thunder-storm in decrescendo, filmed from the deck in Manupelli’s backyard. Bookended by the sound of a typewriter striking each letter of a blunt and brief breakup note, the film unfolds at a rate that tests the patience of most viewers, and offers the opportunity to pay attention to change, narrative, emotion and time in some new and perhaps uncomfortable ways.

I had wanted to write about dancing with the idea of dancing with this film, and how odd that was, that day in the studio, before the performance, not having the film with us, just our memory of it, and some notes about its structure and the poetic effect of that structure. “Perception as a practice of patience” was the phrase that came to mind, as a way to describe the way the film unfolds in time

The simple score of trading solos that didn’t work for the first film, likewise, didn’t work here. (Perhaps a good reminder of the difference between the conceptual and the experiential, or the classic, “sounded good in theory” syndrome!) We worked with several variations and finally landed on one that seemed promising: a unison score, in which the role of “leader” is traded back and forth, and each mover can choose at any time to enter or exit. In the studio, the score felt interesting, spacious, and rich with potential, even in its simplicity. In the performance, however, I found it impossible to stay pure with it, and found myself breaking, or at least bending, the “rules.” But in my defense, let me say that in doing so, I felt like I was answering to a higher (compositional) authority. I fear that sounds flaky. Let me explain:

In the very act of performing, I experienced that kind of meeting the moment/material in a new eye opening way that brings those sudden, though sometimes subtle, understandings I suspect most artists long for. There I was, in the space, in the moment, with Jen, and the film, and the rain…and the audience, close enough to touch us. I felt the unfolding of time, felt the unfolding of form as we moved, making choices based on the score. And then I felt the tug of the necessary. The choices that wanted to be made, even if making them meant taking a detour from the score.

Performing is an alchemical process. Webster defines alchemy in part as “a power or process of transforming something common into something special,” andan inexplicable or mysterious transmuting.”  The act of performing, and all of the rituals that surround it (preparing, rehearsing, practicing, making all manners of decisions about how to frame the work to be performed, what to say about it beforehand, how to advertise it, present it, etc) serve to sharpen the focus, not only on the work performed, but the makers of that work. Fellow artist/performer/maker of things Karinne Keithley says it beautifully: “Performances are always my most fruitful rehearsals…” Through performing I find the most potent and useful information about what it is I’m making, what it is I’m doing, and the poetic effect of my choices.

I often wonder why I have chosen (and keep choosing) this dance-making and performing life. (Oddly enough, I usually wonder this in the handful of moments before stepping out on stage, and the wondering comes in the form of the only half-joking adrenaline-filled thought, “Just WHO exactly thought doing this was in ANY way a good idea??”) It’s certainly not for the money, or the fame. It’s not even for the pleasure of creating something and sending it off into the world, though that is deeply satisfying. I think it’s because through moving and making, I come to understand my experience in this life. It’s how I interact with, and make sense of, the world around me.

On this side of the performance, after a week has passed, and the information and insights are settling, I think of the title of this post. I notice how the words themselves seem to be dancing their way into a new arrangement, pointing the way to the beginnings of a deeper understanding…and so I let them reorganize themselves and step back to let what I do show me what I need to know. And I watch the subtle transformation as “Perception as a Practice of Patience” becomes “Performance as a Practice of Perception.”

improvising to films: exercises in locating the inner structure (part 1)

Getting ready for the Sidewalk Tzara performance tomorrow. Friend and collaborator Jen Green came up this past weekend, so we could spend some time in the studio. A quick little trip we’d planned maybe a month ago, before I remembered there was a workshop at WREN I wanted to take. A hands on workshop in collaboration, a topic, as you know, quite near to my heart. Taught by two visual artists working primarily in paper and fabric, it was a fun afternoon of catching up, experimenting and diving deep into the mysteries of making.

Jen and I had decided to start working on something together back in the fall, when we reconnected after some years of having fallen out of touch. We had no rigid idea of what that working together might look like, just the growing desire to collaborate, like a small occasional tap on the shoulder. We kept at it, kept paying attention to the tap, and kept lightly nagging each other, until an opportunity arrived that we both could say yes to, namely, this funny little gig in Cambridge at Outpost 186. For this first phase of our collaboration, we’ll be dancing to/with films made by George Manupelli.

We’ll be working with two very different films. The first one, Five Short Films, circa 1964, runs about 10 minutes total, and features music by Manupelli, Robert Ashley and Gordon Mumma. It feels more like a very loud poem than a film, as it juxtaposes tender and cryptic titles (“I love you, do not be afraid” for example) with the blaring assaults of the stripped down sound score and screaming streams of images created by physically manipulating the film itself with various scratching, etching and soaking techniques.

The second film, August 2009, (which will have its public premier tomorrow at Sidewalk Tzara) runs 18 minutes and is comprised almost entirely of a fixed frame, single shot of a summer thunder-storm in decrescendo, filmed from the deck in Manupelli’s backyard. Bookended by the sound of a typewriter striking each letter of a blunt and brief breakup note, the film unfolds at a rate that tests the patience of most viewers, and offers the opportunity to pay attention to change, narrative, emotion and time in some new and perhaps uncomfortable ways.

So, we head to the studio, to rehearse. (How do you rehearse for improvisational performance, you ask? That’s a question I get a lot, and a good topic for another post!) We arrive, with some questions. How can we improvise, and have a relationship to the films being projected that is authentic, interesting, fresh and conscious without setting any material? The films exist already, and we are not interested in choreographing to them. Nor are we interested in acting them out, representing them through gesture or movement, or any other literal approach to meaning-making. How can we shape an approach that is valid on its own, honors the films and feels interesting/compelling enough on the inside to stay engaged?

Where to begin? With listening. Listening for the impulse to move, listening for what shows up, to what asks for attention. We decide to “warm up into finding each other,” a technique we often practice where we begin as soloists, warming ourselves up from the inside out, eventually finding each other, working together and then, together, finding an end. For example, one might shift and move one’s attention say from breath into bone into muscle into shifting weight, into pushing up out of the floor into noticing the space into noticing the presence of the other in that space into noticing the relationship between oneself and any and all of these things, including the other and then working together to shape what happens from there into finding an end.

Sometimes this process can take a minute. Other times it takes a while to drop in and feel connected. On this particular day, it’s 8 degrees outside and the studio floor is ice cold. We decide to take it slow, and give ourselves a half hour.

Five Short Films

After warming up, we come up with an idea to trade solos back and forth, a kind of simple call and response structure that could travel alongside each of the five 2 or so minute-ish films. In theory, it seems like a viable score. Until we actually try it. Seems way too contrived, artificial, and limiting, especially as we try to more or less hit the two-minute mark with each solo. (note: while we have seen the films several times, we were not actually working with them on this day). And it starts to bring us into territory where we almost feel like we’re trying to match or mark the course of each film, which in a curious way starts to lean towards narrative. And while I can be a big fan of a story, it’s not what we’re after here.

So, we let go of that score. We let go of the idea of trading altogether, and instead try on the idea of replacing. One person enters the space and moves for an undetermined amount of time, playing with moving in and out of stillness. The other person watches, waits until a compelling image takes hold, and then enters into that image, (shape, stillness, what have you) replacing the first body in the space, and continuing on from there. In this way, the duet unfolds, a series of overlappings in the space, informed (but not limited) by the unfolding structure of the films.

Immediately I felt my connection to what I was doing deepen, my curiosity get sharper. It was clear we had found a workable score, one with just the right balance of enough structure and plenty of freedom, one that could hold its own in a living, responding evolving way… and keep opening doors into fresh, unexplored territory.

to be continued in… Part Two: August 2009
and Perception as a Practice of Patience

finding kin

So, I live in a small town in New Hampshire, in an area affectionately known as “North of the Notch”. (This is often said in much the same tone as one might say “bless her heart” south of the Mason-Dixon Line.) I moved here last summer, a year after my partner came here for a job she couldn’t refuse.  I knew I would be in for some lonely times as an experimental artist, living so far away from any city or scene, and it was hard to leave the community I spent five years finding in Raleigh, but love’s call had to be answered.  I found the box of wool sweaters and mittens, packed up my things and headed north.  I’ve been searching for my art kin ever since.

Seems there are pockets of them here and there, many still around after the closing of Franconia College in 1978.  Have found some good folks fortifying the nest over at WREN.  And I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about the grass-roots, overachieving Arts Alliance of Northern New Hampshire in future posts.

A few weeks ago, when hanging a group art show featuring local artists at the Cold Mountain Cafe in Bethlehem, I met one of my neighbors, George Manupelli. You might remember him from a few decades ago, when he was making noise in the avant-garde film scene, with strange gems like the Dr. Chicago series starring Steve Paxton.  My friend Heather, who organizes the Farmer’s Markets at WREN, and invited me to show work in the cafe, introduced us when she gave us both a ride to the cafe.

“So, what do you do?” George politely asks from the back seat.

I notice the habit of hesitating before I answer, “I’m a dance artist.”  Then I notice the instinctive way I brace myself for his response.  I’ve grown used to a variety of strange looks, blank stares and uncomfortable pauses whenever I tell someone I’ve just met about my life’s work.  More often than not, I’m talking to someone who has no reference point, for whom the mention of dance brings up a limited array of mental files, including The Nutcracker, Michael Jackson, and maybe, if I’m lucky, the ever popular So You Think You Can Dance.

“Oh,” he says, thoughtfully.  “Like Merce Cunningham?”  My ears perk and my eyebrow shoots up.  “Well…yeah, sort of.  I mean, well…my work isn’t really anything like his, but I guess you could say he’s there for sure in my lineage.  Like my dance grandfather.”  I’m thinking to myself…maybe it was a lucky guess, a stab in the dark…plenty of people have heard of Merce Cunningham, especially after we lost him this past summer.

“I see.  So you’re talking about the Judson folks then are you?”

And we’re off.  Turns out we are related, sharing more than one branch of our art making family tree.  He knew and worked with Cage and Cunningham, Deborah Hay, Robert Ashley, Yvonne Rainer and Judith Dunn to name but a few…all figures I know mostly in the theoretical and reverent way one knows one’s ancestors.

Being a chronic instigator and collaboration junkie, and thrilled beyond words to have found true art family north of the notch, at the end of the two minute ride ride from the old church where George lives to the cafe on Main Street in Bethlehem where we are about to hang our work, I propose-slash-declare to George that we should collaborate.  He answers, without any hesitation, “I’m ready for the challenge, dear.”

So, through a delightfully surprising series of twists, turns and invitations, I find myself preparing to perform with George and my friend and collaborator Jen Green, a Boston based dance artist, in a rather odd little show at a gallery in Cambridge, MA called Outpost 186.  It’s called 11 +1 at  Sidewalk Tzara, and it’s a monthly series of events that’s been happening for a while, now curated by French Clements.  As the February line-up emerged, it took the shape of a mini dance film festival, with 11 short films, and live performances by five filmmakers and choreographers.

In the morning, I’ll drive over to Bethlehem, pick up George Manupelli and his green ninety pound 16 millimeter film projector, and head down to Boston.  Whatever happens, it should be quite a show. . .