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

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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. . .