Ensemble Studio Theatre: It’s Not a Sprint

Photo by Gerry Goodstein

I approach one-act plays the same way I do short stories: I know they’re good for my literary vocabulary, that they widen my understanding of the genre, and that every once in a while, one of them will grab me my the throat and convince me that I have foolishly persisted in undervaluing this art form all these years. Ensemble Studio Theatre’s 36th Marathon of One-Act Plays: Series B, running through June 26, contained a couple shining examples of this formal magnificence, nestled neatly into the anthology of the marathon. I also found myself wondering, and acknowledge that this question probably doesn’t have an answer: are you supposed to want a second act, after a one-act play? Or is it supposed to be perfectly complete in itself? Is a one-act the most intentionally ephemeral storytelling? Or a prelude to a more extended version of itself?

In Down Cleghorn, by Julia Specht, directed by Ralph Peña, we are introduced to an accent-heavy Massachusetts family whose tensions run close under the surface. This one-act seemed yanked out of a much larger story, and got stuck in trying to explain too much throughout its short duration. The drama felt overwrought, and I was red with secondhand embarrassment for the mother character, who not only was the type of piña colada vape-smoking, non-stop opining older woman who already makes you cringe, but when her daughters would gang up on her, she free-spiraled into a pathetic ridiculousness. The complicated family relationships depicted had neither time nor space for real depth or nuance.

The second play, Falling Away, by Christopher Shinn, directed by Mark Armstrong, felt complete in itself, in that the entirety of the two-hander was an impassioned lovers’ quarrel between two twenty-somethings. Structurally, Shinn dropped the “l-word” bomb within the first three minutes of the play, which effectively set the stakes for the rest of their conversation. Unfortunately, the tone quickly became too serious for its own good. The will-they won’t-they question would have been more enticing if the stakes were higher, or if the characters were playing their emotion as arch comedy, but instead the tone got stuck in a middle ground of earnestness.

Linus and Murray by Leah Nanako Winkler, directed by RJ Tolan, was the third offering of the marathon, and a tribute to the form. The play featured excellent hyper-physical acting by Curran Connor and Debargo Sanyal, who convincingly embodied a dog and a cat who had to share a backyard and decided to become friends. Their world was appreciably absurd; the cat (Linus) and dog (Murray) spoke English but moved like animals, and there was a great moment where the dog broke into a serious soliloquy about his long and lonely winter. The dialogue was quick and entertaining, with exchanges like, “Seriously, I freak out if someone doesn’t like me.” “What are you, a white girl?” and neologisms like “catraged.” The drama was perfectly timed to the one-act structure, and we got the full arc of human emotion: the animals proclaimed their love for each other, Linus died trying to save Murray’s life (the ultimate sacrifice for his selfish self), and in the final scene we got to meet the pets’ owners, (the actors were of course doubled), who had a touching conversation of human friendship, united by their animals.

The fourth one-act, Disney & Fujikawa by Lloyd Suh, directed by Linsay Firman, was another exemplary demonstration of the form; although Suh’s piece left me hungry for the next scene in the full-length version of this play. The play existed as a torrent of words, contemporary existential anxiety unleashed. Suh’s writing is smart, sharp, and political, resonating both with the world of 1942 depicted in the play and our 2017 reality. Jeff Biehl and Tiffany Villarin gave excellent performances, portraying many layers of these characters — one mythologized, one mostly unknown — in the span of one conversation. Disney is portrayed as a verbose, bitterly naive white man who “doesn’t see color,” and Fujikawa is a coil of furor, waiting to be unleashed. When she finally does explode, her monologue twists in circles of impossible logic, such as “How can I believe [I am American] when I know I’m not American in the eyes of America?” and “I know you’re not racist, except of course you are. But no more racist than the world is.” Suh’s writing gifted both characters with passionate monologues, in the fraught historical setting of World War II and Japanese internment camps. Disney & Fujikawa was an extremely evocative fragment of a much larger story, laced with humor and wit.

Finally, On the Outs by Christina Gorman, directed by David Auburn, concluded Series B of the marathon. This play was a mini-melodrama for 2017, offering a poignant look at the prison homecoming, as Jonas, a previously incarcerated black man returns to society and struggles with his culture shock. He doesn’t know how to work the Keurig coffee machine, and he despondently refuses anything to eat, saying, “Nothing tastes the same.” Both thoughtful and tender, On the Outs unveiled the difficulties of resuming life and relationships after years of incarceration, and offers an empathetic look at an unimaginably difficult situation that has unfortunately become commonplace in black American families. Both complete in itself, and clearly part of a larger story, On the Outs ends ominously with Jonas being locked in for the night so he can finally get some sleep.

Evidently, I’m no closer to unlocking the enigmatic one-act essence, but I am tickled by the possibilities of all of these plays, auguring larger worlds within. The EST One-Act Marathon continues until June 30, until the writers take their marks again next summer.

’round the bend: Amy Surratt’s FIRST AND LAST (show)

Amy Surratt Photo by Greg Laffey

Amy Surratt’s FIRST AND LAST (show) recently closed The Club at La MaMa’s season. Primarily co-written with her partner, Tosha Rachelle Taylor, Amy brought a raucous, biting, and transformational reckoning to us yankees. Amy mobilizes an Audre Lorde epic narrative form of “biomythography,” blending poetry, fiction, biography and movement into a powerful brew of life, loss and learnin’ for us to guzzle – just like an ice-cold six-pack of Mountain Dew. She toys with us, dodging and weaving yarns about a life manufactured and meaningful. An effective seduction, there is enough truth in the tall tales to keep us believing and bound to the ride.

A recently self-annointed “mess maker” myself, I found set designer Gregory Laffey’s makeover of The Club into one of those relic and garbage filled yards highly enviable and extremely effective. Before a word is spoken, we’re transported to the kind of rural outposts that I equate with the upper and outer reaches of “live free or die” New England or “the 2nd amendment is my gun permit” Pacific Northwest. However, once the show begins, it’s clear that this porch is from Amy’s childhood home in southern Appalachia, a complex, multivalent world filled with complicated, multilayered humans who are so often subjected to exploitation and constantly and persistently reduced to the crassest of stereotypes. Amy’s chugging a beer on the porch at the top of the show and describes a pageant dress image of herself before taking us deeper into a pastiche of memories, monologues, songs and scenes from the New River Valley and Southwestern Virginia. She details looking through an old album at pictures of herself at the age of 3 or 4, wearing a big, poofy, purple dress:

Looking cute-as-a-damn-button. And the photos said PROOF in block letters overtop of part of the image. PROOF. I usta flip through that album and look at pictures of Baptisms, and church revivals, birthday parties, and horses, and cars and mountains, And me, and think… PROOF? PROOF of what? What does that mean? What does it PROVE? You see, what I didn’t know was that For my mama, the PROOF was good enough. She didn’t wanna purchase an image​, when she had the REAL THING. The REAL Amy Surratt. I’m Amy. But I’m not Amy. But I’m not NOT-AMY. OK, let me try again? All of this started because I was wondering if I was REAL. A real Appalachian. Authentic Americana, you know?

There are no coal or iron ore miners here, but plenty of abandoned mines to find trouble in. The air is thick with decimation, a potent sense of loss permeates as we consider a community corrupted by the end of a dominant industry and increased corporate pollution. But, The Nick Horner Family Band and a spectacular ensemble cast of Spencer Lutvak, Jo Chiang, Avon Bashida, Jane Stiles O’Hara, Fleur Voorn, and Tosha R. Taylor balance the pathos with lively musical and dance sequences.

Mountain Dew Photo by Greg Laffey

Among the numbers, there is a bit with lotsa good ol canned Mountain Dew, references to real ‘shine’ and a fast and dirty dig at Hillbilly Elegy. She saved me $20 (or whatever it sells for), thank you, and gave us a glimpse into a father as difficult and unfathomable as any mythical patriarch:

My father is a moonshiner and an auto-body mechanic, The back acres of my childhood home are filled with junkyard cars and parts. He restores totaled cars that most people would give up on. He is very good at it. He is, in his own way, an artist. And so his identity is bound up in cars, and alcohol, and outrunning the law. It’s a fucked up way to learn the truth, but thanks to my father, I have a healthy disrespect for authoritarianism.

The Mountain Dew table song, chugging and juggling act foreshadows a later, darker sequence where Amy is drowned in it, forced, arms held up and head held down, into a basin full of it until she is soaked and dripping with the nuclear waste colored liquid. There is also a surreal beauty pageant dress covered in Dew cans that Amy appears in for a psychedelic round of “You’re Looking at Country” as “Miss Virginia Junior Queen Miss Summer Autumn Winter Spring Miss AIM-erica! Amy Surratt! [beat, as afterthought:] This year, sponsored by Mountain Dew.”

Wild and raw, subversively crafty and exquisitely crafted, Amy Surratt’s FIRST AND LAST (show) sneaks in hard gut-punches beside belly-laughs. A monologue about her brother’s drug addiction stings and the mystical recurring characters of a Rocking Horse (mother) and Deer Skull (brother), in headpieces by set designer Gregory Laffey, slide us into a world that is both foreign and familiar. All families have fucked up histories, but not all artists can do the personal anthropology to excavate the cultural artifacts and signifiers as profoundly as Amy Surratt and her creative team (Kristen Holfeuer, Director, Niki Afsar, Assistant Director, Dusty Childers, Costumes, Cecilia Durbin, Lighting, Matt Voyno, Sound and s.o. O’Brien & Erin Lemkey, Video and Media) have done here. The wealth of reference points, the fantastical characters, the evocative visual designs and the razor sharp, barbed wire writing accumulates into a hard hitting phenomena of a production. Despite moments of joviality, the take away is no joke:

Addiction, poverty, and violence do NOT come out of a vacuum — They are the result of​ exploitation​. All the religion, hard work, determination and desire in the world Is not gonna stop it. You cannot wash away these narratives. Not with the water that has been polluted. My Home taught me that Those Who Profit from having you underfoot will MINE you And UNDERmine you And when that’s not enough they will blow the tops off of your goddamn mountains And leave you with wasteland That will change your home from a community to a breeding ground for trauma. And if you protest They will use your individual symptoms of distress to justify their disease While they hide that they are the cause. And if you are not vigilant they’ll make you LOVE them for it.

Photo by Carolina Restrepo

by wing, fin, hoof, or foot: a movable conversation

Photo by Ryan Camarena

On Friday, June 2nd, 2017, at a few minutes past eight p.m., I found myself in a church on the Upper West Side sitting in a handmade chair, alongside other audience members in handmade chairs. (Furniture, as I knew from meeting Reverend Martin F. Hauser, pastor of the Lutheran church, Grace & St. Paul’s, that had been constructed individually by craftspeople.)

This was not the first time I found myself at the church, having attended, on several occasions, work by The Ume Group, a physical theatre company in residence at the church. When I met the pastor previously, it had been at a panel discussion on theatre and the environment, where the Ume Group showed a developmental selection of work — and now, on June 2nd, they held a performance of by wing, fin, hoof, or foot.

When I entered, there were small reunions: people I hadn’t seen in a long time, that I’d gone to college with; people who I’d meant to have coffee with but it had gotten away from us. I entered into a community, a collective, it felt, as I chatted, before taking my seat in that handmade chair. The piece is a meditation on migration and movement of humans and animals (though perhaps that distinction is redundant).

I spoke with the artistic director of The Ume Group, Keelie Sheridan, who also directed by wing, fin, hoof, or foot, about the project.

AMY: I’d love first, if you could just give me a sense of where the origin of this piece stems from, and the history of its development.

KEELIE: The earliest origin was that Valentin, the costume designer [who is from Germany] and I, had gone to school together in Ireland. And I was away in the year leading up to the election and it was a really strange experience to be an American abroad during that time — to be both deeply affected by what was going on and also having a kind of distance, even though it’s my own government.

At the same time, Brexit was happening, and part of the island is part of the UK, and having lots of Northern Irish friends and Scottish friends who overwhelmingly voted against Brexit, and felt surprised in how the country was handling international affairs and immigration — that was the beginning kindling of it all. That feeling of suddenly feeling like a stranger to your country when it felt so familiar a day before. . .

The audience is seated tennis-court style (facing one another in two long rows). Above us is a window featuring a large, colorful stained glass image of Jesus Christ. I am reminded of the quote I saw going around online about Jesus, especially in the wake of the United States Presidential Election last year: “Jesus was a refugee,” a quote attributed to Pope Francis from 2014.

KEELIE: I was examining my own personal migrations, of my family — it was something I couldn’t escape when I came back to the States. This real, deep curiosity of the migrations of everybody I met, or knew, or interacted with, I couldn’t get it out of my head, that web of movement and mobility that has conspired to make anybody who is not an indigenous person end up here.

I am someone who has moved three times in the last six years. I am born from two immigrants, who moved here independent of family. In some ways, I feel this makes me hyper-sensitive to the ideas of groups and communities. I think often of the people I orbit, and how close or far away I am from them. I live on the opposite side of the country from my closest blood relations. When I moved for the second time, from New York City to Pittsburgh, I calculated the distance: approximately 368 miles.

KEELIE: I was struck by this idea that lots of animals migrate and it’s so natural, and this idea that we should make laws to influence the movement of people. . . I have a hard time wrapping my brain around how one would begin to do that. And who owns places.

The travel ban on people to and from seven countries, also known as Executive Order 13769, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” more colloquially called the Muslim ban, hangs in haunting conversation with this performance. Not ghostly, because it is still so much in the air, but half-dead, like a supernatural force. Except of course, this is a force that humans made against other humans. And that when this piece began forming, this law was not yet in existence. The artistic foresight is ugly and truthful, and I cannot watch certain scenes without projecting labels onto the performers, in my mind: a metaphor for our struggles, so prescient I want to close my eyes from it.

AMY: So some of the dichotomies that struck me were:  herd versus individual, pop versus choral. It seemed like often, an individual was taking on a character and then the group was an outside force, or a larger force, reacting in opposition. Also, you had these pop songs and these choral chants happening. Can you talk about that?

KEELIE: There’s something about the personal and the private. . . I asked people to pick songs from the first time they were able to drive a car, or had autonomous mobility. To get away or go towards something, as their own adult. That’s where the songs come from.

AMY: I had a moment when one of the songs come in, and it’s interesting, related to migration. I bought that album when I was evacuating from a hurricane. We stopped in a Wal-Mart, and my parents and I had been driving somewhere, and I bought that CD. And mandatory evacuation of a place, that’s also a kind of migration.

KEELIE: That’s so wild.

Sections of the Ume Group’s performance feel as though we are watching animal-human hybrids. This imagery, aided by fantastic costume design by Valentin Peter Eisele, evokes a sense of distance and archetype for me. It feels almost as though I am watching a fairy tale, or an animal documentary about conflict within an ecosystem. And then, a throbbing base of sound comes on, and the bodies are writhing and dancing in a way that feels so human, perhaps in part because it thrums with a quality of wanting to escape oneself.

These scenes would then drop into more animal-like scenes, often, and the juxtaposition of a such a hedonistic-looking human world, and such a survival-focused non-human one pushed me towards ideas of climate change, and of humans’ mindless impact on those living around us (not to say nothing for our much more effective, direct impacts related to things like food and land resources). I thought, “What does a frog or a bird or a fish think of that bass sound? Do they understand it? Is it distressing? What do we do to them with that sound?”

AMY: I’m thinking of how humans influence other humans’ migration, but also other animals’ migration. And how climate change and humans have altered those patterns.

KEELIE: The way we came up with some of the pieces was, I asked everyone to devise a piece based on the mass-human migration that they were each researching, but they had to perform it as animals. And then we did the reverse, and looked at their animal migrations. Not even intentionally, we began researching the historic animal migrations and then what has happened over the last ten, fifteen years as a result of global warming and climate change.

KEELIE: When you look at the core, that people just move towards or away from resources and conflict, and animals do the same thing, it’s a really similar migration. Some of the animal migrations, like the dragonfly, scientists aren’t sure why they’re doing them, but they’ve still noticed changes in the pattern that are obviously very linked to human interference, and that’s fascinating.

Watching the Ume Group move through such areas of thought, and topics varying and rife with personal and distant conflict — I find relief in watching a group of people physicalize all of these complicated questions and subjects, turning them into fluid motion that is, sometimes simultaneously, unsettling and gorgeous.

Keelie tells me that the concept of having ideas wash over the audience remained central as they built this performance. There need be no answers here. And as the piece ends, and the lights come up, and I squirm to reclaim circulation in my body (a kind of internal migration on a cellular level), I find I don’t have any answers. But I watched this herd move through difficulty, and joined it for a time. And I look at the dewy cast, and fidgeting audience members, each waking up in our bodies, our own paths of movement resuming.


New York, NY – The Ume Group will present by wing, fin, hoof, or foot, a newly devised meditation on migration, immigration and presence, at the Church of Grace & St. Paul on W 71st. Street in NYC from June 2nd – June 24th, 2017.

Tickets range from $15-75 (with concessions for students/ seniors/ artists and an option to help subsidize tickets) and can be purchased at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2950640.

About The Ume Group
The Ume Group is a New York-based dance/physical theatre ensemble dedicated to sharing traditions and developing new work. We believe that a good performance artist is constantly learning, creating, teaching, and performing. We work in physical disciplines ranging from butoh dance, gymnastics, yoga and martial arts to ceíli dance, clowning and commedia.

Hailed by critics for their “commanding, physically impressive performances” (The Village Voice) and “risky physical vulnerability” (nytheatre.com), their work has engaged audiences across the US, from Hollywood to Brooklyn. The Ume Group celebrated their Five Year Anniversary at The Irondale Center in Brooklyn in 2015. Most recently, The Ume Group launched their first company-wide Social Action Project–a series of street performances inspired by the individual activism of ensemble members.

About Valentin Peter Eisele
With a BA in Information Design, years of experience in Graphic Design and collaborations with several theaters in Germany, Valentin Peter focused on Stage Design in the MFA program at The Lir, National Academy of Dramatic Art, Dublin, Ireland. With a keen interest in creating haptic and visual experiences in the theatre space, he is currently working on Set and Costume Designs for the independent dance theatre company Backsteinhaus Produktion and the production house Theater Rampe. He combines different design approaches and experiments with creative techniques in all aspects of his work.

For more information, please visit http://www.theumegroup.org/.

Follow The Ume Group on Instagram @the_ume_group or on Facebook

Remake The World: La MaMa Moves!

Stefanie Batten Bland’s “Bienvenue” in The Ellen Stewart Theater, La MaMa Moves 2017 – photo from companySBB instagram

In these perilous, challenging and unpredictable times in our country and in the world, we can look to the performing arts for some clues as to how we might respond and continue to live our lives with vigilance, and hopefully a modicum of wisdom, to keep asking even more vital and bold questions. I believe this to be one of the essential missions of art and art-making, to hold a mirror up to the world and its ever-present and changing dilemmas. – Nicky Paraiso, curator of La MaMa Moves!

In 1961, Ellen Stewart, a middle-aged, African American, fashion designer of disputable origins, without any theater experience started a movement. La MaMa is the only theatre of the 1960s off-off Broadway’s 4 core theatres that continues today. According to legend, her mentor “Papa Abraham Diamonds,” a fabric shop owner on the LES, told her that everyone needs a “pushcart to serve others,” so she opened a boutique that also served as a theatre for playwrights who couldn’t get produced, paying the $55 rent on an East 9th street tenement basement. During the 9 months the previously all white building was being fixed up by a Black woman and her bevy of young artists, neighbors “accused Stewart of running a bordello—fifteen men in one hour—and asked the health department to issue a summons for prostitution.” Over the years, Ellen was repeatedly arrested and Cafe La MaMa moved 3 more times and changed names, finally landing as La MaMa Experimental Theater Club in April 1969 at 74A East 4th Street. Since then, La MaMa has presented more than 5,000 productions. 5,000. By over 150,000 artists from more than 70 nations. 150,000 artists. Over 150,000 artists produced in the past 55 years. You could populate a small city in New England with that many artists. Add performers to the mix and you would easily overpopulate a small country… Luxembourge, anyone?

Ellen’s legacy of inclusivity and experimentation remains alive (6 years after her passing) under Mia Yoo’s Artistic Directorship and the La MaMa Moves! Dance Festival has expanded (in its tween years) through Nicky Paraiso’s unceasing curatorial appetite, and festival production coordinator Gian Marco Lo Forte’s relentless attention to detail, into a fantastic beast of mythic proportions. Without a full demographic breakdown, I can recall that this year’s fest included artists hailing from New Zealand to NYU, originating from the outer boroughs to Brazil, from Israel to Illinois, South Asia to East Asia to SouthEast Asia, from South America to the Caribbean to Kentucky, and, of course, a handful of European descenders. For a brief, 3 week moment, the world was rebuilt in our image, with vocabularies and biographies that reached into global differences instead of erasing them into a homogenous contemporary. At the beginning of this season, I asked what Cultural Equity might actually look like, and in a mini-residency at La MaMa Moves! this year as a presented artist, a guest curator, and a discussion organizer/co-facilitator, I glimpsed its possibility. Artists honored traditions and fucked with boundaries, threw ideas up against the beautiful brick wall of The Club and shred categorical inhibitions along with layers of clothing. Artists of color created, curated and/or performed for every program on every stage of the festival. As La MaMa prepares to close its oldest venue for a top to bottom renovation this January dubbed RESTORE A BUILDING, REMAKE A WORLD, I am reminded that Ellen remade the world with very little – that the legendary old woman sweeping in front of the theater, the Empress impresario mistaken for cleaning lady, the mama of La MaMa remains a vital model for all of us, artists and advocates alike, to stay Off Off and to look at the possibilities, not the faults, the possibilities” as we continue remaking this world.

#heretodance with Ladder Co 9

This year La MaMa Moves! “crowdsourced choreography” with #Here to Dance, an invitation to dancers from throughout the world to choreograph one minute dance videos in response to the abuse and/or as a celebration of human rights. The dances were created and interpreted according to directives from Annie-B Parson and Raja Feather Kelly and were shown during the “Dancing in the Street Block Party.” My offering was a serendipitous encounter between my recent 2-year process of shooting rapid, pop-up style, wrapped-in-plastic-bags videos in urban and natural environments for my ongoing #tidesproject and La MaMa Moves! “Drowning Planet” installation, Ryan Leach (La MaMa’s Social Media maestro), Theo Cote (La MaMa’s ubiquitous photographer/videographer) and the beloved Ladder Company 9 (Engine Company 33). Based in the Firehouse on Great Jones St. across from La MaMa’s rehearsal studios, they happened to be responding to a call on East 4th that particular afternoon. A few minutes after shooting, as they were parking the trucks back on Great Jones, they asked if we’d all be famous. So…if you’re passing by 42 Great Jones St., in addition to thanking them for their service, as well as the loss of most of their company at the World Trade Center on 9/11, let them know they’re legendary and FF Gough made the cut, which means, according to my former California FF bro-in-law Peter Yung, I believe he owes the house a round of beers.

The season opened with the world premiere of Young Soon Kim ‘s “iyouuswe,” Jeremy Nelson and Luis Lara Malvacias’s 3rd Class Citizen’s return to the festival with the world premiere of “A” and “D,” and the Block Party. During the second week, Jerome Robbins Awardee Stefanie Batten Bland‘s “Bienvenue (Welcome),” looked at the various symbols of walls in the Ellen Stewart Theater. Her mix of community engagement, together with lush visual landscapes and a cast of elegant dancers served a delicious tonic for our times. In collaboration with visual artist Benjamin Heller, murals of paintings by Pre K children, their parents and other local participants, became part of a wall built together that could separate or unite us. As the company revealed delicate embrace and shared space, the walls became a canvas of possibility rather than a method of exclusion. The multi-award winning Indian choreographer/dancer Astad Deboo presented the New York premiere of “Eternal Embrace,” a 60-minute solo inspired by “Maati,” a Punjabi poem by Sufi poet Hazrat Bulleh Shah. Performed to an original percussion score played live by Yukio Tsuji, the dance combined Kathakali, Kathak, and modern dance. Polish-born choreographer Patricia Noworol presented her emotionally-charged “TREMENDOUS,” a world premiere featuring an all-woman cast of dancers and live music performed by noted Australian bassist, composer and vocalist Lisa Dowling. Malini Srinivasan presented “Remembering Pandit Ramesh Misra,” Beth Graczyk and Mariana Valencia split an evening, with Graczyk performing her solo “One of You is Fake,” a world premiere, and Mariana Valencia presenting an excerpt from her solo “Album.” Brendan Drake’s trio “The Big Finish,” was on a shared the program with Jasmine Hearn’s solo “blue, sable and burning.” In Jasmin’s work, in part a choreographic response to Robin Coste Lewis’s poem, “The Voyage of the Sable Venus,” she reclaimed painful images with grace and dignity while bringing joy into the space, at one point walking some of us up from the audience to dance with her while she facetimed with her mom.

Rady Nget, The Block Party, Photo by Carolina Restrepo

On a shared program Cambodian dance artist Rady Nget, an Asian Cultural Council Fellow, presented the New York premiere of “My Memory” – a compelling depiction of the journeys his body has traversed in his years training since a young child in the monkey role of Lakhaon Kaol and studying at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. Watching the stretch of his sinewy frame and listening to the tones of his chanting and speaking incited a yearning for home. The agility and strength that dancing such roles requires, not to mention the joint bending insistence, hints at his lifetime of dedicated practice. Having taken a workshop with Rady and seeing him play with traditional and popular contemporary forms at The Block Party, I am reminded of how the near decimation of the arts in Cambodia, during the Khmer Rouge’s reign has, in time, resultantly created a generation of globally-minded but rigorously-trained artist ambassadors. That such classical forms can thrive after a targeted genocide and young artists can now also explore, embrace, and expand their physical training and creative practices is testimony to the enduring value art holds in places where tyranny does not come as a shock. Yoshiko Chuma, ever the passionate converger of global conflicts and instantaneous compositions, premiered her “PI=3.14…Dead End, Hey! All Women!” which has been in constant rotation with a changing cast of downtown dance stars at previous La MaMa events and elsewhere.  The evening also included an excerpt of Brother(hood) Dance!’s “how to survive a plague.” Orlando Zane Hunger, Jr and Ricarrdo Valentine reduced their consideration of the AIDS epidemic, written previously about by me during the Danspace Project “Lost and Found” Platform, to a shorter collection and offered healing teas which I have lovingly and gratefully imbibed. The previous version had carried a dense collection of ideas and within the context of the Platform had benefited from the buffer of a specific audience consciousness, situated on this evening in a packed house in The Club, they still performed with zeal but the gut punch of their source material struggled to manifest. As I worry about how many lives may yet be lost – if this regime gets their way with restricting health care access – I do want these young bucks to make it hurt. There may still be plagues to survive.

“Odeon”, work-in-progress, Photo by Carolina Restrepo

2016 Bessie Award-winning choreographer and dancer Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie, lived up to all knowable hype that surrounds her. The Israeli-born artist is collaborating with her brother, Ehud Asherie, on “Odeon,” a work-in-progress set to premiere next summer at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. Performing alongside Manon Bal, Linda “LaNaija” Madueme and Mathew “Megawatt” West, Bounce was a tight and fast ball of energy. Drawing upon composer Ernesto Nazareth, sometimes called the Brazilian Scott Joplin, the musical confluence of European composers with mashishi (early Samba) offered the kind of musical hybridity that is Ephrat’s choreographic calling card. His European melodic structures mashed into African-based rhythms were a perfect compliment to her exquisite collection of rapid fire house footwork, breaking floorwork and an old school hoofers vibe. The dancers were all hitting the boards hard and even the effervescence of her personal style wasn’t enough to hide the complex, painstaking craft she applies to moving bodies through space. Intricate partnering, silky smooth threading, and luscious musculature abound and bounded in a contemporary floor show. For a moment The First Floor Theater was The Savoy and this incredible team of artists were as indefatigable and astounding as Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers must have been LIVE. Stock up on bug spray and head to the hills of MA next summer for the full evening, complete with live music. The program was shared with Brazilian choreographer Regina Nejman whose New York premiere of “Beautiful Figure,” considered how the male gaze has altered what its ideal object might be, the most glaring shift would be related to time, with the late Renaissance cloth draped models indulging in extended observation versus the attention-deficit “swipe culture” experience of a Tinderized army of nubile, white girls.

Photo by Paula Lobo

On the mainstage, Patricia Hoffbauer’s world premiere, “Getting Away with Murder” featured the iconic Yvonne Ranier in a “special encounter” with Pat, as well as Peter Richards in a fantastic performative turn that harkens back to a time before his pre-video artist incarnation. Patrick Gallagher, twins Ananda Naima Seijas Gonzalez & India Lena Saijas Gonzalez, Gordon Landenberger (also the set designer), Mor Mendel, Peggy Gould, Jennifer Way-Rawe, Tom Rawe, and Alyssa Alpine round out the cast. It chomped through a feast of ideas about the ways in which women have been historically accused and abused. With a range of text dating back to Plato in juxtaposition to the dancing, the work primarily tackles the complex nationalistic, economic and gender politics and violence surrounding the work of Cuban American visual, sculptural, performance and video artist Ana Mendieta. Her arrival into America as a Latina refugee and the way history, until recently, erased much of her work was compelling to Hoffbauer, who noted Mendieta’s exclusion from the economic engine of visual art during a recent interview. Known for works that placed her body into the Earth as well as recreating a rape scene, the feminist artist who took on violence, life, death and belonging died a notably violent and suspicious death after falling out the 34th-floor window of her Greenwich Village apartment in 1985 during a loud argument with her husband, sculptor Carl Andre. Andre was indicted, tried and eventually acquitted due to reasonable doubt. However, the manner of trial (no jury, for fear of a group of women being swayed by the feminist issues) and the details surrounding Mendieta’s death leave the Andre as a primary suspect to many. In “Getting Away with Murder,” Pat Hoffbauer is pointing at the battle for recognition, as well as the battle for survival, against the continued dismissal from culpability by arts institutions who champion male artists at great cost to their female partners. Andre’s 911 call directly addressed that as the final point of contention in their marriage: ”My wife is an artist, and I’m an artist, and we had a quarrel about the fact that I was more, eh, exposed to the public than she was. And she went to the bedroom, and I went after her, and she went out the window.’

An opening dialogue between Pat and Yvonne merges an on-going conversation (both in person and via email) that the two had been having into a postmodern performance practice onstage battle of wits. They read from pages of exchange between them and Yvonne’s awkward honest self is the epitome of a naturalism that none of us studied, authentic performers of ‘realness’ will ever ever achieve. She is still the epitome of “no.” It was so wholly and entirely a non-virtuosic performance that it was clear no one else will ever approach a modicum of achievement in her realm. Her “is” is what it is and that’s what it is. But, listening to the language of their negotiation through whether Pat could lure, provoke or entice Yvonne to participating in the performances of her work was a fascinating treatise on postmodernism, minimalism, gendered experiences, and two very different hemispheric approaches to the world. So much about the “about-ness” of the work was laid out in the opening act, unlike previous works that wove lecture and demonstration together into something only slightly richer than eavesdropping on her classes when she was my colleague at Hunter College. The whole dialogue is too long to include but the final page reveals the two (Pat is a founding member of Yvonne’s Raindears) in a way that blends their intellectual heft with their humanity, it’s a deft dance of art history, friendship, and socio-political forces:

PH: OK, suppose we set up the situation in this way: You cannot take my yakking anymore: ..you have been annoyed with me over the years, with my disjointed manner and language, with my assumptions about “white dance” and have commented on how I talk too much.  You are a skeptic by nature and have challenged me in so many ways, as in “you are not a person of color”, a charge you unpack now and then. You don’t buy a lot of the things I have done, like when you were watching Para-Dice and yelled from the audience “BORING!”

YR:  WHAT?!!

PH: I was making fun of the audience, which was perfect. It gave me the opportunity to respond “She doesn’t like anything” etc.

YR: I have absolutely no memory of that…

PH: At this point in your life you are an “authority” figure. You know about this and that, the Greeks included, and you even played in that poet’s version of “Antigone”… Those bits of information will set you up in a “tongue and cheek” way and show that I am recognizing you as an “expert” of some kind. All of this is super interesting to me, never hurtful or difficult. I love you and I think every single question you have brought to me has made me crazy but also made me reconsider. I never met anybody like you. Only my mother is like that. And not as a mother, I mean as an intellectual she has always challenged me in every position I have taken in my life…so I count on your skepticism…This dialogue is not a literal representation of our discussions throughout the years but a rendition of differences…and they get resolved by us dancing together. That activity will show us to be in the same boat in some way.  So we differ, we disagree. And yes, I think Andre killed her because he could not understand her. He was either jealous, angry if she was indeed going to leave him, or competitive with her, so he killed her…like Althusser…like many others who then say “I blacked out…” Would Duchamp have killed her?  Was he, as a conceptualist and a cross dresser, more open to women? Was his final “joke” an empathetic view of women? Or was it simply a joke on perspective and the vanishing point You are challenging me about my proposition: what does Duchamp have to do with Mendieta? How does a visual representation, created years before her death, impinge on that tragedy?

YR: Well, Patricia, there will be no easy answers, but much food for thought. Yeh, why do you give the impression of being so scattered when you are really very lucid? But enough said. I continue to admire and value your spunk and intelligence.

PH: I think it’s a cultural thing. Brazilians — or should I say “my Dad, Clemente?” — have a sense of humor that borders on the eschatological and grotesque.  You North Americans are puritanical and more repressed; you don’t say what you think…I say too much and it gets me in trouble. So I camouflage myself by pretending to be scattered. Who wants to be hated? But in reality it’s the difference between being and others’ perception of that being, which is loaded with biases, like too loud, too much, too angry, too volatile. (pause). I actually think that Mendieta was perceived in that way too…

[YR exits] 

Getting Away with Murder Photo by Paula Lobo

Among the many things Pat Hoffbauer is accomplished at, she gathers an excellent cohort of co-conspirators. While distracted amidst frolic and fantastic visuals supported by Liz Prince’s costumes and Gordon Landenberger’s set, we are repeatedly stung by the painful legacies of colonialism and murder. At one point, Peggy Gould, Tom Rawe and Jennifer Way-Rawe emerge in inflated pink suits, so full of air they are the voices of authorities standing in judgement of Mor Mendel, the dancer.  Pat tells me a friend celebrated the big fat people as “the greatest signifier of whiteness” and that she got the idea “from going to a conference on dance studies, where everyone is puffing themselves up, the thinker bodies, grandiose and full of it. Talking about the studio practice, but obviously without spending time in the studio. They have the power of words. I wanted them to get so full of themselves that they floated up and exploded. But, I didn’t have that kind of money.” During another sequence Ananda Naima Seijas Gonzalez & India Lena Saijas Gonzalez are stuck and feathered and the final image recreates Duchamp’s final joke (his secret final work) “Etant Donnes” that one lucky viewer, pulled from the audience (after a raffle drawing) by a cigarette girl clad Alyssa Alpine gets to see from the front. As we glimpse someone gazing through the wreckage of destroyed walls/peephole at Peter Richards strewn upon the grass, we are left still asking Pat’s initial proposition to Yvonne: “If Ana Mendieta had Married Marcel Duchamp would she have ended up on the floor”?

April Amparo and Camilla Davis in Rina Espiritu’s “Leveling”

Also, new this year were programs featuring emerging artists selected by outside curators, me and The Current Sessions founder Alexis Convento. For two sold-out nights, former Hunter College Dance Program students – all now active in the field as performers and makers – revealed the plurality of their visions of the artistic practice and choreographic impulses. Over the years Nicky has been up to adjudicate student choreographic works and taught in our inaugural year for the Arnhold Dance Education Program, even hosting a final MA student showcase in The Club, so some of the artists were not entirely new to him nor to the venue, but outside of the educational construct Rina Espiritu, Alexandra Amirov, Kirsten Flores-Davis, Janice Rosario, Kareem Alexander, and Camilla Davis each revealed aspects of the newest generation of native New Yorkers or first generation immigrants who will be defining this next America with their varied voices. I knew them when… and wait with eager anticipation and patient abiding both as they begin to remake this world for us all.

Slow Cook This

During the festival I also conceived and convened artists, alongside Alexis, Nicky and guest moderator Ali Rosa-Salas for “Slow Cook This,” a long form 3.5 hour discussion about surviving in what choreographer Jessica Pretty deemed The Thunderdome World. Rina and Kirsten were also in the midst of performances in my “Tides Project: Drowning Planet/Disposable Bodies” installation (guest reviewed for Culturebot by George Emilio Sanchez) and had been major contributing voices in words spoken and sung for that. So arriving on Sat afternoon after techs for me, techs for them, shows for me and awaiting their late night program felt like it could have been a survivalist exercise, but as Jessica, Camilla, Kareem, as well as Yoshiko, Rady, Malini, Jasmine, and public attendees flowed in and out and a few beers and bites where had we got a flow on. “Slow Cook This” was a mashed up version of Lois Weaver’s Long Table and Porch Sitting formats (complete with my chili slow cooking in “The Kitchen” area), braided plastic bags in homage to Emily Johnson’s Durational Sewing Bees and began with a reading of Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem “Praise Song for the Day.” We used two basic framing questions: “If you were to sing a praise song for the people who have helped you who would those people be and why?’ AND “If you had to sing a song of struggle, what would that be,” and let the conversation through tears, laughter, and beautifully awkward silences. In Alexander’s poem, she praises the “figuring it out at kitchen tables.” I am a member of a very large family and my mother’s offerings of bun Hue or pork butt or cha gio are the means to hours of eating and drinking and discussing with brothers and sisters but, as a New Yorker without a kitchen table am so grateful that in the basement of MaMa’s house, (a couple floors below the theater where I first saw my babies’s daddy who also, incidentally, lived a couple floors above that in the legendary artist dorms at the time), Nicky and I welcomed our siblings home to reflect and recharge.

Alexis’ The Current Sessions is in its 7th season. Honing her curatorial voice to support artists “demonstrating bold decision making and a honed sense of creative intuition” has offered us a vision for the way forward. Her first program SUPER-CEREMONY introduced the work of three artists (of Bosnian, Trinidadian, and Puerto Rican descent) developing their own diasporic reality as performative artifacts of survival and soft power. Mersiha Mesihovic’s “BOSNIANBORN *SHE IS A REFUGEE STAR* examined the “struggle for self-determination as a refugee and immigrant within the context of western society and culture.” Fana Fraser’s “A Coronation” was a “psychedelic quest for survival, power and pageantry.” Veraalba Santa’s “Ya no es cancion (es grito)” explored the legacy of Puerto Rican independence advocate and poet, Julia de Burgos). The Sunday program, the final show on the final day of the entire Festival, included Leslie Cuyjet, Maree ReMalia, and Jessica Pretty in DOUBLE-AGENCY, folding “through itself into something new. A space inside a dance, outside the now we’re stuck with.”

MaRee ReMalia and Lillian Cho “Back Issue IV” Photo by Scott Shaw

Jessica Pretty’s “V,” according to the program was “rooted in desire, for more spaces, for more work, for more of less…” By tickling us with the briefest offering of Prince’s “Beautiful Ones” opening groove, she effectively aroused my desire for more. The pressure built each time the music hinted at all the joys awaiting, if only we could move on to that chord, to his “Baby, baby, baby.” But…she kept us in that sonic landscape while pressed up against the side and back walls of The Club, slicing into the air and retreating. It was lush and frustrating, like desire. And, she was full and alluring in all of her want. We sat in the dark while she sang about needing “someone to love me” and after the lights returned, mid gesture walked out on us, right through the door into The Club, leaving us wanting and waiting and wishing for more. MaRee ReMalia’s duet with Lillian Cho, “Back Issue IV” collected sources and synthesized material from four previous dance works from the past four years, in four different cities, with four different sets of collaborators. As the two worked through the reworking, the game structure rose to the surface. Along with occasional outbursts of pocket-monster style silliness, the relay of information, the shift between leader, follower, or unified doubles would spark or they’d simply slide into a repeated pattern. Their jumpers hinted at child’s play, but they had clearly sourced fertile compositional histories with sophisticated skill. Leslie Cuyjet’s duet (with Jessica)“A Salient Theme” started with a high energy “duh-dun-dun-bap-bap” hit it, get it, work the corner, work the hip, all smiles, Dave Brubeck tracked, sh-bang. And, I know I’ve written this elsewhere about Leslie, but still happy to watch her stand there and watch us. Add Jessica to the mix and I’m good. Hand me a beer, seriously, I’m good here. But, ahh, there’s more to this. There are so many subtle, interpersonal encounters to dismantle. A voiceover reads text from a cut-up series of letters to her father and I am distracted from the physical tasks as I try to decode the full sentences while only hearing, is it, every other word? or only key words? We wander into the world of a Chicago, middle-class rumination on whiteness as equating success, of the discomfort at not fitting a stereotype, I note “for a long time it bothered me until I realized it was their issue not mine.” Over time, the themes that have followed, unnoticed, through aspects of her life, begin to take shape and the halves and the fractions of a whole self where “blackness is really brown” or one is “kind of Black today” converge and shift beyond Leslie and her letters with Dad into the larger and larger spheres of society. Perhaps the days beyond bifurcated, opposing selves will manifest if all of our “kind of” people can expand the entire spectrum of our worlds beyond the binary.

Jessica Pretty & Leslie Cuyjet Photo by Scott Shaw

A Slow and Steady Commotion: response to Sister Sylvester’s Maps for a War Tourist

Photo Caption: Kathryn Hamilton, founder and director of Sister Sylvester. Photo by Maria Baranova.

Sister Sylvester’s Maps for a War Tourist, playing at Dixon Place through June 17, sets out to tell the story of Ayse Deniz Karacagil, a young Turkish woman who was arrested at the Gezi Park protests in 2013. The basic coordinates of Deniz’s story are these: after her arrest, Deniz was sentenced to 90+ years in prison for wearing a red scarf, the so-called color of socialism. Eventually released on bail, Deniz fled Turkey and traveled through Syria to Iraq, where she joined the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant, leftist organization the Turkish and US governments have both deemed a terrorist group.

Days before Maps for a War Tourist opened on June 2, Deniz was killed by a Daesh sniper in Raqqa.

Maps for a War Tourist, like all of Sister Sylvester’s work, is a complex, deeply reflective work that weaves together strands of the personal, political and mythological with deft subtlety. This is a piece about many, many things. One is how to continue living, to keep a life moving forward, after tragedy and with the knowledge of war. How do you read the news in the morning, grapple with the most harrowing human suffering you can imagine, and still maintain the pieces of your life? How do you immerse yourself in all the other business of your day?

The piece proposes turning to a tortoise. Kathryn Hamilton, Sister Sylvester’s Artistic Director and the performance’s main narrator, reads from a dimly lit folding table on stage left: “As antidote to the chaos we’d fallen into, we turned to the slowest thing, most calm and ancient thing we could think of: a tortoise.”

We see two such tortoises on stage, passing time in a plywood pen, tended by a watchful young woman. For me, these tortoises—live animals on stage—draw a through-line to one of Sister Sylvester’s previous works, They Are Gone But Here Must I Remain. In They Are Gone, a chicken has a starring role, and the creature brings an edge of unpredictability. The chicken is dangerous and exciting: if it misbehaves, it could ruin everything. But the tortoises bring a different element. They are indeed very slow. Exploratory, perhaps, but ploddingly so. They seem trustworthy. You can really count on them to play their part.

Early on in the piece, Kathryn mentions that a friend, a Turkish director named Onur, advised her against trying to tell Deniz’s story. “To make work about politics is to avoid dealing with yourself,” Onur said. Maps plays consciously with this idea – the dealing and revealing of oneself through the process of making art—by relaying who among the team of collaborators would have played who, had they actually made the “play” they purportedly set out to make at the very beginning. Kelsea Martin would have played Deniz, because she is about the same age and knows how to shoot a gun; Cyrus Moshrefi, the son of Iranian exiles, would have played Abdullah Ocalan, founder of the PKK, because the solitary nature of exile appeals to him, and so on.

Why the conditional tense here? Why didn’t they make the play they thought they were going to make? The reasons Kathryn gives us are significant. The political landscape in Turkey and Syria, for one, is a chaotic and shape-shifting warzone. Deniz’s own story, too, is in constant contextual flux. She is lauded by some as martyr and a hero, by others as a cautionary tale. No part of this story, if you can even call it a story to begin with, lends itself to straightforward narrative: it is all too murky, too splintered.

When Kathryn mentions this unmade play, that word, “a play,” is almost a slight. It lands with the same weight as if she had called it “a plaything.” To make a play about the war-torn Middle East, about political corruption in Turkey, about Daesh, is too reductive, too trivial. The very notion is discomfiting and silly.  

The pivotal question here is how do you tell a story that carries so much consequence? How can Sister Sylvester, makers of inquisitive, often playful experimental performance, share Deniz’s story, and by proxy a larger political context, with the weight and honesty they deserve? How can you put human suffering on a stage? Should you even try? And a perhaps even more perturbing question: how do you market such a thing? How do you convince people to buy their tickets?

Maps for a War Tourist submits and accepts its failure to give Deniz’s story full justice from the beginning. Failure is the piece’s most generative launching pad. Likewise, Kathryn Hamilton acknowledges and considers her own role here as the eponymous war tourist—a self-deprecating moniker if there ever was one. She took a journey to learn about someone else’s suffering and returned with souvenirs and stories; her own life, in the grand scheme of things, remained uncompromised (this is where her friend Onur proves wrong: in making work about politics, Kathryn very much has to “deal with herself”). I thought often throughout this piece about a line in David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster that twinges me every time I travel: “As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.”

But if Kathryn is a war tourist, then we-the-audience, by extension, are war tourists too. It’s best to call things as they are, like it or not. We bought our tickets to Deniz’s story round trip.

So they didn’t make a play. Instead, they made a quiet, sober, performative essay. I might describe the aesthetics of this piece as anti-theatrical. It’s dimly lit, with very little movement, and narrated in a subdued, even tone. The effect is that the piece feels, to put it bluntly, honest. They made a genuine effort to tell an impossibly painful story. And god damn it, they did the best they could.

Midway through the piece, while mapping connectivity between the Middle East and the Lower East Side, Kathryn mentions Murray Bookchin, the anarchist and former LES resident whose theory of libertarian municipalism inspired PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan. Bookchin, we learn, was a fervent ecologist who nonetheless insisted on driving a “gas guzzler car,” which he did, in part, “to reinforce his idea that individual choices are irrelevant in the larger scheme of things.”

This line ignited a slow, bubbling question for me, that eventually seemed to spread like a fine dust over the entirety of the piece. I have to wonder if Kathryn struggled with this while making this piece. Is this performance, this individual action, irrelevant in the larger scheme?

Maybe it is. Or maybe it’s not, and that’s where the tortoise comes in. Maybe the ripple effect for low-budget, political art is hard-won and imperceptibly slow, but if you keep doing it, even in the face of inevitable, constant failure, you’re sure to get somewhere.

Maps for a War Tourist is playing through June 17 at Dixon Place, 161A Chrystie Street, between Rivington & Delancey. More info and tickets available here.