Generative moments in fragmented view: a collage // “very peak summer solstice” at ISSUE Project Room

Jasmine Gibson and Fana Fraser in Fana + Jasmine
Photo by Cameron Kelly McLeod, ISSUE Project Room, June 21, 2019

On Friday, June 21st, 2019, ISSUE Project Room Suzanne Fiol Curatorial Fellow Benedict Nguyen presented very peak summer solstice, the second program in soft bodies in hard places, a platform of trans-disciplinary events circling planetary events over 2019. Poet Jean Lee responds:

I attended a roundtable at the start of the artistic process. Everyone shared their upbringing and history, diving into the gorgeous depths of their formative moments. I felt a level of unprecedented comfort I hadn’t felt in years. I witnessed most of the generative process from afar⁠—through discovering an artist’s past work, seeing progress through drafts and video, and through remote discussion. My presence was fragmented, and my observation was fragmented. As I collage the moments together, most of me regrets my inability to be physically present, but the part of me that writes this piece is fascinated by the fragmented view. The lack of consistency and physical presence allowed me to have a splintered perspective, and this allowed me to see patterns I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

I share this with you now for transparency, and to discuss how profound the experience was even with a fragmented presence. The artistic spaces that once housed me hurt me, causing tremendous trauma. This project—the second installment of soft bodies in hard places: very peak summer solstice—was a haven. All the artists involved, the six I watched from afar, nurtured one another and sent vibrant reflection into the world. They invited viewers, readers, and listeners to pause and dig within. The first meeting where everyone so freely and graciously shared themselves was evident throughout the process. The final performances discussed birth and motherhood and community. Seeing the progression of the art and the final project was profoundly healing, and I am glad that this will most likely be the last creative piece I put out into the world for a long time. 

One of the patterns that I found to be the most profound was the formation of friendship.

I often return to the first roundtable and think of the moment when we all said what we were most looking forward to, and Fana said that she was most excited to meet Jasmine. We passed around Jasmine’s poetry.

I remember that moment because the next moment I was physically present for was the artist’s discussion before the performance. Fana and Jasmine hugged on stage and talked about having found a friend. Seeing the preface and bounding to the present moment—the artists’ reflections and the friendships formed—illustrated the vast and significant strides taken during the months leading up to the performance. 

Sokunthary Svay and Annie Heath in This Mother|land Fabric
Photo by Cameron Kelly McLeod, ISSUE Project Room, June 21, 2019

The audience sat in a semicircle, gazing into the floor at the center. People shuffled and switched seats, testing their viewpoint after the first performance. The light dimmed, and Fana stood by the spotlight, fitting color filters. However, the light stayed colorless. Music played—a basslike booming indicating a sci-fiesque genesis or apocalypse—and Jasmine read what suggested a birthing. I turned and saw Jasmine behind a row of seats next to the sound system, speaking poetry. Fana entered as if birthed by the poetry.

I went into the evening with a blank slate, envisioning nothing, but I wondered if this—Fana’s movement and Jasmine’s voice—was the format of the performance. Then Jasmine entered, and the lights changed. I sat fixated on the wall at the gap in the semi-circle because Jasmine and Fana’s silhouettes stood in opaque pink and green, dancing side-by-side. 

Birth and death mirror each other. I think about this as I watch Fana and Jasmine dance across from each other, their motions responding to the music and each other. This moment is a sly swaying at the bridge of the performance, and I have a hard time grasping why I feel—in the depths beneath my consciousness—that this dance is a conversation between two people about the births and the deaths that cycle through every moment. My presence was fragmented because I started graduate school, and I have spent months in the practice of thinking concretely: what is, what is said to be, and what we see. I sit comfortably in this kind of thought, and it takes me a moment to rest within changeable concepts. I have spent months unlearning this kind of ample thinking, and this dance transports me, extravagantly, into the creative mindset. I feel before I understand. I feel how the music aligns with the lyrics and movement, subtle in tone and far-reaching in the subject matter. I see the subtle movement that barely mirrors the other, but Fana and Jasmine’s silent communication with each other, through glances and smiles, feel like a mirror of a mirror. A reflection of a reflection. 

There was light, and there was technicolor. 

There was unveiling and ungloving: hands removing hands, and a platinum reveal. I decide not to tell you what this means. 

Sokunthary Svay (seated) and Annie Heath (on the floor) in This Mother|land Fabric
Photo by Cameron Kelly McLeod, ISSUE Project Room, June 21, 2019

I was in the midst of the performance, watching their muted movements: arms at their sides with every sway and glance ultrafine. Then the motions suddenly changed as Fana moved toward a member in the front row, dancing with them. The audience jolts with happy surprise. And then Jasmine runs, then falls, and then mimes a birthing as Fana assists: 

Birth and death mirroring each other, until there is a cosmic birth a

cosmic brawl 

that leads back to subtlety. 

The first performance of the night began with Annie standing, buried beneath a pile of cloth. Against the wall, she pushed up against the collection of cloth with her back to the audience. She fell and pushed up, fighting against the burdensome weight. Her movement, arms up and fighting, demonstrated tremendous struggle. The audience, who had been whispering as they settled into the night, fell silent. I could hear the echo of quiet beneath the music, vibrating beneath my skin. And then Sok spoke, explaining that her mother cleaned for a living. Her mother wore a uniform: her work clothes and a recited smile. Sok then spoke of how her mother wore a sarong when she was home and described tying it. She stood on the stage floor, off-center, pacing. She talked about how her mother cleaned the floors at home in her sarong, pushing the cleaning cloth around the floor. As Sok spoke, Annie pushed the pile of cloth in a circle at the center of the floor. Her movements—hands to the floor against the pile of cloth, legs upright and running, face pinched in the effort—show struggle, pushing with great effort, only to make inches across space. Annie pushed the cloth in circles around the floor, cycling into herself in the neverending chore, as Sok spoke against soft music: all layers of the performance prompting nostalgia and heartache. 

The start of the performance offers a parallel to the last part. At the end of the performance, Sok sits on a chair and speaks parts of Annie’s adoption documents. The first part provided insight into empathy: reflecting on a mother’s experience and looking back in time to switch perspective. As Annie moved, Sok stood and paced, a partnership of embeddedness like the relationships gathered through motherhood. A child, if loved, lives amongst the obstacles of life and is subtly impacted by the challenges that come with systematic struggle. However, it is another facet of the story to reflect on the mother’s perspective. The last part is a conversation on bureaucracy. It struck me as a commentary on the bizarre practice of filling out a form announcement of a traumatic experience and how the adult, now moving before an audience, may reflect on it.  

The midpoint of the performance centered a poem Annie and Sok constructed together. I described the introduction and finale first to emphasize how this poem, in between, was a startling convergence of the two in retrospect. The first called attention to the quiet and grand experience of Sok’s mother, and the last called attention to the insight gathered ex post facto. The midpoint described how creation and reflection are possible now. Upon reflection, I felt it was a heartening look into ongoing moments, signifying both the importance of history and expression. 

During the artist discussion before the performances, I learned that the poem was a compilation of Annie’s journaled writing gathered by Sok. The poem, “Soft Landing,” describes the severity of self-criticism and the dissension/harmony/necessity of nurturing the brutality within. What I walked away with was the need to acknowledge brutality to gather a personal history and move within the current moment. 

A first step in the healing process. 

Composite of shadows of Fana Fraser and Jasmine Gibson in Fana + Jasmine
Photo by Cameron Kelly McLeod, ISSUE Project Room, June 21, 2019


Photo by Marina McClure

The most holistically applicable screenplay-writing advice I ever received was to begin a story with a protagonist pursuing what they wanted, and end the story with the protagonist getting not what they wanted, but what they needed. A platitude? Sure. And yet how insistently this idea persists, not merely in film, but in how we aim to justify the events of our lives. Isn’t not-getting-what-we-want-but-what-we-need what we are all holding out for? What we’re all hoping we get before we die? Don’t we all pray for a synthesizing action at the end of our story that will tell us that, in the end, things were meant to happen this way? 

I thought about this advice watching New Georges’ ecstatic production of Leap and the Net Will Appear, a rapturous language-fest of a play by Chana Porter, directed with a magician’s touch by Tara Ahmadinejad, at The Flea Theater. The play follows the epic journey (think Barry Lyndon, David Copperfield, Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch or Larry Darrell in The Razor’s Edge) of the character of Margie (played with bright-eyed ferocity by Polly Lee), who starts the play wanting to be a lion.  She concludes the play transforming into an elephant. We experience her life in novelistic episodes, smashed, (lyrically and theatrically) together as she mates, bears a child, abandons the child, travels the world, falls in love again, plots a murder, learns to settle, comes back to her son, mourns her mother, becomes an alcoholic, and surrenders to her fate, among other things. 

Mostly what Margie does, though, is wriggle in and out of platitudes and clichés, aphorisms, maxims, axioms and morals regarding How To Live that she must choose to accept or resist. (Note the title, please.) Often she tries both approaches – attempting to find fulfillment in a female domestic space (children, an appreciation of impressionist art) and in a female fun space (affairs), and then throwing each choice away. That she never attempts industry, intellectualism, art, or God seems to satirize how we view a woman’s search for meaning: whatever she pursues, it always involves company.  

In this vibrant production of Leap, language makes reality manifest. A staid business man asks Margie to her apartment and Margie responds, “Let’s,” followed by (without a beat or a shift) “This is a nice apartment.” But language is also not to be trusted. Simon, Margie’s father/grandfather (played by a deeply delightful Ron Domingo), offers a string of inspirational clichés starting with “Help others! Follow your passion! Live life to the fullest!” and ends the speech with poetic gems such as “Trust otters! Fruit labors! Peach tumors!” Does the key to life come less from real knowledge and more from a sense of rhythm? Pattern recognition? A skewed version of the old saying, “If it looks like a life, and it walks like a life, then it must be a life?”

Andrew Lynch’s wistful music offers a hypothesis of melody and rhythm as meaning in Leap. Sung by him, appearing in the production as a kind of conscience/troubadour, the songs are written in the script as “Margie’s Heart.” And yet the music exists not merely as emotional truth but also as a kind of deliberately misleading film-scoring. In Lynch’s hands, melodic phrases are as slippery and untrustworthy as any platitude within the play.

If we are to believe that, in the movie of our life, we get what we need, then we must situate ourselves as our own protagonists. We are not Non-Player-Characters in someone else’s video game, we are the ones holding the joystick. (What a term.) Our background music is within us – it is the emotional thrum that accompanies all our experiences. Our depression composes the minimalist score for every party we wish we could leave, our euphoric inspiration sounds triumphant chords for our countryside drive, our nerves bleat minor-key violin scritches on a creepily bad date. 

At the conclusion of Leap, the character of Margie absents herself from the action, letting the other characters end the play for her, in harmony, literally (as in they sing) and figuratively. Perhaps, what we need to be happy, the play posits, is to loosen our grip on the idea of the world as our own film with a conclusion that’s meant specifically for what we need.   

Naturally “we” is a tricky word. So look at the above, and replace all these we’s with I’s. After all, I’m my own protagonist. You’re over there, inscrutable to me as a lover, a grandparent, a child, a lion. 

Hadar Ahuvia and Tatyana Tenenbaum in conversation

Photo by Maria Baranova

Each season, Baryshnikov Arts Center invites writers into the studio to interview BAC Resident Artists. The resulting essays offer an intimate behind-the-scenes look at the creative process. Hadar Ahuvia was a Spring 2019 BAC Space Resident Artist.

A soft pulsing unison is emitted from a group of dancers in a line, holding hands. I observe as Mor Mendel expertly transmits dance steps to Oren Barnoy, Raha Behnam and Zavé Martohardjono. Throughout Mor’s instruction, a chorus of syncopated voices drones lightly in the background: who was here first / they were here first / was I here first / how does it bloom.

Mor is Israeli but she didn’t grow up doing Israeli folk dances. However, after working with Hadar for several years, the steps appear to have deeply embedded in her body, in her muscle memory.

Hadar Ahuvia sits elsewhere at a table, pouring over a manuscript as the vibrations and textures of her dance wash over her. Much of this material has been used in her work before. When material from one’s own work becomes a new sort of trope to be complicated, referenced, and re-written, it is a serpent eating itself.

The group is learning a complicated sequence of steps and text phrases based on the Yemenite step[1]. Each spoken phrase is a slight alteration of the previous, mirroring the way meaning might be obscured through a process of transmission. A string of words connects through their feet and the poetry gains new context through repetition.

Hadar tells me that she is recovering from a hip flareup a few days ago. “I could barely walk,” she says. She is convinced it is connected to a bike accident she had a few years ago, right before she left for a trip to Israel/Palestine to do humanitarian work. Through our friendship I also know that the trip stirred deep wounds between her and her Zionist family. “Now this stuff is finally getting into my work, and [the hip flareup] comes back.” The stuff she is talking about—it’s not the conflict in Israel/Palestine per se, but rather, the embodying of the conflict within her own family and how she has begun to unwind it.

Everything You Have is Yours, Hadar’s previous work, was a performance-lecture whose purpose was to artfully illustrate how Zionism built a nation through embodied ideology. It drew attention to cultural nuances that most Americans, and especially American Ashkenazi[2] Jews, could likely miss, having low literacy on the many ethnic and cultural lineages embedded within Israel/Palestine. But it is the personal connections—the fact that Hadar’s grandfather was a literal pioneer of the Zionist Kibbutz movement, or that her mother performed in a semi-professional folk dance troupe, that make Hadar’s stakes in this information so real, so gut-wrenchingly tangible.

In The Dances are for Us Hadar attempts to foreground these personal stakes, while at the same time involving a larger group of collaborators in conversation, dance, and song. Her collaborators have varied backgrounds: some Jewish, some not. Some have relationships to folk dance and some do not. Raha takes scrupulous notes. Autumn Leonard, having just arrived, begins to get the new sequence down.

The group begins to dance a hora, a circle dance enjoyed at social occasions by Jews in Eastern Europe before and during the settling of Palestine. I enjoy watching the coexistence of many divergent physicalities. What gives a dance like this its unity and cohesion? Is it the stomping of feet? A decided posture, perfected by all? Or could it be said that a shared intention, a social contract like an invisible thread connecting hearts and minds, is enough?

Hora was practiced by Zionists before the founding of the state. It was danced by Jews who were not yet Israeli. This imagined diasporic dance provides a backdrop for Hadar’s personal narrative. She operates with dry humor, imbibing a character modeled after a male Israeli dance instructor. This alter-ego is a way for Hadar to morph; to inhabit a persona in order to subvert it.

Her story drifts between contexts and places. She starts in Hawai’i, where her Israeli family moved when she was in high school. There she pokes fun at Jews for Jesus who attempt to perform Israeli folk dance without the requisite credentials, or chutzpah. She narrates a family trip to the Gilboa mountains in Israel. She balances her reverence with the descriptive smell of cow manure. Her voice begins to change and soften as she questions the authenticity of her own memory and truth: “why this” and “why that?”

As the group dances, Hadar’s virtuosic commentary continues to shift the meaning of the repetitive steps. Her telling becomes a reparative midrash[3] for a dance whose meaning has long been incorporated into a set of truths. I pause to reflect. Isn’t that what Jewish thought does? Continually question, debate, and complicate the well worn narratives, songs, and texts—if text could be considered a dance, a kind of text of the body? I am fascinated by the deep vestiges of Jewishness inside this making.

But not all Jews are the same. I remember being taught Israeli folk dances in elementary school by one of my classmate’s mothers. As an American Jew, I was confused. Was I supposed to feel some affinity to this tradition? The Israelis I knew were nothing like me. Their bodies were erect and confident and they spoke in loud voices. I remember bristling at the Israeli exchange student in my middle school. Her voice was too loud, her spine too erect. My own Jewish body felt meek in comparison. Her confidence embarrassed me.

Through Hadar’s work I have learned that this Israeli body, this sabra[4] body, was meticulously constructed. It was made through erect, collectivist ideologies, manual labor, farming, military service… and dance. It might surprise you that dance could serve as a vehicle for such profound social transformation. However, for those who devote their lives to fine-tuning their bodies and nervous systems through somatic work, the potency of this proposal is not a stretch. This is what is so captivating about watching Hadar’s work unfold. The viewer experiences for themselves the implicit persuasion of embodied narratives taking hold.

This essay flows forth at a time when many of us with power and privilege are being asked and challenged to put words to the supremacies we have inhabited, unchecked for so long. With much reflection, I realize that my body exudes another kind of socialized confidence: a confidence accrued through White Privilege. This very real, very tangible confidence is seated in the embodied knowledge that my body will be safe, in almost any context; that my thoughts and ideas will be taken seriously, in almost any context… Does my confidence embarrass you?

“There are no equivalencies, but there are parallels,” interjects Hadar.

Israeli folk dance has many sources, some more overtly acknowledged than others. Much like our American melting pot myth, this cultural construct obscures the historical power dynamics and multi-ethnicities imbedded within it. The Ashkenazi founders of the folk dance movement modeled their music and dance on those observed from Bedouin, Palestinian, Yemenite Jews, Druz, and other peoples whose cultures emerged from thousands of years of desert dwelling. The culling of these sources was an overt effort by Zionists to affirm their “native-ness.”

Hadar is of Ashkenazi descent. Her lineage traces the very power and privilege she is trying to deconstruct. Can a performance be a part of equalizing power? There is a moment when all the performers leave the stage and Hadar plays the music of a Palestinian dabke[5]. We are left to imagine, or contemplate, the void. It is not a perfect solution, and during the showing Hadar receives mixed feedback.

There is a general consensus that this moment can’t restore power to a people who aren’t in the room. But perhaps it can deflate the confidence of a narrative that props up those in power? So what does decolonization really mean? Does it mean physically leaving? Or does it mean, as I have heard it suggested by several Indigenous scholars, restoring power and equalizing the imbalances in our social and environmental ecology?

Questions of authority continue to surface. Hadar is trying to be transparent about her own limitations—the absence of origin, pure source, or even objectivity. “We’re not searching for an authentic moment. It’s about how the dances were used.”

At one point, an archival video shows Rivka Sturman, one of the folk dance movement’s founders. I can’t help myself—I am delighted by the image of this 80-something woman, surrounded by masses, all dancing her creations. Autumn calls this the “swan song moment.” “You get to see her humanity,” says Raha. “Tenderness,” says Zavé. “I associate [Hadar] with her.”

There is still a troubling sense that the information is one-sided. “There are no images to associate with source material,” says Raha. “Any time you have one voice in documentary, that voice starts sounding ‘correct,’” Autumn points out.

In regards to the moment when Palestinian dabke music plays for an empty stage, Zavé adds that “the imagination is colonized.” They offer an alternate meditation: As we begin to conjure a source in its absence, can we instead, draw attention to our colonized minds?

Visit Hadar’s Residency Page

Tatyana Tenenbaum is the daughter of a fiber artist, granddaughter of Broadway producers, and great-granddaughter of Hungarian and Ukrainian Jewish immigrants who settled in New York City/Lenapehoking. She grew up doing community musical theater. Over the past decade she has performed and collaborated with Yoshiko Chuma, Daria Faïn, Jennifer Monson, Levi Gonzalez, Emily Johnson/CATALYST, Andy Luo & lily bo shapiro, Hadar Ahuvia, the DOING AND UNDOING collective, and Juliana May.

[1] A Israeli folk dance step based on the dances of Yemenite Jews. It was observed, appropriated and codified by folk dance founder Rivka Sturman, an Ashkenazi Zionist.

[2] Ashkenazi is a term for Jews of central or Eastern Europe descent.

[3] Midrash is a Judaic practice of providing extra commentary on biblical texts.

[4] Sabra is the desert prickly pear, a symbol chosen to represent the new Jew, born in Israel who had shed the physical and psychological trappings of the diaspora.

[5] Dabke is a folk dance practiced throughout the Levant, including in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Jordan. It is also the source on which the Israeli folk dance step Debka was based.

Interview with Haleh Roshan, Playwright of Corkscrew Festival’s COLLECTIVE NOUN

Photo credit: Brandon Smithey

No title may be juicier than Haleh Roshan’s urgent, theatrical, and feminist half-play, half-cri de cœur: A Play Titled After the Collective Noun for Female-Identifying 20-Somethings Living in NYC in the 2010s. These titular figures are not a gaggle, not a cohort, and certainly not girls; instead, Haleh spotlights uprisers long entrenched in humanitarian and social justice battles that privileged and even liberal Americans have long ignored and sidelined. Through their daily lives and epic struggles, Haleh crafts a testimony to how we engage with politics and pens a vociferous ode to the souls on the frontline of fights for change.

I’d like to start with the title — it’s so fun and incisive and lengthy. How did it come to mind?

(Laughs) Thank you! Starting around 2012 we suddenly had a deluge of media with the word “girls” in the title: the HBO show, obviously, but also “Two Broke Girls,” “Good Girls Revolt,” and “Gilmore Girls” — which I hated growing up — was coming back, the book Girls by Emma Kline (that started a $2 million bidding war).

Continue reading

Five Questions with Sarah Hughes, McFeely Sam Goodman, and Lucy Kaminsky

L-R: Sarah Hughes, Lucy Kaminsky, McFeely Sam Goodman. Photo by John Keon.

Culturebot asked three members (Sarah Hughes, McFeely Sam Goodman, and Lucy Kaminsky) of the Limited Liability Theater Company, whose show THE DRINKING BIRD is at the Ice Factory from July 3-6, five questions. These are their responses, listed in order of who responded first.

1. Where did you grow up and how did you end up where you are now?

McFeely Sam Goodman: I was born in New Jersey and then lived in the Boston area and then back in New Jersey before my family landed in NYC where I’ve been more or less ever since.

Sarah Hughes: I was born more than a month early so instead of beginning life in a leafy suburb of NYC as my parents had intended, I spent the very early months of my life in Manhattan. I grew up in Ossining, about an hour outside of New York, but my family moved to Boulder CO during my middle school years (highly recommend spending awkward pre-teen time around mountains). We moved back to the east coast for high school, to a beach town in CT where some people thought Boston was a city, and I guess that was when I realized that unless I became a kayaking instructor in some wonderful outdoorsy town out West, I would definitely end up back in New York. I’ve been here 12 years. 

Lucy Kaminsky: I grew up in Brooklyn and more or less stayed here. 

Continue reading