Karen Sherman has been living and working in New York since 1988. Her work has been presented by P.S. 122, Danspace Project, Movement Research at the Judson Church, Dixon Place, the Improvisation Festival/NY, BAX, WOW Café, The Puffin Room and various other spaces, events and benefits around town and elsewhere. She was a MacDowell Colony Fellow (2003) and a Movement Research Artist-in-Residence (1999-2000). She is also a musician, fifth generation lasso spinner and spent several summers studying flying trapeze. She has worked in nearly every aspect of arts production a producer, curator, production manager and technician. She is currently the administrator at Judson Church where she also runs stART, a multi-disciplinary arts series integrating politics, arts and spirituality. As a performer, she has worked and collaborated with numerous artists, including Sally Silvers, Sarah East Johnson, Clarinda Mac Low, Circus Amok, Nami Yamamoto, Alejandra Martorell, Morgan Thorson, Tanya Gagné, The Love Everybody Players, and many others. Her latest work Cold Comfort will be presented at P.S. 122 March 11-14, 2004.
Cold Comfort is subtitled “A Love Letter to Antarctica.” What is it about Antarctica that inspired you to create this piece?
It’s been an obsession that sort of crept up on me. Many years ago, a friend mentioned she knew someone who worked down there. (There are many scientific research stations in Antarctica.) I didn’t know anything about the place but the idea of people living down there blew me away. Just that simple fact became a nagging fascination. Then I rode a horse across the Andes with some friends, from Chile to Argentina and back, and it was so cold at night! We were sleeping outside on our saddle blankets and I’d have the blankets up to my lower eyelids and my hat pulled down to my upper eyelids, just watching one falling star after another until I lost count. Then I’d flip my hat down that last inch and fall asleep. I had never much cared for the cold before. But the trip was so transformative on so many levels and I think my body thermometer lowered. There was also something about survival in weather that I learned that the body can adapt to circumstances it would otherwise fight in its more pampered environments.
My whole life I’ve been drawn to the idea of losing oneself in one’s landscape, disappearing into it, becoming it. I used to take epic solo road trips — two months alone in the car — driving myself, literally, to delirium and to a type of solitude where things crack apart and burst forth. In that sense, this project has been a long time coming (and by the same turn, I’ll be making this show over and over, in one form or another, for the rest of my life!). Also at the time of the Andes trip, I had a girlfriend whose loft was barely heated so we were always cold. I think that’s when the seeds were sown. Then about 4 years ago while I was really cooking along on another project the ideas for this show just started coming. I started trying some out and reading a ton about Antarctica.
It often happens with me that I get inundated with something — like I’m working too much in some job or some idea takes hold — and the fascination has to find its way out in a performance project. I’ll be sad when this show is over and I can’t justify my obsession anymore.
I understand that in your research you’ve come across a whole sub-culture of Antarctic aficionados. Tell us more…
Well, I suppose that’s what I’ll be when this is over, instead of being an artist working on a project and “researching.” There’s obviously been a renewed interest in the story of Ernest Shackleton and a lot of non-Antarcticaphiles know his story. I’m not sure what that’s about. Much has been made of his great leadership skills and I do think we are desperate for meaningful leadership right now! But the explorer stories are not my main interest, though the extremes they suffered fascinate me. There are also plenty of tours you can take to the South and I think that too has reached a more mainstream audience. The “subculture” though seems to consist of a lot of people who have worked or still work down there. It’s clearly a place that transforms you, which is what my show is about, and people who have been there feel very strongly about it. Then, there are the rest of us who haven’t been — yet — but devour everything we can on the subject. But hey — science is cool. I have mixed feelings about human presence in Antarctica, but I long to go.
You have described Cold Comfort as “a fantasia on ice, isolation, desire, and penguin envy.” Can you tell us a bit about the role that penguins have played in the creation of the project?
Penguins are the dominant terrestrial animal in Antarctica — although they spend a lot of time in the water they have no natural predators on land. So, I love that these critters that humans constantly anthropomorphize — by depicting them with top hats or likening them to waiters — are actually top of the food chain on land. The other gals in the cast play penguins who sometimes morph into other things, topographical and human (I play a human). I kind of laughed at my own idea of having them be penguins but then I went ahead and actually did it. And then, I didn’t think they’d actually move around like penguins but I sheepishly admit, they do (and they do it very well, I might add). A lot of the movement is nothing like and has nothing to do with penguins but we pretty much just go for it where it does.
We also took a field trip to the Central Park Zoo to see the penguins there. One of the zookeepers met with us and answered questions. One gal asked about their sex — both as in male/female and as in copulation. Penguins have only one orifice for both sex and excreting waste — sex organs are all internal. They are externally androgynous and sex can only be determined through DNA testing or observance of breeding behavior. The Central Park penguins don’t breed until June. We had noticed two penguins who were off in a corner by themselves, like lovers, and we teased ourselves for anthropomorphizing them — oh, tee-hee, silly us! But about 10 minutes later one of the dancers noticed that they were engaging in the, um, breeding position, as it were, and the zookeeper expressed great surprise and shock that they were attempting to breed out of season. Soon after this visit, The [New York]Times printed an article about the zoo’s gay penguins and we are now convinced these were the little guys we got to see that day– Roy and Silo. They have been my personal mascots ever since.
Your bio tells us a few of your special skills are rope spinning and trapeze flying. Will we be seeing any of these in Cold Comfort?
Nope. I’ve never incorporated the trapeze into my performing except in some of the physicality it demands. As it is, it’s been years since I’ve flown. The rope spinning doesn’t come into play in this show either though I’ve been picking it up again after years of neglecting it. It’s actually a great warm-up. And I’ve missed doing it.
This performance will be your first evening length show. Which choreographers with whom you have worked in the past have influenced and shaped your own work? How so?
Oh, everybody, I reckon. There is definitely more “real dance” in this show than any other I’ve made. And certainly all of the gals in the show have both influenced and encouraged me to go there. Sally Silvers has been a big influence — her choreographic assignments in the studio are extremely challenging and inspiring. Even the best dancers get brain cramps trying to keep track of the variations she throws in — it’s really exciting. I don’t approach anything close to that in my own work but she has totally opened my eyes to that kind of process and thinking ahead in choreographing. Morgan Thorson, my partner as well as cohort in this and other shows, has also taught me a lot. She has always been a great sounding board for me and a source of much support. I’ve also collaborated extensively so there is always some shape-shifting and influencing in that process. But in terms of sensibility and content, I’ve always followed my own impulses there. And in this show I’ve really pushed myself to go to the heart of what this project means to me, to avoid some of my easier choices, and go to the darker places, performance-wise, that I haven’t given myself enough time to dwell in the past. I love the bittersweet. ….I know a bunch of gals running around like gay penguins doesn’t sound very dark or bittersweet but trust me, it can be.