Christina Olson: American Model

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Tamar Rogoff is a choreographer, director, filmaker and teacher. She teaches at New York University’s Experimental Theatre Wing and leads an ongoing class at P.S. 122. Rogoff has worked for decades with people who have both physical and psychological disabilities at various centers in NYC- with children at the Rusk Institute awaiting prosthesis, with individuals with psychiatric disorders at Soundview Medical Center in the Bronx, at Project Moving On in Brooklyn, and at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan. In her latest work premiering Wednesday, September 21st, Tamar uses her unique body-centric methodology to explore the ideas, spirit and physicality of Chrisitna Olson. Olson, portrayed by Claire Danes, is the subject of Andrew Wyeth’s iconic painting who suffered from a never-diagnosed muscular deterioation.

WHAT WAS THE ORIGIN OF CHRISTINA OLSON: AMERICAN MODEL?

Claire wanted to dance again, not having danced since she was a kid. The painting must have been on my mind and I felt a correspondence between Christina’s spine and Claire’s. A friend of mine had just become parapalegic and was in a wheelchair. I was so impressed with his determination and the strength of the life force that led him to make best use of the parts of his body that could still move.

HOW DID YOU FIND YOUR COLLABORATORS AND HOW HAS THAT AFFECTED YOUR PROCESS?

Harvey Wang is my long time collaborator and I always ask him first, but he was about to shoot his first feature film. So I found Andrew Barker, a recent graduate of Middlebury College, as a back up . They ended up working together. I had an idea to x-ray Claire’s spine and found Raj Sari who’s studying digital media at NYU, and he introduced me to the possibilities for digital art. Harvey suggested Rachel’s for music and Christian lives in Brooklyn. David Ferri is always my lighting designer of choice. He’s lit four of my pieces at P.S. 122. We are all working as a team with Liz Prince doing costumes and Slaney Roso my ex-student from NYU’s Experimental Theatre Wing.

DESPITE PHYSICAL CHALLENGES, CHRISTINA REJECTED THE USE OF WHEELCHAIRS, FINDING ALTERNATIVE WAYS TO MOVE. HOW DID THAT INFORM THE MOVEMENT VOCABULARY OF THIS PIECE?

The idea that she could crawl across fields, up and down staircases and get wherever she wanted to go because she was determined and focused are ideas that guide this piece. Christina must have been a phenomenal mover in touch with her spine in a way most people need not be.

CAN YOU DEFINE YOUR “BODY-CENTRIC” APPROACH TO CHOREOGRAPHY?

I investigate the body using any area that interests me as a focus . I don’t have a lot of medical information, so sometimes I’ll describe a place between two ribs and then work experimentally. It’s very fascinating. I’ve been doing my laboratory class here at P.S. 122 for twenty years. Things like the sternum can be my passion for several years, and then I’ll go on to the sacrum for a few more years. Somehow, over years, my class covers a lot of dancing and people’s alignment shifts towards the positive.

HAVE YOU OR WOULD YOU LIKE TO VISIT CHRISTINA’S HOUSE DEPICTED IN WYETH’S PAINTING?

Christina’s house was renovated to look like the house Wyeth painted and not her original house– so I’m not so interested–bit of a tourist attraction. It’s her inner landscape that interests me.

2 thoughts on “Christina Olson: American Model”

  1. Suzanne Gallo says:

    The Olson House in Cushing Maine is well worth the trip. Even though the house has been repainted on the outside, and cleaned up on the inside, it is very much the same as it was while she lived there from 1893 untill she died in 1967. The house was filthy when Wyeth painted it: part of the allure to him. Christina, who could no longer “crawl across fields, up and down staircases”, could not clean above where she could reach from the kitchen chair she scooted across the kitchen floor. The result–black soot all over the house from the woodstove, cobwebs and cat piss. Also, she couldn’t get up to go to the bathroom, so she urinated on the floor. Some of the people Wyeth took to visit her couldn’t stomach it, and had to vomit.
    So, think about that before you say not to visit the Olson House because it is not as it was when Wyeth painted there: Christina could not move around nearly as well as Claire Danes. It was her inner dignity and strength–as well as her deep New England roots, and hints of primordial life-.- that Wyeth found so fascinating

  2. Tamar Rogoff says:

    Thanks for the encouragement, Suzanne (re message October 5th). Claire & I will be visiting the Christina Olson house in May and are very much looking forward to it. Best regards, Tamar

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