Five Questions for Dean Moss

Dean Moss’ premieres “Nameless Forest” this week and next (Thursday-Saturday, May 19-21 and May 26-28, 8 pm) at The Kitchen. Part rite-of-passage, part meditation on the evolving processes of contemporary performance, it was developed in collaboration with Korean sculptor Sungmyung Chun and features dancers Kacie Chang, Eric Conroe, Aaron Hodges, Pedro Jiménez, DJ McDonald and Sari Nordman. In work also incorporates diary entries from photojournalist Mike Kamber, neon effects from visual artist Gandalf Gavan, an original score by Stephen Vitiello, costumes by Roxana Ramseur, and lighting and technical design by Vincent Vigilante. We spoke briefly last week.

So, you’re loading in this week and premiering the work, but it’s had many showings ASU, MANCC, and recently at Yale. But you’re in the final gathering of everything for it, right? Yes. We had three preview performances at Yale. That was a great out of town showing for a very supportive group of students and public. The Kitchen is the premiere after a week in the space and I’m very excited to have the time to ensure that the technical aspects and performers are working well in the space. So, I’m very excited to be presenting it, hosting it. I feel like I’m sharing something with my audience. It’s as if there is a gift that you’ve worked hard on, that you know is a very nice gift and you’ve gotten this very nice gift for someone you know very well and you are about to present it to them and that’s how that’s how I feel about this work.

What do you mean about the work as a meditation? It is a meditation on the work of my collaborator. The meditation is not only what I think his work means, but also what it is in the space and within the circumstances of its presentation. I start to think about myself in relationship to it, my own experience of it including what’s not in the work and what is tangentially related to the work. One can be thinking of all of these other things. It takes his exhibitions and installations into a whole other realm of experience and that process of moving from one thing to another becomes the work. The rite of passage is a method to experience the work. The work is set up for some fraction of the audience to navigate through it physically and that journey can be seen as a rite-of-passage. The passage is witnessed by the rest of the audience, but the witnessing that the audience does is like watching a ceremony that you may or may not know all the parts to. You are probably coming a way from it with an impression of how difficult this journey is. Whereas the person navigating through it may have a different experience. One primarily of the embrace that their community is giving them, the support that they are being extended. The off stage audience sees one thing and onstage audience sees another. It’s very embracing, very intimate onstage.

You have been constructing carefully considered methods for making the audience experience integral to your work. I was deeply appreciative of it during Kisaeng becomes you. What is it about this careful bringing in that interests you? I’m interested in vulnerability again as I was in Kisaeng. If you want to get at that and at compassion and at these intimate details of someone’s emotional lives, I think it’s important that the participants feel safe and I think having a community that values that enables that.

How did you come to collaborate with Sungmyung Chun? And, how did you work
together? It’s important to see his work. He makes figurative sculptures. They are the size of a child and often have his face on them, an adult head on a child’s body. The figure is often wounded – light scrapes, a little blood. As you go through his exhibition, these wounds seem self-inflicted. You never see that activity, but you have this sense that there’s no one else doing this to the figures. His work is presented not as individual pieces but as whole installations. So you see scenes. He very much likes to think of himself as a storyteller and he uses these stories to explore existential being. I was at the beginning of Kisaeng, walking the streets of Seoul and I came across his gallery. I went in, saw his work and thought it was fantastic and would make a fantastic performance work. I left my name and he speaks little English and I speak no Korean so we had a friend translating and we hit it off. He watched the making of Kisaeng. In 2007, I saw his work, then made Kisaeng and then came back in 2009 to work together with him. It’s taken a long time. Working together was and continues to be relatively easy beyond language where we alway use a translator. The idea is strong and we quickly found that we could be flexible and patient with it’s physical development. Also practically we did a lot of traveling. I have flown Sungmyung and his associate Hyangsuk Choi to the states five times in the past two years. I have gone to Korea twice during the same time. So we put high value on being together in the space and looking at the work. Part of the process was in the selection of the transferable elements of Sungmyung’s work. Asking what was going to make a transfer onto the stage that can be about more than merely animating his characters. With figures on a field, Laylah Ali and I found out right away not to do the big green heads from her pictures. With Kisaeng we wanted to avoid the dancers being seen romantically as traditional artist courtesans. With this piece, the narrative that I conceived was kind of a parallel, not based entirely on the narrative of the original work. We broke down that narrative to disrupt and comment on it. Some early inspiration was taken from the structure of Rashomon. There was some early inspiration taken from the structure of Indonesian hindu rites in Bali. We both wanted the audience onstage and that meant that if the audience is onstage how we incorporate them must be significant. The audience becomes the core of the work. You’re inviting the audience onstage and you’re creating a frame with dancers for bringing the audience in. The work originally developed in a different way. We had a showing at the Kitchen that didn’t work entirely. So, I changed the master narrative or the primary metaphor: the underlying logic of the work. The original metaphor was trying to create community with our onstage audience. That became extremely unclear when we showed it – for me and for many who saw it in process and they were right – how are you going to get from here to there. I was faced with this aesthetic problem – how do you keep what you have onstage in this specialized environment and make a circumstance or framework for community. So there became these questions: What’s the community? What’s the relationship between the performers themselves and this thing they are trying to embody on stage? What is it that artists do in their communities? Why does a community, dance community, artist community – why do they care about individual feelings and the artifact of those feelings? Why does that matter was a big question. So by changing the primary metaphor to a place of initiation – ritual of passage – allows the performers to be the performers. It allows them to take their place within this specialized space and allows us to shepherd our guests and introduce them to this space in a very specific personal way.

You’ve also included several other elements. What fed that? Sumyung’s original images and installations have a pure kind of form and are editorially very straightforward. He’s really cut into his sense of self within a particular world. There’s not a lot of comment on it or distance from him. He has an interesting humor, but the work is a sincere and straightforward interior dialogue. In bringing it onto the stage, I was aware that people in the role of his figures will carry a more complex sense of presence and that there’ll automatically be a commentary. If you are a single visual artist and making work, it can be about yourself but if I take that intimate existential idea and put it on other people it becomes about other voices. So, I wanted those other voices to help form the structure of the work. The performance of Nameless forest is in three parts: the first part is homage to Sumyung’s world. It is the longest section and there’s a kind of journey well depicted. In the 2nd part, the narrative (his internal narrative) is replaced with the photojournalist Mike Kamber’s diary entries. Mike’s been in many conflicted places. (We’re friends from the early 80s when we used to squat buildings together.) He gave me his audio diaries from when he was in Somalia. Using Mikes diary entries as score the performers dance a choreographic variation on the first section. The third section is like a ritual epilogue. It sets up the work in a timeless sort of way and then it asks for a kind of participation from the audience to again fill in the narrative. The audience themselves, their own narratives complete the work.

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