Talking to Rashaun Mitchell about “Interface” at Baryshnikov Arts Center

Photo of Cori Kresge, Rashaun Mitchell, Melissa Toogood, and Silas Riener by Nicholas O’Brien

Cori Kresge, Rashaun Mitchell, Melissa Toogood, and Silas Riener (photo by Nicholas O’Brien)

New York-based dancer/choreographer Rashaun Mitchell presents Interface at Baryshnikov Arts Center tonight and tomorrow. He performs alongside fellow Merce Cunningham alums Silas Riener, Melissa Toogood, and Cori Kresge in a work developed in residence at BAC that he describes as an exercise in “disconnecting emotion from the body and replacing it” and dealing with the face as an especially comprehensible source of expression as well as a physical tool like any body part.

It’s practically impossible to talk about Rashaun without mentioning his background with Merce Cunningham. He agrees that this deep history is an unshakeable influence (he is an eight-year company veteran), but while his model for developing his own work deviates sharply from that of a formal company setting, it is clear he is not focused on differentiating himself.

“I think about it a lot, it’s not like I’m opening up an old dusty closet or something in talking about Merce. I’m thinking about him a lot more in this piece than in Nox, in the way we’re thinking about the design of the space, and some vocabulary might be reminiscent of Merce. I tried to allow myself to use whatever vocabulary felt right for the given task, which is sometimes ordinary, sometimes technical, theatrical… All of those influences are in there, but the process of learning and perfecting and repeating steps is really uninteresting to me as a performer, so I don’t pull that way. I’m doing something that’s new to me, I’m not saying it’s new to anyone else, but there’s a slightly different angle here because it’s more about disconnecting the emotion from the body and replacing it. I’m hoping that’s perceived and it doesn’t look like acting.”

We talk about how the face often feels strangely excluded from dance, and the widespread uneasiness that we sense among choreographers around veering into miming. I’m curious about how he began investigating use of the face.

“I wasn’t interested in the face at first. I had gotten injured and was researching psychosomatic practices and what I came across is that the emotions we feel affect us physically, which is well documented. I realized along the way that the face is really, really legible, and that visual information is something that I had to explore. Sometimes I cringe a little bit while watching because it feels like it’s going to this melodramatic place. It’s about trying to approach the face like any other part of the body. We’ve broken down the face to specific muscles; we sit around for hours looking in the mirror trying to perfect a face that isn’t necessarily related to anything. It’s just visual, and I don’t know if anyone is really doing that. It’s about learning the steps of the face, actually, and being able to access them from nowhere, which is very hard.”

The process of generating this vocabulary was intricate and circular. Rashaun mentions the laughing yoga phenomenon, and discovering what happens when a person exhibits a physical representation of emotion in the absence of the actual feeling: “by practicing the faces we started to actually feel some of the emotions associated with those expressions. It’s a chicken or egg situation, and sometimes we got lost in the identification of what is first or second.”

This in-between place is his real interest. “Being lost is what I like. Not knowing what something is is really exciting. I would take a series of the faces we had designed and ask them to move between them very slowly, and the effect of changing from one face to another is, I think, more the subject matter. It’s that changeability, the moment when one thing is becoming another and you don’t quite know what it is for a second.”

He describes the process of arranging these fragments as a series of trial and error experiments, without any agenda for which face goes with which body at what moment. He muses that if the piece had been made in one intensive rehearsal process instead of a series of separate investigations over two years it would be a completely different work.

“My preferences changed over that time. I kept changing the piece and the dancers had to adapt. So it became an exploration of confusion and uprootedness; we went further into that instead of trying to clarify. It was like, ‘lets figure out how to make that the piece.’” He suspects that the sense of constant reorientation will be palpable to audiences, and he hopes that we eventually accept the confusion.

This willingness to work with untidiness instead of trying to neaten extends to the whole process. “The tools I am working with are living, breathing people who have lives and preferences, and I just try to incorporate it,” he says. Rehearsal exercises came from the mental and emotional states of his colleagues, and he used “what they dreamed about, their levels of pain, etcetera” to direct improvisations.

Interface also incorporates visual design and video elements by Mitchell’s longtime friend Fraser Taylor. “We decided to work with the particular architecture of the space as a design direction. We figured out how to use the ballet barres and wall panels as a space for the design, because they were going to be there no matter what, and we decided to project video onto the windows instead of the walls because it becomes transparent and gives a sense of an interface between the inside world and the outside world, which is exciting to me. I worry about overdoing it, I don’t want to bombard people with information, but I am trying to weave everything so there is a conversation that feels easy and necessary.”

He acknowledges that indulging in numerous components and contradictions could read as naïve, and says he feels “like an outsider amongst outsiders,” and no pressure to fit into any camp of performance. Mitchell also acknowledges the slipperiness of defining emotions with language, qualifying any emotion words with air quotes: “we’ll take a face that we equate with what we’ve agreed to call ‘happiness’ and apply it to a body that came from an investigation of ‘sadness,’ and the effect is very unexpected, unnatural.”

It seems to not actually matter what the feeling is, or whether the content is generated from “real” emotional experience or from simply going through the bodily or facial motions of “excitement” or “sadness.” Apparently, something about witnessing this emotional information, regardless of genesis, has been affecting for some.

“It’s interesting to see as a whole that it’s had the effect of moving people, and I think the idea of ‘moving’ an audience is interesting. How do you make an audience feel something without manipulating and while giving enough space for them to take it in as they want to take it in? People who have seen showings keep saying that it is “moving” and “powerful,” and those adjectives are great, but that was never my intention. People bring to the table what they will and they place it on the piece, and I think that that exchange is kind of wonderful.”

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