La Mama Moves

Jennifer Monson Photo by Valerie Oliviero

Jennifer Monson Photo by Valerie Oliviero

La Mama Moves 2013 has been ripping along. It would seem impossible to catch all of the work over the past few weeks (with one more to go). Though, if anyone has ever tracked the dance festival’s intrepid curator Nicky Paraiso, you might notice he appears to always be at everything around town, so perhaps… perhaps it can be done. Unfortunately, I won’t be the one to find out, but I did put in one sustained effort last week for back-to-back shows in The Club.  In its 8th year, the festival is once again a gallery of riches – full of enticing tidbits from some artists and celebrations of the enduring tenacity of others. I spoke to a few of them about their work.

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Paul Matteson‘s Take It OVER is a trio for him, James Morrow, and Jennifer Pollins with Phil Dupont on piano. A Bessie-awarded dancer from his time with David Dorfman and Lisa Race, he’s sharpened his performance practice with Bill T. Jones in the past few years. Take It OVER digs into richly textured interpersonal textures while offering a highly satisfying blend of breathy release and vigorous partnering.

Paul Matteson Photo by Richard Termine

Paul Matteson Photo by Richard Termine

I enjoyed the various scenic elements – a vintage record player, an overhead lamp and the little light on the piano. It heightened the intimacy of The Club and made it a domestic space. It was wonderful how the work shifted that domestic arena from a cozy, warm place to one fraught with cryptic tensions. The way Phil’s spare piano chords framed the progression and helped set tone was beautifully crafted.

We considered bringing in an 8’X10’ off-white rug to make more of a domestic space, but decided against it.  I loved the wood floor and the brick wall and the perfectly battered baby grand piano.  The “vintage” record player bought at Walmart matched the space in the way things match when you buy them not at the same time and not consciously trying to match, but your personality just seems to pick similar colors and styles.  We wanted a space that was specific and familiar enough to be recognized.  I’m moving out of an apartment in New York that was a landing pad between touring.  Everything was make-shift, the found lamps and the too-hard couch.  Comforting, but a little embarrassing for my daughter’s birthday parties with families that had much more considered home environments. 

Where you consciously creating a home space? I wondered if I was being too literal in my response to the text, if I was projecting a whole slew of personal assumptions about the autobiographical possibilities in “Is this good enough to be the end?” I thought this could just be direct dramaturgical extrication from rehearsal dialogue, but chose to infer that it had origins in the dissolution of personal relationships. The language was poetic, but referential enough to seem to have direct meaning. How do you bring text into your work?

Last year when I started colliding autobiographical text to movement I cringed at the sentimental leaning, but I enjoyed sourcing relationship discomfort. We talked a lot about endings and exits.  Fear of stability.  Traditional and non-traditional householder preoccupations.  The text came from free writes that felt similar to coming into a studio and creating a sequence of movement. Something about the subject matter seemed ridiculous and quirky enough to use in the rehearsal process, I was interested in the literal and yet the understanding that it is all not so personal.

I wanted a warm intimate space. Curious that it became so domestic. 

Jennifer Pollins, James Morrow and Paul Matteson Photo by Richard Ermine

Jennifer Pollins, James Morrow and Paul Matteson Photo by Richard Ermine

The three of you dance  together very naturally, with a kind of sturdy ease – like good friends. The sequence that repeats and speeds and crashes is so satisfying and invigorating. Being so close to it made it even richer, the fullness in tight quarters. Jennifer reminds me of a very fine binding line used on Japanese shakuhachi flutes. She’s able to slip from a soft release into a shiny, sharp clarity. Exquisite. You three were very complementary as movers and energies and bodies together. How did you come to work together and how did you develop the work? Where you three always rehearsing together or did you meet with one and then the other at times?

Jim and I moved to Western Mass at the same time last fall. Jen became our tour guide. We met at the tunnel bar for a drink and talked about working on a trio.  Our early morning rehearsals at Mt. Holyoke before each of us had to go teach kept us sane.  We called ourselves The Similiars because even with our different histories we were all dealing with similar identity challenges… getting older, breaking up, starting over.

Our process involved condensing the two duets into a trio and dealing with the difficulties.  The entire trio (including the text) was seven rounds of the same material more or less varied.

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Hari Krishnan pushed apart the boundaries of Bharatanatyam and contemporary dance performance with a charming solo for himself and a fanciful trio for Paul Charbonneau, Benjamin Landsberg and Hiroshi Miyamoto. Born in Singapore and trained in South India, he is a full-time faculty member at Wesleyan University and directs a dance company based in Toronto.

Hari Krishnan Photo by Stephen De las Heras

Hari Krishnan Photo by Stephen De las Heras

Can you talk a little bit about  your solo “The Frog Princess?” You call it a species and gender bending solo and I thought your performance of the characteristics of both identifiers (frog and princess) where quite enchanting.

The Frog Princess” is based on a 1950s composition by the late dance-master C.R. Acharyalu, a visionary -albeit unrecognized- in the world of South Indian dance. The composition itself is rich in terms of both its lyrics and musicality. My interpretation plays off the references inherent in the lyrics that refer to animal and human life-forms. Subverting gender stereotypes/archetypes continues to be an important hallmark in both my performance and choreography.

You work in India and in Canada and in the US. Are the conversations around traditional form and innovation different in the various communities you inhabit? How do you envision your work within those conversations?
Wherever I am in the world, I try to bring to my work, a complex critical inquiry informed by open–ended perspectives on dance history, gender studies, my own deliberation on globalization and most importantly my own life experiences living in North America who is an openly gay man of color, who loves everyday pop-culture and work with dancers from a diversity of styles and sensibilities.

Photo by Stephen De las Heras

Photo by Stephen De las Heras

As for debates around “tradition” and “innovation,” I think within the global world of today’s Bharatanatyam, the debates are more or less similar. But perhaps because I am also an academic and have contributed to the new, critical scholarship on Bharatanatyam, I tend to adopt what is otherwise read as a very eclectic approach to these ideas. Much of what today is considered “traditional” Bharatanatyam is simply the invention of Indian nationalist artists where involved in early transnational currents of cultural production in the 1930s, and so the idea of “tradition” in that sense needs to be deeply interrogated. And most of my work does precisely this by bringing into question the conventions of this kind of “Indianness.” I think “modernity” is an equally problematic concept, since in India, colonial modernity re-defined (even shaped) the arts in the 1930s. So the received language of “traditional” dance in India is always already “modern.” Consciously post-colonial, post-modern work using Indian dance is rare, in the sense that the recognition of the invented nature of “tradition” is rarely acknowledged by most artists who create in the genre of “contemporary Indian dance.”
I thought the Club was a great venue for your solo, in particular. You have such command and flow and I enjoyed seeing the form without the regular trappings. Your simple black tank and pants let me just watch what you were doing. Being that close to you allowed me to see all of the subtle details, to delight in your drishti bedha and the wry delight you seemed to take in those moments when you draped your wrist. So, when I watched it I saw I took that as a slightly ironic commentary – a consciously effeminate gesture – a kind of queering of the form. Is that a regular part of your solo work? Are there other signafiers in the work that only experienced viewers would catch? Does that matter? I

What does it mean to be a male performing Bharatanatyam? I thought the Club was a great venue for your solo, in particular. You have such command and flow and I enjoyed seeing the form without the regular trappings. Your simple black tank and pants let me just watch what you were doing. Being that close to you allowed me to see all of the subtle details, to delight in your drishti bedha and the wry delight you seemed to take in those moments when you draped your wrist. So, when I watched it I saw I took that as a slightly ironic commentary – a consciously effeminate gesture – a kind of queering of the form. Is that a regular part of your solo work? Are there other signafiers in the work that only experienced viewers would catch? Does that matter?
Being a male performer of Bharatanatyam carries some serious challenges. Modern Bharatanatyam has a complex social history that is saturated by issues around caste, sexuality, colonialism, and Indian nationalism.  Add gender to that mix and you have to think through things very carefully! My own representations of Bharatanatyam draw upon the older, pre-1930s repertoire and aesthetic conventions, and at the same time, also eschew the heavily caste- and class-inflected nature of the modern form. “Queering” Bharatanatyam is certainly something I do all the time — and here I’m using “queer” in the widest possible (post-postmodern) sense of the word. I think that there are explicitly visual cues to the “queering” — such as the focus on the gesture you mention — but at the same time, the entire project of creating an “alternative” Bharatanatyam stripped of nationalist and caste-bound tropes could be read as a deeply subversive, queering of the form. I find this entire process liberating and at the same enabling the form to be much more accessible to my contemporary/global audiences.

Paul Charbonneau, Benjamin Landsberg & Hiroshi Miyamoto Photo by Stephen De las Heras

Paul Charbonneau, Benjamin Landsberg & Hiroshi Miyamoto Photo by Stephen De las Heras

I have to admit that when I read about the premise for “I, Cyclops” (a midnight tryst between James Marsden’s X-Men character, Cyclops, and the 3-eyed god, Shiva) I was very wary, but I was really quite taken by it. The very contemporary aesthetic, the vinyl gloves, sheer sari, leather harness, the shades, the eyeliner – it’s all well matched with the sound and your rhythmic explorations and your spatial interplays. I thought the dancers showed great facility, moving in and out of the footwork, into the voguing, in and out of the floor, in and out of an awareness of our presence. I thought it was a very effectively contemporary work, not just in the homo-pomo dance sense, but in a present-day, urban, club, mash up landscape. Can you say a little bit about how you worked with your trio? How do you find your dancers and train them?

Turning to “I, Cyclops,” this is the latest in a series of works I have created using a global-urban “club” aesthetic. I think that in many ways, this is reflective of the “new” world of contemporary dance, in which the boundaries between popular culture and professional dance must be blurred. If contemporary dance is to retain its freshness, its subversive quality, then I’m convinced that it must confront the popular. In my dance-world for instance, the adavus of Bharatanatyam mash with techno club-music and progressive politics. I am particular about trying to produce work that is progressive, bold, full of risks and adventurous- producing invigorating and progressive dance productions that challenge dominant discourses about culture.

Dancers who work with me come from a variety of dance backgrounds and bring to my choreography technique and aesthetic expertise that moves my work in ever-expanding directions. All dancers undergo an intensive training period with me in Bharatanatyam technique before performing in my choreography and I am very particular my dancers are multi-ethnic in tandem with the global perspective I’d like to bring to my work. I do not posit Bharatanatyam as “cultural heritage” and thus encourages its dancers to adopt a critical-historical approach to the form, making it accessible to both South Asians and non-South Asians.

Photo by Stephen De las Heras

Photo by Stephen De las Heras

I utilize Bharatanatyam to celebrate the erotic and sensual body.  I consistently push the boundaries of body politics, sexuality and identity in all my works as a consistent recurring theme since I began choreographing. The classical Bharatanatyam I perform in addition to my contemporary work comes out of this unique interpretation, is based on my several years of training with the last vestiges of the devadasi/courtesan communities in rural South India.

My performances continue to challenge the very notions of “tradition” and “contemporaneity” by presenting works that constantly move audiences to think beyond these binaries.

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Jennifer Monson and Niall Jones
performed the duet FOAM. An improvisation that revealed two artists at different places physically, but well connected and well matched on stage. Over the years, Monson has inspired a kind of awe in me. Her migratory Bird Brain project involved traveling, camping, dancing at sunrise, teaching – a real-world, natural world, artistic synthesis that was reflective of the cyclical tensions of simple lives and complex systems. Her duet Finn’s Shed – where she and John Jasperse through themselves at one another in a rough-n-tumble dance is virtuosity, extreme sport and the stuff of legend. The chance to see her dance up close (like, at my feet sometimes) was a true gift.

Jennifer Monson

Jennifer Monson

Over the years, you’ve exemplified a kind of integrity that’s captivating and quite intimidating. Effervescent, yet stoic. This is all my perception, of course, but when I watch you dance there’s a disarming majesty and whimsy. It all seems so rooted, natural – lacking affectation. Do you think of yourself as channeling specific energies or are you tuning into something else? How do you see your improvisational performances versus your less public improvisational practice, or does that not matter as much as the arena? Does audience impact your dance any more or less than the location?

Channeling energy  carries a lot of meanings and metaphors that are both potent and empty. I often feel that dancing creates the potential for me to dance beyond my own psychology so in that way I do feel that I am allowing different energies to take over and that my concentration is on following that curve of possibility and not shutting it down. Dancing with niall makes this possible in different kinds of ways. Words we used in our process were adjacent and proximity. I sense that we are adjacent to each other with parallel desires. This friction and support offers each of us a  space to move towards new experiences of body, relationship, identity and improvisational state.

I am extremely effected by the people in the room. Audience has probably the most significant impact on my experience of dancing. But I also consider place and location my audience as much as a collection of bodies in a theater. Any collection of bodies can be an audience.

niall jones and Jennifer Monson at MR Fest '12 Photo by Tara Sheena

niall jones and Jennifer Monson at MR Fest ’12 Photo by Tara Sheena

I remember years ago, when I was advising the Mekong Project for DTW, I was hosting a bunch of Vietnamese artists and you invited them to come improvise. I thought that was so generous, but appropriate. how else do we really come to know one another as dancers unless we dance together. Do you have a regular practice of inviting new people to dance with you? How did you and Niall come to be a duet at La Mama Moves? Do you feel any difference in his practice (as representative of the NY ’00s) versus yours (as the NY 90s)

I am always looking for new people to dance with but also have long standing dance partners that I have danced with for decades. At the University, I have a constant flow of new dancers coming through and that offers me a special opportunity to build new dance niall-jones-by-sarah-holcman2relationships with younger artists. niall and I were curated to dance together last year at the MR Spring Festival. We had already been dancing together but this gave us a context to really explore our shared interests. We have similar practices but they have different contexts. He listens to a lot of music and goes out dancing more then I do now. We both dance alone in the studio avidly.

Improvisational practice is life practice  – attending to the moment and responding. Which isn’t to say, not planning. I was wondering if you could share a few words about the value of improvisational practice in our lives, or in your life. You have offered the field so much in your model of integrating science and art and bringing dance to areas and people that reach far beyond the downtown venues or contemporary circuit. Does your activism and consciousness feed something like the duet at La Mama? How do you see your iLAND work and your concert work relating? What does something like The Club at La Mama offer you? How does NYC feel to you now that you are 1/2 and 1/2?

This is too complicated a question for me to answer right now. But I hope we are able to continue this conversation at a later date.

Agreed. Will do.

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