Tatyana Tenenbaum’s Modal Investigations

In rehearsal for "Private Country". Photo: Colin Nusbaum

In rehearsal for “Private Country”. Photo: Colin Nusbaum

Next week, Tatyana Tenenbaum’s Private Country will premiere at The Chocolate Factory Theater, running from October 30th to November 2nd. The work is nearly three years in the making, Tenenbaum having begun initial investigations during her 2010-11 Fresh Tracks residency. I’ve had the opportunity to attend open showings of the work in development on two occasions over this period, seeing different small parts each time—I feel the work has been progressing invisibly in my imagination while it works itself out in a variety of real-life studios. In a certain sense, imagination has an important role in how I have responded to the work in its unfinished iterations, because, to be up front, there have been important parts of the material that I didn’t have the skillset to access. What does that mean? It means, I think, that this work is exploring territory that hasn’t been mapped yet, and even experienced performance practitioners are going to be pushed to attend to all the levels the work is operating on. I spoke with Tenenbaum last week on this and other topics, to try and get a fuller idea of what we might encounter when we journey into this territory in the coming days.

On a basic level, it’s easy enough to say that this work is investigating music and dance. Certainly not an unheard of task, but my impression is that, in Private Country, music and dance are not being approached as entirely distinct entities that must somehow be made to relate. Rather, both are viewed as already implicated in one another, as though different manifestations of the same originary source. Though again, it would be simplistic to identify that source only as “the body”. The history of American musical theater has been an important investigation in creating this work as well. Music as narrative, with a storytelling structure and conventions developed through tradition, is as much a source as a dance-centric idea of music as emanating from a moving body. And dance can be propelled from a narrative source as well.

The question though, is what does one need to observe and follow these various layers and interactions? A frequent charge against dance (especially of the contemporary variety) is that audiences are unable to read it, feel they need to know too much—or at least more than they do—in order to follow it. Tenenbaum is complicating this further by layering modalities, such that it becomes difficult to imagine an audience that could be fluent in the various languages the work speaks in. She is certainly aware of this: “I don’t feel like there is a genre for what I’m making. I don’t feel like I fit in.” But rather than feeling sequestered, building a way to produce the work has been part of the process, “What do I do when my audience does not have the background to observe the ‘shared perceptual frameworks’ I am investigating?  I am very aware that I have to make a group of people to work with, and make a community to view it. What I’m really doing with my work, what I’m investigating, nobody else seems to be engaging with. I feel I have to define that. How do I get people to listen? How do I get people to see?”

The relationship between listening and seeing has been part of the research of the work, research that itself followed multiple parallel lines. The six performers—Tenenbaum, her brother Ezra Tenenbaum, Talya Epstein, Laurel Snyder, Peter Sciscioli, and Odeya Nini—each come to the work with different trainings and backgrounds, and thus address the investigation from different standpoints. Epstein and Snyder primarily work in downtown dance, Sciscioli and Nini in a number of experimental vocal groups, and Ezra Tenenbaum is a musician and sound engineer. Private Country will feature three central duets, with the pairs approaching different aspects of the sound-movement relation from their respective technical backgrounds (the dancers are paired, as are the singers, with the siblings forming a third pair).

The process has delivered a number of successes in developing unique techniques for this layered exploration. One example brought up during our conversation was the use of timbre—the quality or character of a sound, distinct from its pitch or volume; or, as a composer friend once described it to me, “the ‘sound’ of the sound”—in both the music and the body. “Timbre is a huge part of my work. I see timbre in the body, the way we often talk about tone—muscle tone—in the sense of how weight moves through the body. So tone is not a fixed quality, but more like a dial that you can turn up or down. Each sound has a different timbre in the body—some require a lot of muscle to access the sound. Others are more open—‘Ah’ is the most open sound, requires the least muscle tension, for example. In one section with Talya and Laurel, we have worked for a year and a half on the same piece of music, opening up this particular timbre in their chest. It’s the same piece of music it was a year and a half ago, but it sounds so much different now. This change is totally physical, and it’s also musical.”

More broadly, the work has explored how the various modalities it engages interact in terms of primacy and focus. “There are simultaneous layers—a text, a musical structure, and a physical structure—and at any moment any one of those can dominate. I think in my past works everything was a bit mushy with respect to the various parts—music wasn’t too dominant, movement wasn’t too dominant, it was all melting into a puddle. Now, I’m trying to create an experience where at one moment you are listening, and then you find yourself watching, and you don’t remember the moment when you switched from listening to watching. Or the shift can be sharp and distinct. So I’ve been working to be able to produce a unified gesture, where sound and movement work together, but also be able to separate them at will.”

Photo: Colin Nusbaum

Photo: Colin Nusbaum

There is much more to expect in this work than the sound-body relationship that has caught my attention—Tenenbaum has already written a wonderfully detailed narrative of the various influences and experiences that have been at play for her throughout the creation of this work. And while there may be few people in the audience with the broad background to follow every line of the work, this is another situation hardly unique to this work. Moreover, among the many reasons that musical theater has been a focus of the process, one conscious aspect has been the form’s broad audience, “This is one reason that musical theater is appealing: it’s so accessible.” The sense is that the work will challenge its audience by drawing them in, introducing unfamiliar modalities, broadening their scope of observation.

“I really hope that people can experience this work as something that falls in-between their modalities. And hopefully, if it works, then they can listen, physically.”

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