Nadia Tykulsker / Spark(edIt) Arts and Katie Dean & Heather Bregman @ Triskelion Arts
Last weekend I crashed Nadia Tykulsker (Spark(edIt) Arts) and Katie Dean & Heather Bregman’s rehearsals to chat with them about Nadia’s Sheathings from a Steep Slope and Katie & Heather’s HERE I AM AGAIN ALONE AGAIN. Their works are sharing a split program at Triskelion Arts this weekend.
I saw an earlier version of Nadia’s work in November, when most of the thematic material had been developed but she was still experimenting with structure. With performers Tara Sheena, Aya Wilson, and EmmaGrace Skove-Epes, she has created a self-contained world that feels nonsensical and familiar, inhabited by three fully differentiated “creatures.” They interact in a series of brief and intense episodes, some incorporating text and voice, in a physical language that is weird and rhythmic and loving and violent. Nadia is interested in directing inward explorations — she’s comfortable not fully knowing the creatures that her performers have developed. I ask about who the creatures are and she responds that “they know quite a bit about themselves and how they interact with the others. They have the same perception of each other as we do of them.” Are they non-human creatures? “Maybe.” Early on, she was concerned with the invention “their biological habits: how do they eat, sleep, breathe, fuck? How do they survive?” and moved on to “hours and hours of improvisations observing each other and creating relationships.”
I haven’t seen it yet, but the whole cast is excited about the set piece(s), described as “the nest,” created in collaboration with designer Hiroko Ishikawa. “Hiroko created the visual end of this world in a way that I’m just so trusting of. The way it looks is really about her and her mind — that’s what been so exciting.” I wonder about the point in the process at which the idea of an elaborate built environment entered in; was it a mid-rehearsal-process epiphany or was it a reality from the beginning? “The entire time there was a world they were living in. It started as a kind of weird, rolling, thing that moved around the space and later became more of a home base. They enter from and exit into it.” She is keen to keep most information about the nest under wraps: “it feels like a special thing for people to experience when they come.” She is also protective of the final form of “the gifts,” individual tokens delivered one by one by the dancers with a heartfelt “this is for you.” In November these were small silky gilded leaves, but their final version is more involved and precious. The objects come off of the creatures’ bodies as a sort of extension of them — we’re not quite sure yet whether the gesture functions to invite us into their world or keep us at arms length as the receivers of this experience.
On her relationship to the creatures (as instigator but non-participant), Nadia says, “I can say ‘this person is this to me,’ but I can never know what she is to herself. That’s how this world can continue to be new every time — they are learning new things about themselves and each other.” That feels like the strongest thread between this world and our world; the environment, behavior, and biology are invented but relationships work in the same way. Each connection between “creatures” is unique, changeable, and inaccessible to others. These are not creatures that I recognize but maybe I recognize them just as well as I recognize people I don’t know. Maybe this invented ecology is just as reliable as the social structure we think provides us with information about strangers.
I tell her that watching Sheathings feels like looking into a complete world, shrunken. “I think that is what this is,” she agrees. Given a few days of distance, though, I partly take that back. The experience feels bigger than watching an imagined reality in a petri dish — it’s not like looking in on a world sealed off from ours. We don’t understand their behaviors / motives and the sensation is like being transplanted into a foreign culture. Their languages are meaningful gibberish; we strongly recognize emotion. We don’t understand them but we definitely empathize.
In contrast to Nadia’s intensive residency-based rehearsal process, the making of Katie Dean & Heather Bregman’s HERE I AM AGAIN ALONE AGAIN took place mostly online / via phone; Katie lives in Brooklyn and Heather is first mate on a ship docking in the British Virgin Islands. Katie comes from a dance background and has been working for several years with extended media and visual arts, and Heather comes from a sculpture background, working frequently in performance and on multimedia video/sound projects. Neither have settled on a name for what they are doing: “I feel like we keep picking different titles for every show…dancer, sculptor, performance artist, movement artist…” says Katie. Heather adds that though her training in sculpture is based on form, she’s lately felt “more of a connection to working with movement and choreography. I don’t want to leave my past behind; my viewpoint is still always about objects in space.”
Like Sheathings, HERE I AM involves a large central set piece, here in the form of a dark metal scaffolding-like structure. “The dance and the sculpture really inform each other and were built up and around each other. We weren’t interested in making a set piece to go with a dance,” says Katie.
To generate movement vocabulary, they each rehearsed alone, Katie in studios in New York and Heather alone on empty beaches, swimming to land in the early morning before the crew members woke up so she could “practice without eyes.” Katie reflects on her experiences “renting out a studio to build a fort and lay on the ground,” and learning to be kind to herself when she’s more distracted alone than while rehearsing with others. She set up sensory deprivation meditations, burrowing into dark forts with a soundtrack of forest sounds, allowing herself to come out only once she’s started to believe she’s really in the woods. We talk about the discipline required to make oneself follow through on self-administered experiments when you’re uncertain and your collaborator isn’t there to weigh in. Whereas Heather’s rehearsal circumstances were somewhat outside her control, Katie’s solo practice involved observing physical responses to her self-constructed environments.
Katie shows me a segment of a solo that is urgent and strained but somehow aloof. She shares that “casualism” has been an overarching topic of their study. “We talk about these opposing rhythms; is it possible to have a sense of anxiousness but within a relaxed state? Structuring a casualness into what we make has been something that keeps coming up.” They also talk about the idea of the “wild body” as a departure from where we are now or a return to somewhere else: “can we put our bodies in a space that doesn’t feel learned?” There is a definite throughline in their work of raw versus controlled or wild versus mediated. They are both working with ideas of returning to the not-built and not-learned, rehearsing to sounds of waves and woods, and yet the thing that made their partnership possible is Skype.
Finally able to rehearse in person, they are relieved to feel like their experiment worked: they were mutually anxious about how their work would transfer to real life, but so far feel like the interface they were having remotely wasn’t an on-screen illusion. “The work really spawned out of our friendship,” Heather says. “Our personal connection is embedded in everything, from us constantly checking in with each other in so many ways and on multiple levels.”
Developing a shared language took on extra significance when they couldn’t communicate physically in person. They maintained a shared Google doc (a journal / rehearsal log hybrid) with visual references, written responses to each others’ rehearsal videos, and documentation of personal musings. As an outsider, it’s often unclear whose writing is whose. They were able to share very intimately with each other but semi-anonymously, protecting each others’ vulnerability. Togetherness vs. solitude has been a driving concept in their work and is reflected in the title. Heather explains: “It came about as something our friends would say, ‘here I am again alone again,’ like a funny moment of reflection on a feeling of isolation and solitude. And then with my geographical location, alone on a boat or always with people I don’t know, I had that ‘alone in a crowd’ feeling a lot. We’re Interested in what happens in that headspace, in that stifling aloneness. Can we create that space while working alone?”
Besides names of sections (“earthworm,” “hair waves,” “arm lines”), they don’t really share a vocabulary related to their work. I ask them if any aspects feel individually owned given their differences in education and genre, and they respond that they barely taught each other any of their un-shared skills. “It was more about giving feedback and sequencing together; ‘this is right because it’s what you created.’ Our processes are intuitively connected despite our different backgrounds.”