Interior Viewing: Four Performers Discuss Work from the Inside
This month, Brooklyn-based choreographer Nadia Tykulsker and her collective, Spark(edIt) Arts, will debut a pair of performance endeavors. The first is a new work, Saw You Yesterday, made for four dancers atop a continuously spinning platform. The second is a new curatorial initiative, Soft Openings, which will showcase the in-process work of Tykulsker alongside fellow dance makers Tyler Ashley and Saul Ulerio at Triskelion Arts.
While eating pizza following a recent rehearsal, the four performers—Katie Dean, Tara Sheena, Brandon Washington and Aya Wilson— spoke about this work’s unique development; finding themselves inside Tykulsker’s eccentric worlds; and the impending fear of dancing on a rotating stage. Excerpts of their conversation are below.
Tara Sheena: We all have such different ways in to Nadia’s work. The four of us have not had time or space to talk about that in general. I’ve worked with Nadia for over three years now, four or five including time in college [at the University of Michigan]. When I come to her work now, I come to it with a lot of healthy skepticism about what’s going on in the room. She sets up really rich improvisational tasks and scenes. Her framework is always deliberate and absurd at the same time. Recently, she’s been really interested in creating these impossible situations and seeing where we land within them. With that, there is also a really structured investment in the dance. Sometimes what sticks with me is her offhand comment about work that day or something in the news that she brings up. That always changes my dancing and my approach to what she does. What I am learning about her personally, emotionally, aesthetically feeds into how I respond to her in the studio choreographically.
Katie Dean: I think there’s a flurry of information that’s happening all the time while she is making a dance. It feels like the work that she is making is her brain laid out on the stage. I think that’s why it’s really personal to her but the work doesn’t necessarily feel emotional in that way.
Brandon Washington: I think she has a very deliberate plan when she comes into rehearsal. Somehow, it makes sense in her head because that’s what she’s used to and somehow that’s also an access point for me. I can relate on that level just from having outside conversations about our love lives or work. And then it’s able to be incorporated in the studio and I see that in this piece.
TS: I also admire that willingness to throw it all out there. I appreciate how Nadia doesn’t prioritize what is “work” or “rehearsal” over what is personal for her. I think her idea of that sacred space [of rehearsal] is more expansive.
KD: In this piece specifically, she is making this highly graphical, Tetris game for us. And then she explodes it. The piece is really tightly wound and I feel like with all of the information that comes in there is a potential that it will loosen or it will bend. There are always additional layers of intention or task-based work that she adds and that allows for a lot of freedom within it.
Aya Wilson: She has such clear images in her head and, in some ways, she’s very direct with what kinds of scenes she wants to create. But, within that, there’s always a playground. The scene she sets up sometimes is so wild and fantastical that you can’t help but have the freedom to play and be wild in it yourself.
TS: With Nadia’s work I’ve totally given up on trying to imagine this from the outside because it is such a play space and so malleable…
AW: And, [viewing it from the outside] would be limiting in some ways.
TS: Do you mean because that would bring in judgment?
AW: She’s on this yellow brick road. And, if you go off somewhere else, you may not find it again.
TS: That’s so true. That sums it up.
KD: I watched the video of what we made in Connecticut [on a residency a few weeks prior] and the video uploaded to my computer upside down, so it was us as well as our reflections in the studio mirror. And, even a static image of that video was incomprehensible…there was way too much information happening. A lot of Nadia’s choreography is working with the idea of how to sort too much information. As an audience member, if you’re given too much information to process, what do you choose to rely on? What do you choose to keep?
TS: When you’re seeing anything that’s so disordered your brain is automatically going to make order out of something you see. That approach makes sense to me even though I’ve never seen Nadia’s work from the outside.
BW: I am sure there is going to be so many story lines floating around for this piece.
TS: Altered states have been a big fascination for Nadia in this piece. We’ve had many different approaches in the studio and that’s where a lot of our movement has come from. Though, I don’t even know if I think of this work as “altered states” because I don’t know if we fully altered our states in rehearsal. [Note: In rehearsals the performers developed movement through a series of improvisations based on various attempts to alter their states, including sucking on lemons for twenty minutes, shining a flashlight over closed eyes, chopping onions, continuously complimenting each other, and forcefully trying to knock each other to the ground.]
AW: We pushed ourselves to uncomfortable places, though. We could imagine those places.
KD: I am trying to think if any of the “state” work that we did was pleasurable. There were things that we did to recover from the un-pleasurable things, like massaging each other.
BW: But, how many pleasurable altered states are there? There’s less to play with. Like when we were complimenting each other nonstop, it was a little challenging for me since I had just met you all. As opposed to getting thrown around by you three…
KD: It is somehow more comfortable to beat up someone you don’t know that well than to say in an earnest way, “I think you’re really beautiful,” or “I love your sweater.” It’s easier to be really physical than to be earnest.
TS: I felt similarly and I am wondering if that’s more because we are nice people in everyday life and there is more aggression we need to get out of our systems. It felt good to have that excuse. Anger and confrontation is an easier emotional state to access just because I think it has fewer dimensions than happiness or elation. Also, portraying positive feelings in performance tends to be kind of boring. If I think of a really exciting performance, it’s physically charged and it’s coming from an extreme, emotional place that is not happiness, per se.
AW: Or, it’s something that’s really risky. I also wonder if these tasks could’ve been done over a longer span of time. Throughout your day, once every ten minutes we could eat a lemon and explore what that would do over a period of time. I went through stages with it; the lemon was super sour at first, then my entire mouth went raw, and then everything tasted really salty for a while.
TS: Even though it was so unenjoyable, all of those experiments were generative in terms of movement. Plus, the failure of that was really essential because we all definitely failed at it.
KD: Nadia was saying that she doesn’t really see this piece in a proscenium setting but I was wondering if you had thoughts on where this piece would be?
BW: I like the idea of opening the up the space as well as the audience being allowed to move freely. I just don’t know how many people would be willing to move around the space for the duration of the piece. Or, having the seating in the round as we spin on the Lazy Susan would create a cool effect.
TS: I have not even processed the fact that we are going to be performing on a supersized Lazy Susan. The only time I’ve ever been on something like that was on my elementary school playground where there was a Lazy Susan type structure you could spin on. I keep thinking of that; this piece should be outdoors, randomly propped in the middle of a baseball field somewhere.
KD: Also, I like the idea of the Lazy Susan continuously stopping and starting again.
AW: And, that’s more realistic to what a Lazy Susan is. It stops in specific positions and that’s the view of it for that moment.
TS: I like the fact that whoever is viewing me is stationary and I will come to them when I come to them. What you see is what you get.
AW: There is freedom in what you see and, yet, not really.
BW: If we were in a position to be on the Lazy Susan as it stops and starts, maybe the audience could take turns spinning it. The switching of people who were cranking it would create natural pauses in the work.
TS: How do you all describe Nadia’s work to people who haven’t seen it?
KD: She is static on your TV meets a unicorn meets the classified ads. Plus, whimsy and weight.
BW: The work is specific. It has a purposeful chaos. It’s a chaos where we still know what’s going on within it.
TS: Controlled chaos. There is a constant change of state and physicality that I feel like I don’t have complete control over.
KD: There is a lot of autonomy. We are all given autonomy to orchestrate what we want to.
TS: I feel like offering autonomy is something she is moving towards more and more. In her work from a few years ago, it seemed like she was more interested in a collective, mob mentality and how that shapes her choreography; either how scary that can be or how robotic it can be. She used to be concerned with unison and narrative a lot more, for instance. Now I think she has a great reliance on the performers to just be themselves in the work.
Soft Openings runs December 18th and 19th at Triskelion Arts. More information here.
[Original art work inspired by Saw You Yesterday / gif design: Katie Dean]