There are roughly 400,000 current residents in the city of New Orleans, all living in a place I can’t picture or really imagine, because I’ve never visited there; I’ve never even been to the state. It’s an iconic place, and so I recognize it as a metaphor maybe, or a vacation destination. I suppose I think of Mardi Gras, of hurricanes breaching flood walls, of heat and jazz and Bourbon Street, but all of this is in the abstract, gathered through exposure to tourism advertising, television shows, the occasional film. What I don’t picture in my mind are the artists who are working there – and so when Emilie Whelan approached Culturebot with regard to possible coverage for a fairly new (in its second year) performance residency program called THE DISTILLERY, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to expand and complicate the New Orleans that exists fantastically and inaccurately in my mind.
There are currently nine residency-type programs in the city, which speaks to a certain dedication and desire on the city’s part to cater to its artists at home. Emilie, the overseer of the residency, expands on this observation: “There is a history of New Orleans artists thinking they have to leave the city for visibility. Or, never leaving the city and in fact being secret treasure only for the locals here to know (which is a cred in its own way…) New Orleans is in a newer rhythm of crafting new performance here at home while fostering regional and national networks. So this context does seem important, and we could frame a few interviews with the artists within this…? Brendan Connelly and Scotty Heron would be incredible artists to speak to about how they work (insane). Bonnie Gabel is using her time to organize multiple oral histories of “Dyke Bars” in New Orleans and its once radical subculture. Kesha McKey exploring Southern Black female bodies in dance next to the iconic Saartjie Baartman narrative would also benefit from the conversation of what it is to develop the work at home, in the South right now.” So… that’s what I did. I interviewed three of the artists who are currently participating in THE DISTILLERY residency, and here are their stories, told via a virtual (self guided) tour of the place itself.
“You might be hoping for a poetic image of a special spot on the Mississippi river, or a crumbling corner of a cemetery, or a cat’s claw covered vacant lot in the back of the ghetto…” – this is Scotty Heron, a dance-maker, on his favorite New Orleans location – “…but my honest answer, for today anyway, is right here in my bed, where I am now, windows shades drawn, air conditioner cranked and a fan blowing on me! Summer is HELL!!” Scott isn’t used to the heat because he’s transplant, not a native. He kicked around New York for twelve years (working at esteemed venues such as PS 122, Movement Research, DTW, and the Kitchen, to name a few) prior to ‘getting a bug up his ass’ that led him to a sudden lifestyle change via queer commune in Tennessee, where he did all the things you can’t in Manhattan: Gardening, cooking (well maybe if you have a good-sized NYC kitchen), homesteading, living in the woods, and dancing in the weeds. I’ll let him take over from here. “Five years into that I fell in love and decided to go to New Orleans sight-unseen with my partner who had been there before. I realized I could buy a house with commercial space and a studio for $40,000, and could make all the money I needed juggling and stilt walking, making fake Mardi-Gras year round for conventioneers and corporate clients. So here I am 13 years later.”
Other circuitous routes keep the artists from ever entirely leaving. Kesha McKey, choreographer-in-residence and New Orleans native, is in some ways Scott’s opposite in terms of trajectory. Upon learning that she had attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for grad school (a place I had been, being myself from Minnesota), I asked her what brought her back to New Orleans after that experience. “This was actually a low-residency program which allowed me to be in Milwaukee during the summer and in New Orleans during the rest of the year to continue my work as an educator and artist,” Kesha explained. “So, I experienced (in my opinion) the best part of Milwaukee; the summer!! (I hate cold weather!) The summers were absolutely beautiful and the art community there was alive and very exciting; lots of performances and festivals. It was truly inspiring; however, I never had any intention of not returning home. I was born and raised in New Orleans and my culture and community is an important part of my life; especially since hurricane Katrina. I pursued an MFA of course for self growth, but also to share my experience and all that I learned with my students and colleagues.”
(photo by Kesha McKey, of the lakefront)
Picture her telling you this from one of her favorite places in the city – possibly the lakefront, or if perhaps you’re at a lunch meeting with her, the Jasmine cafe. “My timing could not have been better,” she continues. “It seems that as soon as I enrolled in school, new arts organizations emerged and opportunities for dance began to arise in the city. The dance community was finally getting the booster shot it needed to become viable and competitive with other cities, and I was able to contribute with my choreographic works and productions. People are drawn to New Orleans for the spirit, culture and sense of community that continues to facilitate the cultivation of resilience within the people of this city. Although there are many struggles, there still remains a sense of freedom exhibited through cultural practices. For example, the second line. When someone of status (in the family or community) dies, they are usually sent off with a jazz funeral. The funeral service culminates with a second line – a celebratory expression of this person’s life through music and movement. Although the family may be in pain and experiencing grief, second line celebrations are used to dance away the sorrow and focus on the all the good memories and the life they lived. A practice of freedom – in movement, music, love, pain and culture.”
We take leave of Kesha on the lakefront momentarily to visit Bonnie on the bayou. Bonnie Gabel, also an artist in residence, is making a performance piece focused on the disappearing lesbian spaces in New Orleans, of which this particular bayou (named bayou St. John) is one. “There used to be a porch swing by it that I totally love, but that came down in Hurricane Isaac and hasn’t showed back up yet. It runs right through 70119 – the Lesbian zip code (or so I’ve been told). Walking down the bayou at night sometimes it seems like we do have a dyke bar still, it’s right there. Queer couples are often sitting on the banks, just talking.”
(Bonnie Gabel – Photo by Erin Roussel)
Bonnie, who lives near this bayou, reflects on her project at large. “I’m working on a piece with Last Call: The New Orleans Dyke Bar History Project. It is a performance celebration of the disappearing lesbian spaces in New Orleans. At one time there were as many as eight bars open at one time, now there are none. Bars have historically functioned as community centers for queer and trans people who were often shunned by their families. New Orleans has an especially rich history, as it has been a haven for LGBTQ people from all over the South for generations.”
Working in the tradition of queer performance, Bonnie’s work strives to include drag, cabaret, and interdisciplinary explorations that blur the distinction between theater, dance, and visual art, and uses oral histories as source material. “Alda Talley, an older friend, told us about her experiences in the bars and connected us with other people who had stories. Since the spring of 2013 we have interviewed more than 15 people from lesbian communities in New Orleans and the project has grown, slowly and steadily. We take pride in our thoughtful, deliberate approach to Last Call. The project has inspired numerous sources of art, including a digital archive of full-length interviews; a series of curated podcasts featuring these interviews (which you can listen to at lastcallnola.podboan.com); a live performance using archival material, dance and music to honor these stories; and a historical map.”
(photo by Emilie Whelan)
Back at On Piety in the Marigny, which is one Emilie’s all-time favorite NOLA locations and also a place where you can order something called a ‘snowball,’, she explains a bit more about how the residency functions and helps bring artists together. “The residency is process focused with an interdisciplinary bent: what happens (for example) when a puppeteer and a sound designer share/exchange processes?”
Scotty, huddled (perhaps, as I picture him from afar) in his darkened a/c-blasted bedroom, expands on the nature of his collaboration: “Brendan Connelly, my collaborator, is also a New Orleans based artist with a toe in New York. Last year we were having a chit-chat about the moribundity of my career and then a couple days later we crossed emails with the brilliant idea that we do a project together! So we decided to do a project. We got together and realized that we both played clarinets as kids. We were both fascinated by our mutual history of choosing the dorkiest, least butch band instrument option (well, flute might be even farther in the direction). This is where we started. We started rehearsing with our clarinets. Shortly thereafter — and I have no idea how we got there — we started thinking about Americana, Ken Burns’ telling of the Civil War, the classic music/dance collaboration of Martha Graham and Aaron Copeland and the hanamichi of Kabuki theater.
My most confident mode as a dance maker is as a soloist, but I like to have someone on stage doing things with me. I am a choreographer but I don’t count, or set movement exactly. My structures give me challenges to accomplish on stage. I definitely know what I’m trying to do it but not how to do it. (We could go into more detail about how this is and is not improvisation.) So I like to have a musician, not as composer, but as another presence supporting and challenging my process on stage. Brendan is a brilliant specimen of what I need and want in a collaborator. He is a composer, instrumentalist, noise maker, band member, fancy sound designer. As we’ve been making this piece we have acknowledged and flirted with the many ways musicians and dancers collaborate. We boss each other around and both say “yes” as often as possible. I use his body theatrically when I need it. He uses my meager musical skills to form a noise ensemble with him. We bumble around in slow motion in a minefield of contact mics run through cheesy guitar effects pedals. We are disciplined and earnest. We are clowns. We are both making beauty and ugliness pretty much all the time while pretending to consider all our heavy source material but mostly interested in making an absurd, surprise filled dream play. First stop is Bryant-Lake Bowl in Minneapolis later this month (http://www.bryantlakebowl.com/theater/appalachian-spring-break) and then Jack (ed. note – where I will plan on seeing it!) in Brooklyn in December.”
We end our tour outside the Palace Movie Theater with Kesha, who likes to go there on her (most likely) rare opportunities to unwind. She’s talking about what brought her and her project to THE DISTILLERY: “So, I started working on this concept in 2010 with the first draft being a piece called Distorted Images that premiered in a self-produced concert at the CAC. It was basically a statement about media perception of African American female body image and sexuality. In the summer of 2012 I was accepted into graduate school, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and decided to re-stage the work– draft #2– as a part of my composition class. Here is where the story of Saartjie Baartman and the historical perception of African and African American female body image and sexuality began to influence the piece. This draft premiered in 2012 at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts in a self-produced concert. Three years later, still feeling the need to delve a little deeper into this work, I have the opportunity as well as the necessary support and funding from The Distillery to further develop the piece.”
Incorporating live music accompaniment, spoken text and media projections, her piece focuses on the exhibition of the black female body, the establishment of European ideas of black female sexuality, and the representation of savage sexuality, degradation and racial inferiority among black women, and prompts the following questions: In a hyper masculine society, to what extent to black women control their images? Are the sexual portrayals for celebrities liberating or damaging to the image of black women?
I ask her how it feels to be making the work now with THE DISTILLERY. “This process has been completely therapeutic for myself as well as the dancers. We have had several discussions on these issues and how they affect us personally and it has dredged up memories of life experiences from which we may or may not have healed. It is very personal work and it feels so empowering to have the opportunity to share.”
And with that, she goes inside, the whoosh of air conditioning escaping just a little, and I take my leave of virtual New Orleans – I still haven’t been, but now I want to go see all this work being made, all these habitual locations, the town seen all the more vividly through artists’ eyes.
Learn more about THE DISTILLERY residency here.