Maria Bauman talks about “dying and dying and dying”
Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center opens its season this week with Maria Bauman’s dying and dying and dying. As part of a year-long Gibney Dance Community Action artist residency, she also conducted public workshops, gatherings and panel discussions both solo and with ACRE (Artists Co-Creating Real Equity), the collective of which she is a co-founder. The performances (Thu-Sat 8pm), are accompanied by a gallery installation entitled To Rest. The cast includes Maria Bauman, Courtney Cook, Valerie Ifill, Audrey Hailes, and Alicia Raquel with sound and design collaborators Ganessa James, Nicole Cameron, and Ryan Michael Tuerk.
Maria’s March work Passages at BAAD was a highlight of my spring viewing. She channels her particularly singular strength into group works ripe with grace and humanity. She can mobilize and organize with a humbling energy and clarity, but she is also a grounding witness. The press release for dying and dying and dying points to her consideration of how yogis practice dying in Savasana, corpse pose, but also highlighted that the overwhelming deaths of Black people at the hands of police has kept mortality persistently in question. However, Maria’s artistry insists that the work not delve into ethereal or didactic realms. She mines struggle and loss and uncovers gems of strength in community. I am grateful to be her colleague at Hunter College once more, as she has returned to set rep on students, teach technique and lead through a compassionate and rigorous example. Last week, somehow, we managed to catch a fleeting moment in the faculty “lounge” to check in.
What prompted this piece about endings and death?
I feel that this piece came to me as a teacher. I’ve not had a lifelong interest in death. But, both of my grandfathers passed away within a year of one another. It was really interesting to observe, particularly when my paternal grandfather passed away, I was right in the middle of a lot and I felt a lot of pressure from other people saying “can’t you just finish this one thing and then go to Georgia?” And, it was this moment when I was needing to push my kinesphere away from me and say “back up, I am going to Georgia now, and everything just has to pause.” It wasn’t that everything had to stop forever, but it did have to pause.
I didn’t start to make the piece then, but the seed was planted and kept germinating. I started thinking about when we get to stop. If not then, when someone’s life ends, if even then we keep giving ourselves empathed pressures to keep going, what is that? Is it pathological? Is it brave? So, I started studying cycles and thinking about all kinds of endings. What other kinds of endings need time? The piece is really about cycles and how capitalism plays into that. I feel that it all feeds into that production mode.
I feel that dying and dying and dying has forced me to cultivate the part of me that does take time to pause. That is why I feel that the work has come to guide me as much as it came to me to be created. In the making of the piece, it has been a real blessing because I’ve gotten in touch with my ancestors more. I thought, if I was really pressured to do this “out of sight out of mind” thing with an ending – to not make space and not take time for it – what if I didn’t. It’s a question. The piece became a series of questions that I tried to address through my body and the other cast member’s bodies. If I feel this pressure to constantly recover, what if I didn’t? What if I took time? What if I just took out the picture of the person I’m named after… Maria Ascension. And sit with her or ask questions of the people who are still alive? So, we did that? There’s a circle of photographs in the middle of the stage. They’re not props, they are items that that remind us of our ancestors.
The ancestor component is interesting. We have a little altar that we have to keep adding to. Ancestor worship is an important part of Vietnamese and Chinese cultures, but it doesn’t feel integrated into my daily life. I’m curious what activating a connection with ancestors did for your process and the cast. We tap into it as artists, but we don’t often speak it.
When you think about the root structures beneath a plant, the thing that supports the work but that the audience doesn’t see. I would say that root structure is the underside. That is why I say this piece is a teacher, everything has added to my life. One day the cast had a group text going around and everybody ended up sending photos of their altars, because we were talking about it in rehearsal, but now it was part of our daily and that’s not on the stage, but I think “thank you whoever put this piece in my brain.”
I appreciate that there is a whole other part to the work that isn’t about public presentation, that it is important in other spheres, that feels anti-capitalist, shared but not for sale. The capitalism thing is really important to me because of this idea of the human as a product, and the idea of productivity that we’re all stuck inside of. Dying means you are not productive.
As I thought about death and endings, during the early stages of my creative process for dying and dying and dying, I flowered a paper with free associations around the word death. Soon, I had created a giant vining matrix of word bubbles across the page that included “cycle,” “pause,” and “space.” I considered each word and asked myself what its opposite is. I was surprised to discover that the opposite words and phrases I came up with (ie. “fitting more in to a space,” “filling time up,” “mania,” and “constant motion/constant production”) reminded me not of life–death’s dictionary-opposite–but of capitalism. I am still fascinated by how notions of efficiency, productivity, replicability, and tangibility influence my daily life even when no one else is around, even when I’m not at “work.” With dying and dying and dying, I explored slowing down in the creation and rehearsal process, prioritizing the intangible nature of relationships among collaborators, and listening more to the feeling-tone in the dancing than to the tangible result of it. It was a great experiment, and life lesson, to try on ways of being that are not governed by factory mentality. It wasn’t easy, but the performers and I talk constantly about how much trying on “being” instead of “doing” has added sweetness and another layer of authenticity to our lives. And of course, I can not ignore that as a Black woman, my body has been capitalized on, sold for capital, and treated as a reproducible monetary resource via rape, overwork, and enslavement. I’m greatly indebted to and influenced by Audre Lorde who once wrote “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” In that spirit, it feels to me like righteous resistance to destabilize capitalism within my own body and to invite other people of color in to that process with me.
There’s also this idea that death is still in the closet. When my grandmother died in Vietnam, I was there and she stayed in the house with us. You don’t separate the body from the family. She went into that simple box, we didn’t pump her full of chemicals, she stayed with us and the village dug the hole and the we buried her. It was a natural cycle. But, that’s not my experience as an American. Death is in the closet. We don’t spend time with it.
I am amazed that we have precious few grieving rituals here in the U.S. That is not to say that we don’t mourn or that all ritual is erased, but in the dominant culture here ways of marking cycles and endings are being eroded and erased. In my research I found that people across the globe wail, perform obeisance to deceased parents, get drunk and channel gatekeepers to the other-world, celebrate the dead with marigolds and tangible items, and many other forms of marking passage. Our rituals of embalming and buttoned-up funerals point to our denial of death. Rather than letting go, preservation is prioritized–and only to an extent. When my grandfathers crossed over, I felt small and large pressures to move on, move forward, keep going. I say death is happening all the time. Various endings abound in my life each day and I want to see them. I had a dream about one of my ancestors, and that was actually one of the most potent seeds that helped me grow this new piece. In my dream, a beautiful old woman who is close to me had three eyes and a tattoo inside of her mouth. She was so smart and was coming to check on me. She asked how many hearts I have. In that dream, I answered as honestly as I could and said “four…maybe five.” Somehow, in the dream realm, we both knew that there is a possibility of having seven hearts although we also knew that most people only fathom one heart. And so as she left, affirming and kind the whole time, I knew that I have room to grow. There is another dream that is important. Before my paternal grandfather died, I was in a great practice with my wellness rituals and I felt clear and open. I don’t often have premonitions, but in that open state I had a dream that he passed away before he actually did. So, I have to pull death out of the closet. If we are in constant denial of death and otherworldliness then I must deny the real (and intangible) people who have walked this planet before me and who are checking on me, sharing with me, and helping co-create. In dying and dying and dying, we practice suspending our denial.