Fault Lines Tremble: A Conversation with Tatyana Tenenbaum

With performance, as in non-performance dailyness, we are engulfed in a culture that prioritizes a distancing from our own humanity. It’s why we praise innovation over tradition; smartphones over small talk; and predicting the future rather than recalling the past. It’s why we have #MotivationMonday and apps on our phones that tell us when, how, and why to eat, sleep, and shit. It’s why we scroll through Instagram to connect with our social communities rather than stroll through their neighborhood.

And, regarding Instagram. In the insidious void of social media, with its relentless scroll motion and continuous content, it can be difficult to locate a meaningful clearing. That’s just…not the point, right?

Tatyana Tenenbaum is an artist whom I would never distill down to the sums of her social media parts. But, a recent Instagram post struck me in a way that stung unexpectedly; a pang totally antithetical — or so I thought — to the void itself. She drew me out of my obligatory scroll, my thumb stirring the screen lightly and steadily, to reckon with her distinct moment of self-excavation. A very real set of reflections and thoughtful observations laid before me. Before all of us. Onscreen…live, and in color.

I met with Tenenbaum to talk about this particular reckoning — which appeared on my screen but is many years in the making — further proving its revelatory sensibility amidst the quick-release time capsule that is my Instagram feed. We spoke about history, racism, sounds, bodies, consciousness, Sondheim, and more, and how that all connects to her newest work, Untitled Work for Voice, which premieres at Danspace Project this week. Below are excerpts of our conversation.

The performers of Untitled Work for Voice, 2018, L to R: Marissa Clementi, Jules Skloot, Emily Moore, Tatyana Tenenbaum, and Pareena Lim. Photo by Liz Charky.

Regarding her approach to sounding and the body:

Tara Sheena: I am curious how you choose to talk about the voice and body. I have heard many people talk about this in ways that make it seem novel or compartmentalized, so I want to hear from you. You know? Because it’s like the the narratives that people choose to tell about your work if you don’t intervene in that; I’ve seen that happen with your work.

Tatyana Tenenbaum: Yes, I’ve had to do a lot of intervening. But, I feel really grateful because I feel at the entry point of this work [Untitled Work for Voice], I had already done a lot of labor to convince people that this was a viable choreography. This was choreography, this was dance, this was research. That was a five-year process for me. In the middle of [2013 work] Private Country, when the vocal practice started getting mapped in a very real way, it was energy mapped. The great thing about [this work] and what you will see about the dancers is that mapping. We talk about it as energy highways that the sounds have. So, the practice maps onto whatever history of movement or physical training you have.

And, I think it does add something to a dance practice. I’ve heard that from people. At the same time, it goes in the other direction, it gives people for whom the body is a comfortable and fluent language, it gives them a way to use their voices. For me, I came at this as wanting to have a body. I was very cerebral and that’s part of my history, that’s part of my lineage, that’s part of my personal trauma. I am very cerebral and don’t have access down below my neck in a very severe way. But, for people that have this incredibly expressive body, there’s usually a lot of constriction around the throat. All I do is give them the tools to unlock the connection and it pours out.

Regarding Instagram and accountability:

TS: I’ve done a lot of online sleuthing about you and your words. And, by that, I mean your Instagram account. But, the Decolonization is not a metaphor post, where you were reflecting on Private Country, was very intense.

TT: I am really glad that people read that.

TS: I was surprised! Instagram is not the best forum for focus and attention, but something about that really captured my engagement.

TT: That post was months in the making, so I’m really glad.

TS: Well, aside from being beautifully written — the “fault lines that tremble” line really got me — there were also ways you were reckoning with different sets of artistic histories and traditions that you work within, while remaining critical and maintaining desire to crack open the next phase of this line of questioning. I think also, in your referencing of past work, and explaining how, in five years’ time, you are having different conversations, you’re making different work, you’re reading different materials. Part of that was this ownership and accountability toward a white artistic tradition that, perhaps, you were operating within with some blind spots.

TT: Absolutely.

TS: Parallel to that is this wider conversation of white aesthetics in our field.

TT: Yes.

TS: What made you post that? And, what were the reflection points for you?

TT: I rewatched Private Country in Fall 2016; the fall of the presidential election. And, I guess what I want to say about the wave of consciousness many white people are experiencing, I think it’s great to acknowledge that, as embodied practitioners, we feel things. And, we feel things before the intellectual space comes. I think it’s important to me to trace the lineage of my sensitivity. It did start right after Private Country. The title is significant; it’s a terrifying metaphor. I didn’t want to put that on anyone else, but I had felt that the entire world of musical theatre was very private to me. I was making dances that fit into postmodern dance, but I didn’t come from that. So, for me, it was an act of rebellion against that and claiming my history. I was thinking about Jewishness, I was thinking about identity, but all of that got pushed aside when the show actually happened. And, I didn’t have access to connect the dots. I knew the work was related to me by point of fact but I don’t have the tools.

So, I was operating with shame around the aesthetics and the form of the show. But, it felt necessary at the time. But, then, the response to that work was, over and over again, the word “beauty.” When I felt and saw people’s faces as we were singing and that I had created this space for people to indulge in something. When musical theatre is referenced in postmodern dance, it’s usually irony. That felt really wrong to me. Irony is a disguise for some shit that is really repressed; so I am going to go into that. But, after the performances, people were telling me it was so good, that they felt connected to nature, and it was shocking. It was revolting. I felt sick. As happy as I was that the piece was “successful” on a certain level, there was an underlying failure. There was a wound that came out. I went into this feeling that nostalgia is a murky space, it’s a dangerous space. To go into something earnestly is not something we [as a culture] do, and that’s what I did. But, I did that with a flashlight and what I found was, oh yeah, if you give people access to this and you don’t make it a parody and you don’t make it ironic, they are so hungry for it. They have been shutting themselves down because they know it’s wrong. And, it took me until last fall to be ready to deal with why that is. Or, I am ready to ask myself why that is.

Simply, that was after I had started working with Emily Johnson. Point blank, being part a space that re-centers Indigenous history and knowledge made it impossible to go back.That’s all it fucking took. I met [performer] Pareena [Lim] in that process and reconnected with [performer] Jules [Skloot], so we all came from that project. It was like a time release drug where, six months later, I started to feel the access to what Emily’s work was doing. And, then, I rewatched Private Country, and it was the frontier. It came from my id, you know? I remember thinking, is this a memory of the past? And, yes, it’s a manufactured memory of the past and it’s so embarrassing, but it’s so important to acknowledge that. My family came through New York; they never went out West.

Instagram post by Tatyana Tenenbaum, February 5, 2018. Courtesy the artist.

Regarding white culture, art-making, and Instagram (again):

TS: The last larger point that struck me was the way in which white culture is just as harmful to white people as it is to people of color. It works in ways to disguise, evade, or create illusions around power structures and opportunities. And, desire, which is something you zero in on with this piece. This idea of American desire and what’s encapsulated in that is this reckoning, but, also holding the truths of being white in American culture means you have to hold the history of being an oppressor. But, then, how do you hold that? That’s also what struck me; we are all harmed by this system.

I don’t see many white artists being transparent about this, in the ways you are striving to be right now. And, not just through an Instagram post, but through your actions and through the conversations you seek to have through your work.

TT: I want to add that, early on this process when I started bringing this dramaturgical conversation into the practice [a discussion on white culture in art-making], it was hard for some of the people in the work at the time. And, I didn’t have the tools. So, I applied to the Urban Bush Women Summer Leadership Institute, which has a PISAB [People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond] training in it. And, I attribute so much growth to their leadership. Part of undoing racism is white people finding accountability to people of color. I am only where I am in this process, but I do want to become accountable to an organization, to a leadership. Their work is fantastic and the work of ACRE [Artists Co-Creating Real Equity] — [ACRE co-founders] Maria Bauman, Nathan Trice and Sarita Covington — there are multiracial spaces that are brave that are people of color-led that I feel super fortunate to have in my life. It connects so deeply to what I’m doing. And I didn’t come up with this on my own. I got trained.

TS: Yes, we need training for this type of thing, for these types of dialogues, and to be knowledgeable about how racism allows our culture to exist in the way it does. We all need it.

TT: [The training] helped me facilitate conversations inside of my rehearsal. It helped me enact organizing principles inside my rehearsal space. My group is majority white, and these are conversations that are really hard (for white people especially) to have. Without that training I don’t think I’d be here making the work, which is all the better for that experience.

Regarding anatomies of emotion in her work:

TT: I saw the anatomy of emotion in Private Country to be about consumption. And, that’s super problematic. With Thunder, it was really clear to me. It was more of a fountain. And, that was another problematic structure of endless climbing; the spectacle erupting. With Private Country, we never got to catharsis because the whole thing was yearning. With Thunder, I allowed us to be in the dazzle, but the wave would break and we would go to the next level. There was no end to that piece because there’s no end to that structure. So, this piece, there’s so much more containing ourselves. We are trying to live in a landscape where there are edges, there are repercussions, there is call and response.

Laurel Snyder and Talya Epstein in Private Country, 2013. Photo by Brian Rogers.

Regarding musical theatre:

TS: I want to talk about musical theatre.

TT: Great.

TS: I see this idea of metatheatre — or show within a show — in this work, and something you also did with Thunder [2016] that was working to expose the inner workings of a performance.

TT: Those conventions were there as a formal idea but it didn’t have a reason in the way it does now. Again, I think it was a way I was distancing myself from the totality of Private Country, and I needed to. I think it’s interesting how dramaturgy creeps in even when you’re not intending it to. That’s why you have to look at all your choices. The unconscious mind is very smart.

TS: Distancing is a really pivotal word there. When does distancing just become the process you’re engaged in? What I’ve been asking myself, lately, in any creative act is, what are you erasing? I think it traces back to this idea of history, and the very real history we are all contending with, but also who are you erasing in a process, in a work, because we are all products of this oppressive culture.

So, musical theatre. I am reading it as this double approach: both a functional, formal tool but also a commentary or analysis on the white history of musical theatre that has kept artists of color out of heavy visibility.

TT: And, we very concretely appropriated the music and vocalization. To me, that’s the most probable and problematic. The violence of the white-washed versions of music, and how catharsis has been actualized through musical theatre, has been through appropriating gospel and blues.

I know that the musical theatre landscape is changing and there is a shift in who’s authoring work. I am talking about where I am come from and what’s in my blood. And, there’s a lot of reasons I was drawn to Sondheim; I listened to that music on repeat as a child because it’s very meta. It loops around tonal structures and it doesn’t include any jumps around these triangular points of harmony. I feel like that’s in my bone structure. But, it’s also a very Jewish logic and analysis; it’s very intellectual and cerebral in terms of how it functions. And for ensemble musicals more in the stylistic lineage of Godspell or Rent, for example, you can have a multiracial cast, sure, but who’s writing the work? It’s mostly white men. I think it’s really alarming why we think that’s okay. We do that constantly in our culture. So, one of the things that I did feel in my body was that my voice was stylized in a jazzy way; I was like, “why am I doing that?” We’ve had really good conversations in our work about neutrality and the postmodern aesthetic. And, we don’t want that to be it either. Like, a softening into one’s voice, the voice that’s there, and not this stylized form. We want to separate that out a little bit.

In my program notes for this show, I wrote, “the searches for authenticity lead us in circles.” We can’t all go back to find the voice we had before we immigrated here. That’s not going to happen. We don’t know our folk music; we don’t know our languages. But, we can stop adding an affect that we haven’t spent significant time cultivating with the people who are caretakers of that tradition. There’s just not been that level of care; it’s been a free-for-all.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Untitled Work for Voice premieres at Danspace Project, February 22-24, 2018. Tickets and more information here.

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