La MaMa Moves at 13

The La MaMa Moves Festival, now in its 13th season, opens Thursday May 10. Performances in The Ellen Stewart Theatre and the Downstairs Theatre & Lounge, curated by Nicky Paraiso, reflect La MaMa’s commitment to presenting diverse performance styles that challenge audience’s perception of dance, and will feature performance/installations, experimental film screenings & public symposiums which address dance artists’ engagement with the current political climate, as well as honoring diasporic histories and legacy, ancestral inspirations and inter-generational dialogue. Nicky and artists Ellen Fisher, Jonathan Gonzalez, Adham Hafez and Ni’Ja Whitson recently shared some thoughts about their relationship to the festival.

Ellen Fisher has been an essential member of Meredith Monk’s ensemble and a consummate performer. Her new piece “Time Don’t Stop For Nobody” is a beautifully-realized piece which spans the generations of performers – a 12-year old boy, a young adult dancer/performer, a 95-years young inspirational performer/director in the person of Pablo Vela, and Ellen herself manifesting the role of mature performer.Time Don’t Stop for Nobody” (May 25-27, The Downstairs) is a movement-based performance related to the perception of age. A small ensemble of four performers, each 25-30 years apart, collaborate to highlight their shared experiences on the progression of growing up.

Jonathan Gonzalez deals in issues of race, diasporic identities and virtuosic performance in very singular, arresting ways. He is willing to go out there and take risks in sometimes quite surprising ways: I’m talking about movement-forms and choreography here. “Obeah” is a deep meditation on the richness of experience that immigrant and diasporic peoples bring with them as they continually move across borders and continents in search of a home which continually eludes them – except perhaps for the life and breath within their own physical body(ies).Obeah” (May 19 & 20, The Downstairs) initiates from the residue of a work by a similar title, A Black Ritual (Obeah), conceived in 1940 by Agnes De Mille. In this capstone work to González’s research on grief, sound artist Rena Anakwe and performer Katrina Reid facilitate an unfolding speculative fiction set within a cosmic body of water. The duet forms as an allegiance, a sisterhood, and cypher between sound and body conjuring transformations in associations to one another and the audience.

photo by Nurah Farahat

“To Catch a Terrorist” (May 12 & 13) is a cryptic work from Adham Hafez Company and HaRaKa Platform (Egypt) performed in English, Arabic, French, Latin. It looks at the formation of disciplined bodies, borders and the instrumentalist usage of fear as a sovereign act. Through data analysis, exorcist dances, demographic research, court hearing documents, visa applications, and disappearing traditional choreographies — this new work enmeshes science, history, performance and law. Adham Hafez has an impressive intelligence and grasp of both national and global politics and movements. Personally, I wouldn’t mind hearing him speak and expound for the entire length of a performance piece, but he is also a beautiful mover as well. He will be joined by the riveting dancer/choreographer Iréne Hultman Monti. He will also be an essential participant in the Yoshiko Chuma-organized and curated panel-long table symposium entitled “Secret Journey: Don’t Call Them Dangerous.”

by Scott Shaw

Ni’Ja Whitson is another immensely intelligent, articulate artist and eloquent speaker. And a beautiful, exquisite mover-dancer as well. In a short excerpt of work I saw at Danspace Project recently (as part of Reggie Wilson’s Dancing Platform Praying Grounds: Blackness, Churches, and Downtown Dance), their movement, choice of music and spoken soundtrack were elegant and bracing. The Unarrival Experiments #4 (June 1 & 2, The Downstairs) is a ritual digging into the “vaporous body” via relationships between astronomy, cosmology, time, Blackness, and premature death. As a solo iteration of the evening-length installation performance in process, Whitson engages the work of Heidegger’s On Time and Being with their forthcoming manuscript These Walking Glories.

What was your existing relationship to La MaMa prior to the invitation to this year’s La MaMa Moves?

Ellen: I have participated in La MaMa Moves! Festival two other times, and have always felt it to be a wonderfully inclusive event. That said, the variety of performance, theater, dance and media work that is presented at La MaMa is legendary. As an audience member, one always feels welcome and as if it is part of New York’s Collective Unconsciousness. The community it has created over the years with Ellen Stewart’s original guidance and vision keeps people coming back to endorse the work and feel free to create when included in the programming.

Jonathan: My first relationship with La MaMa began as a student at Trinity College when Michael Burke taught a small group of students interested in a self-designed Queer Performance Art class. I was home for a winter’s break when I first rehearsed at the Great Jones studios. In the two or so hours of rehearsal there was a kind of unveiling happening as the immensity of story and wording traced in the architecture of the studio revealed itself. I was younger, wide-eyed and rushing with a poetic high of being in the hold of intersecting pasts.

Adham: The very first time I came to the US, over a decade ago, I was taken to La MaMa. I remember visiting the archive and thinking that this feels very familiar to someone like me, working and living in Egypt.

Ni’Ja: Nicky Paraiso has lovingly and relentlessly asked me to participate in La MaMa Moves! for a few years, but due to schedule conflicts I have been unable to participate. I have been an audience member and supporter (of La MaMa and of Nicky) but not yet a presenter of my work.

What does inclusion in the festival this year mean for your work?

Ni’Ja: It is pretty exceptional. I will be presenting an evening, and with people that are new collaborators and with a pretty new work in process. It means trust – for and from myself. It is a significant opportunity for me to continue to move and engage a work forward that has many moving parts, needs, arms.

Adham: 2018-2019 is the 15th season of my company. Yet, at this point in our biographies, where most of my artists and colleagues are living all over the world, it feels quite different. How do we work outside of home? How do we start all over again when you want to reflect on what’s been done and take into the future? How do we reckon with new forces, and how do we even begin to understand the economy of art-making in different sets of politics?

Jonathan: Being able to return to the research of Obeah in the setting of a theater in The Downstairs, compared to its premiere at MINKA in Brooklyn, has offered new insights and risks. Obeah develops in the manner of choreographic ritual – attempting to activate the architecture and audience in the acts over time. This new container requires the work to expand, to swell, in order to land again as an immersive landscape.

Ellen: Personally, I have always felt a bit like an ‘outsider’ even though, as a white woman, I have never been commercially, successfully branded as a dancer, performance artist, educator or director. So being asked to present this personal dance/theater work was very reassuring that the work was valid on many levels. This particular performance Time Don’t Stop For Nobody is not typical of my work, which often incorporates visual elements, such as shadow play, puppetry and highly costumed personas. This piece comes from an authentic humanistic approach and is a tribute to Pablo Vela, who has been an inspiration since I first saw him perform. He is brave, funny, honest and experienced. Over the years I have learned so much from him and once he said he would perform this work… and the other unique performers, Mina Nishimura and Leo Garcia were on board, I started to percolate ideas about the perception of age, (each of us are 25 to 30 years apart). What is it like to perform as a ‘seasoned’ performer vs as a new talent? How do we grow up? Do we ever grow up? What does this mean and how do we measure it?

How would you, ideally, like your work described to a general public?

Jonathan: I’d ideally like the work, including descriptions (both immediate and over time), to be wrestled with.

Ellen: My performance work is always movement-based as the language that speaks from my soul. I believe in the transformative power of the performer to use this ‘language’ as an agent for change. This can manifest itself through a narrative, or abstraction, or mood or image. 

Adham: A dialogue, an attempt at meeting to think together, a format that seeks building its own frames rather than fit into categorical frames of ‘Arab art’ or ‘Muslim art’ or ‘Middle East dance.’ Just work trying to find space for its labor to be communicative, and to position itself within its own light.

 Ni’Ja: I would like my work to be described as interdisciplinary. To intersect with question number 2 here, this festival sharing at this moment speaks to Nicky’s careful seeing of my work as it is. Very often I am referred to as a choreographer, I am not. Well, I certainly use choreography as a tool, but I am much more interested in making live art from the perspective and practice of a visual artist. So I consider myself an interdisciplinary artist, it gives me and my work breathing room.

How do you identify with Nicky’s statement (from brochure) about how each artist’s working method “requires a deep listening and attention to the dictates of one’s internal journey, which necessarily creates a window towards an authenticity and truth which can’t be discovered otherwise. This particular process happens with a rigor, a blind but knowing faith, with a deep intelligence and a kind of devotion. Leading possibly to grace.”

Ni’Ja: Well, it’s BEAUTIFUL language to start. And I resonate with what I hear as him identifying my/our working with spirit, the metaphysics of our work. I use the word “rigor” a lot, I work deep, I excavate, I expect a great deal and the stakes are high. Art and performance-making are prayers, offerings – critical, experimental ones, absolutely – and they are not for me, artifice. I am seeking the experiential, the transformative in my practice. And while that is informed by a lot of research and idea-making/finding/discovering – what the thing does in the room is the work.

Adham: It is very flattering to be working with Nicky and Mia Yoo, and to be in constant dialogue with them. It is indeed a journey, in the very pragmatic way of packing, unpacking, and in my case, getting visas or not. The deep intelligence here becomes about finding the knowledge and strength to deal with an unfolding present of displacement, and the looming future of right-wing governments (everywhere) and what this means in terms of further displacing ‘our’ communities.

Jonathan: It is a thoughtful and provocative statement. Yes, all work is deeply tied to the personal, and some works intend to reveal these strings back to the author/s. I resonate with the notion of a window where the work cultivates an energetic-scape, intervention, or territory over the duration which concentrates. In previous works of mine, that concentration may take the form of catharsis, epiphany, or disenchantment to illuminate a personal, or authentic truth that seduces or causes friction with your truth as the viewer. The word rigor operates in the acts of making the work while also in the participation of witnessing – to choose to tread disorientation within the shifting social negotiations of performance; of this performance. Maybe you say no. Either way, things fall apart to this other technology of interaction and what is left is potential, in disarray. Maybe that place, a sentiment of plurality, is associated to grace?

How does deep listening find its way into your work?

Ni’Ja: It is the way.

 Adham: Meeting the audience, somewhere between our intersecting desires, and finding a way to thinking together on how we can exist within all these challenges.

 Ellen: Deep listening, for me, means trusting your instincts. There is a door that opens to one’s unconsciousness, sometimes that door opens easily, other times it takes oiling the hinges through trust, rigor and belief. It can be scary however, it is really intriguing to me that these ‘mysterious worlds’ are just waiting to be explored in all of us that choose to create. 

Is there an idea of the internal journey in your working process?

Adham: Yes. To find the tools to articulate what censorship means, when censorship comes in the shape of art policy that presets the frames of what I am, who I am, and how I should be seen and framed.

Ellen: Yes, after the door has opened, then one can dive, slither, run or tiptoe in, and investigate these mysteries that reveal themselves in a myriad of ways. How to develop the work into a ‘work of art’ takes stepping back and using the analytic mind to hone, edit and imaginatively construct from these revelations. I have been lucky to witness how, through my studies of South Asian dance rituals, in particular Sri Lankan Sinhalese rituals of exorcism, the transformation through song, drumming, manipulation of props and dance can influence the audience’s sense of well-being.

Ni’Ja: I don’t necessarily seek out the internal first or primarily. But what I know is that I make work that offers a kind of medicine for me whether or not I know what that is at the beginning or at the time. But it is not the place from which I start or focus my making. But it is certainly in the room and not avoided.

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