DEVOTION DEVOTION at the Exponential Festival: Process Conversation with Lydia Mokdessi 

A mirror on the cement floor reflects a body in pieces, capturing subtle angles and strange abstractions of the familiar. This body, Lydia Mokdessi’s body, unfurls in slow motion under pinkish lights as if leaving ample space for labels, classifications, and archetypes to land upon her and vanish. Seen as a series of moving parts, she never becomes whole: she is hand, ankles, hip, neck, and fingers softly reaching. She receives and rejects our gaze with eyes tilted skyward or focused on the middle distance. She is unidentified yet present; she challenges us to reconsider our expectations of a body in motion and on display. While Mokdessi explores the intersections between visibility, action, stillness, and invisibility, Jason Bartell builds a droning electronic sound score and Syd Island decorates his structures with swooping vocal melodies. Devotion Devotion is a study on (un)seeing, delivered in a series of cinematic revelations.

Photo: Walter Wlodarczyk

For a deeper look into the piece, I caught up with choreographer Lydia Mokdessi. 

Dot Armstrong: How did you begin? What was the point of entry for this project?

Lydia Mokdessi: This work began in mid-2017 as an outcome-free collaboration with Jason, and has taken many forms since. Our initial points of entry included vague images of “grandeur,” aesthetic curiosity about pushing towards intensity, and the development of a truly shared set of instincts and improvisational potentials. Early on, we were both interested in creating conditions for failure within our individual practices and tracking how the inevitability of failure clarifies our inner self-expectations. We discovered that inviting failure challenged our instincts and desires for control, and improvising “ways out” of these situations allowed us to try erasing the “hand” of the artist and creating a situation ungoverned by authorship. Devising ways to destabilize the supremacy of the individual artistic voice became a continued through-line as the work morphed over the last two and a half years.

DA: You performed in a brewery (a meadery, to be exact: Honey’s, in East Williamsburg). What constraints/opportunities did this space present? What does the ideal location for this piece look like?         

LM: Honey’s is a gorgeous space operated by an incredibly generous staff. It is not inherently set up for dance; it has a concrete floor, it tends to be cold, it lacks an area that could function as wings or backstage — but it is beautiful, and we were lucky to be able to visit the site a few times throughout the process and tailor our scenic elements to the environment. We built a diamond-shaped floor out of refrigeration foam, and propped mirrors flush with the floor, which simulated a reflective enclosure and allowed for multiple points of view. The audience set-up was mostly standing room, and we liked that DIY-show feel. The performing area was a 12’x12’ square, which forced Jason, Syd, and I closer to each other than we had been in rehearsal, and moved me closer to the audience than I had anticipated. We ended up liking the compact scale of the set up at Honey’s, and we have fantasies of someday performing the work in a huge, cavernous, soundproof room that can accommodate our grandiose production dreams, where we can place the audience close to us and let there be a lot of empty space outside of them. Maybe that space will find us some day.

Photo: Hannah Coleman

DA: How did you create the movement? Is it set, is there a score? 

LM: The movement is not set; over time, this work has been distilled down to the point that there is no choreography, only one fairly simple score. Jason, Syd and I share a large set of concepts and images that have accumulated over time, but when it comes to performing the work we all try to let everything drift away a bit and just experiment with time and vibration and awareness.

DA: You and your collaborators wove together a heady, mysterious atmosphere with layers of sound and movement. How are the musicians related to your physicality?

LM: The work is, ultimately, a group improvisation with a simple structure. We are carrying out three different tasks that inform each other: my zone is the body, Jason’s is the noise, and Syd’s is the voice. An initial prompt involved choreographing Jason’s gaze towards me to create a more equitable relationship between the sound and the embodiment; what he is doing is loud, so I can’t help but take it in while he had to really try to take in what I was doing. That strictness has kind of fallen away as the roles have crystallized a bit more, but the idea that none of the component parts could exist without the others was deeply informative to the ethos of the work. Syd joined the project more recently, and their presence expanded/triangulated our established relationship patterns. Their score is not quite as strict as mine or Jason’s, though they are tasked with adding lightness and pleasure and providing an access point into an environment that tends towards the austere.

Photo: Ben Wagner

DA: The choreography is really slow and methodical. How do you prepare for this journey? Who do you become when you perform this piece?

LM: One of the mantras of this work for me is to “be an animal” — to resist making choices, to follow impulse, to not be aware of failure or success, and to aspire to a sense of intellectual and emotional emptiness. Invariably, what ends up happening is that I find myself in physical problems, unsustainable positions; my mind comes rushing back and I have to nudge it into the background while I recommit to the present. That tension is at the heart of the score. I am constantly experimenting with methods to prepare, and that preparation is often witnessed. I am in front of an audience while moving into a physical/mental/emotional state that causes me to experience time and sensory input differently and stops me from encoding memories. That lack of distance and privacy has been really interesting to navigate.

DA: Tell me about your use of focus. You often avoid the audience by averting your gaze — why? 

LM: Gaze has become a really rich part of the movement score; I have come to think of it as almost a fifth appendage, a tangible force that directs outwards, a laser. Since the score is so slow, there is a lot of stillness and slowness in the directed gaze as well, and wherever my eyes land is where they have to stay for a while. Jason and Syd and I have talked a lot about provocation versus invitation, and previous iterations of this work had much more of an audience-level gaze, but at this point and in that room, that felt a bit too provocative to hold my interest. I have the sensation that when I look away, the experience the audience has of looking at me for a long duration is more neutral than when I am looking back. That act of inviting objectification is interesting to me, and opens up more possibilities for the interpersonal connection that eye contact creates. I am also thinking about an upward or averted gaze not as avoidance but as control of the visual stimuli I am taking in, and that allows me to maintain a more narrowly focused emotional and mental interiority.

DA: What has been the biggest challenge/discovery with this process? 

LM: Honestly, in my experience the biggest challenge with any scrappy, low-to-no budget experimental show tends to be production-related. Making manifest our various set design dreams meant many trips to hardware stores, much volunteer labor from friends and family, and a lot of unexpected (though ultimately clarifying) setbacks. We were also very challenged by the task of wrenching this work out of the ethereal, limitless space of a multi-year development process; placing a frame around it that necessitated committing to an arc, a beginning, middle, and end. Having to deal with tangible space and time constraints required a lot of consideration. Our most generative discoveries during this iteration of the work happened around the incorporation of vocals and Syd’s role. From our first rehearsals with them, they were able to color and warp established aspects of the work in ways that were totally unexpected and exciting and kind of shifted the whole aesthetic.

DA: Where is the work headed now? What’s the next stage/idea?  

LM: We feel like we have a new momentum since clearing the hurdle of showing an explicitly non-work-in-progress version of this project. We are currently conversing about how and where we want this to evolve. We have been working in a very modular, scalable way since the beginning of the process, and we are curious about the possibilities of expansion, as the inverse of the shrinking we have had to do in order to show it in smaller chunks and on shared bills as we have throughout 2017-2019. We want more time, a larger, more reflective set, more extreme sight lines and limitations, more amps, more singers. We are currently opening up discussions of a few different directions and opportunities for expansion in 2020-21, with each other and with partners; we are excited about the future and the work and will keep you posted!

Photo: Walter Wlodarczyk

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