Dis/connect (Mondavi Center, Davis. 2012)
Title of work: DIS/CONNECT
Choreographer: Kevin O’Connor
Set Designer: Kevin O’Connor
Costume Design: Kevin O’Connor with Dee Sweger
Emily Leap (dancer/aerialist)
Jorge Rodolfo De Hoyos (dancer/ performance artist)
Cohdi Harell (circus artist)
Laura Stokes (dancer/aerialist/contortion)
Trelawny Rose (singer)
Virginia Schenck (singer)
Shay Nichols (singer)
Sam Rogers (singer)
Music Composition: Improvised live each night by the vocalists
DIS/CONNECT was presented by the UC Davis Theater and Dance department at the Mondavi Center for the Arts (Vanderhoef studio theater). It was presented over two weekends from Thursday February 16 to Sunday February 26th (8 performances total) for the UC Davis community, the Davis community, dancers and friends from the Bay Area and the Mondavi Center’s patrons.
Dates and Times:
Thur. Feb 16, 2012, 8:00 PM
Fri. Feb 17, 2012, 8:00 PM
Sat. Feb 18, 2012, 8:00 PM
Sun. Feb 19, 2012, 2:00 PM
Thu. Feb 23, 2012, 8:00 PM
Fri. Feb 24, 2012, 8:00 PM
Sat. Feb 25, 2012, 8:00 PM
Sun. Feb 26, 2012, 2:00 PM
By Josy Miller, Arts Initiative Story Corps
“Push it, Kevin. Where are you afraid to go? Lean into it.” These words from Kevin O’Connor’s advisor led the Master of Fine Arts candidate to dis/connect, his interdisciplinary circus-theatre-choreography-song experiment that opens February 16th at the Mondavi Center’s Vanderhoef Studio Theatre.
dis/connect will be presented with MFA candidate Folawole’s Light Phases in a double-bill of MFA Thesis Choreographies, the culmination of two years of study in the Masters of Fine Arts Program in the Department of Theatre & Dance.
“We started with an idea,” said O’Connor, the “we” referring to his company of nationally renowned circus artists, performance artists, and musicians. “We wanted to let the site [the Studio Theatre] act as the influence for the piece, rather than impose work onto it.”
O’Connor and his collaborators wanted to reexamine the Mondavi Center as a building fundamentally in conversation with the living, breathing community around it. Beginning from a place of determined experimentation, the artists started rehearsal with only this objective guiding their process: connection to space and place. At the end of each week, O’Connor asked his company to write out what the piece was about. This exercise provided a crucial artistic buoy that simultaneously facilitated multiple voices while preventing overly deterministic work.
The company’s collaborative process produced a piece that continues to use multiple perspectives even in performance, relying heavily on audience engagement and participation. After an opening exterior sequence, the audience is invited to “bring something in with them. Not necessarily physical. Maybe just a memory of the outside space,” said O’Connor. Later in the piece, audience members act as stencils for spectral images that get hung from the theater ceiling and interacted with by the performers. The show closes with the audience at round tables brainstorming ways that the Mondavi Center could be more “porous,” according to O’Connor.
Statement of Purpose:
This piece explores the idea of place.
Place as a question?
Not fixed entities but porous places. Places as processes.
The body, like a building as a kind of place.
A terrain through which things pass, and in which they sometimes settle and sediment.
Studies in ecology (that link ocean dwelling salmon to the tops of Douglas Fir trees in inland riparian forest) demonstrate the fractal inter-connectedness of everything and asks us to consider the co-extensiveness of ourselves in our environment. Does the slightest touch of the body in its environment stay within the environment forever? Is that touch utilized by that environment forever? How do our bodies remember the multitude of environments they are interacting with?
How does the Mondavi Center touch its surrounding environment?
How does it connect or disconnect to its surrounding ecology?
What is it entangled with?
What stories remain in the landscape that can be told?
What do the Oak tree and the creek have to say?
What has been displaced?
What is absent in presence?
In Timothy Morton’s book Ecology without Nature he examines the idea of place. In doing so he reviews the study of the Western Apache’s use of narrative in the naming of places. What the reviews find is that there is no difference between a place and the socially reproving and improving stories that the Apache associate with it, and thus, there is no nature. “There is no gap between the human and the nonhuman realms. The Apache view resembles an ecology without nature. Place is a questioning, a “what happened here?” (Morton 2007). Dis/connect is a dance that poses this question at the site that encompasses the Mondavi center. “What happened here?”
At a time when media and telecommunications often propels us into disembodied virtual spaces, I am interested in acts that root the body firmly in physical space, be it a remote span of forest or an urban cityscape or a local creek. For the creation of Dis/connect I wanted to engage with the physical ecology that the Mondavi Center is enmeshed in, as the starting place. I started this creative process by examining the Mondavi Center and its surrounding landscape. The Vanderhoef Theater looks out at Putah Creek and its surrounding riparian zone. I questioned, what is absent in that which is presencing?
I wanted my awareness to be intensely local in its orientation. I wanted to feel the leafing time of the local tulip tree which bloomed during the piece, smell and listen to the sounds of the season, and feel the cool air that was unfolding in the immediate environment surrounding the Mondavi Center. I wanted my imagination to be provoked by the environment where the piece would dwell and the wider terrain where we (the artists taking part in the piece) circulate. The place-based ideas came from research and questions of this place and my developing awareness of the local terrain.
During my two years at UC Davis the Mondavi center has been under construction. The stone that the center was built with is too porous, causing water to leak in. These leaking stones sparked many questions. I questioned how the Mondavi Center leaks out into the surrounding ecology (the physical and human ecology that it is interconnected with)? What stories are already embedded in the landscape? As a visitor to this space, I questioned what is a responsible way to relate to the space and the stories that haunt it? What is absent in what is physically presencing?
Dis/connect was also influenced by interviewing my PhD advisor Timothy Morton. He researches a metaphysical movement called Object Oriented Ontology. His book, “Ecology Without Nature” sets out a seeming paradox: to have a properly ecological view, we must relinquish the idea of nature. Nature is not something out there, separate from ourselves. In this regard, society and nature do not form two separate and entirely distinct domains that must never cross. Rather, collectives involving humans are always entangled with all sorts of nonhumans without which such collectives could not exist. Morton writes, “such collectives are populated by signs, signifiers, meanings, norms and a host of other sundry entities, but they are also populated by all sorts of signifying entities such as animals, crops, weather events, geographies, rivers, microbes, technologies, and so on. Object-oriented ontology draws our attention to these entanglements by placing the human and nonhuman on equal footing.”(Morton 2007)
Lastly, in examining the Mondovi Center as a place I also interested in questioning how the Mondavi Center can become more visible as creative cultural place. These questions come from my interest in both Placemaking and my current research on the ecological body. Placemaking is a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. Put simply, it involves looking at, listening to, and asking questions of the people who both live, work, study and play in a particular space, to discover their multiple needs and aspirations.
I spent two years in New York City training at Elizabeth Streb’s creative laboratory called SLAM. SLAM is an open-access venue that models a new kind of artist-driven community institution. The doors of SLAM are never closed. Classes for all ages are offered and anyone can walk in and watch a rehearsal. Streb writes “At the heart of this machine is the driving force of art and action, and the belief that art can provide a service to a community such that voters, taxpayers, and consumers will consider it indispensable” (Streb website). Inspired by Streb’s Placemaking, I decided to invite people from the Davis community into the Vanderhoef studio for a free circus workshop as a way to activate the energy in the studio for the three weeks that my collaborators and myself would inhabit the space.
As part of my research for Dis/connect I attended a weeklong San Francisco based workshop and a performance by Dutch choreographer and teacher Robert Steijn. Steijn’s solo performance “I am reborn a smoker / Allowing myself to get high in the clouds of imagination,” took place on the Day of the Dead celebration in San Francisco. Fitting to the day, Steijn invited the spirits of both a good friend of his (who had committed suicide five years earlier) and a deer (Steijn’s spirit animal) into the performance space, as integral components of his performance. In working with invisible presences Steijn examined whether there is a difference between knowing and believing when one works with the body and mind in a creative way. Steijn’s performance incorporated both movement and text. His piece required that the observer (both himself and the audience) remain engaged with their imagination for the duration of the show.
Steijn questioned the following:
How do you dance with people who died?
With totem animals? With spirit energies?
When does imagination become reality?
Steijn began his piece by inviting spirit energies into the performance room. He told the audience their spirit names and a brief history of why they were important to him. He then called out their names and slowly went into a trance like state. Steijn’s movement reminded me of Della Pollock’s use of the word evocative in her essay on performative writing. Performative writing must evoke but not say. There is no such thing as a “fixed” word or “fixed” body. Pollock states. “performative writing evokes words that are other-wise intangible, un-locatable: worlds of memory, pleasure, sensation, imagination, affect and insight..”(Pollock 1998) Steijn was evoking the spirit presence in the room through movement but he did not name its shape or form or place any kind of understanding in relation to them.
However, Steijn’s communication through the body left me with questions on the limits to how much I could image based on his moving body. His movement was somehow influenced by his invitation to the spirits, yet I did not feel as an observer I could enter in and engage with or change or experience my ecology with these spirits. My imagination could not quite yet evoke a spirit reality. I was only observing Robert Steijn move in his own experience. Can evoking something cause a misunderstanding or a disengagement of the viewer in what is being evoked?
Steijn moved in his trance like state for a while and then started overlaying the movement with stories. It was through the overlaying stories, relating to both his dead friend and his deer spirit that I was able to allow these entities to inhabit my imagination, resulting in a felt presence of them in my body.
Steign told the stories that he plans on telling to the young daughter (of his friend who committed suicide) about her dad when she turns 18
He told the story of how he and his friend had met when the friend came up to him at a bar and said “I like your energy, I think we should be friends”
He told us dreams of his deer totem
He told us how his deer totem became addicted to the feeling of jumping out in front of a hunter and staring him down, daring him to shoot.
Through these non-linear stories Steijn was making present what was absent. His stories were what Pollock refers to as metonymic writing. Writing that is filled with longing for a lost subject. Writing that is not all consuming and only gives you a part of the unfolding whole. His stories gave us glimpses of these evoked spirits. The invisible can only become visible through the audiences imagining. In imagining the spirits called upon I also become aware of my own continuing presence, my own aliveness. I began to question whether my own physical presence is a unfolding of all of the spirits of people, animals, places and things that have somehow touched me in my presencing.
I started to notice Steijn’s repetitive movements again. Pollock suggests that in performative writing repetition is constantly introducing slight differences and always negotiating on edge of disrupting identities. Steijn, a 52-year-old untrained dancer became small parts of his deer totem and then his deceased friend and then always returning to the embodying Robert Steijn. The development of his past friend and his ever-present spirit animal was continuously emerging in the present. Steijn’s performance makes me question if a body can extend to any place. Through my own imagination I imagine Steijn’s body as one that reaches across space and time. Are our bodies open collectives, continuous processes of alliances of energy? Can we identify presence with something that only appears? Or is presence like performative text found only in our imagination? What stories do our bodies as places tell?
Deeply inspired by this workshop with Steijn I set out to discover what was absent in what was presencing within the ecology of the Mondavi Center and in my own body. I discovered numerous stories that were enmeshed within the building, the trees surrounding the Mondavi Center, the creek, and the people engaging in the piece. Through this research I was able to meet and exchange information with professors in the Biology department, the horticulture department and the Native American Studies department. These stories where overlaid with our own personal stories as well as stories individual audience members shared during the piece.
There is never a single story about any place. The single story about any place can create stereotypes, which are not necessarily true or false, but they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. Each place (including each of us) is full of multiple stories. I was not able to tell the multiple stories associated with the multiple places that made up Dis/connect, however in the performance and this written performance I will try to highlight some of the stories I and my collaborators chose to highlight. The following stories where some of the stories embedded in the landscape that were overlaid with our own personal stories and the stories told to the audience.
Performance Site: The Mondavi Center, Putah Creek Watershed, and UC Davis
The Mondavi Center was built in riparian zone of the UC Davis Arboretum. The riparian zone is an area of transition between the aquatic and upland ecosystem. The UC Davis arboretum is situated within the Putah Creek watershed. A watershed is defined not just by its physical features or by present land use conditions within it, but by all physical, biological, and cultural components both past and present. It includes the formation of the watershed by geologic and hydrologic processes long before the presence of humans to the present-day agricultural practices and urban landscape. Putah Creek’s main channel once flowed through what is now the UC Davis Arboretum channel; however, early settlers began the process of moving it south of town to its current channel in 1871. This engineering project was finished off with levees by the Army Corps of Engineers in the late 1940s. (EDAW Inc. 2005)
The greater Putah Creek watershed begins in the Coast Ranges of Lake County and drains about 600 square miles of steep coast range mountains. Flows converge on Lake Berryessa, which was formed by construction of Monticello Dam in a narrow pass called Devil’s Gate. Regionally, the Putah Creek watershed is part of northern California’s extensive Sacramento River watershed. It is located adjacent to the Cache Creek watershed, which drains the Coast Ranges north of the Putah Creek watershed. The lower Putah Creek watershed includes all of Putah Creek and its major tributaries between the Monticello Dam at Lake Berryessa and the Toe Drain of the Yolo Basin (or Yolo Bypass). The Yolo Basin connects Putah Creek to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the Pacific Ocean. (EDAW Inc. 2005)
Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) were once highly abundant and widely distributed in virtually all the major streams of California’s Central Valley drainage. Putah Creek was first named by early native peoples, called the Patwin, who lived along its banks. The Patwin were hunter-gatherers who relied on the valley riparian habitat along the Sacramento River, and Putah and Cache creeks (Sutter and Dawson 1986). According to Peter Moyle, professor of fish biology at UC Davis, a rich fishery also once existed at the outflow of Putah Creek into the vast Sacramento basin marsh area, which provided the river Patwin groups with salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon during periods of high water and flooding. As of 2001 is was estimated at least 1,057 mi (or 48%) of the stream lengths historically available to salmon have been lost from the original total of 2,183 mi in the Central Valley drainage (including all of Putah creek adjacent to the performance site). (Fisher et al. 2001)
Interaction of Salmon, Bears and Trees (Dr. Harris who is cited below is a professor in the Ecology Department at UC Davis).
Anadromous fishes (fishes that spend all of their adult life in salt water and return to fresh water to spawn) such as salmonids, link marine and terrestrial ecosystems in coastal watersheds of western North America (Harris et al. 2002). Results from numerous studies demonstrate a direct relationship between the salmon spawning density and 15N (nitrogen) enrichment in humus soil, in riparian vegetation (Tsuga heterophylla, Vaccinium parvifolium, Rubus spectabilis), and in riparian insects including herbivorous and carnivorous Carabidae (Pterostichus, Scaphinotus, Zacotus) (Harris et al. 2002, Helfield and Naiman 2001, 2002). The results suggest broad cycling of salmon-derived nutrients into multiple trophic levels (from primary producers such as plants to apex predators) of terrestrial ecosystems.
Further studies have highlighted the transfer of nutrients from the Pacific Ocean to river and riparian ecosystems by sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) via brown bears (Ursus arctos) (Helfield and Naiman 2006). Salmon and bear have been described as interacting mobile link organisms because of their role in transporting marine-derived nutrients to forest ecosystems (Lundberg and Moberg 2003). In turn, the marine-derived nutrients have been shown to influence riparian structure and dynamics (Helfield and Naiman 2001, 2002).
Having spent most of their lives feeding and growing at sea, Pacific salmon return to spawn and die in their natal streams. These interior streams can be up to hundreds of miles from the coast. These salmon carry marine derived nutrients (nitrogen and carbon) in their body tissues. Returning salmon are eaten by numerous mammal and bird species. Nutrients from the decaying salmon carcasses’ support the production of peryphyton, aquatic macroinvertebrates, resident fresh water fishes and juvenile salmon in spawning streams. These nutrients are also delivered to terrestrial vegetation. (Harris et. al. 2002)
Vegetation adjacent to spawning streams derive one quarter of their folia nitrogen from the salmon. The transfer of marine derived nutrients to riparian ecosystems is mediated largely by bears. The bears fish the salmon out of the streams and often eat only the bellies of the fish. The rest of the fish decomposes over time. The Nitrogen isotopes from the salmon transfer into the soil and are sucked up by tree roots. These isotopes have been discovered hundreds of feet up Douglas Fir, Spruce and Western Hemlock trees. (Harris et. al. 2002)
The nitrogen influx into the forest floor feeds the growth of the forest vegetation. The vertical transfer of the nitrogen isotopes occurs in the xylem of the trees (tissue in the plant that transfers water and nutrients up the tree). Higher wood Nitrogen values among trees adjacent to salmon bearing streams is one factor that allows for possible greater growth rates of the trees themselves (Harris et al. 2002). The trees provide sufficient shading of the stream and prevent increases in stream temperatures. Without shade increased water temperatures can obstruct adult migration and limit spawning success, trigger early juvenile out-migration resulting in decreased survival rates, change juvenile sheltering behaviour, reduce disease resistance, and increase metabolic requirements of the young fish (Taylor 1988).
Nitrogen (N) influx to the riparian forest is significantly increased by the presence of both salmon and bear, but not by either species individually. The interactions of salmon and bear may provide up to 24% of riparian N budgets, but this percentage varies in time and space according to variations in salmon escapement, channel morphology of the salmon bearing stream and watershed vegetation characteristics. These findings illustrate the complexity of inter species interactions, the importance of linkages across ecosystem boundaries and the necessity of examining the processes and interactions that shape ecological communities, rather than their specific component parts. (Harris et al. 2002)
This story of the fish was really important to me. The riparian forest that grows alongside Putah Creek is a reminder of what is absent. The forest is like a photograph of the salmon. There is the invisible footprint of the salmon in the forest. This reality highlights the absence of things. In their absence we are reminded of the salmons presence. In their non -presencing we can also question, ‘why are they absent’?
The Oak tree (Quercus lobata)
Valley Oaks are a native species to the Putah Creek watershed. Valley plays a keystone resource role for wildlife, insects, fungi and lichen. Since European settlement the distribution and abundance of valley oak has been reduced through conversion of oak savannah and riparian oak forest to agricultural crops, vineyards and urban development (Kelly et al. 2005). Within existing habitat, recruitment of reproductive-aged individuals is rare and not sufficient to offset adult mortality (Tyler et al 2006). Thus, valley oak plant communities are considered threatened and of high priority for inventory by both the California Department of Fish and Game and by The Nature Conservancy (Davis et al. 2000). The oak trees lining Putah Creek are all over 400 years old. These oaks were alive long before there was any development of the UC Davis campus or township. These trees link the past which included the story of the salmon, the story of the Native American remains uncovered and the building of UC Davis to the presencing and the possible future.
This story was sent to me by Ines Hernandez Avila, professor of Native American Studies at UC Davis. She told me that during the construction of the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts 10 years ago, an excavation crew uncovered 13 Patwin burials. All remains were subsequently reburied in an undisclosed location.
The following is a press release.
Native American Remains Found Near Construction Site
October 19, 1999
Skeletal remains of a Native American were discovered Tuesday morning during an archaeological investigation near a parking and roadway construction site that is located at the future home of the Mondavi Center for the Arts at the University of California, Davis.
The remains, believed to be those of a member of the Patwin Tribe, were located in a former agricultural area south of the main campus between Old Davis Road and Interstate 80. The area was being thoroughly studied by archaeological consultants after archaeologists last month found evidence of Native American bead- and tool-making during excavation work for the parking structure.
During the investigation, campus officials have been in contact with the representatives designated by the Native American Heritage Commission as “the most likely descendants” of the local Patwin Tribe. The tribal representatives were notified of the Tuesday discovery, and agreed with campus officials to secure the area around the archaeological site until its significance can be fully evaluated. The campus has also notified the Yolo County Coroner’s Office.
Archaeologists will conduct further investigations of the area in coming weeks. It was not anticipated that the discovery would disrupt the construction schedule for the parking and roadway project. The site is part of the $53.5 million Center for the Arts performance hall scheduled to break ground in spring 2000. The remains appear to be those of a Native American adult woman and date to between A.D. 700 and 1200, when the area around Putah Creek was inhabited by the Patwin Tribe, according to John Nadolski of Pacific Legacy, Inc., an archeological consultant hired by the campus to investigate the campus improvement area.
This Native woman, like the salmon, suggests a presencing of the past. The tree, like the Mondavi Center is the current presencing. The fish in the tree is an image of the impossible. It is there, but not present. In the Mondavi center space I am interacting with this Native woman by telling a segment of her story but she cannot be located within any given space. Her presence is impossible. In telling these stories my interest is in trying to preserve the unknowability, trying to make sense of the opacity of things. Acknowledging the possibility of things interacting across time and space.
The Dance- questioning presence and absence
Mondavi Center as a Place
The dance stared on February 5th, the first day I had access to the Vanderhoef Theater. I had organized two circus workshops for this day open to anyone in the community. The Mondavi Center has the potential to be a vibrant community center with the creative arts at its foundation. However after two years of teaching classes at UC Davis very few of my students ever stepped foot in the Mondavi Center or new where it was located on campus. The Mondavi center has failed to use its architecture to create a place. Perhaps a building branded with the Mondavi center namesake cannot truly reflect the values and realise the needs of a place’s multiple constituencies.
Research by UC Davis PhD candidate Jess Curtis has concluded that the Mondavi Center organization’s practices with regard to place, particularly in the realm of economics, create a social space (de Certeau 117) with values that are completely inline with neo-liberal paradigms as described by David Harvey in his book A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism. (2) He writes,
The center’s focus on distributing performance commodities from an international art market, its restriction of access to the property based on monetary exchange, its robust investment in industrial and informational technologies, its embracing and prioritizing of corporate management practices and even its figurative honoring of (and reliance on) the international entrepreneurial success of Robert Mondavi and the profits of Mondavi wines all point to its embedded-ness in a neo-liberal world view. (Curtis, 2009).
With the awareness of Mondavi Center’s neo-liberal world view I was still curious of the potential for energizing the space with the sense of a place where individual members of the UC Davis campus, and Davis township could participate in a creative exchange and create new stories. I wanted to organize a circus workshop to see if the local community was interested in coming to the Mondavi Center to participate in workshops. I also wanted to build an audience for my show. My hope was to create publicity for my show and have the community members spread the word about the performance.
For three years I lived in New York City and trained at Elizabeth Streb’s SLAM studio in Brooklyn. Her space was always open to the public and supported both professional shows and community based classes and events, rehearsal studio and a circus center. SLAM has become a gathering spot for exchange of creative ideas across cultures of kids, dancers, gymnasts, circus specialists and pedestrians. On SLAM’s website it states”
SLAM is a place to experiment, a place that examines the difference between public and private, a place that is all public, all the time. Over the course of a year, nearly 6,000 people see one of 40 performances of STREB in its own performing space, over 400 students come to SLAM weekly to attend one of over 40 classes, and renters, primarily individual artists, use the space over 50 hours per week.” (www.streb.org/)
Considering the location of Mondavi Center on the UC Davis Campus, I believe there is potential for an energetic and creative exchange to happen between the Mondavi Center and the different art departments on campus as well as the local community. Civic buildings, such as museums, libraries and theaters, are already using world renowned architects who are designing iconic architecture to make a statement about the importance of their facilities. However, very few have tried to use the architecture to create a place. Mimi Gates, the director of the Seattle Art Museum envisions the ground floor of her museum as the “town square” where ideas can be discussed and where the community can gather for a multitude of reasons. The norm, however, is designing buildings with blank walls around their perimeters with few ground floor uses such as studios, resource centers, cafes etc. that would attract passers by, serve the community and support the context and street life in the areas proximate to it. These ideas stem from a buzzword term in community planning called Placemaking. The Mondavi Center has a long way to go before it becomes an anchor for the community and perhaps it never will. The two circus workshops I organized sold out and received publicity in both the Sacramento and Davis papers and we collected 500 emails for future events (see attached photos). We also watched an 80-year-old man hang upside down for the first time on a trapeze.
Audience As Subject
This question of how to involve the audience in participatory engagement formed one aspect of the research for Dis/connect. A recent report by the Irvine Report states the following:
“Culture is not “being shaped” by someone or something else. We all are shaping our culture. We all are creating what is meaningful, vibrant and real — the amateurs and the experts, the institutional and the individual, the privileged and the disenfranchised, the mainstream and the alternative. “We” is collective and social, yet often very personal. It is participatory, active and interactive. Of course, this has always been true. But a great shift is underway as participatory arts practice moves closer to the core of public value.” (get reference)
For the 2012 season at the Yurba Beuna Center in San Francisco “Audience as Subject” is the title of the their curated season that considers the audience broadly as a living organism of participating viewers of live events in both performance and visual art.
Their website notes the following:
“The object of the investigation is the dramatic and narrative potential of audience members — their physical bodies, expressions, attitudes, gestures and actions — this unique social body made up of individuals. The consideration of the audience shifts from a gazing audience to a producing audience, as an example of larger changes in perceptions about participation in civic life. What types of identities are produced by the constitution of differently sized audiences — small, medium, large, extra large? How is individuality negotiated when one is part of an audience?”
Examining the Audience As Participant
During my MFA I took numerous set design classes and gave a considerable amount of time and experimentation to the development of the set. In designing the set for Dis/connect I wanted to create an event that was both inside and outside and required individual audience members to both help build and leave a trace of themselves in it. I also wanted the objects used in the set to dance in space, like our physical bodies. The above Salmon story made me question whether we always leave a trace of ourselves that stays forever in the environment we touch.
In starting “outside” I wanted to highlight the objects that we would bring “inside” the space. I pointed out the tree, the creek, the Mondavi Center, Laura who was up in the tree on a rope and the other artists who were down by the creek. All these “outside” elements (sometimes physically or through story) would be brought “inside”. I originally wanted to bring the water from the creek inside. I wanted to play with the idea of inside/ outside (is their really such a thing?) as well as play with the idea of ecology without nature (is nature something that is “outside” of us and the Mondavi center?). The Mondavi Center did not want anything from “outside” brought past the walls of the studio. So each night the audience lined up and we passed water from the creek to outside the open windows of the studio. The physical passing of the water was an embodied way to feel the story of the creek that use to flood the Mondavi Center area every year. In placing the water outside the windows of the theater it was a physical reminder of the creek during the piece.
Hinting on my theme of presence as absence I wanted to build a set that would trace a once presencing audience member (lying down on their backs on the paper), yet, ultimately have this trace of them disappear. This idea was partially inspired by Andre Lepecki’s article inscribing dance. In the article he writes that movement always disappears. That all presence is haunted by disappearance and absence (128). In analysing presence, Lepecki quotes the following Jacque Derrida’s writing on “trace”:
“…the trace is the erasure of selfhood, of one’s own presence, and is constituted by the threat or anguish of its irremediable disappearance, of the disappearance of its disappearance.”
In creating the set design I wanted the audience to leave a physical trace of themselves in the performance space. In doing so I questioned where they were located in time and space? The set starts with the physical bodies of the audience lying down and either watching the other be traced and cut out of paper or participating in the event. Audience members sitting in their seats then pulled up these cut out silhouettes. The audience and performers then watch and participate in the “dance” through the traces of themselves. The performance ended with the traces disappearing as the dancers rip them apart into shreds of paper. Our bodies, and the traces of these bodies are always referring to another set of bodies and another set of traces and therefore other absences of absences. Just like the stories, and the building and the forest, the body highlights what is absent.
Finally I wanted to create an “ecological” seating design. Inspired by my studies of permaculture I was interested creating a seating design where people were situated in smaller groups that looked out to the bigger group and performance space. We wanted the design to create a space for individual audience members to look at each other and talk or listen to each other in small groups and yet still have access to the larger group.
In November 2011 I performed a duet in the Arena theater, using the silhouette set design, with a Canadian dancer and collaborator Ruth Douthwright. Over fifty students and faculty came and I developed an understanding about how to facilitate this part of the creation as well as an understanding of the length of time required for building of the set within a performance. It gave me the chance to practice transitioning from facilitating an event to quickly transitioning into a different embodied state, all within the same performance. We also developed a listening score where we moved beside, through and around the silhouette bodies, connected with the physical bodies of the audience and finally came together to sense each others physical body.
I was not assigned a lighting designer for this piece and did not have the knowledge to take on technical aspect of the design. There was no lighting designer in my year to collaborate with. However in taking the design classes I developed a basic vocabulary and knowledge of lighting design and was able to conceptually outline a basic design for the show. Michael Hill helped with the set up and design of the lights.
My concept for the lights was to use the lights to frame the performance space. The lights were functional and highlighted the different ways we expanded or contracted what was inside or outside the performance. Their physical presence highlighted the porousness of what is considered inside and outside.
I worked with Michael to light the Oak tree outside. This outside light felt like the most dramatic element of the lighting design. From outside under the moon the audience was able to see the lighted theater through the large glass windows. They were looking in on the brightly lit performance space, highlighting the world they were about to enter. The lights from inside the theater also spilled out through the windows into the outside.
Inside the theater the lights highlighted the real world of the theater. The lights inside started by serving a functional purpose of allowing the audience to easily see so that they could participate in the building and construction of the set. Once the audience left the main stage the lights highlighted the performance area that was ringed in by the ropes (courtesy of the Mondavi Center). When the dancers went into the audience each small-sectioned semi circle where the audience sat had a light. Each light highlighted the small intimate area the audience were situated in and allowed them to talk with each other and the performer who was in the center of their semi-circle. The piece ended in darkness with only the minimal light from outside lights and the moon shining in on the inside (the reverse of what the audience experienced at the beginning of the piece).
I worked with Dee Sweger to develop the costumes. The clothes in the costume shop were not suitable for aerial movement and so we each brought in our own clothes to wear. We did not want to feel or look separate from the audience and so we each wore clothes from our own wardrobe. The goal of the costume design was to highlight our own unique selves. Dee’s main role was to help with choosing colors that would not blend in with the surrounding set. The set was mostly black (the floor) and white (the hanging silhouettes) and so we chose to wear bright clothes so that the audience could locate us as we moved through the space.
I am interested in engaging in a collective and non-hierarchical learning and creative process. This sense of working as a collective inspired many of the choices and final outcome of the piece. During the fall of 2011 Emily, Jorge and myself rehearsed two times a week working on examining how emotional states and memories of stories and places moved our body.For two months we worked with the idea of the state of departure. Through different ways of thinking about departure in our bodies we created improvised movement motifs. We used this research to inform the way we created movement in Dis/connect.
In January and February the whole cast of performers rehearsed for six weeks five times a week for 5-7 hours a day at the Sawtooth building in Berkeley. The rehearsal process was set up as a collective experience where we all decided how we wanted the process to go and the tools we would use to get there. We worked collaboratively through improvisation. Each rehearsal one person would lead a warm up. We then would spend one hour each day where one person would teach a skill to the group (either something on the aerial equipment or leading different improvisation scores from workshops we had taken part in). This way we collectively shared our knowledge and developed a sense of the embodied skill set everyone was bringing to the table. We then did one hour of technical training on the aerial apparatus to develop stamina and maintain our technical ability and therefore safety in the air. We then would work as a group on improvised scores (seeing scoring below) that we developed both set and loosely set movement motifs out of.
Through collaborative improvisation we pooled our collective resources and developed a sense of trust and confidence in each other. We also created a wealth of tools from which we could pull from. I had worked with all of the performers and new their training backgrounds however a few of them had not worked together. The rehearsal process enabled every artist to find a deep respect for the other and offered a place for learning and sharing.
The first week of rehearsal we played a lot with building the set. We worked with tracing our bodies, hanging the bodies in space, worked on the technicalities of the design and set up improvised scores where we moved and interacted with the hanging bodies. We played with focusing on the space in-between the hanging bodies and then focusing on the fixed outlines. We moved through the set and watched each other through each others handing cut out body. We also visited the Mondavi Center and spent time in the theatre and walking over the land around it. We climbed the Oak trees and walked along Putah Creek. We developed a physical sense of the landscape and planed pathways for moving from outside to inside the theater.
The following weeks we created solos and duets on the aerial ropes and trapeze. Our focus was on the idea of the ecological body. A body that was not fixed on the vertical standing ground but that could turn all direction in space and make connections with other objects outside of standing sphere. We were particularly interested in the space between the vertical and horizontal realm. Emily developed a solo on the dance trapeze that explored this meeting space between the ground and the hanging sphere. She also played with flipping the floor and ceiling. Laura played with shifting an embodied story (from our story score below) from the ground to the hanging ropes and Cohdi started the development of a set piece on the high trapeze inspired by presence and absence of the hanging silhouettes. He questioned how many bodies are we occupying? How do we view each other and move our attention from the group to the individual, from the larger environment to the single object (the trapeze) that he was working with.
We also each played with five different costumes we had chosen from the costume shop. They ranged from the obscure, to fantasy to masks. After working with them for a week and doing a showing for invited artists we all came to the conclusion that the costumes created an added layer of obscurity between the audience and ourselves and implied another story that we were not so sure we wanted to explore and impose on the site. In the end we discarded the costumes that didn’t reflect our own everyday attire.
During week three and four of the rehearsal process I invited different audience members to view and take part in the performance. We worked on how to engage the audience. How to move between telling them our stories and then gathering stories from them. We came up with the “table score.” The table score involved each of the performers to go to a small table (black cube) that was situated in the middle of each semi circle that the audience was situated in. We each did a headstand or handstand on the cubes while each audience member told us a story of where they were from, a story of the grandparent or relative, or a story related to where they were from. The audience could only speak while the artist was holding their balance. We performed our balances to offer another place for the audience to focus their gaze. They could shift between the storyteller, the others in their group and the performer. The score was intended to bring the stories of the audience into the room. We wanted to bring the presence of people and places beyond the room into the room. We also wanted to “shrink” the frame of the performance into an intimate space where the audience members could hear stories from each other. The audience stories where stories of everyday life and events. These stories formed part of the mesh that were overlayed with the stories we had researched about the Mondavi Center.
Nita Little gave us feedback that we were asking the audience to be vulnerable by telling us personal stories, and, we as performers should place ourselves in this same vulnerable position. So, as we tore down the silhouettes near the end of the piece we asked each other questions out loud. The person responding had to think and respond to the answer in the moment. We had five different questions we could ask each other. By adding this section we too felt vulnerable as we responded out loud. We had to move beyond our comfort zone of expressing through movement alone.
The basis for our movement scores we created came from body based research on the idea of the body as a collective. Each dancer told the group stories, a memories or events they had experienced. Emily told us a story of her great grandmother. Her grandmother was Armenian. During the Armenian massacre by the Turkish government her grandmother had to flee her town with her two daughters. One daughter was a baby and the other daughter was four years old. The infant would not stop crying and in order to protect her other daughter and the group they were escaping with, Emily’s great grandmother jumped off a cliff with the infant. The other daughter survived and eventually made her way to California. Jorge told us stories of growing up in the Mexican taqueria his aunts and mother ran in East Los Angeles. We told each other of our family of origin, experiences of growing up in different ecologies and memories of events that still resonated in our body. We talked about how the places grew up in or the have moved through still resonated in our bodies.
Each of us focused on five stories. We allowed ourselves the time to feel each story and noticed how it moved our bodies. Where was it located in the body? How does it move us? What happens to our breath? How does our body react to it? Each story produced a different tempo in our body. We didn’t try to tell the story through moving but allowed the story to move us. Each story allowed for us to feel a different state in our body and within each state movement (both stillness, and active) was arising. Over time we ordered each movement piece in relation to the story remembered into a sequence that went from stillness to more dynamic movement. The movement was never firmly set; however, as we repeated this exercise numerous times the dance emerged and began to settle into a repeatable shape that was never exactly the same but had some memory of the movement that was first developed.
Use of Aerial Arts
I spent five years studying aerial circus skills and utilize these skills an integral part of my creative process. One aspect of the movement on the aerial apparatus was to highlight the story of our functional anatomy. Our physical body indicates an arboreal phase in our evolution. Climbing in the ropes hints towards this story in our physiological development.
My research on the handing sphere examines current anthropological evidence, which demonstrates that the evolution of human locomotion behaviour was strongly influenced by the arboreal phase of our distant ancestors (Richmond et al. 2001). Many aspects of modern human skeletal form, particularly in the trunk and upper limb, are products of our climbing arboreal history. For example, humans share with great apes a vertebral column that is ventrally situated to move it closer to the center of gravity in upright postures (Schultz, 1961). The broad, shallow shape of the rib cage positions the scapula on the back of the rib cage so that the shoulder faces laterally, thereby allowing greater mobility of the shoulder (Schultz, 1961). Humans also share with great apes a globular humeral head that projects above the tubercles, again enhancing mobility. (Richmond et al. 2001)
A second argument that suggests an arboreal climbing phase as part of the human locomotion evolution comes from the biomechanical similarities between vertical climbing and bipedalism (walking on two feet) ( Fleagle et al., 1981; Stern and Susman, 1981). For example, during vertical climbing, chimpanzees extend and medially rotate the thigh in ways comparable to those observed in human walking (Fleagle et al., 1981). Experiments in nonhuman primates have shown that bipedal walking and vertical climbing involve muscle recruitment patterns similar to each other. When species, that are adapted to climbing, such as chimpanzees and orangutans, walk bipedally, they use a ground force pattern more similar to that of humans than to the bipedalism of other nonhuman primates. When walking bipedally, they also use some muscles, such as the gluteus medius, for the same functional role as when the muscles are used in human walking (Stern and Susman, 1981). This and other evidence suggest that vertical climbing adaptations may be “preadaptive” to bipedalism. Moving within the hanging sphere can therefore be considered a basis for our physiological development. (Richmond et al. 2001)
Climbing and hanging uses the same musculo-skeletal and nervous systems that allow us to walk. The following passage describes the principle of locomotion in the context of hanging. While we are climbing, we are able to move forward by using first one support system and then another (i.e. one hand after the other). The asymmetry implied by this kind of sequential support deployment allows for the loss of equilibrium, which generates the kinetic energy for efficient motion. In the standing sphere, the loss and recapture of equilibrium is visible in a toppling and repulsion activity, whereas, in the hanging sphere, it is visible in swinging and tugging. These stories of our evolution are held in the structure of our bones and were physically told through our movement.
I created movement sequences in the air that shifted between walking on the ground to swinging in the air between ropes. The movement material developed played with bringing to life the story of our arboreal body. This research developed out of my piece called Habitat I developed in the first year of my MFA here at Davis. Habitat was inspired by watching youtube videos or gibbons swinging from branch to branch in their arboreal home.
Aerial equipment also allows us to view the body from a more ecological perspective. The body can be viewed from underneath, the side and from above (from the performers perspective). The performer can move from standing to hanging, to leaning to being upside down or right side up etc. In many ways the apparatus is like a supportive partner, offering multiple places to lean into.
Editing and Sequencing
After the rehearsal period in Berkeley we were able to get into the Vanderhoef theater on February 5. We had developed more than enough material and so the process of editing and placing things together could begin. We had over ten students working with us as crew and we used them as simulated audience members for this part of the development. I had written out all of the elements we had created on cards and we collectively began the process of placing things together. Logistically it made sense to start outside. We then wanted to have the audience help build the set so this part was the first thing the audience participated in when they entered the theater. The next components of the piece were sequenced after a lot of trial and error and an intuitive sense of what felt right. In using aerial work in a long piece it is important that for each individual performance path rest moments are built in for our hands and for-arms. This constraint of needing mandatory rest (after being on the aerial equipment for to long the hands will no longer grip) helped shape how the aerial and floor work were sequenced. By the time the musicians came on the scene we had a clear idea of our individual paths. They quickly were then able to find their pathway. They also had a clear sense of the physical feel for the show and could jump right away into playing and improvising with us.
The risk in initiating an improvised based structure (often playing with state work) that was porous and less based on creating set choreography was a challenge. Often with aerial work in particular it is very hard to improvise because your attention must always be divided between understanding and trusting what is holding you up and being engaged in the improvised score. It would often become very frustrating fo