Re: some ideas to stir up inspiration

Not to give away too much, but The Satellite Collective is beginning to wiggle its fingers again. A new piece is in the works. To get the juices flowing, Kevin Draper sent out an email to the core creative team with initial ideas. The theme would be “Time Machine,” and all sorts of media would be represented as Satellite Collective always does. After a few glowing responses, I decided to chime in. Here’s what I wrote:

Re: some ideas to stir up inspiration
Thu, Dec 8, 2016 at 6:03 PM

I want to put in my two cents:

One of the most difficult things to get right in a performance of this kind is striking the right balance between all the different media. Spoken word, dance, opera, music, moving images… these all have their own strengths and limitations. How to have them co-exist in a performance piece without overcrowding?
Most of Satellite Collective’s works have deliberately separated different pieces in different media into a kind of medley, which are presented in sequence. This is a distinctly different approach than trying to create a fully immersive multimedia thing. Opera is closer to the latter, but for the fact that it’s bogged down by the proscenium. You could make an argument for both with the Time Machine theme: it supports the deliberate sequence because that’s how we experience events in time (which you can reshuffle to some cool effect), but it also supports multimedia because a Time Machine is a fascinating, fantastical, complex piece of machinery, with millions of parts working simultaneously in order to transport someone to a different place. Whichever direction it ends up taking, I think it’s best to be deliberately one or the other. A performance that lands in neither/nor might sacrifice pacing or fail to hold the audience’s attention or fail to carry a single idea throughout– ie the intangible stuff that is the true magic of performance.
I hope this makes sense.
BTW, walking back my own words somewhat, I like the idea that our image of what a Time Machine is has itself changed over time. It has gone quite a way from HG Wells to the Twin Paradox. I remember I saw William Kentridge’s Refuse The Hour at BAM a couple of years ago, and he has a monologue where he explains that if a single photon can be considered a snapshot of the thing that emitted it, then we have been broadcasting snapshots of ourselves out into space since the dawn of time. If you could go out and catch each of those photons discretely, you could piece together the film of humankind.
Whether or not that makes sense to anyone, I highly recommend watching this video of highlights from the show. A lot of Satellite parallels.
whew.
-Ivan Himanen, RA
No one has responded to the thread since.

A Natural History by Catherine Tharin: Playful, Contemplative, Organic

What does it mean for a work of art to be ‘inspired by nature’? What does it mean for a work of art to be ‘organic’? I was stirred to contemplation of these core questions during the Soaking Wet series performance of A Natural History at the West End Theater, led by choreography from Catherine Tharin, Esme Boyce, and a film by Lora Robertson. Do the works obviously bio-mimic like Meredith Monk or Erick Hawkins? No, not quite…. Do they harness the power of collectivism to blur the individual like many folk dances? No, not quite…. Do they inundate us with images of green and blue things? No, not that either….
Still from “The Stream Wet Earth”. Courtesy of Lora Robertson.
This collection of dance and video seems to be one degree removed from nature as a physical setting. And therein lies its virtue. Instead of self-immersion, assuming nature’s universality, it skirts the surface by examining its effects on people. What results is a reflection, both physical and psychological, on human beings through the lens of a human-less world, which is actually a wealthier avenue to explore. The dance is a child inventing a new fantasy world, ritually ecstatic, and reverently contemplative all at once.
Still from “The Stream Wet Earth”. Courtesy of Lora Robertson.
Due to a last-minute scheduling change, Lora Robertson’s film came first, which in retrospect underscored the cyclical elements of the series. A montage of scenes of dancers Esme Boyce, Racy Brand, and Susan Rainey shows them in a dried cornfield, on a autumnal hillside, and in an empty cottage. It appears as if the sun has just set– the light is either blue and diffuse or sharp, low, and warm. They are dressed in black or in light, loose shirts, they stretch out with their arms and backs while their feet move little, they sometimes get quite close and intertwine, and they meet the camera’s gaze a few times… they could be nymphs, sisters, or even lovers.
The dances that follow are variations on a clearly-envisioned theme, fusing the characters’ ambiguous interrelationship, a broad repertoire of gestures (at times as simple as walking or pointing, at times complex flowing sequences), music that is both ambient and grating, and the unique setting of a church apse. The side lighting, the inclusion of a live violin for one movement, the nearness of the wings, and the generally close quarters help to draw the audience into the drama. From our vantage point, each tiny glance and smile that the dancers give each other is amplified and fed into our construction of a story– by the end, we have established their individuality, determined a familial hierarchy, recognized repetitions, and felt a passage of narrative time. These are the building blocks of any ‘history’.
Still from “The Stream Wet Earth”. Courtesy of Lora Robertson.
I had difficulty grappling with the disproportionate length allotted the final dance North Star, perhaps three times longer than any other section. Then, having written the previous paragraph, it became clear to me– Catherine Tharin wants us to get a little lost in time, she doesn’t want us to have a crystal memory of every previous chapter. This way, as the end nears, its details snap us out of a lull. The dancers’ whistling (a uniquely playful invention) beckoned me out of a trance. For the piece to feel like a chronicle, the past has to begin to stretch.
The choreography also stakes out a very specific relationship to physicality. It is both playful and strenuous. The dancers sync up and weave in and out of one another effortlessly, yet it becomes evident how exhausting it is to sustain that flow. The playful transgression of physical limits is a rarely-encountered kind of organicism in dance– I suspect that most choreographers avoid it because they think it looks childish or sloppy. But they easily forget how amazing it is to see a child continue to run and climb even though they are visibly out of energy. 
This flow is interrupted with contrasting still poses to mark movements or sections. The end of the first movement of North Star has all three dancers bunched together and up on the balls of their feet– during this pause I studied their oscillations and wondered what the limits of stillness are. How still is still enough for Catherin Tharin? A knee-jerk direction for such a pose would be “as still as you can.” But what if the dancers were given the freedom to move and use each other for balance quite freely? The picture comes alive.
Similarly, I remember the evening’s final moment: the three dancers group together and look up, following Susan Rainey’s pointing finger (which echoed my own glances up to the dark vault during intermission… was this a site-specific move?). As the three inched backwards and the lights faded out, I thought of how people have historically oriented themselves by the stars, but how that sense of orientation has been deeply shaken since Copernicus. All things are in constant motion and evolution. The curvature of the entire stage wall enforces these dynamic vectors.
We often think in static images, and are frequently confronting and recalibrating when movement is introduced. We’ve all glanced at the edge of a forest from afar and thought it to be motionless, and upon second glance found it to be shaking with life: shivering leaves, passing animals, swaying branches. ‘Organic’ means allowing for those tiny oscillations to happen, and then grow into permanent parts of the larger whole.
Still from “The Stream Wet Earth”. Courtesy of Lora Robertson.
I had a discussion with a friend of mine yesterday whether human Progress (with a capital P) is nowadays dependent only on math and economics (simple equations of supply + demand)… OR whether there are cycles and rhythms outside of mankind which act as metronomes. I have grappled with this question abstractly for many years, and I have found that those who believe in the latter are more inclined to contemplate things as they undergo slow transformation. Catherine Tharin and the whole team behind A Natural History certainly belongs in that latter camp: they cast a peculiar light on small events (sometimes literally as in Lora Robertson’s film) while retaining a larger evolutionary framework. It is a sharp but glowing light, like the afternoon sun reflected off of a mirror, which both illuminates the subtle transformations undergone by planet Earth’s players and reminds us that it is only under that very illumination that we can open gateways to engage a world beyond us– a world in which forces exist that both unify us and drag us apart, calm us and exhaust us, bear us and kill us. That is the basis for an organic work of art.
Still from “The Stream Wet Earth”. Courtesy of Lora Robertson.

With Dark & Pretty Flat, Esme Boyce marries rigorous technique and familial intimacy

“My parents were driving from L.A. to New York, in a cross country move that would re-unite our family. The were in Arkansas, or at least my mom thinks so, when I texted her, “What’s it like there?” Her reply was, “Dark and Pretty Flat.” This piece is about an American attachment to a certain landscape, about great horizontal journeys and about how one can feel like a foreigner in one’s own homeland.”
-Esme Boyce
Photo © Darren Hoffman
Esme Boyce is growing into a choreographer of more than just dance. Her vision on each new project aims to encompass more and more media, more and more players, and in so collaborating she discovers new ways to bring the deeply personal to bear on stage.
Her previous works (The Particular Premiere of a First being… of particular note) found what seemed like a perfect solution to the problem of emerging choreographers– how to develop a unique language of movement to maturity within the span of a single piece? By keeping things abstract, by repeating basic movements, and by using imagery from the cosmos and early childhood, Esme created a piece that, like the glowing sphere it featured, looked perfectly whole, perfectly balanced between abstraction and figuration, between giving its intentions away and forcing us to search for meaning. However, the inevitable problem arises: how to you build on such a work? How do you progress from a shape as perfect as a sphere? You have to carefully place disturbances, carefully reveal imperfections, that give it new context without rupturing it. And I argue that, compared to creating a perfect universe, the feeling of having perfectly shaken that universe is a more satisfying creative act.
Photo © Darren Hoffman
Dark and Pretty Flat is a work in the continuing vein of Esme’s earlier pieces: a continuous performance that morphs with each movement or section (it is the maturation of the same ideas sketched out in Emergence, which premiered at BAM with The Satellite Collective in May of this year). With the players all present and visible, the audience gets to witness creeping shifts and changes– within the choreography itself, and also within the milieu. As Ted Levine reads poetry from a book, an image has appeared on the rear wall… Cody Boyce, guitar slung over his shoulder, stands up and joins in on his own low-frequency prerecorded soundtrack… and then you realize your eye has drifted away from center stage, and you notice a body inching forward from the wings, the high frequency of the sweeping feet on the floor a contrast to Cody’s strumming… this time the body is wearing a different costume, the lights have changed, and once the movement settles you discover the music has changed as well… if you aren’t careful, you’ll miss the tiny instances when a certain pose or gesture gets reflected, repeated, reinterpreted within the quartet of dancers… throughout, the warped horizontal stripes on the bunched-up canvas which serves as the minimal set reminds you of the order that once was and the imagined connections and revelations being made once the fabric of space-time folds in on itself.
Every limb of this creature gesticulates on its own, but in response to stimuli from the others. Multimedia is becoming commonplace in contemporary stage productions, developing to interlock with the ever-whittling attention span of an audience accustomed to multitasking. Such a shift is exciting because it allows a dilution of narrative, a permission to have a story flow from a musical instrument to a voice to a leg to a pixel. Such choreography requires great technical rigor and knowledge of pacing. Esme Boyce has these qualities.
Photo © Darren Hoffman
Esme wants us in an intimate space. She has long been interested in crafting shows that are both immersive and ‘soft’ on both ends– that is, where the hard line of start and end is smudged a bit. Terms like ‘evening length’ and ‘multi-disciplinary’ readjust all comers’ expectations regarding contemporary dance.
Many tweaks to the tired dance-format aid in this deconstruction:
-Cody Boyce & Ted Levine are always present on stage right, both performers and audience members.
-The pyjama-like costumes that evoke a slumber party on acid.
-The unmistakably Esme-esque choreography, which in the context of more concrete words and images give the impression of a body no longer certain of its own capabilities, or of a body straining to evolve faster, knowing it will, but unable to prove it yet– without losing any playfulness or emotional weight.
-Kit McDaniel’s glare at the audience during her solo, cracking the 4th wall.
-Ted Levine’s poetry, with lines like “I slowly lean down over the concrete ledge and see my reflection. This time I’ll study my face,” while industrial cityscapes are projected behind him… indications of a man observing his life.
-The final movement in which a pair of bright lights shines and gyrates across the diagonal of the stage, undermining symmetry and traditional lighting schemes.
-That the piece was born form a very personal phone conversation across thousands of miles.
All of these signal the conversational cadence of the piece. Esme has a knack for presenting any given narrative as simply the possibility of one single event viewed from multiple angles, or multiple interpretations of one concept. This approach allows her works to tackle complex themes with playfulness, and with the tangible contribution of others. This is the ultimate success of Dark and Pretty Flat: the way the collaborative approach lets a lay audience and a highly specialized creative team meet halfway and explore ideas together. Live.
Photo © Darren Hoffman

Drawn In By Youthful Energy – Satellite Collective @ BAM

The purest amateurs require nothing more to operate than the purest excitement and love for a particular subject. The Satellite Collective can strike the balance between professional and amateur dedication. Its goal to envelop multiples contains that love-driven quality which is so often lost when artists find first success. This entire show is reflective of their mission to turn a dozen creative fields into players in a gentle game. In this process the various arts may themselves become audience members to the brilliance of their peers, commencing a cycle of show-and-tell. Each piece, embedded in the modernist tradition that eschews symbolism and linear narratives, comes to the stage intentionally bare, intentionally open to its viewers, as if mindful of its own part in a continuous exchange of translation, interpretation, and inspiration. During the performance I am enriched having never forgotten the faces of the choreographers. The tiniest imperfections only pull me in further to investigate. And I joyfully discover the possibility that I may join such a game one day myself.
We all know that moment when the lights go dim before a show. Satellite Collective takes those butterflies in your stomach and draws them out. They elongate the sensation– from the first layered cello solo to Nathan Langston’s poem Invocation to the first wall projections– the same persistent rawness gives one a sense of gradual immersion, beckoned by this community of friends. The orchestra is seated in the balcony, in full view, meeting us halfway. There is no sudden lights-out or opening cymbal crash. Like every hard workout, or every silent meditation, it requires a warm-up.
Nathan Langston. Image via Satellite Collective facebook page.
Esme Boyce’s choreography is like a single-celled organism observing its own evolution. For the last 5 years her work has been consistently focused on the breaking-down and re-layering of rudimentary movements, and is steadily increasing in complexity. The most rewarding method of viewing her work is to set oneself a confident frame of reference. Whether it’s a single section or movement, a single piece, or her three most recent works, there can always be identified 3 basic stages: a point of departure (the introduction of a singular unit of movement, stripped of associations), a buildup (the increase in complexity via repetition), and a reflection (a now-complex movement encounters its own past). Now, what separates this from your typical begnning-middle-end structure is that it isn’t quite so linear. It’s more aptly described as exponential. But even that isn’t enough. At the third stage, when the evolved action encounters its former self again, there emerges a state which cannot be described with a mathematical metaphor. In fact, it is detrimental to try. The onset of the third stage is the moment at which humanity is discovered– in the broadest, most self-reflexive, most emotionally uncertain sense. Once you identify that self-awareness, a new field of possible interpretations explodes before you. It is the birth of history, and of emotion. It is reminiscent of Merce Cunningham or Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s best work, choreographing for the works of Steve Reich. I believe it is Esme’s desire to arrive at a genuine emotion, a first emotion, an emotion without precedent.
Esme Boyce; Emergence; image via Satellite Collective.
As the human body is ultimately the subject of all dance, each choreographer needs to decide how to confront its physical limits. Since the decline of ballet, a common approach is to unabashedly expose that limit, embracing sweat and heavy breathing as part of the dancer present on stage. Esme’s approach is something else. It doesn’t display the physicality itself so much as diagram it, dissect it, interbreed it, sometimes to points beyond recognition, but always with fascination. It even harkens back to ballet in its display of effortlessness. It doesn’t forcibly trap itself in the present moment, nor does it take the past as a given. Her method cannot be a breaking-down of existing lifeforms– it is far too intelligent for that– Esme doesn’t even take the complex human form as a given. Her given is a building block so simple that it is barely recognizable (a perfectly logical place to start for the designer of any universe). We are only shown its connection with complex life in ‘stage two’– the stage at which individual identities, characters, and communities are formed. Thus, at the climactic and most formally complex moments of her work, there isn’t the sense of relief that something has been regained or rebuilt, but rather one feels a deep scientist’s pride in having witnessed something come from nothing. Nothing less than the musical score provides this insight as well– it is a moving, classically harmonic buildup, not forcefully atonal (as the truly deconstructive late Romantic composers were). And the joy is that these three stages of exposition, evolution, and recognition are not linear– they exist in multiple chunks, scattered throughout the piece, each in its own stage of development. This, again, is why it’s so important to set frames of reference.
Esme Boyce; Emergence; image via Satellite Collective.
I remember when I was 18, I had my first college-level drawing critique. I was harshly challenged by a professor with gray hair about the photographic accuracy of my drawings–he was upset that I didn’t abstract enough. He asked me if I was bored in class. He asked me what interests me. He asked me if I had any interests at all. He told me not to look at my subjects ‘like a scientist’. Having grown up with a biochemist father, I recoiled at his notion that ‘scientist’ is equivalent to ‘unfeeling’. Scientists are as emotionally invested in the subjects of their experiments as artists, and research-based science involves just as much creativity as simply drawing figures from observation. Looking back, it’s fair to say that the shallowest postmodernists– the ones concerned only with deconstruction, for deconstruction’s sake– fit the bill of ‘unfeeling’ more than scientists do. The evidence in current trends in art and culture show that observing the world from a traditionally scientific point of view vastly enriches a work’s subject. That may be the great virtue of this generation– the acceptance of a multiplicity of viewpoints and the belief in the validity of any discipline.
Manuel Vignoulle’s choreography is of a more purely physical breed. Breathing, sweating, lifting, throwing, holding, dragging… from our first upright steps, this is the vocabulary we are all familiar with. The philosophy is that physicality can only be an honest quality if it is undisclosed, laid bare. Indeed, dancer Michael Wright said to me afterwards that Rituals is the most physically demanding piece he has ever done. It is being ourselves, in the moment, as fuel-burning beings, that is the only sincere way to think of our bodies.
Manuel Vignoulle; Rituals; image via Satellite Collective.
But Manuel doesn’t consider that enough– as the piece’s name implies, the goal of this physicality is to find a way to approach another human being. Given that these movements are more naturally associated with childhood and adolescence (few of us move like that on a daily basis), seeing two adults fall so physically in love on stage is even more affecting. However, love doesn’t come easily. One must first tread through the bog of seduction (when I say bog, I use it only to evoke an environment where everything slows down, where I must move one limb at a time to make progress). The internally seductive energy given off by Rituals, along with the moaning strings & piano, and charcoal suits & heels, makes it very tango-esque. And like in any tango, the impetus for seduction is precisely that two people never harmonize at first touch. Each of the three duets illustrates the struggle, at times against all rationality, for two people to sync up.
At the end, whatever uplift one gets from witnessing the dancers find their unity is dampened by the realization that the unity has come with a price– a price that their bodies have paid. Finally together, their limits have been reached, and the next struggle begins: the struggle to hold their tender bond intact. It is the lesson we are taught after every revolution, or for that matter, after every marriage. In this light, the way corporeal mechanics can measure people’s interconnectedness overlaps with the work of, say, Marina Abramovic.
A good dance piece is nothing short of a confrontation. Rituals features one such moment: in the second half, suddenly the music stops, the dancers line up to face the audience, and the only thing you see and hear is their exhausted breathing. Soon their exhales become rhythmic and lead into the next section. But those naked moments are the piece’s most memorable. With little energy left, the piece looks like it is demanding a response from the viewer, a contribution. As an audience member, if you feel you are being tested or pushed, then that is the time to embolden your senses. Do not shy away from the encounter.
Manuel Vignoulle; Rituals; image via Satellite Collective.
Live projection is still a developing medium in any performance, and its inherent challenges are immediately clear here: the conflict for attention, the necessity, if any, to relate formally to the dance happening below. Emergence takes a technically new path– limiting the projected light to a silhouette of the dancers in particular positions. When done well, it is very effective. I would say that even when the dancers do not perfectly align to the light, one still gets the sense of two media finding common ground, rather than being simply juxtaposed. In Rituals, the slow morph and rotation of the shapes on the wall contrasts with the acrobatics happening on the floor. Unless I ignore them entirely, the association between the two is thinly articulated, and I find myself jumping to bizarre conclusions regarding their role.
Manuel Vignoulle; Rituals; image via Satellite Collective.

Satellite Collective’s performances are strongest when the relationship between professionalism and rawness is most clearly defined. Tension exists, no doubt, between how well-produced & presented a piece is and how relatable it is as a work-in-progress. Seeing as the Collective has so far juggled half a dozen media with success, it remains to be seen whether or not they are able to maintain the qualities of a ‘movement’, the sense that each player is participating in something greater, the playful energy that excites and engages all of its supporters.

Satellite Collective @ BAM

I’m currently collaborating with The Satellite Collective, headed by Kevin Draper, in a handful of capacities.

-Designing their latest online publication: Transmission
-Consulting on motion graphics to accompany Manuel Vignoulle’s dance piece which will premiere in mid-May at BAM
-Writing a review for my good friend Esme Boyce’s piece, also premiering at that show
-Eventually, resident architect-editor

All these will start to take shape by early summer. I’m lucky to be included in such an energetic group– I hope this is only the beginning.

Choreography by Manuel Vignoulle. Photo by Lora Robertson.