Monday, September 27, 2010

Dandelion at BAC - And Still More Reflections

This is from collaborating performer Julia Hollas:

Opting Out/Diving In
I hate competition.  There's something about the required and unabashed self-assertiveness in it, the will to prove yourself as "better" than another, that I find constitutionally distasteful.  My parents say that when I was little they taught me not to kill ants and have been watching the ramifications of that lesson ever since, from a declaration of vegetarianism at age nine, to marching in anti-nuclear protests in high school, to the (thus far) final definitive moment when I quit my degree program in college, declared myself an artist, and moved to San Francisco, from then on out to be forever involved in the "process" of art making.  A clear statement: I would not be climbing up the ranks in a high-powered company.

Why didn't I choose New York?  The better known dance mecca of the U.S., that's really the spot for a young dancer who wants to make it big.  Honestly, I went west because the vibe suited me better.  New York felt too polished and defined: a successful dancer in New York evokes an immediate image in my mind, and the process of getting to that image felt like it would be too cut throat.  I didn't want to refine myself based on external criteria of  what it meant to be successful as a dancer, I wanted to find out why it was impossible for me to not dance, and pursue that to the end.  The amorphous Bay Area dance community seemed as if it would support that quest more.

Competition: succeeding in it means both being able to pursue the idea of yourself as better than another and accepting an outsider's point of view of what is and is not valuable. 

So, as we entered in to a project based around competition, I immediately decided not to compete.  I opted out.  I didn't care whether I won or lost, but I was clear that I wanted to create a valuable experience for myself.  To me this meant creating a piece of choreography that had been itching my brain for awhile, diving in to the physicality and emotional content of the material I was given to perform, and using every opportunity I could to find a sense of center and focus.

Then I realized that, by opting out, I was doing exactly what one does in competition.  I was choosing myself. 

From then on I began noticing what came up.  I saw how others played the game.  How some people played by sizing up the other players, what they were making, how they could make their own creation different.  How some played by considering the judges, their aesthetics, what they might like.  Others play indirectly: a show of sportsmanship, while it could just be good sportsmanship, could also be a play to gain points for the behavior.  A complaint against circumstance, while valid, could also be an attempt to bend the rules in one's favor.  Deciding not to compete and just focus on yourself could be just a tactic to refine your own machinery for warfare.  Whether we know it or not, we all play, and we all play differently.

I did come away with an incredibly sense of clarity from the residency.  I spent the time diving in to my own process.  I found more ways than expected of choosing and asserting myself.  I won the creative competition and came up somewhere in the middle in the performer competition, facts which continue to remain relatively meaningless.  (Relatively... I am in fact proud of my win.)  I've found a bit of acceptance in the fact that by asserting myself, I will occasionally be, intentionally or not, nudging myself above others, stepping on some toes, and taking things for myself.  I live and struggle with my all-too-human selfishness.  I trust that the search for balance will be a rich one.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

5771 New Year's Resolution

We just passed through the turning of the Jewish New Year, as well as the Autumnal Equinox. I start the new school year today. Seems to be a good time for setting intentions.

My New Year's resolution for year 5771 is to edit. I'm going to focus my resolution on editing my performance work, but I think it's really a project that will  spread out over all aspects of my life.

Editing is usually not easy for me. I like to say "Yes!" to things, which in some cases is a wonderful approach (if I may say so myself) and in some cases leads to too much stuff, chaos, overwhelm, messiness and a difficulty with letting go. Like most of us, I think my strengths are inseparable from my weaknesses, and it's this particular weakness that I want to challenge this year.

I've worked for many years to strengthen my ability to say "No," to not take on too much,  to throw out what isn't working, to simplify. And I'm making progress on this front, slowly but surely. But I'm up against many years of habit and conditioning and probably even DNA in this struggle. I think that this year  I'm ready for a more dramatic leap.

And this is where my performance practice and my spiritual practice fuse. I'm going to work on what I need to change in my life, through my creative work. I feel more confident about my ability to try out a radical change of approach in my art, than I do with my personality. I'm going to conduct a bold experiment as my New Year's resolution, within the laboratory of the pieces I'm working on this year.

I often find that I access a more "enlightened" part of myself when I'm choreographing and directing. Things that are hard in my ordinary life, come much more easily and intuitively in rehearsal and performance. When I'm making art, I have a much clearer sense of larger perspective, of working towards something that's bigger than just me. I thrive on the crisis mode that is part of putting together any live performance. No matter where we're at in our process, the "show must go on," and so I have to be present. I have to show up. I have to let go.

When I'm in my "day to day" mode, I can easily get wrapped up in insecurity, indecision, or regret. I'm working to hold a larger perspective here too, but it doesn't come as naturally for me yet. Sometimes I've thought of this seeming split in my personality as a problem. Either I'm being disingenuous in one area of my life, or I have some kind of psychological disorder. But more and more I'm seeing it as the different parts of myself teaching each other.

I've noticed that a little clarity, can lead to more clarity. So rather than berating myself for not being able to hold the same states of mind in my art-making and other selves, I can celebrate and take advantage of whatever clarity I do find, anywhere.

Now, editing is something that is still a big challenge for me in my art. But I feel heartened by the fact that I at least "sense the possibility" of editing in this area. I can sense the first steps of such a transformation, and feel encouragement from within to take those steps. My intuition tells me, that whatever I learn from my experiments with editing my performance creations, will be vitally relevant to the rest of my life.

So, I begin. My first idea is to share with my performance ensemble my resolution and to let them know I'm going to be taking some big risks with simplifying our creations. I don't want to limit what we do in rehearsal. I still want to do hours upon hours of improvisation, composition, and interdisciplinary experiments of all kinds. The difference for this year, is I want to let go of the compulsion to use all of what we come up with, or even all that I like of what we come up with, in our performances.

I want to attempt to only include the material that feels necessary to be shared. I've seen that there are many different ways of defining "necessary," so I want to limit what we put onstage to what feels necessary for the truth of the piece itself, not the inner processes of the creators/performers. This will not be easy.

I believe deeply in performance being healing and meaningful for everyone involved. This often leads me to leaving parts of my pieces intact that might not serve the full piece aesthetically, but that I feel are important to my collaborators for various reasons.

I'm going to have to continue to challenge my desire to have everyone in my projects be happy and approving of my choices. I'm going to have to challenge my desire to include everything and everyone--to try to represent the diversity I so love, at every turn. I'm going to have to challenge my desire to have every great idea our ensemble brings forth (and there are always tons of them) realized onstage.

For many people, this might seem like a piece o' cake. In some ways, it's part of the "ABC's" of choreography. But my artistic path has been about rejecting as many models laid on from the outside as possible. I've tried to only take on the practices that I've found to be helpful through actually experimenting with them in rehearsal, and to let go of what handed down to me solely because of tradition.

So I've been forging my own path, and experiencing both the positive and negative aspects of having the deeper aspects of my personality define my work. And once again I've come up against a limitation I want to address. I feel good about approaching this from a sense of wanting to find what works most skillfully, rather than try to fit into how I think it's "supposed" to be.

I'm sure it will be quite an interesting wrestling match between this new intention and my current artistic momentum. I'm sure I'll write about it often through this blog.

I wish everyone reading a joyous ad clarifying 5771!

Dandelion at BAC - More Culminating Reflections

As we returned to the grind of daily life back home, reflections on our BAC Residency have been trickling in. Here are a few more:

MICKEY KAY(Collaborating Performer) For me, "Don't Suck" was such a strange and powerful mix of things. New York City - somewhere I've never been and a place that completely overwhelmed and intrigued me. Competition - something I crave and love in certain contexts, but am deathly afraid of in others. Dance - where my inexperience both helps and hinders. All this smashed into two-and-a-half weeks of 8+ hour days, alongside an eclectic mix of very different people, away from my girlfriend for too long each day, in the midst of a 3-month road trip, subsiding on a diet of too much falafel and not enough water. The challenge of the whole project felt immense and exciting, and I've come away from this process very satisfied with what we've created and experienced.

JESS HOOKS (Costume Designer) I strongly feel that this could be one of the more pivotal projects I've worked on in recent years. It gave me an opportunity to revisit working with a movement-based company from the bay area that now I know was formative to my career and practice. Specifically I was able to ask questions and explore what it is to work with a designer in a devised / ensemble format as well as compare notes on making work in New York versus the west coast. I found that the cultures on each coast generated the same sort of problems with devising - both the gaps between the way designers and performers work as well as the challenges of time & money that exist creating in a collaborative way. I expected the performers to have a more relaxed relationship to competition than what I'd expect from a NY based group and what came up was surprising: I feel that the expectations we put on ourselves and how we compare and define our work against each other exists unanimously, regardless of art-making cultures. Its not just a NY thing. Its an art making thing. I also explored the relationship and use of the audience in these projects and was able to really experiment and try new things out on how to engage and understand how performers work with the audience. Being able to create work on the dancers which came out of my intuition and these experiments will hopefully integrate into my practice and I'm psyched to continue on with this. I think a lot will come out of it - and it was fricken awesome that Baryshnikov showed up & stayed for the whole performance.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Dandelion at BAC - The Final Score

On Tuesday, Sept. 7th, we had both our BAC residency culminating showing, and the final event for our NYC 2010 "Don't Suck!" Competition.

It was a thrilling evening. I felt that we transcended the notion of performing "for" people, and instead were able to connect at some other level as a group of people meeting in studio 4B at BAC at that particular moment, having a set of experiences together.

I think the fact that our performance was a structured improvisation (like a sports game) where a winner and loser would be found based on things no one could predict; and the fact that Mikhail Baryshnikov came to the show and stayed the whole time; and because our 2.5 weeks of intensive 8 hour days in that studio had built up a lot of energetic momentum for us--all made the evening a powerful one.

Once again, picking a winner and loser was difficult. Judges before the show said they would be able to score performers easily, and then during the show reported that it was much harder than they had anticipated. Particularly challenging was picking a loser. When looking for winners, I had the audience vote, and most did so. When looking for a loser, only 4 or 5 audience members were willing to raise their hands. It seems like we've discovered some interesting focus points for our future investigations.

But we did have decisions by the judges. Julia Hollas won the creation competition. She had faced off against David Ryther and Mantra Plonsey. Each made a piece, 5 minutes or less, and performed them for the judges and audience. It was a very close race.

Dana DeGuzman won the performer competition--also a close race. Mantra Plonsey came out on the bottom and got to do the loser dance to close the show.

Like our whole time in residency, the culminating performance stirred up a lot of interesting shadow-aspects to explore further. I'm very much looking forward to the next stages of this journey.

Here are some excerpts from the performance. (If you look closely you can pick out Mr. Baryshnikov sitting in the front row. I was very inspired by his humble presence and his support of young, experimental choreographers. Perhaps he will be the subject for a future post...)

Dandelion at BAC - Day 12 and 13 Group Summaries

Now that we've come home from the NYC residency, and are returning to "ordinary life," I'm starting to post the things I would have like to have posted earlier, but was too caught up in all the details and drama of our culminating performance to get to.

Here is the group summary for Day 12:

And here is the summary for day 13 -- just one day before the final competition at BAC:

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Dandelion at BAC - Culmination 1

Dandelion Dancetheater has now completed our “Don’t Suck!” residency at the Baryshnikov Arts Center.

We had a public performance/competition Tuesday night, Sept. 7th, and it was a huge success on many levels. It was both a rich evening of interdisciplinary live art, and an experiment yielding very important data. We learned a tremendous amount and have our work cut out for us during the next leg of our journey with this project.

A particular luxury of this residency is that we scheduled the culminating performance a day before we left the center, giving us a day of processing and integration—as well as more relaxed clean-up. I’ll be sorting through all that I have learned for a while to come. Below are parting refletions by some of the ensemble.

I asked everyone to respond to these questions, or else to write anything that felt important to them to share:






DAVID: New York. I wanted to work hard and learn something about myself. I also learned something about rats and how they all work hard to survive. I did work hard and I think I learned how fun that can be and how days off are much more satisfying when you’re working 12 hours a day.  I was surprised at my competitive streak and had a lot of compassion for the millions of people and rats and roaches who work hard everyday to all get along and compete for space and resources. We all had to find a way not to suck and we didn’t. Mr. Baryshnikov stayed for the second half, so there must have been something there.

HEATHER: I wanted to gain further physical strength, modern dance training and discipline for working long hours toward a divine art piece. What was difficult was that I am someone who wears her heart on her sleeve & I had emotions that rose swiftly and intensely during the competition like some kind of inconsiderate tempest. This caused me to struggle through a period of self-doubt/hatred and as usual I wanted to run away . . . but I didn’t. Loving people talked me through it as did the lovely part of myself and I came to a place where things were clearer and thusly felt safe. I believe that all the hard work we each put in made the ultimate performance (in front of Mikhail Baryshnikov himself) a veritable transformational gift to the audience. I am infinitely grateful for the NYC “Don’t Suck” residency experience!

CLEVELAND: When I came to New York I was happy that  I knew it would end. I liked being there but I didn’t like knowing what was waiting for me when I got back.  I had a guide that took me to uninteresting places. I think it was mainly because it was more convenient. My piece turned out very well. Better than it should have. That was pleasing, probably the best part of the trip.  I mean it's not that the dancers are bad , its that i'm not the best choreographer. In fact it wouldn’t have turned out well if it wasn’t for the amazing dancers. Uh ran out of things to say…    Okay I just remembered that
I went to the beach twice and never got in the water. I didn’t even have swim pants on either occasion. The hotel we were in was so fancy and had such a spectacular view that I stood up all night watching the sky change color. That was worth the trip. It was a good trip and now I can say that I went somewhere for summer vacation.

MISCHA: I   had a good time in New York.   Me and my bro’s   piece  were the best  I think.  I spent   most of   my  time  walking  around .  I’m scared  about the  homework to catch up on. But I’m also happy  that I’ll  get  back to my house.  It was fun to  meet  Misha.

The  apartment was nice  there  was a grate view.

DANA: I had always dreamed of moving to New York, so I looked forward to this trip to begin with. Although I wasn’t able to see all the tourist spots around the city, I was perfectly fine with it and actually preferred this. I felt like a real New Yorker, staying in Brooklyn, taking the subway to Manhattan, and working for 8 hours a day for six days a week, just creating and dancing. I must admit that this was the most dancing I had ever done in my life, but loved every moment of it. But its nice to come home.

STACZ: The physical demands were harsh and I wish to train more in endurence. As for strength I was surprised that I have become much stronger. It all had an expected surprise to it, so I don’t know if I can consider it a surprise because I know I will be asked to do something I hate and have to do it anyways. But in the end it will be a dynamic show. I have nothing else. That’s it.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A Review of David Ryther's "The Untempered Violin," guest-written by Mantra Plonsey

At his concert at The Tank last week, David Ryther made me remember why I love music.

Which is worth stating, because I feel claustrophobically threatened by practically every other composer-performer I know.

I avoid going to see live music, theater, dance, and independent film, and refuse to listen to any recordings made after 1999, or read anything by someone I know, used to know, or anyone who lives within 100 miles of me.

I am selfish, cowardly, self-centered and insecure, that's why, so stop inviting me to things, all right?

Consequently, I don't have the guts to invite anyone to performances I'm in, since I'm such a terrible person who doesn't deserve to have any friends at all, especially radiantly talented ones.

What if they're worse than me?
I'll be bored! And worse, I won't know what to say to them afterward-- oh, dear Performers A, B & C-- your glowing, proud hopeful little faces, sweaty with effort! "Wow," I say, "I haven't seen anything like that for years! Thanks for inviting me! That sure was something!" Big hug, and gotta go now.

Or what if they're BETTER than me?
Then I must tell them so, from the bottom of my heart,
and go home, dank with despair, and spend a bleak, unproductive month or so wondering why I was born-- what is the point of keeping ME around when there is Performer X: to adore, give awards to, and rave about in the New Yorker?

But back to David.

Not only do I know him, I've had the intoxicating honor of sharing the stage with him for years in Dandelion Dancetheater.

My toxic jealousy evaporates in the presence of his talent, which is genuine and modest, and which is one of the outstanding features about a really nice guy who, incidentally, works pretty darned hard to know himself.

The discipline that informs his violin playing is apparent as well in the way he moves in the world--  yes, he dances as well, but I mean the way he relates to people. Maybe when you spend 3-6 hours per day practicing one of the fussiest instruments on earth it has a way of leaking into the rest of your life. Or maybe it's all that yoga.

At the show on August 31st we were audience to the sort of program you usually have to pay seventy dollars a ticket for-- and that's in the cheap seats.

(When I rule the world, David Ryther will be paid one million dollars a year, and the evil businessmen at the Fox network will have to scrape along somehow.)

The program, nearly one and a half hours long:

The New York premiere of David's concerto in a series of etudes.
A storm, a lament, a tragedy, a poem.
It's a masterpiece, and would take at least the length of this review over again.

A solo violin piece, composed by Ryther, played during  a duet with the modern and classically trained Julia Hollas, also with Dandelion Dancetheater. Ms. Hollas, a thrilling and incandescent mover with a sinuous, powerful style, takes emotional and physical risks which excite and engage the viewer. She teaches ballet in San Francisco when not on tour.

(Did I mention that David, also a fluid improvisor, plays while dancing? We were treated to the rare spectacle of a man wielding 15,000 bucks worth of wood and horsehair while balancing his partner on his back, while turning, on the floor, and in the air...)

Also heard were a number of rare miniatures, performed solo by Ryther and joined also by his colleague, violinist Deborah Katz. These impressionistic works from the era of Luciano Berio and other experimental composers showcased David's facility with extended technique.

Whereas one can frequently find Stockhausen and Berg, etc., performed by new music ensembles monthly in New York, San Francisco, Berlin and so on, we don't always have the good fortune to see new (read: "difficult") music performed live with inspiration and expression. (And, just for good measure, with good old-fashioned bearded, Bohemian, wild-haired fervor.) Too often, it's just damned dry-- perfect technique, zero fire: a dismal advertisement for classical music, let alone the outer limits of composition. 

It is a centuries-old form of praise to declare that an artist is "divine", that he channels some rarefied light outside of him; for me, Ryther proves that the eternal genius of art originates within, and that each of us contains that flame.

--Mantra Plonsey

A clip from "The Untempered Violin"

Dandelion at BAC - Entering the Final Stretch

We've had quite a ride with the ups and downs of our residency this past week. I feel thoroughly challenged and tested by the weather, broken air-conditioning, the difficulty of navigating and guiding a group through emotionally-charged material and trying to acknowledge and integrate all the feelings and images and memories that have been trickling up from my subconscious as we probe into competition dynamics.

We have one more day of rehearsal, and then we're at performance day. I think it's all gonna accelerate really quickly now towards our sharing with the public--and our culminating competitions.

The few days before performance are almost always exhilarating and terrifying for me. There's this palpable sense of hurling towards an explosive end.

I question at this point why I ever thought art-making was a good idea, and especially what I was smoking when I decided to plan this particular performance. Everything comes into doubt, nothing seems ready, and there's never enough time to prepare. We're at the top of a roller coaster summit about to plunge into rickety depths that are hidden in darkness, and there's no way to stop it.

We did a very rough run of all our material yesterday, and as always, I'm completely surprised that it seems to flow and actually be the sketch of a complete piece. But of course, there's a ton of work still to be done.

Now is the time for me to call upon great courage. And great courage can only manifest when there is great fear. Performance seems to be courage cultivation practice for me--and the fear never seems to go away. There's always so much at stake in performance, and I think that is a key factor in my love for this path. It wakes me up and stops me in my tracks, over and over and over.

Here's our ensemble at work. This is Mickey helping our guest choreographers Mischa and Cleveland Plonsey with their ideas for a piece they co-created with us:

And then here's the report from our four judges for Day 12:

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Dandelion at BAC - A "Don't Suck!" Residency Overview

For anyone who wants a little more explanation of what we're working on in this creation residency that I've been blogging about recently:

Dandelion at BAC - Day Eight Judge Summary (Stacz)

Dandelion at BAC - Day Seven Judge Summary (Mickey)

Dandelion at BAC - Inviting Challenges

Our residency at the BAC has gotten intense. We're all weary, the air-conditioning is broken in the building, we've moved more and more into intimate emotional places with each other, and we're delving into our shadow-sides. I find myself often at a breaking point--raw and unsure and anxious. This alternates with feeling a sense of "rightness"--like I'm on the path I'm supposed to be on and things are unfolding in a powerful way. At my most difficult and groundless moments (which are more and more familiar to me now as part of the process of experimental creation) I am working with reminding myself that this is a necessary part of creative discovery. I found myself saying this to the choreographer/composer contestants who felt stuck preparing for the competitions this week, and now I have to walk my talk. Here's some thoughts from Day 8 of the "Don't Suck!" residency, by yours truly:

Dandelion at BAC - A slice of lunch break

Dandelion at BAC - A moment with Mantra

Dandlion at BAC: Elimination #1 (posted a week late)

Today we have our first showing of the individual pieces each ensemble member has been working on, and the first elimination. Two of the pieces will be voted out of the competition for what is performed in our culminating show.

Once again, what we all came up with together as a structure, and what we saw as a skillful means towards accessing our feelings about competition, has turned into a high-stakes contest. I guess that means our plan is working. But we always seem to forget how scary this aspect of competition can be.

Ensemble members started reporting feeling anxiety about the upcoming elimination, feeling stuck in their creative process, worry about whether they'd be able to make their pieces into something, and more.

I view these kind of emotional obstacles as necessary steps along a creative path. Of course it's a little different each time, but it seems to me that creativity is born out of being stuck in some way. Creativity is an enlivening response to a limitation or block. Without something to push up against, or through, or around, or in the opposite direction of, our creativity isn't as important. And I believe that creativity is one of the most important things there is.

Many people say, "I'm not really creative." Or, "That person is so creative." I think this is based on an illusion. Creativity is our birthright. It's a meeting of our authentic self and everything else around us. What we wear each day, how we drive moment to moment, every word we say, every action we do is a creative act. It's not that some people are more creative than others, it's that we are all creative, and we all have a unique path to follow to access greater and greater amounts of that creativity.

I'm so curious to see what creative breakthroughs might occur today in the crucible of competition. Each ensemble member has had 3 sessions to work on their individual pieces. And each ensemble member is in three other pieces. They all get a final 30 minutes this morning, and then we perform them for each other, in whatever shape they're in and vote. We'll vote off two of the eight pieces. Monday we vote off two more. Tuesday we vote off a final one, and then we are left with the three pieces that will compete against each other in the first half of our residency performance, judged by our celebrity judge panel.

The stakes are rising.