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Three responses to Maureen Whiting’s ‘Burden of Joy’: Cunningham, Goidell, Mattingly
photo by Hillary Goidell
On May 21 2015, Maureen Whiting showed a work in process called “Burden of Joy” at SAFEhouse. Alma Esperanza Cunningham, Hillary Goidell, and Kate Mattingly share their reflections on the work.

05-HGoidell-21_1612Alma Esperanza Cunningham

As I walked to my seat, most of the performers were visible, sitting and watching. Maureen was hovering over white fabric that looked like bedding. Her eyes set to the audience.

There was some walking, some holding of objects and some eye contact between performers. Then the group gathered quietly as a member broke into a highly aerobic jazz dance routine to the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”. I didn’t expect that but I loved that it happened.

Maureen goes on to tell us where her grandmother and mother were born and where they died. She tells us the story of a bear that was “shooed” away from her grandmother’s cabin only to be shot by campers and finished off by a ranger. There is talk of a horse. We watched the performers take on these animal creatures that seemed to be shadows of past and present. Of the unresolved feelings and images that haunt us after something traumatic has happened.

Compelling moments included realizing that a performer lay beneath that white fabric and then watching the performer emerge like a shaman rubbing her chest and making sounds or the dancer as horse who bit into Maureen’s arm as she walked in circles. And then there’s the moaning. The sensation of watching a grown woman hunched over moaning so deeply was profound and disturbing. Was she giving birth? Was she dying? Was she the bear?

Maureen’s authority and commitment to her process connects everything. So much investigation and it shows. No trends, tricks or pretenses. It was powerful to watch.
photo by Hillary Goidell
Hillary Goidell:

Throughout the piece the performers seemed to regularly change planes, moving fluidly from real to imaginary. From the four dancers as a group circling with grounded presence, they break off into what seem like tableaux of memory: here a horse’s leap, there a bear claw. The dancers often shadow each other in duets. Not quite alter egos, more like mental projections of Maureen’s story.

Having photographed the performers during rehearsal, I had seen only parts of the piece. My view was partially eclipsed (or magnified?) by the camera. As an audience member during the performance, I felt the bigger context and found characters developing and relationships forming. Moving from plane to plane in my own mind and with the dancers, I saw Maureen as a protagonist with Belle a companion in her story–girlish? growing and morphing like a totem? Meredith danced an almost ghostlike, prowling counterpoint and Motoko beat the primal time. Did Ezra’s presence alternate between antagonistic force and comforting partner?
photo by Hillary Goidell
Kate Mattingly:

There’s a tiny lobby space at SAFEhouse (formerly Kunst-Stoff) where audiences sometimes gather before being invited up the stairs to the studio/theater space. I remember standing there until about 8pm last Thursday when we told to come up to the 2nd floor. The contrast between the tight, noisy foyer and serene, spacious upper level was striking.

The studio floor was strewn with material: I remember leaves and red boots, the tiny piano, a miniature easel and brush, and what looked like a large white rock but turned out to be one of the performers (Motoko Honda) buried under a mattress cover.

Maureen Whiting was lounging in this space, watching us enter, and seeing each person as we took our seats. The atmosphere was serene and expectant. I became acutely aware of textures: not only material but acoustic. This theme of textures expanded as the work evolved with each performer generating a particular movement quality. Meredith Webster was creature-like, moving on tip-toe with extended limbs that suggested the locomotion of a praying mantis. Ezra Dickinson was more internal and pensive, placing the red boots on his hands and then his shoulders as if exploring where these “appendages” belonged. Belle Wolf was riveting as a free-spirited and expansive performer. Maureen seemed like a narrator or facilitator, sometimes speaking while others moved or cueing a phrase of lunging steps that repeated until the cast was visibly and palpably exhausted.

Textures of sounds, of breath, of steps, of props, of relationship.

Maureen told us autobiographical stories that involved bears and horses, and these creatures seemed to linger in the space after the stories ended,
visible in flashes of a step by one of the performers, or percolating as traces.

The melancholy of the stories foregrounded ways in which feelings, especially loss, can tear worlds apart. These sensations seemed to extend into, propel, and become tangible through the careening and off-kilter movement. When elements of the performance come back to me they are like images of landscapes inhabited by creatures and sounds: Motoko creating a pulsing, scraping rhythm as she circled the space or Ezra gently writing on the small easel. His words disintegrated and disappeared, erased as the performance continued, but lingering in memory.

This layering of presence and absence made the performance both evocative and poignant, tapping into what it feels like to endure, to encounter hardship, to persevere against and with borders and barriers.
photo by Hillary Goidell
Maureen Whiting’s work will be a part of Hope Mohr’s evening, ‘Bay Area choreographers at the intersection of language and choreographic thinking’ on Nov. 8th, 2015 at 7pm.

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ResourcesFebruary 20, 2015
Kate Mattingly
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D.I.R.T: Dance in Revolt(ing) Times: a conversation with Alma Esperanza Cunningham, Marie Tollon, and Kate Mattingly

cropped-140607-Alma-Esperanza-Cunningham-Movement-1386-2.jpg

The following email exchange occurred after “D.I.R.T: Dance in Revolt(ing) Times” at Dance Mission Theater, January 23-February 2, 2015. We are sharing it here as a way of opening conversations about conditions available to artists making work and with the hopes that this dialogic format may be a way to reflect and honor the multiple voices and impressions that are generated by dance performance.
On Wednesday, February 4, 2015 9:59 AM, Kate Mattingly wrote:

dear alma,

it was great to see both you and your work on friday night –

a friend and colleague, marie tollon, who is also the writer-in-residence at ODC went to see your work sunday and we had an email exchange we thought to share with you and to ask if you want to respond to our thoughts? most of all we both want to thank you for an inspiring evening!

 

wishing you all the best, kate (and marie is cc’ed)

On Tue, Feb 3, 2015 at 8:57 AM, Marie Tollon wrote:

Hi Kate,

How are you?

What did you think of D.I.R.T.? I only went to program B (the one you recommended) and was taken by the work of Esperanza Cunningham. It navigates such a strange space between abstraction and figuration.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

xo

Marie

http://thetripledogdare.wordpress.com

On Tue, Feb 3, 2015 at 11:16 AM, Kate Mattingly wrote:

bonjour marie – yes!

I find alma’s work really important and engaging – I sent a message to hillary [goidell] the next day that i include below since she asked about the show and i would LOVE to talk to you more about program as a whole –

here’s the message to hillary:

i love alma esperanza cunningham’s work but it was one of many pieces on the program so it was a long night and made me think a lot about what it means to define choreography as “political” or making a “political statement” – the program was curated on the premise that all the artists are making political statements (“artists who dare to say something bold” stated the program) so for most of the pieces this meant using text to literally say what was being explored or to base the work in narrative – only alma’s work turned the proposition of “political” into movement exploration that altered a sense of space and time – and by calling attention to our subjectivity (to our experience of self within an environment) this shifted what we know to be “true” or “real” or “valid” – and i LOVE that approach….

i have questions about how the program was structured – i continue to think that placing such different approaches or aesthetics together in one performance does more to diminish their importance than to expand the audiences for these forms or to broaden awareness of them. yet for years (especially in NYC in the 1990s) these mixed bills were the ways programmers and presenters sought to include many artists and (ideally but impossibly) cross-fertilize audiences for dance…. it has, to me, never worked… that’s my opinion… and yet i do think it’s important that there is recognition a spectrum of work. i find there is a tendency in mainstream thinking to relegate most dancing to a category like “apolitical” or “decoration” and by inviting dancers like the last performance to be included on the program showed how folkloric or indigenous styles also carry meanings and messages: they preserve ideas, values, traditions of groups of people. some have often been repressed or banned by colonial powers – as well as used to “represent” entire nations, which raises questions of power as well as issues of entitlement, ownership, and exploitation. personally I am curious about how dancing that is about community, solidarity, histories, and celebration works against the tendency in euro-american cultures to privilege individualism, resistance, or creative (as code for individual) expression. does this makes sense?

one more note to marie: i especially appreciate how alma’s stretches time by use of repetition and duration – things seem to go on forever – like the pairs of dancers crawling on their knees with carrots – or the one dancer who balances in passé on releve for no apparent reason… love love love those moments

when do we next see each other? xoxo – k

On Tue, Feb 3, 2015 at 12:41 PM, Marie Tollon wrote:

Thanks so much for taking the time to respond! I love hearing your perspective!

I really love how you defined the way Alma stretches time. I totally agree, in retrospect. For me, those 4 women, two by two on their knees, delineated a perfect square around the performer who was centerstage, building a very classic framework, that is completely disrupted throughout the piece (up until the end, where the performers are on a line, perpendicular to the audience). There’s so much about the work that it is about playing with gaze, viewer and viewed perceptions. The work seemed to also touch upon and subvert the way women/dancers are portrayed and displayed, performing these traditional presentational poses (like the passé that lasts forever, or the foot-in-your-hand développé which seems to be borrowed to gymnastic competitions). Here the dancers, although embodying the exterior shape, offered a blank, empty and disconnected look. Throughout the piece, without ever falling into becoming literal, Alma touches upon so many stigmas and cliches associated with the female body in society and performance alike….

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Alma Esperanza Cunningham
Date: Sat, Feb 7, 2015 at 11:43 AM
Subject: Re: D.I.R.T.
To: Kate Mattingly
Cc: Marie Tollon

Hello everyone-

Thanks for the feedback and for letting me chime in… and it was a long, long, long night.

Kate-

Yeah “artists who dare to say something bold”. That’s a lot to live up to… just a little intimidating especially because I don’t use text and my work is anything but literal.

The work lives in this odd formal world. It’s technical, articulate and awkward. And at one point in my career I was known for making “refreshingly apolitical” work. So what is my bold statement?

My body and all it encapsulates is enough. The female body is enough. Movement is enough.

I feel like technology is yet another tool to amplify the existing exploitations that continue to blur the lines between power and disempowerment. Being authentic is hugely challenging in a world that values image and brand more than content. And now the female body is seen even more as a commodity. Being objectified is sold as a form of power because people will pay attention… they will buy the products that surround the objectified body. So our culture follows along seduced into believing what they see without any question. It’s so subtle and hugely dangerous for everyone.

I’m interested in putting that into a performance/installation format and proposing the same experience but in a way were the viewer is accountable. The viewer is no longer looking at an image on a computer screen, or passively in a chair. They are seeing a real person out of the confines of a set context. My hope is that this energetic and unpredictable exchange will instigate new possibilities and reflections.

Marie-

You touched on a lot of aspects that I have been exploring… gaze, presentation, objectification and exploitation. The durational/time warp element is something I have just started to play with and feel like I could go deeper into.

Curating is an art form. We don’t have presenters in the Bay Area and we don’t have real curated platforms. There are few opportunities for local artists to be seen at the larger venues. It has been like this since forever.

I don’t think you can compare New York to San Francisco. New york has that infrastructure, history, and dance legacy. It’s all grown up. San Francisco’s really a baby … we are not set up to support dance artist in real fundamental ways. It’s DIY or die.

I think the nature of mixed bills and showcases started with the intention of introducing audiences to new artists but with no infrastructure to support local artists and with theaters like Dance Mission struggling to stay afloat it becomes a way of survival.

My work is uncomfortable. Is there an audience out there that will fill the house to see the kind of work I make?

There is no model in the Bay Area that will support dance artists yet we still make the work. I feel very lucky to find myself surrounded by talented artists. I have this community of collaborator/performers who often are choreographers that have worked with me on SHE WENT. We build a relationship that informs the work. Everyone has a voice and everyone is gladly accountable. We just keep going deeper because we have no expectations and nothing to lose. SHE WENT collaborators: Caitlin Daly, Karla Quintero, Romina Rodriguez, Irene Hsaio, Daria Kaufman, Keryn Breiterman-Loader, Arletta Anderson.

Thanks-

Alma
On Sun, Feb 8, 2015 at 2:15 PM, Alma Esperanza Cunningham wrote:

My email is funky. The thread is lost but here’s something I wanted to add.

Hi guys-

I was reflecting on what I wrote yesterday and want to add something. In reference to finding an audience, what I mean was that the audience for SHE WENT may not be found in a theater. SHE WENT is a full on installation. I want the viewer to move through it… walk from one perspective to the next… I want the viewer’s response to be part of the piece. Everyone participates in the experience. Not your traditional dance audience. I’m working on a project called private moves in public spaces that would take SHE WENT out to play in a lot of different environments.

I have cut and pasted my DIRT application below for additional SHE WENT info-

SHE WENT is a pure movement piece that investigates femininity and feminism by taking hyper sexualized images of women from movies and television and putting them on stage. Basically I am using these totally inappropriate yet acceptable exploitations to instigate a conversation about feminism and what it means in todays world.

I started the process of SHE WENT by making solos that reflect the female experience.

My esthetic is influenced by post modernism and pop surrealism. I make cognitive work and have been investigating the space between audience and performer, with performer as both subject and object. I like to take images and tilt them. I want the audience to question and feel based on their own experience of what they see so my work is mostly abstract.

I’m interested in making a statement that a woman’s body and all it encapsulates is enough.

Be blessed-

Alma

Movement Research:Critical Correspondence

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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