Bill’s Blog: Another Summer Closes Down as the Future Opens
This has been quite some August! Maybe the best way I can talk about it is to just list some of its “landmarks”:
1) Our dear Dr. Oliver Sacks, the subject of our first Live Ideas Festival passed away this morning… Ren Weschler, the curator of our first two Live Ideas (The World of Oliver Sacks – 2013, & James Baldwin, This Time – 2014) sent us the following moving email this morning:
“Oliver died this morning. Peacefully. He had just been sleeping more and more and now this.
My daughter Sara, his goddaughter, got the news in Kampala, where she happened to be rereading The Fire Next Time. And texted me this: ‘It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death — ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.” – line of James Baldwin I just read.
And he did. They both did. I am tempted to say Amen. Only Oliver would have given me that look. Or not. Who knows.
Love to you both. Ren”
He was so important to many in our community and around the world. Our condolences to his companion, Billy Hayes and his trusted assistant Kate Edgar.
2) August 6 and 9: I am embarrassed to say that the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have slipped by my awareness were it not for my longtime friend and colleague, Eiko Otake of Eiko and Koma engaging me in a conversation around the publication of Trinity to Trinity (published by Station Hill of Barrytown) by Kyoko Hayashi that she translated. The book is a fabulous read both for Eiko’s probing introduction and for her moving translation of Hayashi’s – a “hibakusha” i.e., survivor of the Nagasaki bombing – recounting her pilgrimage to Los Alamos, NM and the Trinity Site (where the first atomic test occurred).
Here is an email I sent Eiko shortly after receiving the book:
“I received your very lovely translation of Trinity have read the introduction and started reading the poetic text. I am very interested, but have some questions. Here is a paragraph from my recent blog that I edited out:
‘Time and space are malleable.’ Eiko said this to me at the lovely gathering ADF Director Jodee Nimerichter threw in honor of Eiko and the BTJ/AZ Dance Company following our respective closing performances at this year’s Festival.
Eiko was saying that the idea of space and time being ‘folded’ was brought home to her when she learned that the subject of our latest work “Analogy: Dora/Tramontane” uses not just another Holocaust story (there are thousands of them says Eiko), but that our subject – Dora Amelan – is alive and, what’s more, Bjorn Amelan’s mother.
Curious: why does a character in a work like Dora/Tramontane gain more dimensions/validity by being alive if this work is based on oral history of a person of extreme age?
There will certainly be a time when the subject is no longer alive. Will the work lose validity as a result?
I look forward to continuing this conversation.
Now, having plunged into the book and understanding more about this great writer and survivor of Hiroshima, I am interested in talking with you about what this means to your work and what my trilogy of characters might mean to my own. I propose a casual email exchange where we ask and answer each other’s questions.”
It is a first attempt at starting a conversation with Eiko on the subjects of memory, history and time, which we are both addressing in our works at this point. Eiko has graciously agreed to start this dialog that I hope to report on in a future blog and, perhaps, make the subject of a future Open Spectrum at NY Live Arts.
3) All praises to Babs Case and her super crew for making our residency and performances of Analogy: Dora/Tramontane at Jackson Hole’s Center for the Arts a big success and a delightful week.
We are so honored to partner with this force of nature, Babs Case, as she sets about building a legacy of support for her Dancers’ Workshop and we are doubly proud that our own longtime friend of BTJ/AZ Co. and current resident of Jackson Hole, Carol Tolan, not only underwrote for the second year in a row our residency, but pledged to take the lead in insuring future creative residencies and presentations of the next two sections of the Analogy trilogy.
One of the most moving moments of our time there was during a Q&A session following an open rehearsal when – just as I had asked the audience what encountering Dora’s story had given them – a 9 year-old dance student asked, “What have you learned from Dora?” The appropriate answer can be found in the trilogy, New York Live Arts and the naked conversations around this era we’re attempting to live through…
4) The Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles partnership with the BTJ/AZ Co. was launched during an exhilarating week of events led by Janet Wong and I-ling Liu. Here is the copy of Janet’s text and photos (with former company member and current Associate Professor of Dance, Roz LeBlanc Loo. This partnership is made possible thanks to the support of Roz LeBlanc, Patrick Damon Rago and Dean Bryant Alexander
“Team LMU. Just finished. It was great. We’re exhausted-Janet”
5) Here are a few pictures taken in the past two weeks, which Bjorn and I have spent in our little house high up on the mesa of Northern NM.
6) Back in NY, Kim Cullen leads our staff with a firm hand as we reassess and reconfigure. We would like to bid a fond farewell full of gratitude to Katie Jennings (Marketing) Elizabeth Cooke (Press) and Carley Manion (Stage Manager, BTJ/AZ Co.) for all they have given the organization and how they have left us in a position of strength. We welcome to our organization consultants TASC Group (press) and Heidi Riegler (Marketing).
We hope you will join us for our coming season, which opens on September 9th with performances by Louise Lecavalier
You like movies? Ironically, the most interesting cinema we have seen recently has been TV. The first season of American Crime is an excruciating, dramatic investigation of our criminal justice system. Ray Donovan confirms my belief that we’re privileged to live through a golden age of TV writing.
Bill’s Blog: Now!
This is part of a series of monthly blog posts–penned by Bill T. Jones–designed to provide further insight into his creative process, inspirations and more.
“While everything changes, everything remains the same as well…”
As I entered the lobby of New York Live Arts on a recent hot July afternoon, I observed for the second time in a week a group of young people in animated conversation much like the one I had observed the day before. In the midst of this group was the Emmy-nominated actress, Uzo Aduba, known for her role as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren in the Netflix original television series Orange Is the New Black (2013–present). Uzo and I have been acquainted since I choreographed her in Will Power’s The Seven at New York Theater Workshop some years ago. Uzo enthusiastically introduced me to two of the young actors- Caleb Grandoit and Charlie Jackson, who had just participated in a master class she had led on the Live Arts’ stage for Opening Act’s yearly workshop.
Everyone was quite excited by a work Caleb had just shown that, in his words, chronicled the journey from slavery through the Civil Rights movement to our present moment of protest around issues of police brutality and racism.
At one point I asked Caleb if he was saying in his piece that things had changed and he answered that no, he didn’t think things were that different…
His answer was so stark that I do hope that we have a further opportunity to delve into what is meant by “things have not changed!”
The above encounter came in the wake of having just returned from the American Dance Festival (ADF) in Durham, NC, where, as always, questions of tradition, innovation and creativity are stirred up.
“Now… Now, Now, Now, Now! If you calm down you will find that all the work and details are in your body. Replace the mental chatter with something else.
Sometimes, I just say ‘Now’ to give myself something else to do so as not to give in to anxiety. Calm down and do the most with what you have!”
– Angie Hauser* teaching Intermediate Technique Class –ADF July2015
Now? Rather than fixating on Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company’s performance at the Durham Performing Arts Center that night, or allowing the paralysis of memory with all its ghosts and long ago events to shut out the present, I decided to go where the new dancers were. So I dropped into Angie Hauser’s intermediate technique class. The class spent the first 40 minutes on the floor. The participants were instructed to roll across the floor “as if each cell in your body was oriented down into the floor. Allow your body to be totally splayed as if growing tentacles for suction, pulling and pushing as one hungry body part is replaced by another fighting inertia.” The exercise encouraged a deeply inner-focused exploration.
This first sortie across the floor was belly down. They were then told to start another on their backs. “Everything is engaged!” Angie said as the class took on the aspect of one of those military training exercises designed to crawl under barbed wire.
“Figure it out as you go!”
The next traverse of the room started in a crouched sitting position. Angie demonstrated expertly one foot pushing along the floor in the desired direction as the entire body stayed engaged, roiling tentacle-like, clinging, repulsing. Each dancer was encouraged to evolve from the crouch to the back to the belly before returning to the opening position.
The accompanist, Adam Crawley, used a laptop to generate a heavy, beat-driven atmospheric cacophony that seemed, at first, at odds with the inner focus demanded by Angie, but perhaps actually encouraged it. Does this generation, constantly assaulted by sounds, images and stimulation, find its “still-point” in this way?
At this point Angie was saying something to the effect, “Getting from your knee to your soft belly is your problem to solve. Practice it over and over. Sometimes a pointed foot gets in the way of what you’re trying to do. Interrogate the use of your foot. Explore the palate of your feet. What does the moment call for?”
Angie’s style of teaching would not have been alien to those of us at the American Dance Asylum under the leadership of Lois Welk or Jill Becker. The American Dance Asylum was a collective of dancers and choreographers (aspiring!) that Arnie Zane and I were members of in Binghamton, NY, back in the 1970s. Some of us would sometimes parody “traditional” technical training that relied on existing forms (ballet, jazz, Graham, etc.). We adopted an attitude that resulted in a practice that insisted that technique is anything one does every day that provides one with the skill needed to perform one’s work. If your work demanded that you pick your nose, you should pick your nose every day and investigate nose picking as a practice!
Watching this class, which asked young dancers to go inside themselves first and to approach training as a highly internal and individualistic pursuit, I asked the question, “does the work performed inform the training or is it the opposite?” I don’t know who the young dancers were, so I am going out on a limb here, suggesting, “These are the children of an individuated, democratic, non-hierarchical ethos in pursuit of… What?”
“We hold these truths…”
Each era has its own set of assumptions, values and expectations that its “innovators” subscribe to. What is the art that comes from this era’s perceived truths? I recall with pleasure and mild uneasiness hearing legendary director of ADF, Charles Reinhart, say in an interview that of an era much besotted with Eastern philosophy, “There is too much Tai-chi onstage these days!”
One of our goals at New York Live Arts is to identify the most potent expressions and give them a platform.
Curiously enough, when Angie’s class stood up following its long floor session, it began a series of standing exercises: pliés, tendus, legs, feet, spine; exercises that would not have been alien to Doris Humphrey, Jose Limon or a young Merce Cunningham. Was this a choice of the teacher or was it a pragmatic requirement of the Festival that the young dancers should have the widest exposure, offering the best preparation for the “brave new world” and its burgeoning choreographing population in search of something deep, resonant and durable?
The next afternoon at ADF, I dropped in on an exciting panel entitled “Dancing on the African Continent”. The panelists were Gregory Maqoma (South African choreographer), Ivy Birch (moderator), Chuck Davis (Choreographer, founder of Dance Africa whom this year’s ADF was dedicated to), DD Kodolakina (dance critic from Togo). It was a lively, amicable exchange – warm and moving for several reasons.
Certain moments stand out:
- Chuck Davis, irrepressible as always, when making his framing comments commanded us all to our feet to find “the pulse, the rhythm” exhorting us to chant “Dancers united will bring peace to the world!”
- French speaking DD shared through his translator that he feels a bit isolated, as he is one of a handful of professional dance-writers working on the continent. He went on to say that he relished being at ADF as he could see many forms of dance there as opposed to the steady diet of French choreographers dominating the dance world in his country.
- However, it was Gregory Maqoma’s comments and the ensuing discussion around the notion of tradition that resonates most as I look back at the event. Gregory told us that because dance was such a part of his world growing up in South Africa it was barely understood as a profession! Growing up near a hostel for migrant workers from across Southern Africa, he was thrilled to see their display of traditional dances.
Gregory declared that he uses tradition to aggressively reframe and reference questions of power, history, identity and the future – all questions relevant to his countrymen. His ultimate purpose, however, is to bring joy!
- DD Kodolakina responded that Africa’s creators are questioning themselves about the future and the now. Dance in Africa is no longer traditional. He feels that African creators are preoccupied with getting their work “out of Africa” (in several senses of the word, I believe…). He feels they must, as a result, evolve, lest the very traditions we were discussing die.
And then there was Bjorn’s and my first visit to Fire Island. “Your first time?!!!” People said with disbelief. “How is that possible?” I had never given it much thought, but I suppose it was because my identification with Gay culture has always been a wary one. I was of the belief that one should be suspicious of any tradition that came with prescribed rituals and geography. Arnie Zane and I declared we were not interested in living in any “ghetto” be it religious, racial, sexual or artistic.
Following the crush of passengers disembarking the ferry at The Pines, I was bombarded with feelings and questions. Why was I so filled with excitement and anticipation? Was it the hoards of buff, shirtless gods and their admirers, the beauty of the place, the promise of unbridled pleasure, of security, of inclusion?
It could have been simply that here was an institution, a tradition, that was built on the need for safe-haven and that I was coming “home” just as wider acceptance of “expanded sexualities and genders” could be making it all irrelevant…
You like movies: Check Finding Vivian Maier on Showtime!
*Angie Hauser is a Bessie award winning dancer and choreographer. Her dancing life is marked by two long-time collaborations – she has created dances with Bebe Miller since 2000 and with Chris Aiken since 2003. These collaborations have yielded years of making, performing, and thinking about dance with a family of brilliant dancers, musicians, writers and artists. Hauser is deeply influenced by Miller and Aiken, as well as other collaborators, who currently include Jennifer Nugent, Darrell Jones, Paul Matteson, Omar Carrum and Claudia Lavista and musician Mike Vargas. She is an Assistant Professor at Smith College.
Announcing Live Core!
The Associate Artist Program is now Live Core. Live Core is a creative incubator, network, and platform for artists to elevate and propel their ideas forward. Utilizing the resources of New York Live Arts, Live Core empowers artists to connect with larger audiences, raise funds to support their work, and engage with industry professionals and other Live Core artists to bolster their professional and artistic development. Putting creativity front and center, Live Core artists enliven the ecology of performance in New York City and beyond.
We are maintaining features like low 6% processing fee for fiscally sponsored donations and a range of discounts from tickets to New York Live Arts season performances, workshops and even advertising within our programs we are enhancing the program with a series of professional development workshops and community events plus access to liability insurance. For a full list of benefits click here.
Be on the lookout as we announce a robust season of in-house professional development workshops and opportunities to meaningfully engage with the Live Core community.
Bill’s Blog: Signifying
This is part of a series of monthly blog posts–penned by Bill T. Jones–designed to provide further insight into his creative process, inspirations and more.
The shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC didn’t really strike home, or at least strike the place that matters, until I, like most , was bowled over when our President, Barack Obama, started singing (!!!) Amazing Grace. After last year’s long hot summer (remember Ferguson, remember Michael Brown, remember Eric Garner…) I was – as I am sure others were – beginning to feel that I was suffering from a kind of fatigue. Call it race, call it violence in America, call it the intractable conversation, call it the 24 hours news cycle… But now, this public and heartfelt expression of an age-old African American ritual, in which our President was literally leading, was wrenching and even clarifying. So this is where we are at now. We at New York Live Arts are moved and we are looking for the correct actions and partners to help make this tragic event, so burdened with symbolism or should I say signification, a meaningful and potent action. Our next season’s Open Spectrum series is a logical place for this work to begin…
New York Live Arts is cooking! Kim Cullen (Interim ED), Tommy Kriegsman (Director of Programs), Andrea Nellis (General Manager), Jean Davidson (Outgoing ED), Bjorn Amelan (Creative Director) and myself (Artistic Director) continue to negotiate this transitional moment under the tireless leadership of our Board Chair, Richard Levy, and the Board itself.
Downstairs in the Theater, an impressive lineup of rentals has been keeping things lively and the company’s dancers, fresh from their successful premiere of Analogy:Dora/Tramontane at Montclair State University, have embarked on a weeklong workshop intensive with students from across the nation.
Jenna Riegel and Talli Jackson, two BTJ/AZ dancers, invited me to drop in on that workshop and share some insights and ideas about Story/Time, the subject of that week. As I walked into the studios, a group of young students were drilling a short sequence from Blauvelt Mountain (one of the menu items used in the choreography of Story/Time), an important duet that Arnie Zane and I created in 1980. Unlike Arnie and my own pairing, these young students’ pairings were mixed in ways (gender, body type, race…) that I could not have accepted some 10+ years ago when we began restaging the dance. I was overwhelmingly attached at that time to the “short/tall, Black/White, male/male” template that I felt was essential to the very meaning of the piece. It’s curious how these signifiers of flesh and bone reality, Arnie’s and my relationship, have receded with time. What is left is the ritual of gesture, spacial negotiation, sound and the all-important task-based choreography.
Leaving the workshop and killing time before I attempted this blog, I picked up the April 2015 edition of the very handsome Congress on Research in Dance – Dance Research Journal published by Cambridge University Press. All the articles are well researched, striving to articulate timely issues in the field of performance, scholarship and history.
Two articles caught my attention:
The first is Erin Brannigan’s Dance in the Gallery: Curation as Revision. Editor Mark Franko describes the article as “questioning the extension of the choreographic into the gallery setting, and interrogating the consequences of the over expanded concept of ‘the choreographic’ that has served to veil the influence of dance on visual arts since the early 20th Century. Brannigan points to the challenges of revising the history of a relation that is now being made visible, but is also distorted in the gallery context. The relocation of dance to the visual art site of display in the museum implies a deskilling of the choreographer whose function is now appropriated by the curator. The drive to extinguish medium-specificity is considered as another strategy of expropriation of dance as a discipline. The anxiety of influence hangs like a dark cloud over this scene of transference.”
I suppose this anxiety is of the same variety I feel with the brand new Whitney’s new theater, its Curator of Performance, the New Museum’s Performance Series and the ongoing curation at venerable institutions as the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Arts. I was a bit chilled by a quote from one part of this essay entitled Body as Archive in which the writer (Brannigan) says “The power play between the robust gallery and the transient dance is clearly articulated in Jerome Bell’s opening quote in which he suggests that the gallery as an institution bestows worth on dance as an art form: ‘Dance is starting to be recognized as art. In the end it is as if you had to enter the museum to be legitimized!’”
Silly me, I thought dance was an art already… or, at least, that was the way I have been behaving for the past 44 years…
The second article that caught my attention is Tiffany Barber’s Ghostcatching and After Ghostcatching, Dances in the Dark. (See excerpts at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aL5w_b-F8ig and https://vimeo.com/12957216). Editor Franko describes it as concerning “the relation between two versions of a work of digital dance and the underlying transfer of Bill T. Jones’s improvisation with its virtual rendering through motion capture. Ultimately, the article discusses how digital culture as a ‘utopian space,’ can erase all traces of race, gender, and sexuality from the dancing body, coincides with a post-racial discourse where race is no longer visually marked. This is complicated by Jones’s turn to a formalist approach to choreography in the wake of the Still/Here affair. Barbara skillfully teases out the contradictory desires (of Jones as well as his critics) to detach Jones’s material body – marked as it is by race, sexuality and gender – from the virtual body depicted in Ghostcatching and to insist on the impossibility of that detachment.”
You can imagine the “frisson” I experienced when reading this article on the same day as the obituary in The New York Times of NY City Ballet’s – do I dare call him “Black” – dancer, Albert Evans, wherein he is quoted saying “People should know you from the stage, and not from your life. If someone can find out who you are from the stage, that’s everything.”
Ms Barber’s article, like the Dance Research Journal itself, is evidence of keen intelligence in search of truth(s). Whenever I read such analysis dependent on a strict, esoteric use of “art-speak” and proceeding from a passionately researched platform of historic detective work, I ask: What is it for? And after, what does it mean? What does it signify
Nonetheless, I am honored to be part of a serious discourse, wherever and however it occurs!
Two sentences in the article gave me the theme for this blog’s entry:
- “In Ghostcatching, Jones’s dancing body – which arguably had become a sign for black, gay male sexuality by the time artist Robert Mapplethorpe photographed him in 1985…”
- “Critical accounts by dance study scholar’s Ann Dils and Danielle Goldman exemplify the difficulty in making sense of Jones as a signified body among the digital dancing bodies that populate Ghostcatching… For Goldman sweat, breath, and flesh ‘matter’ and she leans on Jones’s physical (signifying body) in order to make sense of the work.”
On the verge of hyperventilating, I tried to disentangle the various threads of my discomfort at being assigned a role in which I had very little say. I began gathering a list of colleagues and wondering what their bodies have come to signify. Merce Cunningham – also mentioned in this article as de-sexing his dancers’ digital avatars – was he ever a white, gay male dancing body? What about Stephen Petronio – my generation – certainly gay and a flamboyant performer to boot? What of Mikhail Baryshnikov? Is he a signifier of white, male heterosexuality? What about Ralph Lemon, Trajal Harrell? What about recently departed Dudley Williams? What about John Jasperse? The list certainly goes on, but what about Trisha Brown, Sarah Michelson, RoseAnne Spradlin? This maddening head game goes on and on like a vortex spinning to heaven or hell…
The following quote, while certainly not intended as any pejorative jars me and certainly flies in the face of historical record:
“Jones’s use of motion capture technology as a response to the confines of race and racialized looking practices cannot be dismissed, given all the preconceptions surrounding his choreographic output in the 1990’s and his attraction to the medium.”
This authorship assigned to me is curious and enervating. I rang up Paul Kaiser of the Open Ended Group who, along with Shelley Eshkar, conceived the technological scheme behind this trailblazing work. Paul, who informed me that while he always meets requests from academics about these works with generosity seldom reads what they write, had several comments about the article.
- He feels that authors of academic articles seldom speak to their living subjects, but rely on the record of what is printed and said, often by their colleagues.
- They approach a work, which is in fact, a collaboration in the spirit of the “great man theory”, that is, I (Bill T. Jones) am the most public figure – the most famous if you will – therefore the work has to be of me and by me. It is much more difficult with the passage of time to pinpoint the various points of agency in a collaboration like Ghostcatching.
- They attach themselves to the artifact – perhaps necessarily – at the expense of loosing the wide array of impulses, notions and avenues of exploration and questioning that are embedded in the collaboration.
- Paul feels that by placing such an emphasis on my Black, gay body, they shut off any ability to recognize the myriad metaphorical forces at work in the piece.
I personally take issue with the assumption that the Arlene Croce Still/Here affair made me rush to digital technology’s “utopian” space that promised race-free, sex-free entre in the upper precincts of the race-free, sex-free serious art world. Such a notion ignores all of the highly formal, constructivist works done with Arnie Zane, as well as works like D-Man in the Waters, a work of music driven formalism not to mention contemporaneous works such as Love Defined (to music of Daniel Johnston), Absence (to Berlioz’s song cycle La Nuit d’Ete), and on and on…
In my conversation with Paul Kaiser, I mentioned the use of the term “signify”. Paul was mildly perplexed saying, “Oh, that term. They do that… it’s because of that Swiss linguist… What’s his name? From way back…?”
Where to turn? To the Internet, of course! I learned a great deal from Semiotics for Beginners by Daniel Chandler. He introduces two thinkers: linguist Ferdinand de Sassure and philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce. Chandler takes the reader on a fascinating journey in the curious world of semiotics.
- – a ‘signifier’ (signifiant) – the form which the sign takes; and
- – the ‘signified’ (signifié) – the concept it represents.
The sign is the whole that results from the association of the signifier with the signified (Saussure 1983, 67; Saussure 1974, 67). The relationship between the signifier and the signified is referred to as ‘signification’, and this is represented in the Saussurean diagram by the arrows. The horizontal line marking the two elements of the sign is referred to as ‘the bar’.
If we take a linguistic example, the word ‘Open’ (when it is invested with meaning by someone who encounters it on a shop doorway) is a sign consisting of:
- a signifier: the word open;
- a signified concept: that the shop is open for business.
At around the same time as Saussure was formulating his model of the sign, of ‘semiology’ and of a structuralist methodology, across the Atlantic independent work was also in progress as the pragmatist philosopher and logician Charles Sanders Peirce formulated his own model of the sign, of ‘semiotic’ and of the taxonomies of signs. In contrast to Saussure’s model of the sign in the form of a ‘self-contained dyad’, Peirce offered a triadic model:
- The Representamen: the form which the sign takes (not necessarily material);
- An Interpretant: not an interpreter but rather the sense made of the sign;
- An Object: to which the sign refers.
‘A sign… [in the form of a representamen] is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. That sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign. The sign stands for something, its object. It stands for that object, not in all respects, but in reference to a sort of idea, which I have sometimes called the ground of the representamen’ (Peirce 1931-58, 2.228). The interaction between the representamen, the object and the interpretant is referred to by Peirce as ‘semiosis’(ibid., 5.484). Within Peirce’s model of the sign, the traffic light sign for ‘stop’ would consist of: a red light facing traffic at an intersection (the representamen); vehicles halting (the object) and the idea that a red light indicates that vehicles must stop (the interpretant).
After this serious immersion in “signify” as both semiotics and arts-speak, I could not shake the feeling that the word has another, perhaps more profound, association for me personally. I recall as a child, hearing two men – or it could have been a man and a woman – arguing.
-“After you done finished all that signifyin’ I’m gonna kick yo ass!”
This fragment of memory opens a door into a room I had not entered in years. This room could be the entre into what Skip Gates calls a strategy of the African-American literary tradition in his 1988 The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism.
“The Signifying Monkey is a character of African-American folklore that derives from the trickster figure of Yoruba mythology, Esu Elegbara. This character was transported with Africans to the Americas under the names of Exu, Echu-Elegua, Papa Legba, and Papa Le Bas. Esu and his variants all serve as messengers who mediated between the gods and men by means of tricks. The Signifying Monkey is “distinctly Afro-American” but is thought to derive from Yoruban mythology, which depicts Echu-Elegua with a monkey at his side.
Numerous songs and narratives concern the Signifying Monkey and his interactions with his friends, the Lion and the Elephant. In general the stories depict the Signifying Monkey insulting the Lion, but claiming that he is only repeating the Elephant’s words. The Lion then confronts the Elephant, who soundly beats the Lion. The Lion later comes to realize that the Monkey has been signifyin(g) and has duped him and returns angrily.”
I thought I would leave you with two items and let you decide what they “signify” in the context of this blog:
- The Signifying Monkey*
Deep down in the jungle so they say
There’s a signifying motherfucker down the way.
There hadn’t been no disturbin’ in the jungle for quite a bit,
For up jumped the monkey in the tree one day and laughed,
“I guess I’ll start some shit.” (5)
Now the lion come through the jungle one peaceful day,
When the signifying monkey stopped him and this what he started to say.
He said, “Mr. Lion,” he said, “A bad-assed motherfucker down your way.
He said, “Yeah! The way he talks about your folks is a certain shame.
I even heard him curse when he mentioned your grandmother’s name.” (10)
The lion’s tail shot back like a forty-four,
When he went down the jungle in all uproar.
He was pushing over mountains, knocking down trees.
In the middle of a pass he met an ape.
He said, “I ought to beat your ass just to get in shape.” (15)
He met the elephant in the shade of a tree.
“Come on long-eared motherfucker, it’s gonna be you and me.”
Now the elephant looked up out the corner of his eye,
Said, “Go on bird-shit, fight somebody your size.”
Then the lion jumped back and made a hell of a pass. (20)
The elephant side-stepped and kicked him dead on his ass.
Now he knocked in his teeth, fucked-up his eye,
Kicked in his ribs, tied-up his face,
Tied his tail in knots, stretched his tail out of place.
Now they fought all that night, half the next day. (25)
I’ll be damned if I can see how the lion got away.
When they was fussing and fighting, lion came back through the jungle more dead than alive,
When the monkey started some more of that signifying jive.
He said, “Damn, Mr. Lion, you went through here yesterday, the jungle rung.
Now you comeback today, damn near hung.” (30)
He said, “Now you come by here when me and my wife trying to get a little bit,
T’ tell me that ‘I rule’ shit.”
He said, “Shut up, motherfucker, you better not roar
‘Cause I’ll come down there and kick your ass some more.”
The monkey started getting panicked and jumped up and down, (35)
When his feet slipped and his ass hit the ground.
Like a bolt of lightning, a stripe of white heat,
The lion was on the monkey with all four feet.
The monkey looked up with a tear in his eyes,
He said, “Please, Mr. Lion, I apologize.” (40)
He said, “You lemme get my head out the sand
Ass out the grass, I’ll fight you like a natural man.”
The lion jumped back and squared for a fight.
The motherfucking monkey jumped clear out of sight.
He said, “Yeah, you had me down, you had me last, (45)
But you left me free, now you can still kiss my ass.”
Again he started getting panicked and jumping up and down.
His feet slipped and his ass hit the ground.
Like a bolt of lightning, stripe of white heat,
Once more the lion was on the monkey with all four feet. (50)
Monkey looked up again with tears in his eyes.
He said, “Please, Mr. Lion, I apologize.”
Lion said, “Ain’t gonna be no apologizing.
I’ma put an end to his motherfucking signifying.”
Now when you go through the jungle, there’s a tombstone so they say, (55)
“Here the Signifying Monkey lay,
Who got kicked in the nose, fucked-up in the eyes,
Stomped in the ribs, kicked in the face,
Drove backwards to his ass-hole, knocked his neck out of place.”
That’s what I say. (60)
“The Signifying Monkey” is a classic routine originally on a comedy album by Rudy Ray Moore”.
*Taken from Roger D. Abrahams, Deep Down in the Jungle: Negro Narrative Folklore from the Streets of Philadelphia (Hatboro, PA: Folklore Associates, 1964): 149-51. This variant of “The Signifying Monkey” is a toast, a narrative poem improvised in performance from a store of themes, conventions, and formulas.
2. And lastly this link to a clip from the Blacksploitation flix Dolomite: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Voxp3ckwJZ0&app=desktop
On Dora’s last breakfast with us we pulled this link up. At one point looking pained and confused she said to us, “That’s a lot of ‘fucking’” before tuning out and turning her attention elsewhere!
Our new brochure of next year’s exciting season is just being released. Take a look at it is a stimulating line-up!
Do You Like Film:
I recommend Netflix’s WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE. A moving, sometimes troubling portrait of a great artist!
Bill’s Blog: The Forgotten Creek?
This is part of a series of monthly blog posts–penned by Bill T. Jones–designed to provide further insight into his creative process, inspirations and more.
I’m late with this entry. I intend to try shorter intervals in the future!
As I promised last time, I will be reporting on important developments at NY Live Arts in this blog, make a couple of invitations and try to describe how the phenomena of memory has persisted over these past springtime weeks.
“The sun has a rendezvous with the moon
But the moon isn’t there and the sun awaits.
Here under the sky, often we
Must do the same.
The moon is here, the moon is here
The moon is here, but the sun doesn’t see her.
To find her the night is needed
The night is needed, but the ever-shining sun doesn’t know it.”
Live Arts + RocketHub = Blast Off!
New York Live Arts’ Associate Artist program has teamed up with crowd source funding platform RocketHub. This means people who contribute to a fiscally sponsored artist’s campaign get the kudos of being a supporter plus the benefit of a tax-deductible donation. Although Live Arts has offered this perk to Associate Artists since 2014, the first campaign wasn’t launched until recently.
In April, fiscally sponsored dance/theater artist Yehuda Hyman smashed his first crowd source funding campaign, exceeding his goal amount by 40%. The RocketHub campaign target was $5,500 in 30 days towards performances of The Mar Vista at the 14th Street Y in June 2015, and they raised $7,723. (more…)
Happy Spring (at last!) – by Bill T. Jones
Hello! And a Happy Spring (at last!).
This blog/this essay/this stream of consciousness… Whatever you’d like to call it is going to be – depending on your point of view – in two parts or in thirty. It is an attempt to embrace fragmentation. What I mean by that is an acknowledgement of the diverse and often conflicting impulses, thoughts and responses I feel personally around life in general, New York Live Arts in particular and…
Context Notes: Emily Johnson/Catalyst
The Static and the Ecstatic: Emily Johnson
by Paul David Young
I met Emily Johnson in a bar in Cobble Hill on one of those desperately cold days we enjoyed all too often in New York this winter. Once out of the chill, I quickly found her waiting in a cozy booth, just made for a tête-à-tête. The bar itself was snug and lively on a Saturday afternoon. As I learned during our conversation, the character of the milieu was hardly an accident.
She struck me straight off as intelligent and gracious. I liked her immediately, and I was pretty sure most any other person would have the same reaction. I recollected the video of SHORE. The performance began almost imperceptibly outdoors, allowing the audience an experience of their environment and each other and a chance to find correspondences between the movement of the dancers and other things happening around them. It became more structured as she appeared and addressed the audience assembled for the occasion. The piece seemed gathered around her person, and, having met her, I found that to be a very fine choice.
SHORE is sometimes static, I noticed. When I think of dance, I tend to think of movement, whatever form that takes, but here I was being focused on nonmovement in a novel way, though there are also moments of highly athletic dancing. I asked her if I was correct in experiencing the work as alternately static and ecstatic. She said that she consciously allows these quiet moments as opportunities for reflection by all of the participants. Some of the still parts, when the performers are seated downstage close to the audience, she described as “silent stories,” since the performers are at that moment thinking stories but not speaking them. She also referred to the power of the potentiality in nonmovement. “Movement possibility is really exciting.” In creating SHORE, she strove to give herself and her collaborators permission to “let anything be possible—stillness, nothing, tons of motion, rigorous endurance, scratching your nose.”
When I asked her about the concept of virtuosity as it applied to her work, she said, “Of course, there’s virtuosity in the dance.” But she also drew attention to aspects of sitting and walking, seemingly mundane, nondance activities which occupy portions of her work and are crafted in many subtle ways. She described, for example, “a gentle way of seeing, a more encompassing view, which changes the body.” She showed me how this works as she took in the bar in what seemed to be a 360-degree scan, not a tight stare, nor a focus on details, but an openness to everything there is around us.
In SHORE, she wears red paint around her eyes, a kind of mask of maquillage. She explained that this was partly a way of raising questions about how we routinely link appearance and aspects of character and identity. But she had an even more ambitious interpretation: “It is a portal to another world.” She is of Yup’ik ancestry, which influences her understanding of the function of masks.
Her work contains a variety of components. “I can’t imagine my work without all of those elements,” she said. “It’s all an effort to give space for us to get to know each other and this place.” She described her family’s annual salmon harvest as a gathering that included people of all ages playing, working and eating together and telling stories and jokes. Similarly, in addition to two community service projects (one in the Rockaways and another on Governors Island), SHORE includes the experience of gathering and being together along with dance and stories and finally food. She is careful not to claim the community projects as her own; rather, wherever SHORE is performed, she seeks out community groups to work with, trying to be sensitive and responsive to local needs and organizations. “I can’t be a part of that community. Building a community, no, that takes time. But I can come in and engage with it. I’ve always wanted what I do to connect.” She does hope that there will be long-term resonance. “While I can’t know or make it to happen, it’s through those connections that the work we need to continue to do together (as citizens, as community members, as humans) becomes clearer.”
I had wondered, since her work was so particular to her history and her embodiment of it, whether it could be performed or exist without her. And indeed, she said she has almost never created work on other people, but always with others. She emphasized in our conversation that the movement, the stories, and the entirety of the piece were created through improvisation, a process in which she welcomes the contributions and uniqueness of her collaborators.
To make SHORE, the task for Johnson and her collaborators was “conjuring future joy,” a necessary and emotional starting point. “We have to work to envision a good future. We can’t rely on anyone else to do that for us.” For Johnson, the task involved recognizing a more fluid sense of time, which she regards as cyclical rather than linear. “We can access the future and the past in the moment. We are made of our ancestors. All of our thoughts and the possibility of our future thoughts reside inside us. Future joy connects us to the present and to past joy.”
Her words had elevated our conversation to a splendid plateau, where it should have stayed, but I had to know. It was definitely trivial, but I was curious. Does she really dance in a full-fledged down parka in SHORE? Though I liked it as a costuming choice, I could easily imagine fainting if I tried such a thing. I thought maybe she had emptied the feathers out of the coat or otherwise altered it to prevent heat stroke. She answered, “It’s a real parka. It gets very hot.”
Creative Resistance: A Rising Economic Movement
by Ali Rosa-Salas
The second installment of New York Live Arts’ conversation series Open Spectrum Critical Dialogues, “Creative Resistance: A Rising Economic Movement,” focused on a critique of capitalism that both acknowledged its undeniable centrality yet pushed for the seemingly untenable: its downfall. Panelists Piper Anderson, Okwui Okpokwasili, Laura Flanders, Joan Morgan, Seyi Adebanjoand audience members collectively considered entry points for anti-capitalist resistance, both habitual and revolutionary. From the practice of cooperative economy to that of radical self love, these offerings of instigation constructed a glimpse of life after capitalism that made one thing clear: something’s gotta give, and cultural workers are at the helm of envisioning an alternative way of being for all of us.
Context Notes: Rashaun Mitchell
Cosmically Happy Accidents, Incarnations:
In Process with Rashaun Mitchell’s Light Years
by Jess Barbagallo
On a rainy Wednesday afternoon, I enter the theater at New York Live Arts where Rashaun Mitchell and Co. is preparing his latest work, Light Years. Lighting designer Davison Scandrett is playing with a circular pool of light center stage, tweaking its colors and testing them against a hazer–director and designer agree the haze is too distracting, drawing unnecessary attention to the shapes of the purple, green, and pink shafts that compose the watery mass of light, and the instruments in the air. Rashaun wants to make you feel like you’re not even in a theater. So, there’s that challenge. Now it’ll just take thirty minutes for the haze to clear. (more…)