Kyle Bukari on Jodi Melnick

Kyle Bukhari joined us at New York Live Arts on March 7th to moderate our pre-show talk for Jodi Melnick’s performance of Solo, Deluxe Version and One of Sixty Five Thousand Gestures.  What follows is the text of his speech – you can also listen to the podcast of the talk and the discussion that followed here. We invite you to add your thoughts and questions below!

Good evening everybody, thank you for coming to the Pre-Show talk for the premiere of Jodi Melnick’s Solo-Deluxe Version. I am going to concentrate my talk on this work, as I have been closely involved in the rehearsal process of the piece. After my talk, I will open up the floor for discussion.

When I spoke to Jodi about the title of piece, she told me it was purely utilitarian title, and that there is no deeper meaning. The Solo is deluxe as it is being shown here in New York, with a full cast of dancers and musicians.  Theoretically, the piece can be reduced in number of performers if required for touring, depending on budgetary constraints. The music for the piece has been composed and will be performed live by People Get Ready.  The idea for the collaboration came when Jodi and the musicians of People Get Ready were both performing at Dancers Crush here last fall. 

During the early phases of Jodi’s rehearsal for Solo/Deluxe Version at the Barnard Studios uptown, I would often come and visit her during my breaks between classes and work to see how things were going. I had a lot of writing to do at the time, and was working on some pretty hard philosophy and anthropology texts, so Jodi would say, just come to the studio you can write here. I would set up a desk in her studio with all my books and computer, and we would do these timed writing/choreographing exercises where Jodi would choreograph for 20 minutes and I would write for twenty minutes straight. After she would show me what she had choreographed and read I would read to her what I had written, produced in the same amount of time. Jodi has related to me that this was an essential moment in the creation of the piece, and I did some of my best writing in those rehearsals

So writing has really been one of the ideas that I have been think about during the rehearsal process. Writing with the body, writing in space, the body as a sign in space, movement as a flow of language. In his seminal essay Writing Degree Zero, Roland Barthes writes about the difference between written and spoken language. He writes of the idea that writing is closed, opaque and thus different from spoken language. For Barthes writing is “self-contained” “hardened language”, whereas “a whole disorder flows through speech and gives it this self-devouring momentum which keeps it in a suspended state.” When I read these lines, it really got me thinking about dance in general, and Jodi’s work in particular, as occupying a position somewhere between written and spoken language, a kind of living text, a series of moving ciphers.

For Barthes, writing is the opposite of speech, in that it “symbolic. introverted, turned towards an occult side of language,” it is an image of spoken language, it is fixed, whereas the spoken word is nothing but a flow of “empty signs”, that possess a certain “expendability”. It might be difficult to think of language as an empty sign, but what perhaps Barthes is getting at, is that it is empty until we create and assign meaning to it. More importantly he writes of the flow of language, and that it is “the movement of which alone is significant.” I think this is where we begin to enter an interesting territory of thought, a way of reading dance, when it comes to looking at Jodi’s work. The movement, she says, is profound in itself.

When I spoke to Steven Reker about his musical process, I was really fascinated by what he told me. He says he treats music as if it is a dollop of paint. It could be a melody of a pop song, which he then takes and smears it, treating it like a pigment in a painting, and then he sees how far it can go. Their music not experimental, but rather built in an atmosphere of play. During this play, they see how the shape of the melody can be transformed when it is moved from percussion, to guitar, to keyboards. The approach to making music is not written compositionally, but is created more akin to making movement, and this would make sense as Steven is a dancer and dance maker himself.

Both he and Luke spoke of this idea of wanting “to go there” when creating sounds and music, a sonorous spatializing concept. The idea of interruption also came up, interrupting processes and habits, moving to different instruments, changing positions. Creating musical puzzles to solve, and pleasure in complication, so their complex set-up can function like clockwork. Stylistically, they have moved from more intricate work on the guitar, to a more reductive, bare necessities approach using the Casio keyboard. Interestingly enough when they perform as People Get Ready they move quite a bit, as those who saw their performance in Dancers Crush can recall. In this particular context, they have opted not to move physically as much, (although their sounds move everywhere) and let the movement aspect of the piece be concentrated on the four dancers, in an aesthetic division of labor.

Jodi talks about her body as a resource. Her dance starts with her actual physical body, and then extends out in relationship to other peoples bodies and to the space. Her work is not based on something outside, although it can become about something outside. It is clearly not fantasy based. When I asked Jodi about her relationship with the ephemerality of dance, she replied simply “The nature of the work is ephemeral.” I was perhaps expecting a more complex response, still when I see and have seen her move, in Suedehead, or in Fanfare, it seems in some ways she is marking ephemerality, again to think of writing, she is writing it before our eyes, starkly moving and keeping pace with it, helping us understand the passage of time in her distinct corporeal poetry.

There is a certain tactility in Jodi’s work, and a bringing of awareness to the physical plant of the body. One of Jodi’s driving questions when she is dancing is “Did this really happen?” When the work moves into the tactile, into touch, it is an attempt at probing what is real, what is concrete about the spatial, and in the temporal. When I spoke to Jodi about everyday gesture in her work, she spoke about it as not theatrical but rather as a real part of her and of her dancers everyday gestural syntax. It has no added meaning, and has no more or no less value than more abstract or stylized dance movements. There is often a certain unformed quality in some of these gestures as well, and this is advertent. They are not symbolic or graphic, but rather appropriations of the everyday sensate and the experiential.

Jodi’s process for making material begins by finding what she is going for by doing, moving. She then finds the mode she wants to be in. She then keeps working on that mode until she loses the mode. She then goes through a process of recovery and she recalls the mode. Once she finds the mode, the only way she knows it is the right mode is by doing it and being in it. Jodi relates this to a photographic process, only the camera is her mind and the subject is her perception of her movement. Jodi does not edit her choreographed sequences, replacing one step or phrase with another, but rather she has a process which she terms as “paring down fiercely,” a reductive process that smooths out the sequences until they have the right consistency. I think this is really unique about her work, and actually seems to be rather akin to that of how a sculptor or painter works with materials. Once you have started to really sculpt in stone or metal, or lay down paint on a canvas, you really need to work with what you have done. Jodi mentioned the work of Constantin Brancusi and Gerhard Richter as influences.

Jodi’s movements are generated internally, not imposed externally. Although they may take an external form, the impetus of the shape can begin in the organs, which then has the physiological effect of making the elbow and then the arm and lift, so the literal content of the body can be the origin of the form. Choreographically in this piece, her goal is that of spatial configuration itself and distance, and the quick establishment of a relationship, and then getting out of it. Space is a big deal, and that is why she has opened up the stage for this piece, to present an image of sublime vastness.

The relationship between the dance and the music is really present in the piece. One way to think about the piece when watching it is by asking what can dance do that music can’t, and vice versa? How do both mediums play out in space? In time? How do they literally reach you and touch you? Is dance only optical, or is there a visceral sensation that accompanies it? How does that feel? How do the vibrations of the music penetrate not only your ear, but your entire body? How can one see the music effects on the dance and vice versa? What about silence? What about harmony and melody in the relationship? Is there harmonizing going on or dissonance? What kind of force field does the music create? Does the dance also create a kind of field? And back to Roland Barthes, what place does the dance occupy between speaking and writing? Is this a living pulsing text, a wordless bodily narrative unfolding in space? Is the body writing or speaking, or is it somehow doing both?  Or is it doing something completely different? If so, what it is it telling us?

Kyle Bukhari
March 2012