Jennifer Monson: Come Early Conversation with Travis Chamberlain

Context Notes: Cynthia Oliver

Language As Step, or Language Stepping to the Step: The Body as Storymaker in the Work of Cynthia Oliver
By Jess Barbagallo

“Words set to rhythm are like gravy on meat: The sum is greater than the parts.”
-Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance

Cynthia Oliver is a self-described storyteller, her need to “new narrativize” energizing and tangible. Born in the Bronx, raised in St. Croix, and currently a professor of dance at the University of Illinois, Oliver holds multiple subject positions with a grace and clarity that has sustained her career as a performer, choreographer, educator and scholar for over twenty years. (more…)

Context Notes: Jennifer Monson

Inside the Archive with Jennifer Monson
by Paul David Young

“Dancing is my tool to generate research on the landscape,” Jennifer Monson told me.  It is an “embodied relationship with the world and how we understand it.”  We spoke as she was beginning to rehearse for her restaging of Live Dancing Archive at New York Live Arts and her thoughts about what she would present were evolving.

What Monson means by research involves investigation into hard science as well as spending time at swamps and beaches, filming, watching, and dancing.  Her BIRDBRAIN project, which provides part of the background for Live Dancing Archive, entailed this kind of multipronged approach, in this case specifically with respect to the migration of the osprey, a coastal raptor.  Hundreds of volunteers and a morphing assemblage of collaborators engaged in direct observation and documentation in the outdoors.  By reviewing the films and improvising, Monson transformed these observations into dance, which itself evolved in form as it moved from the wilderness to the stage.  Robin Vachal’s video installation, now on view at Live Arts, documents this process, as does the online archive by Youngjae Josephine Bae.  Monson stressed that whatever happens on the stage is only one component of the total piece.

Though she has danced outdoors, she has returned to presenting her work in conventional performance spaces.  “Dancing outside, the flow of energy is really vast.  The impact is in relation to other movement going on.  There is a way that the energy continues and disperses.  Dancing outside is always destabilizing you,” she said.  She was “very moved” by the way the dances that she staged outdoors disappeared into the landscape in which they were created, like “white on white.”  Inside the theater, she explained, there is “a tighter border, a concentration.  I am able to negotiate and communicate in a more focused way.  The dancing can be quite different.”

The AIDS crisis and queer activism motivated her early career.   Since 2000, her work has drawn from migratory behavior in the wilderness, even as her understanding of the wild has itself shifted.  She said she started out with a simple view of untouched nature, but her experience showed her that it was a more complex thing, sometimes disturbed by human intervention and sometimes restored.  She discovered the border spaces of compromised ecologies and saw that they could be productive environments where rebirth and reinvention are possible.  In our dialogue, though she occasionally uses such terms herself, she was dismissive of any specific terminology, such as “the wild” or “nature,” that might be used to approximate her nuanced understanding of the subject matter of her work, saying that she wants to “de-naturalize” such words.

Live Dancing Archive has been presented several times in different venues and forms, including just last year in New York at The Kitchen.  The addition of two new dancers, Niall Jones and Tatyana Tenenbaum, is Monson’s focus for this new iteration at Live Arts.  For her, the vital question is how and/or whether she will be able to convey the embodied knowledge of the dances that evolved out of the BIRDBRAIN project to these new dancers who have not had the same years of experience, observing and improvising.  It has historically always been true for dance that someone teaches someone else how to do it.  In this re-presentation, it is uncertain what Monson can transmit to others, how much is lost in the transmission, and what has to change or might fruitfully or accidentally change as that body of knowledge is transferred to and re-performed by Jones and Tenenbaum.  The model of the “archive” might here be understood as a process that manifests itself in time-based work, through the always imperfect replicators of human bodies, dancing, moving and vocalizing.  Inevitably the archive reveals itself to be porous, faulty, and unstable, and therefore interesting to investigate, as both a dancer and a spectator.  The similarity of biological and ecological processes springs readily to mind.  In evolution, the variances in DNA transmission create biological diversity and change the species and the world around it.  Ecologies, the collective repositories of life forms and their systems of interactions, are constantly morphing, whether as a result of human intervention or otherwise.

Jeff Kolar contributes a score for Live Dancing Archive that is site-responsive: he controls a handmade chain of radio transmitters responding to electromagnetic frequencies as they are affected by wireless systems surrounding New York Live Arts.  Monson’s creative process involves an analogous sensorial response to the elements in the wilderness.  In her dance she seeks to reveal the agency and materiality of the phenomena that her research has discovered.

RoseAnne Spradlin: Stay Late Discussion with Tere O’Connor

Context Notes: RoseAnne Spradlin

The Raw Wilderness Inside: An Independent Study of RoseAnne Spradlin

By Jess Barbagallo

The first time I encounter RoseAnne Spradlin’s work is from the floor of the blond studio theater at Brooklyn Arts Exchange where we are artists-in-residence together. The room is full, the lights are up. My memory is murky, illuminated by these slippery flashes I am grateful for, two years later: the relentless pattern of women crossing space (my friend Tina likes how “tightly” they are costumed, then uncostumed); dancer Rebecca Warner’s gaze nodding along to some invisible internal dialogue she’s having with her body; bare legs on a diagonal coming toward me, I inhale. The dancers keep breathing and in turn I suspend my breath. All the subsequent activations are dominoes—you pull back your chin to straighten your neck, only to find you’ve lifted your chest, where you keep your lungs and your heart. The open, consumptive torso becomes a more porous expanse to receive all this…call it honest energy.

Later I ask about process and the stakes of being so present (and the body-altering gift of this presence). Warner tells me: “It’s kind of this thing you have to trust is important even if you don’t know why…I originally was drawn toward [RoseAnne’s] work because it felt like a departure…more raw, still demanding and intense, but in an abandoned way. I wanted an experience of power.” She trails off in half a question, “I don’t know if it was a feminine power…” 

Over and over, I watch an excerpt from 2012’s beginning of something. The piece bears a loose relation to the movement I witnessed in the studio showing, now dressed up with a live brass and strings ensemble. In some part of myself, I am compelled to formulate an essentializing thesis about women and dance, as I watch flesh shake over bones. Instead, so seduced and overwhelmed by the sharp physical turns overtaking the blue-black of the floor—raised up like a runway, but playfully nullifying commerce’s imprint with its parade of old mink, tartan skirt and tape bra—I phrase this an aesthetic ethos of independence.


In dim light, four dancer bodies dutifully spread garments in color-coded patterns over white marley. These figures, hypnotically fascia-conscious and driven in the first movements of Spradlin’s 2006 Survive Cycle, now perform a mundane chore. Are they drying clothes or recovering from a storm? They complete their task with the precision and intensity of a rescue team recording damage. On the back wall of the theater, performers’ faces are projected in confessional, describing the process of making the piece, searching for words to describe the unsayable dynamics of a collaboration. Each indicates the journey has been fraught, or like an atmosphere so thick it is difficult to tease the self from the stew. 

Paige Martin: I’m trying not to get caught up in that, this time around.

Walter Dundervill: From my perspective there’s a …there’s a sense of being…I don’t want to talk about it, but…I can talk about it, I just don’t know how…It’s hard to verbalize it, this…it’s like being pushed.

When people watch performance, sometimes they perceive the machinations of artists as “brave” because they appear to be the embodiment of devotion galvanized to indiscernible ends. Audaciously, the disciples of such performance practice ask: what is a dance that pushes past the tenable? How do I find it? And then, for those of us lucky enough to watch, reap: what does it mean to dance the ego-defying dance? And they do it while they’re in the dark!


I ask my friend, a dancer-for-life, to tell me in a sentence something about Spradlin’s choreography. She says, What I love about RoseAnne’s work is that for me it is about the ungoverned body, or seems to be trying to access the complexity of the raw wilderness inside. 

She goes on to recount a conversation we had about a life lived in dance, the complications.

I remember our conversation about verbal expression versus the other less socially normative modes of communication.

I was able to express to you my frustration that verbal strength dominated our construct.

It feels as though a translation process has to happen first before I can speak to people. Ideas occur first to me as sensations attached to a movement/sound/visual which is very clear. 

Then to translate it into proper English language is difficult. 

The challenge of assigning descriptors to work you admire. A recurrent motif of talking around dance, perhaps with the knowledge that nothing can be known until it is done. And some yearning to remain in those psychic moors; “a tract of land used for hunting.”


On making g-h-o-s-t c-r-o-w-n (working title), Spradlin writes:

“These dancers, performers, they are putting everything into their performance.  One dancer said doing one of the sections, which is 18 minutes long without a break was kind of ‘scary.’ But then we both laughed and agreed that performance should be scary! Not just scary, of course, but you really want what you’re involved with to take you out of the ordinary. Or that’s what I want anyway. When one performs something that’s so challenging that it’s scary, I think one feels like a different person when the run is over. And then there’s this feeling of not being able to go back, or not wanting to go back. And that’s what keeps artists going forward, even though it’s so hard in many ways to continue.  But the performance time is when the performer’s cells evolve and change and one never wants to go back to the way they were before, because—well frankly you don’t want to leave the heightened state that is so compelling, you just want to stay there.”  


Around 8pm on a Wednesday night, I visit a rehearsal for g-h-o-s-t c-r-o-w-n (working title). Spradlin apologizes that the technicians have gone home and I probably won’t see a run. Five dancers stretching, they are framed by a dazzlingly severe sculpture (created by Glen Fogel) that resembles a black leaf or spade of rings. Spradlin is unassuming in the third row of the house. 

We briefly chat about the influence of Balanchine’s first ballet Serenade on the work, its current relation spectral, but to be noted. Shocking audiences in its US premiere in 1934, Serenade is striking for a principal’s choreographed fall; The Waltzing Girl appears to die on stage, then she is resurrected in a lift. Six male dancers carry her away as she gracefully arches her back in an offering to the Beyond. Spradlin’s eyes become animate as she tells me the story and its intrigue. Then, politely, she returns to her blocking rehearsal. 

The dancers run a pattern several times, calling moments of traffic, congestion and success. One dancer, new to the work, struggles to execute a turn and the company troubleshoots. Spradlin observes, “If your arms are doing equilibrium response, it means it’s not flowing through.” Natalie Green follows, “People are detaching their knees and therefore it’s an erratic structure.” Spradlin steps onto the stage and gets down on her own knees to touch the dancer’s leg, explaining, “You just need to feel it.” Watching the adjustment I feel just the slightest envy as she sends the dancer off; they confirm that the move is so much easier to execute with this awareness, as Spradlin says, “It actually keeps you organized, but granted it is very hard.”

She says it like a couplet, or like a highly distilled frontier poem.

Thomas Lax in conversation with Kyle Abraham & Robert Glasper

Ivana Muller & Simon Dove: Stay Late Discussion

Carrie Schneider: Kyle Abraham Come Early Conversation

Context Notes: Ivana Müller

Ivana Müller’s Irregular Embraces:
On touching the transparent, the banal, the common, the opaque
By Jess Barbagallo

“Of tedium, as if the irregular monotony of life weren’t enough, so that on top of that I needed the obligatory monotony of a definite feeling.”
-Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet


First, a ticking can be heard. Not unlike a sound effect one could associate with a photo booth camera timed to shoot, or more ominously, a bomb. Eleven ticks. She begins, a disembodied voice clearing its throat, winsome:

I will take this opportunity to stage myself. I will do it as an answer to a commission that a festival gave me some months ago. Robert, the festival’s artistic director, asked if I could make a sixty minute solo in English in which I would have to be physically present onstage. I would like to take this opportunity to tell you that after thinking about it for some time, I decided to accept the commission.

She pauses. Her body enters.

And by this to put myself in a position that could have some serious consequences for my future life.

If there was ever a rhythm to transparency, Ivana Müller has discovered a way to keep it. And if it was ever a secret, poetic logic dictates that she would tell.

I transcribed these opening lines from 60 Minutes of Opportunism, a solo Ivana Müller made in 2010, because they touch me, and I don’t know why. An impish-looking woman (quick mental shorthand compares her to Björk, her presence triggers the phrase “elphin secrets”) walks to the center of a black box wearing a daypack – her word, daypack – and a plain plaid shirt. A body without a voice, her abjection appears cheerful – how odd – and her premise, predicated on the principle of unwavering compliance, clear: Ask and ye shall receive. Or, with a bit of leaking pride, I followed the shit out of these directions.

Her methodical honesty, evident across a broad range of performative gestures, is the kind of generative and structuring force that comes out from behind the piece to give itself up, and, of course, steals the show. In the instance of 60 Minutes … Inner Monologue plays the hijacker, a spectral voice that keeps spilling Müller’s guts. Telling us that she has not performed since 2002. That she, the choreographer, is more accustomed to sitting where we sit. As she smokes a cigarette, telling us she has quit smoking. Saying she will dance and making us imagine instead. But the proceedings are full of pleasure, for our imagination makes her smile. She takes the ghost of her own voice and runs with spectral suggestion. She puts a black sheet over her body and is joined by a chorus of anonymous bodies in black sheets. Goofy ghosts.

So this is not a solo.

So she does not “dance.”


But she does choreograph. Following the dictum of compliance, her pieces become assignments in the hands of the most earnest student, the one who has discovered that, when treated as serious games, rules and restrictions can elicit serious fun. That student is probably, also, a smartass. Precepts of play appear to me as a core element of Müller’s practice, and she employs them again and again across a diverse array of works. Finally Together On Time, a performative dialogue staged in 2011 with collaborator Bojana Kunst, explores the trials and travails of collaborating in virtual times; we receive a very funny comedy of errors as the women share a script-in-hand account that could be described as a litany of happy failures, culminating in one more as Müller gets beamed in, via video projection, to a performance that is, in itself, a rumination on missed opportunities. (And the aesthetics – so gratifying! Müller’s form framed by a white projection screen and Kunst live against a stage black, the symmetry evokes all manner of sliding doors possibilities. When they pause or err in this technologically mediated realm, the audience is made privy to still image associations and possibilities, as performance veneers are chipped away to reveal buoyant vulnerabilities reminiscent of a Rineke Djikstra album.)


Then there’s In Common (2012), a game for ten player-performers who endlessly divide themselves into various tribes according to self-proclaimed “statuses” of material ownership, skill and life experience. Competitions without reward structure the piece as participants “race” to a finish line demarcated by a long piece of tape stretched across the downstage of a black box floor, proclaiming titles of distinction to advance their positions in space. It’s a who’s who of inanities that could as easily be overheard at a dinner party’s pissing contest. But to be fair, the piece does more than critique the alleged “inherent” absurdities of capitalism and bourgeois classification. Müller directs our attention toward the complex joys of naming and following, the imperfection of political systems as the meat of culture rather than exclusively their ugly gristle.


In these recent creations, Partituur and We Are Still Watching, co-commissioned by FIAF’s Crossing the Line Festival, Müller amplifies the stakes of philosophical inquiry by offering frameworks that completely embed “audiences” in the completion of the work, casting pedestrian children and adults as cold-readers in interactive games, housed within the confines of the traditional theater space. Müller provides the text, but her reconfigured spectators bring the show; if responsibility were an object to be kept aloft, each participant bears the weight of her own experience.

These conceptual “diversions” are multi-faceted, open-ended. They simultaneously possess the ability to function as reusable energy basins, and to catalyze an increased awareness of the body’s delicious wonderment in states of waiting. And certainly, from this distance, they have the potential to generate metaphors – practical, pedagogical and independently lovely. In the generosity of the negative, quiet and unknown space holding a base text, we might discover other texts yet to be written, performances and connections to be made.

I was reminded of this simple phenomena – call it the incomplete – watching footage from Partituur (version francaise). Part voyeur, part anthropologist – it is inescapable, to become a part – I see a group of children and a few adults wearing headphones in a room with a red floor, a white tape circle and more white lines to demarcate mysteriously arbitrary zones. The participants are unsure, but attentive. A voice begins to prompt them and soon enough their toes are at the tape. They make shapes, they follow directions, they listen. The bulk of the action is interstitial. And what to make of this now … a minor catalogue of fidgets, adjustments, spasms, rests. Sometimes several children will run in laughter, then there are those who stand still. I guess it’s a complex of uneven engagements. Their minds are opaque to me. When I sink into a thinking deeply, I see these figures. They are actually wells.

Kyle Abraham & GlennLigon: Come Early Conversation