With autumn approaching my time in New York during the summer heat feels quite long ago now. These last two months gave me time to reflect on my project and the overall visit. I am very grateful for this opportunity and the experiences I have had, the commitment of the dancers and the support and inspiration offered from BIPAF (Brooklyn International Performance Art Festival).
Following, I will start to highlight my findings and how it affected my ideas around trust and the impact of cultural context when reflecting on my work.
I had four rehearsal days (10am-4pm) with the five dancers selected for my work and each day offered new and very different avenues for the work to go. Working with dancers from a different cultural context proved to be more enriching and exciting than expected. The work has been pushed in new directions, raised new questions/challenges, fully enriching my research/practice. I have kept a ‘Talking Diary’ throughout the week and spoke into the camera at the end of each evening to document my findings. Going through the recordings shows how each day had a different quality to it and how inspired and fulfilled I was feeling at the end of each day.
Key findings were based around ideas of working with trust and the awareness of the cultural context of my work. As trust is an important element of my work I was worried that working with new dancers for only four days would not allow the transparency and openness needed to show the vulnerability within each performer. Responding to given tasks in the moment within a performance context challenges the dancers to step into the unknown and allows this process to be transparent to the audience. My interaction with the dancers and the constant change of direction due to the use of improvisation prevents me from planning ahead, or being in control of the performance process. This means that all performers, including myself, are constantly challenged by being in a vulnerable place. To allow this to arise there needs to be a high level of trust between all performers. Building trust was always an important factor of the preparation of my performances and having worked with the same group of performers over a long period of time allowed the trust to build gradually.
However, this week surprised me with new and unexpected findings. There was a liberating feeling to work with a group of new dancers. Boundaries could be pushed easier and I was able to let go of preconceived ideas. It made me realise that knowing each other too well can also be restrictive and it can be harder to take risks and challenge each other due to the set dynamics between all performers and the overall interrelational effect it could have on the group. It felt refreshing to work in a new space, to have a different route to the studio, see different faces, hear different accents and sounds. It helped me to step out of my work, see it with new eyes, and listen with new ears. I surprised myself how open I was to new suggestions and how I trusted the work to take on the lead. Looking back it seems that the unfamiliarity with the dancers and the whole environment helped me to approach the work with greater openness and flexibility towards changes.
I do realise that an important element for the success of this work was the dancers’ experience with live direction and that they knew each other well. Them feeling so comfortable with each other gave me a greater security to take risks and be more adventurous. There were moments were the dancers took complete control and were leading me whilst I was dancing with eyes closed. And by them taking on my role I was introduced to new decision making, which were aesthetically very different to mine (I would have never chosen to play Janet Jackson in juxtaposition to us flocking slowly through the studio). How refreshing to witness someone else in my role and what a great chance to reflect on the choices I make when giving instructions!
Another key finding was the awareness of the cultural context of my work in Leeds and the effect it has on the creative process. Even though my company in Leeds consists of mostly non-English dancers, all dancers (including myself) have lived in England for a long time and this week made me realise how much we have inhabited the English manners. Compared to my company in England the American dancers were much bolder in their approaches and less concerned about being ‘rude’ or ‘tactless’. They found more opportunities to challenge my role as the ‘visible choreographer’ by taking on the lead, they were less hesitant and had a more carefree approach of ‘ she will just tell us if this is too much’. This might also be because they were more familiar with the concept of live direction than the dancers I have worked with in England as it seems that this practice is more present in New York at the moment, like for example with artists like Yvonne Meier or Lindsey Drury.
Apart from the rehearsals I have attended roundtables, discussing different aspects and challenges of the festival and its role within the performance art scene. Key points of discussions were questioning the need to define the term performance art and how we can keep openness within its terminology to not exclude other work. This was very important for me as my work sits in between dance and live art/performance art. I was nervous that my work would not be accepted and that the audience would classify it as too movement based. But throughout the discussions I realised that there were many elements within my work, which were important aspects for performance art, such as the different forms of documentation and the focus on process rather than product. The response to my concern from Esther Neff, the festival director, after my performance will always stay in my mind. She said:
If you wouldn’t have called your work dance I wouldn’t have seen it as such. I found more similarities to other work within performance art and enjoyed recognising shared interests (Esther Neff, New York 2013).
It is interesting how the responses I received from the performance art scene were much more inclusive, pointing out shared interests and similarities. My experience with the dance scene in the UK however, is much more about highlighting my work as ‘other’. This suggests that maybe the performance art scene is more suitable for my work but also questions why there is this lack of openness within the dance scene (at least in England).
My performance was presented at the Grace Exhibition Space, which is a venue devoted exclusively to performance art. Grace Exhibition Space opened in 2006 and is placed in a Brooklyn loft with all events being presented on the floor, not on a stage, dissolving the boundary between artist and viewer (www.grace-exhibition-space.com, 2006).
For me this space was probably the most suited one for my work compared to all venues I have performed the work so far. It was spacious and quite plain with its grey walls and grey painted wooden floor. It did not have any conventional theatre references and with a bar in one corner it allowed a very different overall experience for the audience and performers. It offered the audience to not only sit down and watch the work but also change their focus, talk to friends, have a drink and then return back to the work. Whereas I have tried in previous performances to invite the audience to return to the work to see how the work progresses, here the audience witnessed the overall arch of the work with a greater flexibility of how to engage with it.
I divided the space so that the bar was in one corner and the main performance space in the other corner. I was surprised that the audience stayed for the whole duration of the performance and that many people sat with us for most of the time. But I also enjoyed performing in this more relaxed atmosphere – the chatter in the background, the audience drifting in and out of focus. It had a relaxed feel to it and I enjoyed not being the centre of everyone’s attention. I found myself being much braver in my decision making, more playful and more open to the audience, talking to them about my artistic/research ideas and letting them be involved in the interactions with the dancers. It felt liberating and joyful – less terrifying.
As I mentioned earlier, the audience was not only different due to the lay out of the space but also acted very differently to how I am used to audiences within dance (or is it audiences in England?). At the beginning I explained the set up of the work and invited the audience to look at the dancers’ journals, the footage on the flip cameras and my notebook. Whereas in previous performances the audience was quite hesitant and needed extra encouragement by the usher, here they fully went for it! They read the journals, watched the footage – some people even used the flip cameras to film the work – they fully engaged with my notebook, sat down at my desk, played with my radio and the juke box. At one point it was even getting too much for me and I had to tell them to give me more space, had to regain my space again. In the beginning I was slightly terrified but it was done in such a lovely manner – like children wanting to explore – that it actually offered more interaction with the audience. At one point I referred back to an audience member wanting to play with the radio and gave him the task to find a tune for the dancers. It felt like we were all sharing the work, at points the deviation between audience and performers became blurry.
Overall, and as this writing has hopefully shown, this trip to New York has been very rich and fulfilling in its experiences and inspiration it offered and I am very grateful that I was able to experience it. For my PhD these experiences will now feed and enrich the writing of my thesis. I have made discoveries and findings I would have not found just by reading or writing about it, which again has proven that for my research the practice-led approach is the most suited one.
For myself as an artist, I feel that this trip has benefitted me in many ways and has opened up new possibilities. The model of me going to a place, working with professional dancers for a week and then performing the work, has shown to be very efficient and allows me to travel more internationally with my work. Working within different cultural contexts offers exciting opportunities and new avenues for the work to be explored. My experience at BIPAF in New York has shown that the performance art scene is a good place to present my work.
This gives me great confidence to continue with it and I am excited what the next visits will offer!
Grace Exhibition Space. 2006. Home. [online]. [27.07.2013]. Available from: www.grace-exhibition-space.com
Hyperallergic. 2013. Images from first week of the brooklyn intl performance art festival. [online]. [27.07.2013]. Available from: http://hyperallergic.com/75216/images-from-the-first-week-of-the-brooklyn-intl-performance-art-festival/
Photos: Hrag Vartanian, Laura Bartczak
This project was supported by the Lisa Ullmann Travelling Scholarship Fund and the Northern School of Contemporary Dance.