A mini festival played Wrigleyville performance venue Links Hall April 12 through 14. Inspired by writer-dancemaker Susan Rethorst’s concept of “wrecking” choreography, nine female artists each presented two works: her own, and the “wrecked” remix of what another in the group made.
I’d be hard-pressed to dream up a more efficient way to get to know choreographers. (Two out of three featured at the performance I attended, Christy Funsch and Colleen Leonardi, were new to me.) Time was the only constraint coproducers Kate Corby and Julie Mayo gave the participants; originals and wrecks both had to last 15 minutes or less, and most of the wrecking processes took place within just a couple of days. So during each of three performances, within about 90 minutes, one could see an artist’s work and then that same work again, through the eyes of a different artist, whose original choreography was also shown. Links Hall was a data-rich environment, to say the least.
Having written a preview of “The Wrecking Project” for Time Out Chicago, I didn’t review the performance. I had an interview with Mayo in the can, which, as my article focused more on Corby’s experience, didn’t get much play. And as Jessie Young told me last Friday, while we shared a bench in Chicago’s Welles Park, “we dancers just don’t do postmortems, usually. Like, not in the way that some theater groups will, I feel, get together after a show and talk about what happened, how something shifted, whether it changed for the better or worse, you know?”
This blog post might best be considered something like that, focused specifically on Mayo’s duet for Young and Samantha Allen, Man in the City; and Leonardi’s wreck of it, Her Sometimes She. Both dances were performed by the same bodies, as with the other works in the festival.
Man in the City, like Mayo’s previous pieces, features characters in scenes that feel knowable and complete despite numerous, sudden and often extreme shifts in tone. Her choreographies “should” be fractured and incoherent, and yet their internal logics unfold throughout and solidify.
Two sisters or rivals or sides of a psyche, Allen and Young in Man in the City are in a kind of cage match. There are images of cruelty: Allen, grinning, switches a floor lamp pointed at the back of Young’s head on and off, repeatedly. Young begins to weep, softly — then crescendoes into full-tilt, choking sobs. Allen seems to derive pleasure from getting this rise out of Young, as would a bully, except Young faces us in the audience, not Allen. (Allen stands about ten feet upstage of Young, with her hand on the lamp’s switch and her smiling eyes locked on this crying woman, whose face she can’t see.) We become complicit in Young’s discomfort and are put in a position where we might intervene, but we don’t, because it’s just a performance.
The complex dynamics in this scene, says Young, emerged between her and Allen in rehearsals. “There came a lot of dialogue between Sam and I that Julie just listened to and facilitated. It wasn’t really character, it was just Sam and I, bumped-up, danced-up, and Julie gave us space and forum to explore that. It was our first time dancing together. So this wrought relationship, between sisters or whatever we were — Sam would take this playfully, lighthearted, sort of teasing [approach], which is what she just does, a lot. And where I tend to go is more guttural, like this crying, which increased. It’s hard to cry! It’s deep-reaching, which I think is why it comes out in that Claire Danes in [Baz Luhrmann’s] Romeo + Juliet way, that sort of [Lets out an anguished, convulsing bawl] Gaaauuurrrggghhh!”
Mayo made Man in the City in Chicago’s OuterSpace studio, shortly after moving to Brooklyn from Riverside, California. The duet was created as a standalone piece, then shaved down to 15 minutes from its original 20, to honor that parameter of “The Wrecking Project.” When I talked with Mayo by phone on March 21, she offered hypotheses as to what Leonardi might do to her piece.
“My work can be bombastic or emotionally charged or… It’s excessive, in a lot of ways. I think [Leonardi] might meditate on it, distill from it. I would use the word ‘contemplative’ for her work, and maybe ‘expressive’ for mine, not that those are antonyms. Sometimes, I think of her work in terms of outline: It’s quite beautifully rendered, in terms of minimalism.” (Leonardi’s original work in the festival, Spending Time Mending Things, included a slow walk around the perimeter of the stage while unraveling a skein of yarn.) “I’m interested in affective landscapes and I feel like her work is more centered on the body, less psycho-social.”
While Man in the City has dark moments, it also shows Mayo’s expertise with lighter moods, clown and comedy. Allen in particular brings a finely tuned, fictitious “lack” of coordination to the table, a false awkwardness only highly trained bodies can pull off. (Think the dance equivalent of Colleen Ballinger singing as Miranda on YouTube. A dance by Mayo is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, but you might giggle when its operatic excesses peak.)
“The original piece was just us and our choices,” says Young, “but in such extremes. Colleen saw how that made [Allen and I] seem as characters.”
Leonardi’s wreck was indeed what Mayo predicted. Portions of the original choreography and text — there’s a lot of speech in Mayo’s scenes, suggestive, layered and poetic sentence fragments — were isolated and looped for Her Sometimes She. Leonardi’s wreck was a remix in the pop-musical sense; singular moments became riffs and existing cycles extended further. (In comparison, Corby’s wreck ran Hope Goldman’s original duet more or less backward, through new goals and textures, and featured dramatically different costumes for both performers.)
Two days of wrecking with Leonardi, which Mayo observed, at BAX (Brooklyn Arts Exchange) and South Oxford Arts began with a run-through, Young recalls. “[Leonardi] watched us do it once and then she dove right in. ‘Okay, I’m gonna take this section and put it here. Let’s take that section and put it here.’ The way that [Leonardi] wrecked [Man in the City] was like the way someone who doesn’t know how to shuffle cards mixes up [a deck of cards]. She didn’t wreck any of the concepts or energies, really, she’d just take a section, like, ‘That section where you [two] are walking back and forth, with your eyes closed? Let’s begin with that.’ And she built it that way, from the beginning to the end.… To me, it was totally collage. The lips from one thing, the eyes from another thing.” Mayo, on site for most of the first day and the end of the second, didn’t intervene. “Aside from her presence in the room, and however that might’ve changed things,” says Young, “Julie just stepped back and was, like, ‘I’m just really interested to see how this comes out.’ She gives total space, which I appreciate.”
For Young, the nature of Mayo’s creative process itself generated a metalayer when it came time for Leonardi to rip apart and reassemble it into something new. “The way I conceive of a wreck is kind of the way Julie’s work feels, you know what I mean?” She laughs. “It feels pieced together, feels seemingly disjointed or nonlinear. And I never know what she’s going to use. Something will be said [during a rehearsal] and it’ll seem to go into the ether, but then it’ll come back, maybe in a verbal context. She’ll say, ‘Remember when we were talking about this? I want you to talk about that onstage.’ Or it’ll be, ‘Let’s work on movement that feels unfinished in some way,’ which might come from something one of us said, just in conversation.”
One of Mayo’s choreographies, says Young — and this resonates with my experiences of them — “feels like its own culture, its own language. Things that we’ll make on different days with totally different intentions get collaged and put together, like, découpaged. In terms of both movement and text.” Once it’s drafted and the dancers with Mayo refine the work, by running through it in sequence, “it starts to make sense.… Upon first seeing her work, it was maybe like, ‘Okay, this is strange,’ but over time, I’ve realized that she’s not going for ‘strange.’ It’s like she finds a stable, solid starting point, ties a string to it and takes us into this where-the-fuck-are-we-going place. But she knows where we’re going. She’s in control. [Man in the City is] all environment and mood, and she’s always creating those things deliberately.”
Mayo’s music choices for her works, and the sequence in which they play, might be the most effective way she sets tones you can’t find anywhere else. True to form, Man in the City utilizes a compelling set of recorded tracks, faded in and out of silence: “Wanna Say Faux” from Co La’s Daydream Repeater; “Starbucks, Dr. Seussism, and While Your Mac Is Sleeping” by James Ferraro; and “Genrecide (I Wish Tricky’d Die Any Way I Hope)” by Terre Thaemlitz. “I love Julie’s sound design,” Young gushes. “The whole first leg of her rehearsal process [includes] no sound, or just voice. No music, not even [before beginning work,] to set a tone. And then she layers [music into the work], after it’s pretty fully conceived and made.… How that fleshes out, for me anyway, what I’m doing with the movement and what it might mean — Sometimes, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around what’s going on in her pieces. And then the music comes in [during rehearsals] and I’m, like, ‘Oh!’ For me, it lubricates things. It’s one of my favorite parts of her process.”
Said Mayo of Allen and Young, between completing the duet and Leonardi wrecking it, “It’s a lot for them. They’re both really talented artists and they’re young, but they’ve grown a lot in this work, being open to just go, to just try this out. There’s not a lot of physically difficult things in Man in the City. It’s not such a technical feat. But I do think of it as a technical feat, in terms of performance, and that’s what I’m interested in — and they are, too, now.”