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Artist Spotlight: Emily Johnson

Performing Arts intern Julia and Marketing/Public Relations intern Elizabeth team up for a chat with our artist-in-residence, Bessie-award winning choreographer/performer Emily Johnson (founder of Catalyst Dances) to discuss Johnson’s artistic background and the inspiration for her new work Niicugni (Listen).

Describe your dance and artistic background.

I grew up in a very small town in Alaska. I was an athlete growing up, mainly basketball, long distance running, and softball. Those were my absolute loves. Either sports instilled a love of movement or I had a love of movement going into it.

Dance was not in my life until I got to college. There was a great confluence of teachers at the University of Minnesota when I got there with a heavy focus on improvisation. I loved that suddenly there was movement that wasn’t connected to the game or the race. I could move fully; I could be feeling and thinking. My thoughts could change my movement and my movement could change my thoughts.

What inspires your movement vocabulary?

Movement always comes from an internal thought or feeling first. I’m always trying to get it out of my body, past the skin. In a way, I don’t care if people watch me or my dancer’s arm moving. It’s about what can be communicated between my arm movement and the audience. What is communicated in that space?

There has to be such intentionality in the movement. It’s not that any moment is more precious than the next but, in every moment, we have to know where we are in our story. We have to stay connected with that story and that effort in order to communicate it.

What were the conceptual seeds of Niicugni (Listen)?

A few thoughts crossed paths when I was looking into beginning a new piece. I saw an exhibit at a gallery in Homer, Alaska. It was an exhibit of work made entirely of fish skin. Salmon has always been part of my family’s life but I had never worked with the skin before. This image of 50 fish skin lanterns hanging in the stage and in the house, creating this secondary diagonal, was the first visual image of this piece before I even knew how to work with the skin.

Around the same time, my dad laid out a map on the counter in my parents’ house in Alaska. He had just received land from the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Though the Settlement Act was created in 1970s, his land just finally came through. It just really very suddenly struck me that we would have to figure out how to build a relationship with that land.

I was struck with “What does this mean?” This land is now my father’s. It will eventually be passed to my brothers and me. How do we get to know land that is ancestral land? I was looking at this piece of paper that did not give me the information I needed. Maps tell us how to get somewhere, not how to live with land and what’s really there or who has been there before or who will be there after. This piece really started with all of those questions.

What about the vocal storytelling that is woven through the piece? How do those moments connect to the choreography?

To me, it’s all part of the dance. The stories are as much the dance as we are. Making these lanterns is as much the dance as anything. It’s not that they are just parts that are important; they are dance.

I like to work with the similarities and differences in how bodies and minds respond to stories and movement. What happens for someone listening to a story? How does a body take in a story? What images are created in your mind? Where does your mind go with that story? Then, how does your body take in movement? It’s the conversation between those two forms of communication that I find really interesting.

How your work evolved during your residency at MASS MoCA?

Very specifically, being here has allowed us to work on our rigging. We were able to work with all the crew here and our crew to create two improvements and a whole rigging system. That will have a profound impact on this work in terms of its touring life.

In a broad sense, the piece is always informed by the place we’re in because we think very specifically about the building and imagine feeling the ground beneath our feet. We think about how the ground moves in all directions. It’s the support for us here. It’s a new kind of mapping as we work to experience many places at once.

See Niicugni (Listen) in the Hunter Center at MASS MoCA on Friday, November 16 at 8 PM. Find tickets here.

Posted November 14, 2012 by MASS MoCA
Filed under Artist Spotlight, BLOG, Dance, Interns, Theater, Work-in-progress
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Artist Spotlight: Here Lies Love Director Alex Timbers

MASS MoCA Marketing Coordinator Emily Evans sat down with Here Lies Love Director Alex Timbers to find out what it’s like being a director, working with artists like David Byrne, and making theatre at MASS MoCA.

Director Alex Timbers

I was a dance major at Conn College, my mentor being that wonderful dance maker David Dorfman, and I know you’ve co-directed some of his work. How is directing dance different than directing theatre or musicals?

David’s great – I’ve been a dramaturg for a couple of his pieces. I think dance works in a more abstract, less narrative way. There’s a sense of pacing and scale and variety that I think is also true to directing a musical. [With dance] you’re working much more with a sort of principal nature of the elements, because you’re serving a story and emotional palette that is much more visceral and abstract. In a musical, you’re trying to get that richness, but you ultimately have to serve a prescribed script and set of songs.

Do you have a preference, a favorite thing to direct?

I love to direct theatre, and I’ve really enjoyed working on shows like Peter and the Starcatcher and The Pee Wee Herman Show, that are kind of what I like to call “plays plus.” They have all the attributes of a play, a sort of naturalism and an emotional hook, and yet they also have song elements and dance and movement and a certain heightened design. They feel inherently and richly theatrical, instead of the type of play that could take place in a living room or a kitchen. They are sort of epic in scale and yet emotionally more grounded than more traditional or conventional musical theatre.

How did you get into directing? How did you discover you had this passion?

I was in college and I was doing a lot of improv and sketch comedy. I had acted a little bit (just sort of in the way that everyone acts in college or high school) and I got very interested in the mechanics of comedy, so I decided to direct a farce, and then another farce, and I got really into directing. I started running the college theatre company, and then I snuck into graduate school classes at Yale School of Drama and started learning about the management side.

When I graduated, I worked as an intern at Manhattan Theatre Club, and I realized no one ever tells you that in the real world, people don’t hire young directors – it just doesn’t happen. [If you’re young,] no one’s gonna hire you to direct Thornton Wilder or Shakespeare because they’re entrusting you with a lot of money, and they don’t trust you. In film and TV, you’re trying to appeal to young people as often as older people, so it makes sense to let [a young director] be the voice. But in theatre, you’re not going after really young audiences, so why would you ask a young director or playwright? So what I did was create my own opportunities. I created a company – that’s where Les Freres Corbusier started.

How did you get involved with Here Lies Love?

I had done a show for The Public Theater called Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, that was sort of a classic example of the shows I was doing with LFC – sort of about historical figures but done in an irreverent, post modern way. It combined pop and rock music and big visuals. The Public Theatre was also developing Here Lies Love, and the artistic director Oskar Eustis put me in contact with David [Byrne]. I think there were a couple of directors that interviewed for it, but David and I hit it off pretty immediately, and I think the impression I had of what the piece should be in 3 dimensions, more than just an album, was similar to what David always had in mind for it.

Can you tell me what Here Lies Love is about in 4 sentences or less?

Sure. Here Lies Love is a fully immersive club musical that tells the story of Imelda Marcos’ rise and infamous fall. It’s told entirely through song, without dialogue and without seating. It takes place all around you – it’s what I call a sort of 360 degree theatre piece. It refuses to glorify Imelda and is examining the politics of power and the psychology or pathology behind a person that so desperately wanted to be loved and yet was thrown out by her own citizens.

What’s it like working with this particular cast and crew, and with David Byrne and Annie-B Parson?

In terms of the cast (David and the choreographer and the crew), it’s really fantastic, because these are people who I’ve for years looked up to! I had seen Annie-B Parson’s Big Dance Theatre shows for many years.  I’ve been listening to David’s music and reading his writing for years. So to collaborate with these people is phenomenal. And the design team is this great mix of downtown and uptown people – they are downtown theatre artists but they have Broadway experience. There’s a really exciting mix (just as the show is) between a kind of left of center sensibility and a delivery of the great pleasure principles of musical theatre.

How has MASS MoCA and this particular space impacted the development of the piece? Is it different from where you guys have been before?

Absolutely. I’ve been coming to MASS MoCA for about 7 years now, and I’ve always been mesmerized as much by the art at MASS MoCA as by the architectural surroundings of this place. When the idea came up to develop the show outside of New York, one of the questions I had was, “Can we not do it at a place where it will feel like a musical?” (Which it’s not.) So this idea came up to do it at a museum as a sort of art installation. I think that sets up your expectations for the piece better.

I have a long history with Williamstown Theatre Festival, and [artistic director] Jenny Gersten has been an incredible friend and advisor, so the idea of triangulating The Public Theater and WTF and MASS MoCA started to feel like a really exciting convergence of great arts institutions. The thought with the residency at MASS MoCA was that we could really build the piece – it wasn’t that we’d be delivering some sort of finished product, but we would have the space and staff and collaborators here to create a 360 degree art environment.

Every day there have been new songs coming in, we’re changing staging on the fly, and just today before we started talking I saw new choreography for the opening number! We’re assembling it here in a way you couldn’t do with the pressure of New York or you’d go crazy. The space here is unbelievable –  it’s huge! – and there are 2 things we’re examining: how can we make the best possible performance here at MASS MoCA, and how can we honor the spatial limitations Here Lies Love will confront when it eventually moves to New York?

What’s next for Here Lies Love?

After this it will go to The Public Theater in New York, and it starts performances in March 2013 at the Luesther, one of the five theatres of The Public – it’s a downtown space.

That’s exciting.

Yeah, I think it’s pretty cool.

Alex Timbers and David Byrne at opening night of Timbers’ Peter and the Starcatcher

Posted June 18, 2012 by MASS MoCA
Filed under Artist Spotlight, BLOG, Dance, Music, Theater, Uncategorized, Work-in-progress
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Artist Spotlight: Chatting with Playwright Ain Gordon

Playwright/actor/director Ain Gordon is here in residency this week in preparation for the performance of his work-in-progress play Not What Happened, which centers on historical reenacment in 1800s New England. Marketing Intern Cora sat down with him to chat about the piece.

Ain Gordon in rehearsal with actress Betsy Aidman.

Could you explain the plot in a little more detail?

Well, I’m not a story-driven guy. I tend to be more interested in characters in a situation and what happens to them rather than a plot unfolding. So, it’s pretty simple. There is a rural, solitary woman alone in her summer kitchen in 1804, baking bread, surrounded pretty much only with the mental remnants of other days, and talking to herself. And it’s about what happens to her, in her head that day. And then a historical re-enactor two centuries later on the same piece of ground, which is now a deficit-ridden historic site, leads the tourist through her ability to re-enact that same day.

How has it developed since the shows that you did at the Vermont Performance Lab and Marlboro College?

At VPL, we only did half of it. That was the very first time working with actors on it. It’s brand new. So we spent five days there, and we did some rudimentary staging and just showed the first half. Then we were at the Baryshnikov Arts Center for another five days, and we pushed through to the end and showed all of it. Then we had a week off, and now we’re here. And we’re going to show all of it again. Each space is one step bigger—at VPL it was in an 1800s meeting house, very small, very intimate, beautiful space. At BAC it was in a larger studio with raked seating. And here it’s in a theater! So we’ve been kind of getting used to leaving behind the intimacy of table work, studio work, theater work etcetera, and building up to being bigger. And here is the first time that we will have basic lighting, and basic use of projections, which we haven’t done at all before.

Right, I read that this is the first time that you were introducing the element of photography to the piece, with photographer/historian Forrest Hozapfel’s projections. Has that influenced the play at all?

We kind of researched together—he lives in Marlboro—and we took walks in the forest together, and looked at cellar holes and that kind of thing. Definitely his thinking and his body of knowledge influenced the writing. And early on, I had his images in mind for what I wanted to see as the set. Here, you’re kind of seeing a sketch of that because we don’t have a giant screen. So this is very much just another stage of showing the piece with some tech.

Can you talk about the local history aspect of the play and how New England ties into it?

With almost all of my work, I’m interested in the idea of marginalized or neglected history as source material for theater. Particularly because in most places, but certainly in America, the writing of mainstream history is kind of a ruthless editing machine, and there’s a lot of stuff that hits the cutting room floor. I’m pretty interested in what hits the floor. And I had been thinking that with this piece, I wanted to reach further back in time to an era that yields even less evidence—sort of the pre-industrial era when things are handmade; things are used until they’re broken and then they’re gone. So there aren’t 80,000 artifacts. And I was interested in looking at a rural landscape, which I had never done, which would be a landscape in which there would be even less manmade evidence manufactured, ever. And the natural distances between manmade outpost and manmade outpost is so huge, that stuff just disappears back into the landscape. So I was interested in that, and then the relationship with VPL started to happen at the same time, and so it just made sense to put it in New England. So we used the Brattleboro-Guilford-Marlboro area as a research launch pad. The play is not situated directly in any place, it sort of uses the ethos of unsettled New England at that time, as opposed to Boston or somewhere like that.

How does the audience or the setting for each performance change your ideas for the play?

Well the good thing about the way this has played out—which I can’t claim credit for—is that three showings in three very different locations for three very different audiences is a great way for me to accrue notes for going to a next draft. With One showing in one place, it’s pretty hard not to just be incredibly reactive. I’m either like “It went well” or “ it didn’t go well”—you either are good or you’re bad. Three showings really gives you a chance to hear it in front of very different communities and get an idea of what to do next. The play doesn’t premiere until the fall of 2013, so I’m going into a whole other rewrite time.

And just in general, what inspires you as a playwright?

As I say, history is certainly my “thing,” but I think that I’m pretty interested in the interstitial, particularly. I’m interested in the moment between the moments that seem to matter, and that evidently matter, and how we can theatricalize insignificance for a new significance. So, the idea of this woman in 1804—she is essentially, by most standards, a woman of no importance, engaged in an action of no consequence, on a day of no significance (laughs). And what does that look like if we actually frame it and pay attention to it?

 

 

Posted April 25, 2012 by MASS MoCA
Filed under Artist Spotlight, BLOG, Theater, Work-in-progress
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Catching Up with Joe

Museum director Joe Thompson blogs about the latest goings-on at MASS MoCA.

I love mud season because it kicks off MASS MoCA’s most intense season of making art. It’s our sugaring season. Our performing arts stages are booked solid with residencies, and the galleries are abuzz with visiting artists.

I caught Gisele Amantea in the act of converting our Hunter foyer into what may end up feeling a little bit like a Canadian bordello (which is to say polite, and rather chic), riffing wildly on a Louis Sullivan decorative motif from the tomb of the wife of one of the architect’s greatest Chicago patrons, Ellis Wainwright.

But Gisele (seen here in the middle, with black shirt) is also riffing on the “MASS” in MASS MoCA — her finger poking gently in our ribs for our penchant for large-scale work — by elaborating the delicate fleur-de-lis designs into man-eating dimension: every part of the design that is now white will soon be flocked into light-sucking blackness, and extended for the full 90’ length of the space.

This is the powerful first contribution by a Canadian artist to our upcoming Oh, Canada show, opening this Memorial Day.

On a more precipitous timeline is Making Room, the Space Between Two and Three Dimensions, which just opened Saturday.

 

Claire Harvey was in town this past week for Making Room, doing an extraordinary series of tiny paintings on small pieces of glass and acetate, which are then projected on the walls and other provisional surfaces using old-fashioned overhead projectors, like your teacher used to do in fifth grade.  It’s startling how much modeling and complex space she can generate in renderings that in some cases are only ¾” high, but which gain extraordinary presence when projected and enlarged to a height of 5’ tall.

Continuing the theme of utilizing obsolete techniques with new media technology and inventive presentation,  Chloë Østmo was also in North Adams this past week, fastidiously suspending over 200 photographs on a grid of cotton thread. The amazing effect is that of a single image. Here is a shot showing Chloë’s process midway through installation.

This is going to be a sleeper of an exhibition, full of engaging art, rich narratives, and interesting cross-references: a true show. It is superbly selected by Caitlin Condell and Ali Nemerov, both now students in the Williams College-Clark Art Graduate Program in the History of Art, and MASS MoCA graduate interns. The eleventh in our series of exhibitions organized by up-and-coming curators, and realized with the support of the Clark (and, in this case, the helpful guidance of MASS MoCA curator Susan Cross), the exhibition is a fascinating bookend to the previous iteration of this series, Memery, which celebrated the internet’s capacity to propel strange bits of otherwise forgettable popular culture deep into our collective memories through sheer repetition and the power of web-buzz.  Making Room, on the other hand, focuses on work that celebrates and rewards careful looking through creation of complex visual spaces and thoughtful forms that feel, at times with a wisp of nostalgia, like an antidote to online frenzy.

Posted February 27, 2012 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Exhibitions, Making Room: The Space Between Two & Three Dimensions, Making Room: The Space Between Two & Three Dimensions, Oh Canada, Work-in-progress
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Performance Artist John Kelly Talks about his Residency

Our managing director Sue Killam offers this background information for John Kelly’s video.  Stay tuned from more videos from John about the residency.

Performance and visual artist John Kelly is currently in residence at MASS MoCA.  He’s created over 30 pieces to date, and he is in the process of re-mounting his Bessie Award-winning work Find My Way Home.  Created in 1988 during the height of the AIDS epidemic, Find My Way Home deconstructs genres of opera, period dance, and cinematic acting, and includes scenes and arias from Gluck’s baroque opera Orfeo Ed Eurydice.

While we host a lot of artists-in-residence, what’s most interesting about this residency is that as John re-visits this work, reviving backdrops, props, character dummies, choreography, and movement from the original.  As he explained, the piece has been in storage for over 10 years and time has left its mark.  For example, only a third of the original painted backdrop (pictured above) was found so now it has to be pieced together from old photographs and reconstructed.  It’s become a group effort to bring the backdrop back to life, adding more layers of those who this piece has touched.   And as this resurrection commences, it’s natural to reflect on the original creators who have since passed.   Breathing new life into Find My Way Home is a mash-up of old and new, present and departed, original ideas and evolution.  Please join us on Saturday at 8pm and become a part of the story of this piece.

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Posted October 13, 2011 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Dance, Music, Theater, Work-in-progress
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“The Known Universe”

Northampton-based artist Samuel Rowlett and a dynamic crew of 15 local high school students collaborated on The Known Universe at “TEENSPACE” a project of Kidspace at MASS MoCA  in downtown North Adams as part of the annual DownStreet Art festival. Visit the space at 26 Holden Street to see the results.

Samuel Rowlet has written a guest blog for MASS MoCA, check out what he has been working on:

With sketchbooks filled after a month of meeting twice a week on the 3rd floor of MASS MoCA as part of my residency with the Teenspace crew, we finally saw the space for our installation this summer.  The site of the old Artery Lounge at 26 Holden Street was perfect!   With a patina of character and quirky architectural palimpsests it was just the raw space we needed to take the ethos of the sketchbook (the artist’s equivalent of a diary), blow it up large scale and make it environmental.  The process, based on my own studio practice of turning the unpolished immediacy of sketchbook drawings into wall drawings, certainly gave the project an uncertain future.  Especially having 16 sketchbooks to source from!  However, after seeing the sketches the Crew had made, I knew we had the makings of something great.

Perhaps the most pleasing part of the project (in addition to the rocking installation: a mash-up of social commentary, angst, honesty and satire, that somehow reminds me of a Nirvana music video) has been the camaraderie and sense of collaboration that has developed within the group throughout the installation process.  As we helped draw each other’s drawings, we got to know one another, to rely on one another, riffing off each other’s ideas, and (quite literally) drawing connections between our sketchbook worlds.  I had charged them with the task of mapping their own universes, however it has become less about individual paradigms and more about stewardship of the work as a whole and the conversation they have put into motion through the process of working together.  Which, primarily, is what I hope for them will be the real take-away from this experience.  One that they can repeat in the future in whatever their chosen field may be:  a sense of creative collaboration.  “The Known Universe” expands…

Posted June 30, 2011 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Exhibitions, Kidspace, North Adams, Work-in-progress
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