(re)Made at MASS MoCA: Available Light

A few short weeks ago, renowned choreographer Lucinda Childs was in residency at the museum with her dancers, rehearsing her revamped version of Available Light. Childs’s seminal collaboration with architect Frank Gehry and composer John Adams was performed March 6, 7, and 8 for the first time—on Gehry’s reimagined set to Adams’s original score—since 1983.

Naturally, we filmed a bunch of rehearsals, conducted numerous interviews, set up time lapses, and snapped lots of photos to preserve the revival of this formative piece. They’re all compiled here, in chronological order, so you all at home can feel like you were right there with us watching Available Light‘s rebirth.

First up is a time lapse of the Hunter Center as our production team set the stage (literally) for the show. The set they constructed is slightly different from Frank Gehry’s 1983 original; though the aesthetics are similar, this version is more logistically viable for touring the world, and can be built at virtually any venue (click for video):

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Once the stage was set, the dancers began to rehearse…


And rehearse…


And rehearse.


But luckily, Lucinda Childs and her dancers weren’t too busy to get a tour of the galleries from our director, Joseph Thompson:


And before showtime, we stopped to chat with the choreographer herself about revamping one of her major works (click for video):

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Then, after nearly a month of rehearsals, it was finally time for three intimate, work-in-progress performances of the piece…


And they were breathtaking:



The dancers took a much-deserved bow, but the night wasn’t over just yet.


After each showing, audience members got their questions answered during an exclusive Q&A session with Lucinda Childs and Julie Lazar, the original commissioner of Available Light at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles’s Temporary Contemporary, facilitated by our managing director of performing arts, Sue Killam:


Now, the only thing left to do was strike:





And by the end of the whirlwind three-week residency, some members of our production team got a little bit silly. Yes, Tim, we’re talking about you:


In June, Available Light will have its premiere at Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Now that we’re done with one major dance performance, we’re gearing up for another: if you loved Available Light as much as we did, don’t miss the sleek choreography and electrifying movements of Larry Keigwin’s KEIGWIN + COMPANY, a co-presentation with Jacob’s Pillow Dance, in our Hunter Center on April 11 and 12.

Posted March 20, 2015 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Dance, Frank Gehry, John Adams, Lucinda Childs, North Adams, Visual and Performing Arts, Work-in-progress
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Welcome back, Roomful of Teeth

By Michelle Marrocco

Founded in 2009 by Brad Wells, Roomful of Teeth is a vocal project dedicated to mining the expressive potential of the human voice. Through study with masters from non-classical traditions the world over, the eight-voice ensemble continually expands its vocabulary of singing techniques and, through an ongoing commissioning project, invites today’s brightest composers to create a repertoire without borders.


Since its inception (with the exception of last year), Grammy-winning Roomful of Teeth has come to MASS MoCA every summer to spend a few weeks away from the distractions of everyday life. During its stay here, Teeth (their abbreviation of choice) spends the first week of its residency working with coaches who specialize in two or three specific styles of singing. In the past, these styles have included Tuvan throat-singing, Inuit throat-singing, yodeling, belting, Korean P’ansuri, Georgian singing, Sardinian cantu a tenore, and pop-singing. This year Teeth is focusing on classical Persian singing with Sepidah Raissadat and the vocal techniques of Hindustani music, traditional music popular in northern India, with Warren Senders. I was lucky enough to sit in on one of these coaching sessions.

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As Teeth members filter in to the rehearsal hall, it becomes obvious that this is a family reunion and MASS MoCA is Grandma’s house. As vocalists tend to do, there are the obligatory lip trills and weird noises referred to as warm-ups, there’s chatter around the snack table, and fussing over how big someone’s baby has become (mind you, this baby is adorable and just as much a member of the group as anyone, as she coos along). Eventually all eight members of Roomful of Teeth, along with director Brad Wells, make their way to the circle of chairs in the center of the room. The level of comfort they all feel with each other and with this space is palpable: shoes are off, and smiles are abundant as everyone folds into their seats and prepare to sing.

I slowly realize that all attention is focused on one woman. She’s petite with dark hair, reserved, and soft-spoken, but she commands attention. This is the last day of coaching sessions before the composers arrive on Tuesday, so Sepidah Raissadat answers some last-minute questions and imparts wisdom before launching an improvisation session. While Raissadat strums what looks like a small, four-stringed sitar (which upon further research, I discovered, is actually called a tanbur), Dashon Burton (bass-baritone) begins. As they move around the circle, everyone improvises while Raissadat echoes them on the tanbur and doles out advice for a more authentic Persian sound.

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“I like how we sing and it’s murky and then you play it back clearly,” comments mezzo-soprano Virginia Warnken. “That’s because I know the hierarchy of notes, so I know which ones to pass over,” Raissadat replies in reference to the dastgah, the Persian modal system. The difficulty in teaching Persian music to western, classically trained singers lies not only in technique and scale, but also in communication. Just as languages with different alphabets do not easily translate, neither do musical traditions. During her coaching session, Raissadat struggled to explain, in terms of western music, how the pitch one sings differs when ascending as opposed to descending.  Eventually she resorts to teaching this idea the way she learned it: through imitation. Raissadat and Roomful of Teeth end the session by singing a song they learned together the day before. In a style of music characterized by trills, flips, and complicated vocal maneuvers, the texture created by multiple voices is uncommon and striking. As they sang, single voices wove in and out of the whole and created a texture that was charged by moments of perfect synchronization and moments of collective individualism.

After a half-hour break, during which Teeth chatted, wandered, and refueled, the group returned to tackle its final coaching session of this year’s residency.

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Raissadat has moved over a seat and been replaced by Warren Senders, a middle-aged man with salt and pepper hair poking out from beneath his hat, who immediately reaches over and turns on his drone machine in lieu of a sitar. Without much preamble, Senders spurs the Teeth into a call-and-response singing session; he sings a phrase or a line, and the Teeth echo him. It’s immediately evident that some members are very comfortable with this style of learning, eyes closed as they succumb to the poignancy of the melodies they echo. As a performer, composer, and teacher of Hindustani music for over 30 years, Senders easily shifts back and forth between Western and Hindustani musical verbiage in a way that makes even the most unusual concept understandable . As he sings, he gestures with his hands to clarify the direction of the melody and interjects with advice. After an especially intimidating run, he clarifies by first breaking up the phrase, with hand gestures acting as guidance. “You’ll come down with maximum twiddliness.” Hindustani singing seems to be more fluid and less precise than the Persian music Teeth was learning earlier, but it is also characterized by embellishment.

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Again Teeth is called on to improvise solo. Using only his body language, Warren directs attention to one person, sings a phrase, and he or she echoes. I’m struck by this process and the response to it. Some members flourish, and some are nervous. (I’m reminded of times I was asked to sing solo in school choirs – it’s a frightening experience!) Senders hears the fear and responds, “just make music.” You can feel the tension dissipate. As the session continues, Senders pulls everyone in – “sometimes it’s secret music” – and tells the story of the music they’re studying. He has that kind of presence. He’s a highly charismatic and revolutionary teacher, and he has a knack for pulling singers out of their comfort zone in a way that still feels safe.

For the second week of its residency, Roomful of Teeth will work with composers Michael Harrison (who has three decades of study and practice of Indian music under his belt), Julia Wolfe (who was here in July as a co-founder of Bang on a Can), and singer/songwriter Sam Amidon (who will be here again for FreshGrass in September), informing their compositions with Roomful of Teeth’s new-found knowledge of Persian and Hindustani vocal technique. Be sure to catch Roomful of Teeth’s performance in MASS MoCA’s Courtyard C on Friday, August 29, at 8pm!

Posted August 27, 2014 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Music, Work-in-progress
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Imaginations Fly Away with Andrew Dawson

By Rebecca McBrien
Photos by Olympia Shannon

10, 9, 8, 7, 6, —


4, 3, 2, 1, 0 —


And off we went into Andrew Dawson’s Space Panorama. On Saturday morning, we flew through space and traveled back in time as Dawson’s hands recreated Apollo 11’s lunar landing. Cutting scenes, as if in a movie, he carried us through the awe of space travel while captivating generations both young and old.


Dawson’s wit and charisma was effortless as he relayed the historical event with his hands, a table, and Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony. Garvin Robertson narrated as Dawson recreated the momentous occasion bringing our imaginations to the foreground.


“It’s potent stuff, your imagination,” said Dawson during the post-performance Q & A.

He explained how he got into miming, “A teacher told me I was rubbish at acting.” Luckily this didn’t deter him and he found a way to express himself through mime and dance. Now as a performer, director, choreographer, and hand model, Dawson has broken the mold surrounding miming.  His graceful hands move beyond what most people think of as mime and into the territory of interpretive dance, although he continues to just use his hands.


Dawson’s performance of Space Panorama comes during his residency at MASS MoCA, where he is currently developing The Russian Doctor.  It is a theatrical new work crafted around the astounding exploration made by the literary giant, Anton Chekhov. Dawson teams up with long-time collaborator and neuroscientist Jonathan Cole and medical historian Marius Turda to explore an oft-forgotten element of Chekhov’s legacy. Working with Chekhov’s only non-fiction work, The Russian Doctor explores the great risk Chekhov took during his tour of the Sakhalin Islands. Be sure to reserve your tickets for what promises to be another magical step back in time and space. More event details can be found here.

Posted May 7, 2014 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Work-in-progress
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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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