It deserves its own show: a conversation with Lexi Vajda and Elissa Hanson

 

The question that last week’s artist, Nancy, put to Lexi and Elissa was about how their current process was contributing to the trajectories of their individual and collective practices. Lexi answered:

“This is us really trying to discover ways of working that we haven’t experienced before, because we feel like we see and we have friction with the ways that we have been working in other contexts — specifically related to production and commodification of art, exploitation of dancers bodies, all of these things — and I think this is our serious go at figuring out how we want to fall in love with dance again in a way that doesn’t feel shrouded in all of that heaviness. And so it’s actually really pivotal for both of us . . .  Every rehearsal we’re like, ‘Yes, this is the way it needs to be!’”

 


Elissa and Lexi’s process began from a desire to create a space where they could “pour all of [their] selves.” Working on supporting each other, valuing their time together, and following any and all curiosities and desires, they have been fleshing out their process by asking questions like, “What is process that isn’t replicating something that we have experienced and don’t like, or what is process that we don’t know, and how do we find comfort in that and just being there together?”

They have been trying to remain as open as possible to new and different ideas, and also to avoid letting the fact of an impending show cause them to “fall into this ‘making a piece’” mindset where a pressure to produce something becomes more important than the process of doing so. Lexi explained that they have come to understand that “[their] time together is always generative; whether it always feels explicitly generative in a choreographic sense or not, it always feels ‘productive’ (to use the nasty P-word).”

But it has been productive in the choreographic sense. They are working with ideas like digital vs analog, guilty pleasure, catharsis, two- vs three-dimensionality (and beyond), the question of “What is felt space?”, deconstructing the elements of a show, and much more. They told me they don’t want to “block any sort of feeling out” of what they’re working on, and so they have ended up with a wide array of material, essentially using cataloging as a generative method. With this, lists have figured into their process in a significant way, and they listed some of them for me: “a list of guilty pleasure songs, a list of ways to support ourselves in the studio, a list of physical tasks, lists of recent inspirations (books, articles, lectures, theories, friends, people, celebrities), a list of ways to prepare.”

Through this process they have laid out comprehensive understandings of things that are important to them, giving them a firm base from which to build a piece, and also, it seemed to me, an ease in letting their curiosities run wild. Aiming to embrace even their strangest ideas, they are giving space to the small, the bizarre, the pathetic, the ridiculous, to the lo-fi, to frustration, to bad pop, to feeling better, to patience, to humour, to their individual and overlapping histories, to what they need in this moment of their lives. Elissa told me that another catalog they compiled was of “just absolute desires of what [they] think makes a good show,” and this one is, I think, best encapsulated by this bit of dialogue from our interview:

L: “There’s something humorous in the work because —“

E (directly to my recording device): “YOU CAN LAUGH.”

L: “— the way we’ve been working, and what has come out, has just ended up being ridiculous. Like we’re not trying to make ridiculous things, but with the ideas that have entered the room we’re just like, ‘Okay, okay let’s do it.’”

E: “Or, I want that, like why is no one willing to do that?”

L: “We’re going to squirt hair gel on the floor and then dance with it. And there’s this kind of obscene lighting, we’re working with bombastic coloured projection and techno music. There’s some drama.”

E: “There’s some serious garishness. What I feel like it is is, we have this ugly sort of deposit in our bodies, and we’re just letting it, without judgement, just climb out of us and be on the dance floor, and get to have its own show. And that’s it. Like no judgement. It deserves its own show. It does.”

L: “It does. It needs a place to live.”

E: “It’s definitely a dedication to a part of ourselves that just needs some space or something. You know? … It might be insane. I don’t know. I don’t feel… afraid?… of what we’re making, but I definitely feel dedicated to it. I feel dedicated to the fact that we’re just going to do it. And it’s going to happen.”

L: “I feel unapologetic about whatever we do, because I feel like it needs to come out.”

E: “I just always think that if you feel something in you, you can’t be the only one that feels it, so, you know, share it. And someone else will be like, Yeah.”

 

Some of this garishness involved a trip to the Party Bazaar. They went there without knowing exactly what they were looking for, but rather because they “just love that you go to that store to purchase items that are meant to give you a ‘good time,’ like, This is what you need for a party. This is fun. People will love this, this will make people have fun. But they’re kind of horrible . . . Like they are not working very hard but they are literally doing everything they can do.” ‘They’ being the tacky miniature disco balls that Lexi told me “were just there, waiting for us.”

Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 9.13.16 AM

 

I loved hearing about the lightness Lexi and Elissa were obviously embracing in their process, perhaps precisely because much of the impetus for their seeking new ways of working was born from troubled relationships with the ever fraught tradition of western contemporary dance. Elissa explained one problematic thing she has often felt:

“I feel like I’ve literally been asked to contort in every single direction to keep as much of myself out of my dance practice as possible. And my body and mind and soul have suffered so much from that. The dance that I’ve always disliked the most [is that which] has nothing to do with the lived experience of a body [because] to me, that’s what dance is. It’s what the body, and lived experience, and what sensation and soma is, and it’s just crazy that this thing [the body] that is this thing [dance] has been missing from this thing [dance] because of what people think this thing should be.”

In response to things like this they have been prioritizing creating a space of care in their rehearsals. They do this in simple ways, like making time for discussion and playing their playlist of guilty pleasure songs while warming up, and also with more complex things like a somatic practice known as TRE, the principles of which are particularly applicable to their goals: Elissa explained that TRE is “a practice that allows you to have resiliency for whatever [a given] experience is, so it’s not even about everything being good, it’s about having the tools to be able to move through whatever, and just be able to go through the process. So there’s like a certain level of acceptance that comes with just being able to experience the [different] elements of yourself; that being like how your body is feeling, how you are feeling, what you are experiencing… Not accepting where you are at or how you are feeling but being able to just feel [those things]… And then, I don’t know — you can move through. And that’s all.”

Lexi told me that this ‘moving through’ is also “related to something that we’re both interested in with regards to performance. Something about being in a certain performance state and being in a certain readiness and presence… I think we’re building a score that makes that accessible to us so that we can really be there — or aiming to. I think that’s a desire that we both have when it comes to performativity, like how do we make this feel really honest.”

Creating, in performance, a space for their truest, most honest selves is something they want to extend to the audience as well. Lexi told me that aside from all the planning they are doing in creating the piece, what they want to be most attuned to when they perform is what is present in that room in that moment. She said, We’re performing a thing, but it really is about everybody who’s there.” They appreciate shows that are not exactly cut and dry. Elissa said she likes it when “things start to leak in between . . .  [when] real life is still present.” She said, “We don’t want [the audience] to forget that we’re humans, and we’re going to let them know that we’re not going to forget that they’re humans.” The relationship of the performance to the audience is also an instance where I think the sentiment is best explained through an excerpt of their dialogue:

L: “We would like to include [the audience].”

E: “Big time.”

L: “Big time.”

E: “We would like to share that space with them like no other.”

L: “Obviously.”

E: “Yeah.”

L: “Yeah. I want to make them feel like how I feel when I’m with you in our friendship.”

E: “Exactly. Yes.”

 

From what I could gather, their friendship is quite a spectacular thing, so I must say that that is something I would love to feel while watching a show.

The very last thing that was said before I stopped recording our conversation was spoken as an afterthought, only peripherally related to what we had been speaking about in that moment, and it was, “Where does the value lie?” I had hardly noticed it at the time, but it stuck with me when I listened to the recording later, perhaps because, though we had discussed many things which we all considered to be of value, this question never got explicitly answered. Maybe the value is in something as ephemeral as the space Lexi and Elissa are working to create for the audience, or maybe it is somehow in the almost pathetically cheap objects they are using. Maybe it is in the feelings they are allowing themselves to move through, or in the lists they’ve been making that will remain as artifacts after the performance. Maybe it is in all of these things, or maybe it is elsewhere entirely. In any case, as Elissa said, “We’re just going to do it. And it’s going to happen.” Maybe the true value is in that.

 

Just a few more days til this exciting show! Tickets still available at https://squareup.com/store/shooting-gallery-performance.

More info about the show is available on the Facebook event page, and you can follow us on Instagram at @shootinggalleryperformance.

 

Thanks for reading,

Francesca Frewer, guest curator

Image

Third things: a conversation with Nancy Tam

 

What was the most recent dream you remember? was the question that last week’s artists, Zahra and Rianne, put to Nancy. Nancy described this nightmare:

 

“As an ornithophobic, and a nervous jaywalker, I had my ultimate nightmare sometime last year. In my nightmare, I was in Hong Kong with my husband Ira, and the other two members of A Wake of Vultures, Conor Wylie and Daniel O’Shea. For some reason, we needed to jaywalk and I couldn’t. The next thing I know, I am separated from the rest of the gang by fast moving cars between us. They were yelling for me to “JUST CROSS THE STREET, NAN!” That didn’t help. So, I looked to my right and there it was… an ostrich… and it was curious about me so it came to investigate. Slowly turning my head to face the three guys on the other side, the ostrich does, what seems like, a classic Jurassic Park move putting its head under mine and looking around. Scared to hell and back, I slowly turn my head to the left looking for a way out but then! … … … … … there were two copulating ducks!!!! … … … … … blocking my exit! HAHA, you think? Well, it’s all fun and games until you’re caught between an ostrich and two copulating ducks. I hope this doesn’t happen when we’re touring Walking at Night by Myself in Hong Kong in April.”

 


Nancy’s work for Shooting Gallery is a new segment of an existing piece called Walking at Night By Myself. The first version was presented last year at Music on Main, and she has been thinking about the ideas she is working with since long before then. Nancy told me that for her, things often start as just small, sometimes incomplete snippets of ideas, and she will think to herself, “I don’t know what that’s about but it intrigues me” — then just wait, and think on it, keeping it in her thoughts until the right moment arises to develop it. The room that that process allows for very thorough consideration is apparent in this piece, which is both complex and extremely specific.

Walking at Night By Myself uses the optical phenomenon of moiré, which Nancy explained as “an interference pattern that happens within the human brain when you observe two or more misaligned grids or repetitive patterns. The points of intersection form a third pattern that doesn’t exist in either one of them, but only in putting them together.”

moire_forms-e1542137982587.jpg

I find the visual representations amazing, but I was even more fascinated by the principle of this phenomenon: the emergence of things “not existing, but existing only under a certain relation,” as Nancy put it. There seemed to me to be a lot of potential for this idea to translate into different contexts. In what other ways could the interaction of two things give way to a third thing that does not and can not exist outside the relationship between two constituent elements?

Nancy told me that the phenomenon can also exist aurally, when “two sound waves are played simultaneously in close proximity, and they’re slightly de-tuned from each other…some of the partials get excited in a much more exaggerated way than others, and so you start to hear things that are not existing in the room or in each one of the tones, it’s just when they’re together.”

Sound itself is another example, because it is the result of the friction between agitated air particles, and so it exists only by virtue of the relationship between those particles in motion. And there is a further element of relationship because something, or someone, has to cause the air to move in order to create that friction.

But Nancy’s central interest in moiré is in the confusion inherent in the illusion. Moiré works because the eye cannot distinguish two separate patterns simultaneously, and so in this confusion it conflates the two — but that conflation, rather than being reductive, leads to the emergence of a new, third thing. In Walking at Night by Myself, the two performers are made to look so alike that it becomes difficult to tell them apart. Nancy uses this confusion as a vehicle to question the ways we see people:

“When do we recognize that people are different and when do they look the same? And why do they look the same and how do they look the same? Where and what are the third patterns that exist and emerge when two very similar people are standing together and being together and acting the same? And also how do we categorize these similarities?”

Nancy told me that she loves to use confusion as a device because she believes that “confusion is where curiosity is birthed.” Hearing her talk about the piece I can say that I was definitely curious. But she admitted that inciting curiosity is only half of the work:

“I really want the audience to then in the confusion be realizing the questions that I’m asking — like who am I looking at? — and to think more deeply about that. That’s the hard part: [for] a very formally driven show to engage with those questions in a nuanced way.”

She made very intentional choices to this end. It is deliberate that the performers are in skirts, that they are two asian women, that their faces — but not their heads entirely — are obscured. A clear groundwork is laid to lead audience members to those questions, but whether or not each person takes the further step of asking them, they are in for a spectacular show. Nancy was unabashed about this being one of the aims of the piece, and her approach to this is systematic.

To start with, the piece is built specifically for a proscenium audience perspective — the patterns only function when they are looked at straight on, the performers’ movements are all lateral — and it takes advantage of the controlled environment to construct a precise experience for the audience. Nancy compared it to standing in a gallery looking at a large painting, and the way that from that position (below, looking up), “you’re just awestruck, like the scale is amazing. It does crazy things to your body.” And so by capitalizing on what is inherent to the proscenium setup, showing something very confusing, and having the projection fill the entire space, Nancy said she is “conditioning [the audience] to be awestruck. That’s what this piece is about, it’s a spectacle. It’s about an effect and the embodied responses that are included in that.”

Walking at Night By Myself uses the mediums of projection, performance, and sound to create this experience for the audience. The piece began with the visuals, but Nancy told me that with each piece she creates, she starts first with a concept and then determines the medium she will work in based on that. Though she does work most frequently in sound and performance, and speaking about these mediums specifically led us to the subject of ephemerality. Nancy said something I really liked regarding the difficulty of documenting/recreating sound and performance work. She pointed out that it is not merely that certain things don’t translate onto film or audio recording — part of the difficulty is also due to the fact that listening to or watching a recording of something is so vastly different from experiencing a show in a theatre, where there is a whole audience present, and where one has dedicated the time to go and do only that. This made me think that the experience of seeing work live could also be considered a “third thing” that emerges through the relationship of the performance and the audience. I can’t wait to experience that “third thing” at Shooting Gallery in just a few weeks.

Tickets are on sale now for our shows on November 23 and 24! https://squareup.com/store/shooting-gallery-performance

Third things: a conversation with Nancy Tam

Thin the veil for a hot second: a conversation with Zahra Shahab and Rianne Svelnis

 

Since last week’s artist, Barbara, was experimenting with messy materials in her process, I asked Rianne and Zahra what their favourite messy material to work with was. Rianne said:

“My favourite messy material to work with is my . . .  body and mind on any given day.  Messy as fuck.  Like skin/flesh/bone/thought, sometimes organized feeling, sometimes messy feeling.”

 


In my conversation with the two of them, we spent a lot of time talking about process. I was pleased to hear that they were in a place of study and discovery, letting research drive their work, rather than a pressure to generate a product. At the moment they are focusing on tuning in, trying to continually uncover more about what they are working on, and asking, as Rianne put it, “How can we make it more of what it already is?”

I compiled a list of strategies they use in their process, which includes several that they didn’t necessarily intend as such but which struck me as great tools:

screen-shot-2018-11-06-at-8-00-35-pm.png

 


Their piece is grounded (conceptually and literally) in the position of the body face down on the floor. They are engaging in patient and rigorous physical study, discovering movement possibilities in and from this position, giving value to (often minute) detail, and exploring what is inherent to the belly-to-the-floor orientation of the body. Some things that came up were the safety and security of the position, afforded by the protection it gives to the most vulnerable parts of the body (throat, viscera) as well as the term “private belly space.” I wondered if they thought of these ideas mostly in conceptual terms, or if they considered the piece to be of a personal nature. The answer was quite clear: Zahra responded, “I hope it’s personal . . . who else would I make a dance about?” and Rianne said, “How could you possibly make anything that’s not personal when it’s your body?”  

With these ideas as the base for their research, much of their focus is on the internal — both as in the inside of the body, and also internal as in focused on the performer’s experience. Zahra said they are working “from the inside out,” rather than starting from a preconceived idea of what the piece will be and then figuring out how to engineer it. This process demands a lot of patience: Zahra told me she challenges herself in “how long [she can] stay without making a decision, how long [she can] just stay and scratch it, and scratch it, pat it, pull it,” allowing what they are working with to gradually change and grow without trying to “hurry up and make a dance.” Rianne was frank about it being challenging, saying that for her, this way of working often requires the uncertain step of “suspending disbelief and just doing the thing in the body, without knowing if it’s the thing.” But by letting repetition support them through this place of not knowing, with practice new things inevitably arise. As Rianne described it, “you don’t know that you don’t know until you feel the satisfaction of knowing… And then it’s pleasurable to have gotten there, but not knowing is really uncomfortable.”

Their focus on the internal is not at the expense of giving attention to how the piece will be perceived from the outside. In fact, it seemed to me like their process was a means of bringing together the visible and the invisible. At the same time as they are focusing on sensation, and things that are not perceptible to a viewer in a straightforward sense, they are also making aesthetic choices, and using, as Rianne put it, “all the tricks in the book that [they] can.” And so by being mindful of both at the same time, they are able to use “the tools of sensitivity and focus [to] elevate illusion.”

When I asked them what they hoped the audience’s experience of their work would be, I understood that their most valued aims are toward the invisible, and that aesthetics are used as a vehicle to these ends. Rianne said that she thinks about the way that different parts of the brain become active as one witnesses a performance, and considers this a dance, the movement of activity from one part of the brain to the next. She also said, “one of my hopes is that as I do it and as I’m witnessing it, it takes me somewhere else in my body.” In this way they again give attention to the internal, even in the consideration of the external perspective. Zahra said she thinks that the innately weird experience of sitting in a dark theatre with a bunch of strangers and watching dance can allow a “shedding, for a second, of our otherness”; and that in making performance she hopes to create a “thinning of the veil.” Though she hesitated to speak in these terms that seemed somewhat grandiose, and so she quickly added, “Just for a hot second. Just thin the veil for a hot second.” 

It was clear that despite much hard work, rigour, and criticality, the two are not taking themselves too seriously. When I expressed my admiration for the patience they bring to their work, they laughed, and Rianne said, “we also just hang out.” Zahra added, “we just watch each other roll around and praise each other for rolling around.” It was obvious that their friendship is very significant to their collaboration, and it helps them meet in the middle on things, as they sometimes have differing approaches. While Rianne joked about wanting to wait “an entire moon cycle” to ponder each potential decision, Zahra described her process quite differently:

“It’s exciting because it’s like throwing knives, like I have this empty space and I need to make something out of it. And I kind of like the violence of it because it feels like it’s kind of scary — like if I choose this, then everything else is eliminated. But I’m also like, it’s what I am brought to in this very moment of my life, so I’m just going to throw it, and then it’s going to cut out this weird shape, and . . .”

The thread of Zahra’s sentence got lost and picked up elsewhere, so I never heard exactly what would happen with the “weird shape,” but I thought I understood the general sense of what she was saying. They had told me how ritual was fundamental to the piece, conceptually but also structurally. For them, rehearsing is a ritual — showing up to the studio, changing into their dance clothes, returning again and again to the floor, watching one another dance, and everything else that gets repeated again and again as they continually re-examine the substance of Bound Inch, all this is part of the work. As Zahra said, “Everything that we brought to this moment, every conversation, every experience that we’ve had, every little look we’ve exchanged with somebody is manifesting in that little moment.” And so these ritual repetitions are essential, to the point that even, as Rianne said, “the gaps between the dancing is the dance.” I appreciated the attention to those small moments after the end and before the next beginning. And remembering Zahra’s hesitation at sounding too grandiose, I thought it also served as a nice counter-point to the larger ideas — a reminder of the value of the “hot second” of the in-between.

Thin the veil for a hot second: a conversation with Zahra Shahab and Rianne Svelnis