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Blog for dancers, choreographers, critics, pedagogues

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24.10.2020, 19:12:36   |  Photo: Stanislav Miller  |   Category: Dramaturgy, Space & context, Interdisciplinarity, Process of making, Education, Art & Society

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Beside the Black Box: Re-inventing Aesthetics of Coming Together / Art making in the time of Covid

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Kathy Casey – dramaturge and director of Montreal Dance in Canada was one of this year coaches who together with Alice Chauchat – dance maker and artist based in Berlin and also a coach of this year Coaching Residencies presented conversation about their work during the round table untitled Beside the Black Box: Re-inventing Aesthetics of Coming Together on Sunday 23th of August 2020 in National Gallery in Prague. For the panel, Kathy Casey was sharing some works she is currently involved with and which are needing time frames and environments that black boxes don't necessarily suggest for active audience involvement. She opened up how some of these works rely on “devotions”: repeated and investigated over long periods without much predetermined organization, challenging preexisting concepts of dramaturgy and choreography.

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Art making in the time of Covid


HI, I’m going to follow up on Alice’s talk about her practices over the past several years by honing in on the last 6 months and art making during Covid. This will include how these 6 months have affected four of our works followed by questions of how social distancing is shifting my own dramaturgical practice and finish up with some readings I’ve been doing through the pandemic.

But first, let me give you an idea of how things were pre-Covid.  I have been working with choreographic teams as a dramaturge for 20 years.  What that means is that I spend a lot of time in studios watching and discussing dance works, trying to figure out with the team what we want to do and how we want to do it.  I have become more and more interested over the years in projects that are looking to redefine what a dance can be and what context it needs to come to life.  The majority of works that I have been involved with have been made for a theatre, mainly black boxes, but also other spaces such as galleries and studios.  I have rarely been involved in digital projects though we do have an architechtural video piece that is touring.

One of the first impacts of Covid was on how we started rereading works that we had recently created.  The world came to a halt, we could not see others, could not touch and we were united in facing this unknown and unknowable future. As art is always in dialogue with the world it lives in, our recent works suddenly had these different reference points.

As an example, I’ll take one of our most recent works, GROUND, imagined for a theatre, it is a work for 5 dancers, each on their own small trampoline, in a line, maintaining a connection through rebounding in rhythm.  The very tight score of the work is mostly repeated hand gestures that are similarly executed by the 5 dancers but always different in their details.  Each of the dancers follows their own emotional path as the pace and actions shift over time and this emotional path is given form through their facial expressions. 


GROUND TEASER  https://youtu.be/07YxH3KurWg 

Suddenly, with arrival of the pandemic, we started to see how this piece was well suited to these times:  it is a metaphor for a community that is separated, not touching, not moving through space, but united facing a coming future. Their differing experience of this future as it approaches could be seen as the heart of work. 

Once we realized how Ground could be reread, we decided to put into action our plan to take Ground out of a theatrical setting and bring it into public spaces.  We separated the trampolines to respect social distancing, got rid of all of the rest of the set and took advantage of the applications for outdoor performances when no inside performances were being allowed in Montreal. While all of our other performances have been cancelled through January 2021, Ground, which wasn’t to be presented at all, has been performed 10 times this month. 

After several months, Covid began shifting how we see presenting our works.  I’ll start with Ground as it captures the shift from black box to no box work by bringing a theatre work outside into public space.  There are many artists that have extensive experience working in public spaces but it is new for me.   

GROUND OUTSIDE https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vvuQy0jAfts

The first question we had was would people come? Not if there would be enough people but if there would be too many and we would have to cancel the performances.  This is certainly a new swing on this question for us. But other more dramaturgical questions quickly followed.  What was paid attention to outside compared to the specific focus and expectations that the black box imposes? I’m used to working on durational pieces with people coming and going but outside, which has similar comings and goings, seems different.  Why?  Because the work is actually fairly short and still people may only see a small portion?

There is a freedom outdoors that is so different from a theater or studio or gallery.  It is more relaxed, more real somehow.  What is that allowing?  The outdoors can bring in a more diverse audiences too, in particular a greater range of ages, and they do many more unpredictable things:  kids running around, bicycles and dogs crossing through, someone talking to the performers.  But the biggest difference seems to be the environment itself.  There are moving trees, buildings, clouds, trucks passing by, horns beeping, ambulance sirens, birds chirping, wind, sun and they are so grand and so everyday all at once.  No stage can compete with that.

There are also performative shifts from black box to no box.   For Ground, in a theatre, the performers had to imagine a landscape in front of them as the reality was blackness, outside there actually is a landscape and it is one that is active and ever changing. So they are exploring a more active and reactive way of being. 

I am torn in watching Ground outsite between loving the freedoms but missing the focus of more theatricalized constructs especially when I feel the piece is slipping into crowd entertainment or even distraction. But it is clear we are understanding something fundamental in the work in a way that doing a more aestheticized theatre version would probably not allow.

One last thing this no box is bringing into focus is how we are integrating into our local community in ways we rarely have before.  Bringing work into neighborhoods rather than centrally located theaters is not usually easy to do where I live but Covid has opened up “underground” performing and made it possible legally and financially.  Covid is pointing out how much we have focused performing elsewhere to survive and how much we now need to come home.  The long-term possibility of doing so will nonetheless require ongoing financial and political investment and we will see if that comes to pass. 

On another front altogether, the pandemic is changing what it means for us to collaborate in certain works.  For instance, travel restrictions, quarantines and, more recently, the bombing in Lebanon, have radically altered our creation of a new work, All in All. The creation team is based in Montreal, Beirut and Mexico City.  It is a work looking at identity construction, history, cultural multiplicity, memory and ritual. It is a work of proximity and touch but Covid has shifted what we had seen as gateways to togetherness and healing to ones of public health dangers! So with Covid, we simply could not continue the work as we could not bring the creative/performing team together in the same city. This means that we have now pushed back the premiere for at least a year.

Imagined for museum or gallery spaces, the work is a 6 hours long choreographed installation, with three different sections each in a different room and the public free to move from room to room at any time. 

Knowing that we might be able to create this work for awhile, and seeing so many live works being shared on video or live streamed during the pandemic, we began to question if there was a way to reimagine All in All digitally.  What was quickly clear was that reducing the work to video would shift the piece from a multisensory, embodied experience to one that prioritized the visual sense and flattened the work in time.  So we have now developed an embodied digital installation translation of each section so that we can maintain the complexity and interactiveness of those taking in the work but with a virtual echo of the. live performers.

Let’s switch gears and talk about utopias.  Montreal Danse has recently completed a series of pieces, Ground is one, that can be seen as reflections of the world we live in.  Our new creations, like All in All, are more interested in creating alternative worlds, worlds the choreographers would like to live in.  These two series of has brought me to questions of utopias and dystopias but the pandemic, black lives matter movement, the Beirut explosion are all pushing these questions farther by revealing how things are, what isn’t working and what must change. So what are our utopias when we are putting so many things in question - capitalism, minority rights, policing, environmental destruction, corruption, emerging fascism amongst many others? 

I will be very curious to see how this reimagining of our world will feed into another new work that will premiere in February, INVISIBLE. It is utopian in its own way, a social experiment of living, moving and being together.  This work also uses expanded time as it lasts 72 hours without pause. This piece has spirals as its main body reference but it has left behind scores or other choreographic structures to focus on what transforms over time through constant movement, fatigue, comfort and sharing. Our main choreographic questions are ones regarding hosting and invitations for those present to contributute to this social experiment. 

INVISIBLE teaser VIDEO    https://vimeo.com/403004408/f40639a404

We are slowly begin to work together again in Montreal, but we have strict rules here on social distancing, for instance we cannot rehearse without masks if we are closer together than 2 meters.  We cannot touch at all. We must clean the space and the objects in it before and after each rehearsal.  The government has told us these rules will not change until there is a functioning vaccine so likely for 2 or more years.  So, I am questioning how this may change my dramaturgical work . In particular what I call my process research as I already see it shifting in these social distancing times. 

One aspect of my process research is figuring out the languages. By this I mean the type of vocabulary and references used to talk about ideas and the developing work.  It also includes the specific swing of this vocabulary – how, by who and when it is casual, jokey, serious, reflective, theoretical, forceful, mysterious, etc. Exploring how my language flow and references can mesh and rebound with these types of languages is a big part of creating trust and working together. It is important to be in synch with the languages used but it can also be useful to shift or question them.   

What is notably different in assessing the languages right now is the amount of work we are doing by zoom and texting.  Conversations of this sort don’t have the same flow as when we are doing them together in the same room.  Even now that we have started rehearsing in small groups together in Montreal, it is outside and we keep our distance, have other sound information from the environment and generally talk less. This will certainly have an effect on the works developed though it is too early to know in what ways.

A second type of process research I like is determining the practice of a project.  In what way is a group being together to create a common understanding that isn’t exactly the creation but is necessary for the creation?  Sometimes it’s as simple as exchanging news of the day and getting in synch while other times it can be extensive idea exchanges or a more elaborate body practice. These practices can shift and evolve over time. I think that understanding the deep knowledge of a work involves recognizing these practices.  Keeping track of them is helps to understanding the needs of a project and its roots.  Not to mention that sometimes there are practices that get in the way of moving forward and being able to name them aids in seeing if they are still useful.

For sure, the social practices around creation have shifted now and will continue to do so.  Consent negotiations around rehearsing and performing are present in ways they never have been before.  How will our body practices transform when they are taken outside of studios? How will we deal with winter when the option of being outside is no longer possible?  What kind of emotional practices do we need?

Perhaps I will finish up by saying that my confinement started with reading Rebecca Solnit’s Paradise Built in Hell. This book looks at the utopias than can emerge following disasters.  But as we have realized that the multiple upheavals we are experiencing are an opportunity, or a necessity, to reconsider the world we need to create to be in alignment with our values, I have turned to social activists, in particular Audre Lorde and Adrienne Maree Brown as sources of inspiration. So that my questions now include : How do we find our pleasures of activism? 


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