failure of the sign is the sign

I have three new dances premiering this spring: Vertex (Point of Choice), a commission for Stanford University’s dance department premiering March 9 & 10; the string without the bow, a commission for the Lines Ballet/Dominican University BFA program premiering May 4  & 5, and Failure of the Sign is the Sign, a commission for ODC Theater premiering May 3 through 5th at ODC Theater. All three pieces are quite different. I made Vertex using game theory principles to inspire improvisation with set movement vocabulary. the string without the bow is keyed to the musical structure of a Shostakovich string quartet.

The third and largest scale of the these new works is Failure of the Sign is the Sign, which I’m building with an ensemble of excellent dancer-collaborators: Tegan Schwab, Roche Janken, Katherine Hawthorne, James Graham, David Schleiffers, and Jeremy Bannon-Neches.

Failure of the Sign is the Sign is inspired by the moment when we learn to speak as a transition into selfhood.

Here are some quotes that point to the origins of the creative process for Failure of the Sign is the Sign:
“[L]anguage starts with a negation of loss….‘I have lost an essential object … (my mother),’ is what the speaking being seems to be saying. ‘But no, I have found her again in signs, or rather since I consent to lose her I have not lost her…I can recover her in language.”   -Julia Kristeva

“[Sound is] [m]eaning from inside the body which does not pass through the control point of logos, a meaning which is not subject to the mechanism of dissociation … or self-control.” –Anne Carson

“There was a certain thing I did not get from my mother
There is a lack a gap a void
But in its place she has given me something else
Something I would argue that is far more valuable
She has given me the way out”   -Alison Bechtel

“Given a set of sets, there is a further set composed of a representative item from each set”  -Zorn’s Lemma

Two streams of source material are driving the creative process for Failure of the Sign is the Sign: (1) an experimental Hollis Frampton film about language, Zorns Lemma, which features a repeating sequence in which kinetic imagery replaces units of language, available here: and (2) personal territory about motherhood and lineage.

How do these streams of source material intersect? I’ve begun to focus on the moment when we simultaneously learn to speak and separate from our mother.  This is a moment both of schism and individuation—an archetypal transition. Frampton’s film is for the most part devoid of transitions, and instead relies on blackouts to cut abruptly from language to kinetic image (however the ending long shot in the Frampton film is one of connection).  In contrast to the Frampton film, the premise of motherhood and lineage is unbreakable connection.  How I can use the concept of transition to organize and focus my raw materials (dance phrases and forms)?

Another central aspect of the dance is the set: an interactive installation by artist Katrina Rodabaugh of soft sculptures evocative of the human body. The installation will function as both metaphor and responsive environment for the dance(rs).  We will collide and weave the sculptures through the choreography.

Frampton’s silent film opens with a dark screen and a reading from an early grammar textbook.  Inspired by the Frampton opening text, I’ve written my own alphabetically-inspired text for the piece (excerpt below, full text on this site under Writing)

V is for the void we avoid
W is for what do you want to be when you grow up
W is for wide awake waiting to be asked
W is for what you and your mother have in common
X is for a little exit problem
Y is for you don’t have to be perfect
Z is for when the repetitions of childhood end

To all this source material, I have to add perhaps the most important source: my own body and the bodies of the dancers.  Every rehearsal we engage with the source material through movement research.  Body-based solutions always take us to unexpected places.

To end this post I’ll share a list of helpful choreographic questions that guide my process. This list is collated from various muses, including Jeanine Durning, Tere O’Connor, Molissa Fenley, Daria Halprin, and Susan Rethorst:

How do the structure and the material inform each other?
What is the rhythm of things?
What is the space between things?
What are the spatial pathways?
What are the stillnesses?
How malleable is it?
Is the sequence important? Why?
How does duration function?
How does repetition function?
How does the material affect you?
What is the suchness or essence of the material? How can we draw it out?
What else can this do?
What else can this be?
How can the dance constantly be (re)rooted in the source material?
What are the right questions to ask of the dancers?
How can I engage the dancers’ emotional life?
How can I pull the material away from my own personal choices/How can the structure or nature of the outside source material (as opposed to my own will or habit) shape the rules of the game or the decision right in front of me?

Most of the dancing life is about process.
But don’t forget to mark your calendars for the final product:  ODC Theater May 3-5.  See you there.