visual arts graduate students watch rehearsal

On November 19, as part of ODC’s Odyssey Program, I opened up rehearsal to a group of graduate visual art students from the San Francisco Art Institute.  The art students were part of Professor Liam Everett’s Graduate Critique Seminar called The Practice of Practice.  Liam Everett is a Richard Diebenkorn Teaching Fellow at SFAI.  Everett views painting as a flexible topography—one that reveals the conglomeration of elements. His singular “practice of practice through painting” is contingent on movement and materials and chemical reactions, creating abstract paintings that stand, lean, fold, crumple, and drape from various systems of flexible support. While these support structures can be as basic as the wall and the floor, their silent collaboration in Everett’s art play with the viewer in complex ways. Part of Everett’s course description is as follows:

We will research ways to disturb, probe and jolt our working habits, and in turn significantly re-arrange the way we experience the artistic practice. What is the optimal context for your making, thinking and feeling within the field of your medium? Once you establish these parameters, how can you maintain them within the reality of your studio? Readings will include texts by Martin Heidegger, Giorgio Agamben, Hakim Bey, David Abram, Peggy Phelan, Nathaniel Dorsky, Agnes Martin.

In front of Liam and his students, I worked for an hour with dancers Tegan Schwab, James Graham and Jeremy Bannon-Neches on Route 20, a new trio that will premiere at ODC Theater in April.  After an hour of working, we had a discussion. An excerpted transcript follows.

Liam Everett [LE]: There was a moment when you saw something you liked, but you told the dancers not to repeat it, because you didn’t want to kill its “liveness.”  In setting material in the transition from studio to the stage, how do you not lose the live nature of material?

 Hope Mohr (HM): Sometimes material doesn’t get set.  You can have structures in which dancers are free to make different choices within a known universe.  For example, they might have a set vocabulary, but do it in a different order every time.  The most important thing is to keep the intentions and the attention refreshed.  It’s about finding the right cocktail of awareness for each moment.

James Graham [JG]: It’s different for each dancer. For example, when Hope directs us to have a “human moment,” what is means to be human and to have a human moment can be different for each dancer. Material can get stale if you keep running it, even if it’s improvisation.

HM: I’m interested in the blurry territory between set composition and improvisation. Performing without having the shiny veneer of performance comes from building structures that require dancer inquiry.

Christy Bolingbroke (CB): There was a moment when you realized that the material suddenly had a different “front.” In dance you can make spatial decisions that frame the experience for the viewer like changing what is “front.”  How do visual artists do that?

Art student: I work in sculpture. I start my process by focusing on the first point of entry for the viewer. I look a lot at different angles for viewing my work.

LE: I never know what’s top or bottom until the painting starts speaking for itself. What is front and back is irrelevant until the very end. [As you are working,] you can see the kind of decisions [the painting is] making for itself. It’s very similar to how you add and subtract in the choreographic process. Adding softness and edges, etc….When I look at a painting, the first thing I consider is how it is showing up in front of me. I.e. how it’s being held up on the wall. What is the fundamental system that enables us to see the work? Where does the support for your work come from?

HM: Every choreographer’s relationship to gravity is unique and in part defines their aesthetic. For example, ballet is very vertical, en pointe, etc. I have an aesthetic preference for falling and showing falling.

CB: At the beginning of rehearsal, you said you were looking at abstract kinetics, story, and gesture. Can you talk about those layers?

HM: I want multiple engines in the dance. Not just abstraction, not just story, and not just dance. With multiple engines, the dance becomes more textured and ambiguous.

JG: One of the strength’s of Hope’s work is that it has multiple entry points, so different people can find their own way into it.

CB: If you’re interested in ambiguity, why are you putting the dancers in nude hooded unitards? You’re interested in texture, but that choice doesn’t seem to have much texture.

HM: In this piece, I want to move away from gendered storytelling and boy meets girl and towards androgyny and strangeness.  The unitards will be painted so there will be some texture.

CB: In working today, Hope was playing with time and tempo. How can that be translated to the visual arts? How do visual artists deal with time?

Art student: Time seems to be the predominant in dance because you can’t really deal with the size of the end result. Visual art only shows the end result.  It’s hard to show the time involved in the creative process.  But you can add or subtract size.

LE: At a quick glance, a dance moves faster than a painting. But there is something very slow that moves from dance. After walking away from a dance performance, if it touches you, it’s a slow impact. Paintings have a fast impact [on the viewer]. Visual arts: Slow image, fast hit. Dance: fast image, slow hit.

CB: The size of the venue can determine how an audience spends time with the work. You have to be callous not to be engaged with someone dancing five feet in front of you. Larger venues have more space between performer and audience so you drop in and out.

Art student: With a painting you see it all immediately.

Art student:  I liked it when you coached the dancers to use “unpredictable timing instead of getting revved up into a synergistic mayhem.” In my own work, I’m practicing allowing the creative potential of allowing the elements to have their own agency.

LE: Visual artists often change the setting of the studio each week to fight complacency.  How do you destabilize your process?

HM:  I’m increasingly committed to destabilizing my process, as the dancers will attest. Collaboration is in itself destabilizing. I try to create an environment in which the dancers feel empowered to destabilize the process. But there is also a point in the process where you have to be the director and make the aesthetic call.

Liam: When is work finished? Is it ever finished? When is practice performance? How can practice keep practicing?

Art student: The living and breathing aspect of dance can’t hold true in visual arts, simply because the visual arts are more static.  What does doneness look like in the visual arts?

CB: I’m reminded of something Janice Garrett said recently about how choreographers are in an ongoing process of investigation interrupted by performance.  If only audiences would buy into that.

JG: As a performer, I spend 95% of my time in rehearsal.  Performance is such a small percentage of what we do.

LE: Do you have to make an effort to take what you love from the practice into the performance?

Jeremy Bannon Neches: No. I reach performance level by rehearsing what I’ll perform. Sharing what I do in rehearsal on stage.

JG: In watching the material, how did you relate to us as humans and movers?

Art students: Sometimes I felt like you were a person but other times you seemed super foreign.

HM: Was that confusing?

Art student: It was both confusing and it worked for me.

HM: When you leave today, what is the residue of the work?

LE: I hope that’s a long-term answer.  Just the [does a gesture from the dance] said so much. There’s so much information. It takes a long time to reverberate.

HM: Choreographer Tere O’Connor talks about how the surface and the engine of a dance can be different.  In this piece, the surface of work is a stylized, weird physicality.  The subterranean engine is a story about tension between sex and romance.

Liam:  That makes sense. That gesture when [the men take each other by the throat]…’s a familiar gesture, but it hit me differently.  It seemed to have a different meaning.

JG: It was odd to have you all here watching today.  We showed you what’s behind the curtain. I was aware of you and not aware of you.

Art student: It was great to see behind the curtain.  We got to see how the dancers were reading movement, rather than what the audience is seeing.

HM: What wasn’t true to life about the rehearsal today was that I usually spend a lot more time in rehearsal standing there not knowing what I’m doing. I didn’t feel comfortable doing that with an audience. Today’s rhythm felt compressed and accelerated. Normally it would be a bit mellower. I prefer to have a more spacious experience.  Part of having a genuinely collaborative environment is having space in the room.  I like to model comfort with not knowing so that it’s ok for everyone not to know.

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[...] an indistinguishable territory. Talking about the piece to a group of students last November, Mohr said: “Choreographer Tere O’Connor talks about how the surface and the engine of a dance can be [...]