Contact Us

Use the form on the right to contact us. We look forward to hearing from you!

917 10th Ave East
Seattle, WA, 98102

2062007230

Our company is driven by the idea of mythologizing the experience of our senses; creating performances and visual art that challenge the viewer's perception of time and perspective as well as allowing our work's intention to be spacious enough for empathetic experiences to emerge. Our work realizes and exists in the state of liminality- the sense of being 'in-between'. By working across different disciplines, we filter our sensual experiences into the mediums that best embodies a facet of the myth our overall concept is based on.

2012_NOTW_study02_Frye-9465.jpg

No Ideas But in Things: blog

 No one to witness or adjust, no one to drive the car. The project includes a curated blog that organizes and analyzes documentation of the developmental process in consultation with the artists, which informs a series of contextual events during the process and, potentially, following the debut of the work in 2014.

What is an "embedded critic"?

Jeremy M. Barker

While I'm working on a pair of essays that document the two iterations of BeginAgain that have been performed so far--the stage version in Seattle at On the Boards, and the installation version that closed last night at 3LD in New York--I thought I'd take a quick moment to clarify something I get asked a lot. I've appeared in the programs for both as the "embedded critic," and I get asked frequently what, exactly, that's supposed to mean. While earlier essays lay out the general vision of the project I've been working on with this company, I thought I'd take a minute to sort of clarify the backstory.

The term "embedded critic" was coined by the British theater critic Andrew Haydon back in 2012, and, if memory serves, it was almost sort of a joke. That is, the name derives from the notion of the "embedded journalist," a term that gained currency during the invasion of Iraq in '03 when journalists would travel into the conflict "embedded" with a particular division or company of soldiers. Anyway, again unless I'm misremembering, Haydon concocted the term after traveling through Iraqi Kurdistan with a theater company; if journalists in that situation were "embedded" with the troops, than surely a theater critic was "embedded" with the theater company.

From there, the idea took on a life of its own. Haydon, of whom I think quite highly, is one of a variety of critics who have been abandoned the outdated model of newspaper criticism, where a writer shows up to a show, reviews the piece, and then publishes a day or two later and calls it done. The separation between the critic and the artist, the notion of "objectivity," and so on are all problematic notions, anyway, so why not rethink the whole thing? A variety of British theater critics embraced the notion of being embedded with the artists--of grappling with the work over time, as it was developed or experienced by diverse audiences. Matt Trueman has written extensively on the concept and embedded himself with a variety of different companies. Maddy Costa--a critic with the Guardian--joined forces with Jake Orr--a blogger--after a particularly intense session at Devoted and Disgruntled in 2012 to launch Welcome to Dialogue, which served as a frame for such projects.

In the US, the primary theorist of the idea of "embedded criticism" and rethinking the nature of critical practice is my collaborator Andy Horwitz, of Culturebot.org. I think I was the one who introduced the term "embedded critic" to him, but in practice it was merely a new term for a concept he'd been toying with for a long time. Andy's a product of the 1990s and started writing online and blogging pretty early--before the term "blogging" gained a lot of currency, in fact. As such, he was influenced by the ideas that motivated the earlier Internet. While today we take the notion of the "hyperlink" for granted, in the '90s it was a revolutionary idea: instead of isolated bits of text expressing ideas in hermetically sealed units, hyperlinking permitted for ideas to exist discursively, in dialogue with one another, connected by links such that information formed a complex network or web of intersections that were non-linear.

Andy has always been fascinated by this idea because it exposes work in a different way. Culturebot started as the in-house blog of PS122 with the intent to make public the discussions Andy was having with artists. Over time, as more and more information piled up in the archives, it became a living, interlinked network of information on how artists were creating work in New York and further afield. So in 2012 when Andy was formulating his ideas about "critical horizontalism," the idea of "embedded criticism" fit nicely into the mix as a way of referring to a writer engaging with artists' processes over time; in many ways, it became merely a term for what he (and I, in my own way) were already doing.

So at a basic level, embedded criticism simply refers to long-term engagement with the work. I've followed BeginAgain through several early iterations, was in the theater with them for a tech residency in August 2013, saw the premiere in Seattle in March 2014, and watched them transform it into an installation a month later in New York. There's a lot still to be written about the piece, tracing how these ideas emerged and were realized in diverse spaces over time.

The problem I've faced--as has Matt Trueman and Maddy Costa and Jake Orr and pretty much everyone else I know of who's tried to do "embedded criticism," which in practice remains a vague notion--is that it's hard to figure out what you're actually doing, or rather, what you should actually be writing and saying about the work. As a "critic" I remained largely outside of the creative process, as opposed to what I would do as a dramaturg. I was observing and responding, but my responses were hard to set out in writing. "Criticism" is perhaps not the best word for what we're actually doing. I found repeatedly that I couldn't have a strong response to what I saw because I was aware that the company was still trying to figure out what it was doing. I learned a lot about their process as artists, but that's merely journalistic rather than responsive, as a critic might be. Compounding this is the fact that zoe | juniper is a dance company, creating abstract visual and movement work. There is no clear story or narrative they're trying to realize at a practical level, so it's hard to evaluate and respond to their process since the creation is not a matter of realizing a concrete idea so much as arriving an acceptable end product through exploration and experimentation.

Indeed, for me, what's been most fascinating is not so much aesthetic questions but rather economic ones: the labor and cost that goes into creating a performance like BeginAgain. This is a little understood thing, and one that's considered boring by general audiences, such that it receives relatively little attention in the press. But the fact is that this piece has been developed through a generative process across more than two years, in Seattle, New York, and Atlanta (formally speaking), to say nothing of semi-related processes in Canada (to mention but one). It's featured several generations of designers and dancers and performers to make, all of which comes at substantial cost and effort to Zoe Scofield and Juniper Shuey. It's hard, in other words, and telling that story was and remains my primary goal as an "embedded critic," which certainly requires being "embedded" but doesn't have much to do with "criticism" at all.

Anyway, these are brief notes on what, exactly, "embedded criticism" is, and the various early iterations of that process can be read on this blog.

The Premier of "BeginAgain" Is in Only Three Weeks!

Jeremy M. Barker

New York has been hell this winter. By most accounts it's the seventh snowiest year on record, with somewhere around sixty inches of snow having fallen on the city. It doesn't feel much like spring is coming, but it certainly is. It's already March and that means spring will not only arrive—in its official capacity, at least—on the twentieth, but the premiere of BeginAgain will follow a week later. Which means I have a lot to do between now and then.

I've been inspired in terms of trying to expand the way in which I'm documenting the show by a fantastic book called Invisible Things. Published by the UK theater company Fevered Sleep, it's a post-facto document of the process of devising their 2008 installation/performance An Infinite Line: Brighton. As far as books go, it's a beautiful object that, through multiple types of pages attempts to achieve the non-linear intersecting effect I've written about here. Unfortunately, it appears I bought the last copy, but I'm more than happy to share with those interested.

Whatever the case, I'm working on a series of posts which will collect various forms of documentation about each of the four No One to Witness or Adjust chamber studies, including video, photography, production notes, and interviews with the creators, which will lay the groundwork for tracking how zoe|juniper grappled with various ideas and conceptual approaches that ultimately will result in the show that goes up starting March 27 at On the Boards.

JMB

Postscript 2013; Looking at 2014

Jeremy M. Barker

A couple weeks ago, I spoke with Zoe and Juniper on the phone about what was published as part of "No Ideas But in Things" in 2013, and what shape the project should evolve in during 2014 as we approach the Seattle and New York premieres.—JMB

Jeremy Barker: So, you’ve had a chance to read the series I published through December about this project during 2013. What is your response?

Juniper Shuey: I thought it was fun to see read about your interaction—the way you talk about being in the cab talking with Zoe. I enjoyed the stories of how we had those conversations. It says a lot about how this work gets made. When you have conversations and how you have them are very different than in the "normal" world, and it's interesting to have that as part of the make-up of the project.

Zoe Scofield: I think it’s a very interesting way to approach doing something that you don't know how to do, because it hasn't happened yet. It definitely makes you, as a person, a part of it.

Jeremy Barker: Yes.

Zoe Scofield: It takes you out of being this dry critic, or writing "about" it from the outside.

Jeremy Barker: One of the things I wound up writing a lot about while doing that was how my own thoughts on the piece kept evolving of the year, including my sense of what it is you were trying to do. I write about how I was wrong, how I was misunderstanding your goals even as we were talking about it. What was your sense of that?

Zoe Scofield: It's interesting to me in that it raised bigger questions about writing about art, and how writing [about it the way you did] makes it clear to the reader that this is not the Alpha and Omega about the work. That they are allowed to have their own response and experience, and that one person’s interpretation doesn't define the work. I was talking with another writer about this the other day, who was interviewing us, and she asked what the piece was “about.” And I said, "I'm not entirely interested in talking about that,” because I'm not interested in creating material for people to consciously or unconsciously judge their own experience against, to see if they can line up what they saw with what I say it's “about.” And so your own story is an example of how it actually sometimes is, where your thinking can change or you can be surprised by what you actually see. I think it's good for audiences to have that sense. That reading about something about a work beforehand, or talking with someone beforehand, can make them expect one thing, and then they can still have a very different experience when they see it.

Jeremy Barker: Actually, that reminds me—I don’t remember if I cut this from what I published or not—but in a draft, at least, I wrote about how I never actually asked you what the piece is about, because it didn’t seem like it was important. It’s not about what you set out to do, it’s about the process of getting there. Which leads me to my next question: Having read my description of your process as artists, do you think it’s accurate? Is there something I’ve missed?

Zoe Scofield: This entire process with this piece is new for us. That was the whole point when we set out last year to make this series of chamber studies [No One to Witness or Adjust...] along the way. The point was to set up a scenario that was different for us, unknown for us, so that we couldn't make things in the same way. So we couldn’t make the “same thing.”

Juniper Shuey:  We're trying new ways of creating, so the process feels very unknown, unfamiliar. Particularly when you look at our process over time—this piece in relation to the last one. This piece has gone through very different phases [the chamber studies and On the Board residency], where we try a process material in a certain way. And we sit in it for a while, and may be confused or lost in that process because we're not familiar with it, and then at the same time we have to analyze whether it's working or not, and whether we continue with that process. I think in this piece, there's been quite a few times when it just seemed like the questions we were dealing with were less clear to me, because the process was so different. It was hard to tell analytically whether something was working.

Zoe Scofield: And I think it's also something to do with the rapidness, the rapid succession of making things. That was really new. The scale of production was way different than before. Which was all for the point of having less stress of what we've felt in the past, tied to making these big theatrical productions. So to be able to go in and say we want to try this or that at a different part of the process—we had no idea what that was going to be like. And I don't know if I can say whether it’s been successful or not yet. I think one of the reasons for that was that not everyone involved was entirely able to embrace the "who-the-fuck-knows?" attitude and just keep on trying new ways, new iterations, to see what worked. And from the point of view of the choreography and dancing, I've always worked with my dancers for a really long time in the studio. And now to have this situation where Ariel Freedman and I are not in the studio together until final tech residency, it’s very different for me. I've never done that, and it’s forcing me to think about trust, and how I can streamline and be succinct. And it's also about not being able to rehearse the piece to death. But the jury's still out—we're still making the piece—but it is a radically different process than before.

Jeremy Barker: Going back over the writing from 2013, I wonder what it is that you think I’ve neglected? What’s missing?

Juniper Shuey: I feel there's the idea of seeing the relationship of your creative struggles writing about our process, and how that's similar to our own challenges in our creative process. I think your story of your difficulties navigating this process parallels our own. And I think that's something that’s sort of missing, the account of how that was what the process was for us. How the anecdote of your own experience can cross over to reflect my own experience or Zoe's experience.

Jeremy Barker: That’s very true, and I think that will emerge more as we proceed through 2014. Once the piece comes together for On the Boards, once decisions become finalized, it’ll be a lot easier for me to look back and see how these struggles have led somewhere concrete for you.

Juniper Shuey: I think there's something interesting in a process when it comes to finalization. There's a timeline that says when it has to come to an end. And that's when you start focusing on certain parts of it, certain ideas, instead of saying, Well, here's some ideas, and letting them just be out there. You have to start defining specifically what those choices are. And I think that's an interesting part in any artistic process, when an artist reaches that point where they've played with all these ideas, and now they're confronted with actually implementing them. There are always other ideas that work, but you hit this point when there's a deadline and you have to decide, “This is the direction I'm going in.” And you take a leap of faith and do it.

Jeremy Barker: It's going to be interesting to me seeing the piece that's finally put up for precisely that reason--that's when I'll really be able to look back and see how these ideas have evolved.

Juniper Shuey: Yes. It'll be interesting to get to see what, after the summer residency, what we chose not to take back from it.

Jeremy Barker: Yeah! The summer residency's an interesting thing I really want to revisit when we're closer to the premiere. But now I want to sort of ask about you to offer some thoughts on translating BeginAgain from the version that premieres at On the Boards in March in Seattle, to the piece people will be seeing at 3LD in New York, which is a completely different sort of space and relationship to the audience.

Juniper Shuey:  It's an installation version of BeginAgain.

Zoe Scofield: A performance installation.

Juniper Shuey: It's like taking a story and telling it from a different perspective. The story is the same, but what you see is totally different.

Zoe Scofield:  It's like saying that reading To Kill a Mockingbird and seeing the movie are the same. They're both great and they’re both interesting, separate pieces in-and-of themselves. But they're different things orbiting the same center.

Part VIII: Coffee in the Afternoon With Zoe

Jeremy M. Barker

Monday afternoon after our Friday night adventures, I met Zoe for coffee near my office in Chelsea. At Cafe Grumpy to be exact, now best known around the US for being featured in the HBO show Girls (well, the Greenpoint location, at least). We were meeting to finally discuss how to move forward with "No Ideas But in Things." We'd chatted a long while on the train ride home, and I told Zoe I had a number of ideas for the piece. In fact, by the next day, I had concocted most of this series in my head, and by Monday part of the initial draft was done. Saturday I texted her and explained that I was going to write her a "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" style piece, which meant nothing to her.

Back in 1966, Gay Talese was sent to LA on assignment to write a feature on Frank Sinatra. As it happens, Sinatra made for a remarkably poor interview subject (among other things because he was sick and kept delaying the interview). With nothing of any news-worthy import to write about, Talese somehow, through the sheer power of storytelling, wrote what's now widely regarded as one of the best pieces of magazine journalism ever, a pioneering bit of New Journalism.

My own piece is of course nowhere near as good, thoughtful, or polished as Talese's writing, but it sprang from a very similar need: the need to write something when there doesn't seem to be anything really worth writing about.

By the time Zoe visited in November, it was clear that most of what I'd seen in tech in August was out-the-window. I still had no idea the structure of the piece. The design was changing along with the designers. The number of dancers was reduced to two, so all the group work I'd seen was out-the-window, too. I knew a lot about the piece, but I had no idea how to make sense of any of it. Trying to write criticism or analysis or just plain response to it wasn't working because it had no perspective since I didn't know what anything had led to yet. I had done a lot, seen a lot, talked a lot, watched a lot. But it didn't add up to criticism, as Matt Trueman had pointed out. So I did what Talese had done--I just told the story and tried to let it stand on its own.

I met Zoe at the corner of 8th Avenue and 16th Street, and we walked uptown to 20th Street to go to the cafe. She'd been running around all day, meeting with people. We ordered and sat in the back and I tried my best to explain what I intended to do, which she was supporting of. In fact, I often find that talking with Zoe about the project is the thing that pushes it forward. When I get caught up in the weeds, she tends to have a sort of "fuck all" attitude and tells me to just do it. She's previously suggested this project--this opening up of themselves and their work--might be a horrible idea. Nothing is really off limits, I guess; the censorship has all been on my end.

So I told her what I intended to write, and then we turned to what she was actually doing. I knew what I didn't know, pace Donald Rumsfeld. I was ready to figure out where the piece was now.

After sharing with her my mistaken interpretation of the aesthetic direction of her choreography, the email with her brother-in-law, the shift away from darkness in the piece, she tried to clarify.

What we'd been dancing around, it appears, is that her concern is increasingly how to isolate shape, line and form. Looking at her choreography (as distinct from the scenography), I'd paid too much attention to the transition between what we might call tableaux. I say "might" because it's not a matter of poses, per se, but rather of line and form. Zoe and Juniper's various attempts to isolate parts of the dancers' bodies through design elements was oriented towards capturing and isolating particular visual states, each of which can have its own particular emotional weight and resonance. At Velocity, for instance, one sequence she frequently ran her dancers through was referred to as "Mapping." Each dancer on her own would seek to sort of imprint herself in space, then shift to a different pose in a different space. There are aesthetic precedents for this in their work--think of the "rewind/fast-forward" section of A Crack in Everything, or the photo series that captures Zoe moving through space that were used for the installation. During the Mapping section, an emotional weight is created through a dancer's pose. As the dancer shifts away from that pose, certain elements--the angle of the arm, the line created by the spine, the specific location in geographic space--shift before elements. The dancer may step, for instance, shifting the foot, leg, spine, but the angle of the arm, maintained in the prior pose, is anchored in a previous moment.

The body casts, then, serve as physical documents of specific points in narrative time. Their deployment in the design of the piece makes concrete what the movement score of "Mapping" only renders implicit. The experiments during No One to Witness, which centered on questions like "the interplay of static and active space" or "isolating elements of the dancer's body," were intended to figure out various strategies for focusing on particular elements of the body.

As Zoe told me over coffee, which I quickly wrote down, "I'm interested in how dance reframes the object, and how the object reframes the dance."

The dynamism of her choreography emerges from the static, object nature of the pose, which creates a center-of-gravity which the movement has to contend with. The first rehearsal I sat in on with Zoe, five years or more ago, was a rough of what became the "rewind/fast-forward" sequence (as I call it). I remember Zoe stressing to her dancers as she led them into the first pose, "Find a memory, I don't care what." That emotional state became a force which the dancer's movement out of had to fight against, as if either they were pushing or pulling from a weighty state.

The choreography and design, then, both focus on objects which bear a weight. These objects can be physical pieces (like the plaster body casts), or ephemeral (shadows, silhouettes), but the intent is that each should be imbued with a particular resonance. It needn't be read as some literal thing. The object can attain a weight and gravity without a specific referent, such that the ultimate work--the aesthetic for which their collaboration is known for--is dream-like, ephemeral, phantasmagorical. The interplay of lightness and gravity, weight and weightlessness.

Like Juniper told me in our interview, "When we use the video projections, it's more about the projector itself than the video we use. The projector amplifies real space."

Or as he otherwise put it: "[T]he most interesting thing to me is to create something that people remember in a certain way later on, something that's instilled within someone's memory that's activated at some later moment I have no control over."

Zoe and I left the cafe after only 45 minutes or so. I had to get back to work. She had things to get to before heading back to Philadelphia. As we walked down 20th Street toward 8th Avenue, she told me to just do it. Get to writing. The reason she had wanted to work with me was because I was willing to think dynamically about the work, to engage with it and let the work take me somewhere other than she intended. She mentioned me referencing Milan Kundera in my review of A Crack in Everything.

I did my best.

It's nearing seven o'clock in the evening. It's seven weeks later, in early 2014. Numerous drafts, a couple delays, and a vacation over the holidays delayed completing this. Zoe just wrote me an email--she and Juniper are in New York again having just completed their first residency at the 3-Legged Dog Art & Technology Center, where BeginAgain will be shown in May as part of the Joyce's season. I just spent several days in the studio with them as they grappled with a whole new set of challenges. We're supposed to get dinner soon.

There's never enough time. This story's done, but it's kind of a lie. Sorry. I finally know what BeginAgain will look like. So you, dear reader, have that to look forward to in new year.

Beginning | Previous

Part VII: The Part About Juniper

Jeremy M. Barker

Transient

In early December, a week or so after Zoe left New York, I sat down at the computer and started searching for my recordings of talks with Juniper. I have dozens and dozens of unlabelled audio files of the interviews I do, stretching back more than a year and a half since I last did a full dump of my voice recorder, and it took the better part of an hour before I found the right onea call I had with Juniper earlier this year, before the Velocity showing of No One to Witness.

There were one or two things I recalled from our conversation that I was planning on pulling, but instead of just searching them out, instead I just went about transcribing the way I normally do: by listening to the audio all the way through, stopping to write out the parts that catch my fancy, which I then use to craft the article. In this regard, I understand I'm considered a "bad" journalist. A friend of mine thinks I'm nuts; it takes me one-and-a-half times the length of the audio to transcribe the parts I use (e.g., 45 minutes for a 30-minute interview). He tells me constantly that I need to learn how to write things down when someone's talking; the audio is back-up.

But for me, that's a boring route to writing stories. I rarely know, for instance, what the story I'm going to tell with an interview feature is. The better I know a subject (either through their work or on a personal level) the worse it is, since it's harder to zero-in on something fresh. I don't like to phone it in, to do the same article everyone else has. I read, I research other interviews before I go in. I discard anything that's been printed before (the more someone's interviewed, the more likely they are to relate the same anecdotes and pat answers). I like to talk to people, get them out of their comfort zones, out of the interviewer-interviewee dynamic. I don't use quotes to illustrate facts or things I already know. I use them illustratively, to try to capture the voicing or the personality of the subject. (Consequently, another thing I get all the time from real editors is that my quotes are too long.)

Anyway, the point is that after it became glaringly obvious to me that Juniper was everywhere in the work but nowhere in my writing about it, I stepped back and just went through the interview, listening with fresh ears. Looking for what was interesting. For instance:

With Zoe I have this conversation a a lotit wasn't even related to this project, but it's something that has been gnawing at meand maybe it's related in the sense, the idea of being seen. But coming from a cult backgroundwhen I was younger I was in a cultso it's always been this fascination with people who consider themselves prophets. This was the conversation we were having at one point, the one that's the most provocative for me right now. About creating a world where people believe in you above all else. What does that require? What does that require of the viewer, I guess, and what does it require of the person creating it? And what's the difference between making something that's questionable versus unquestionable?

That one caught me off guard. A cult? Really? You'd think I would have followed up on that one. (I didn't.) Or:

I'm a spatial artist, [an artist of] how we experience space. I think the through-line of my work is belief, and how we believe what is true and not true. How can I spatially create a three-dimensional reality in which the relation to the body is one-to-one?

Not the most eloquent statement out-of-context. Normally I wouldn't use that one, but it caught my ear going through the audio for obvious reasons. Here was Juniper explicitly discussing the same ideas as Zoe was just telling me about. And then:

When the casts were made the question was, what's the most interesting relief that you're making. Basically defining lines in some way. Creating three-dimensional lines and having them fragmented, like memories. But then have them placed in space so that they're relatable as real, in some way that makes sense.

Here, he was talking about the body casts which figured so prominently in the No One to Witness studies. They were originally created as part of the performance residency at the Frye Art Museum in November 2012. That was the second study as part of No One to Witness, and the casts figured prominently thereafter, although they're likely to disappear in the final presentation of BeginAgain. But conceptually, the idea of physical states as manifestations of emotional/experiential moments remains.

And finally, there was this one from Juniper:

In a lot ways the most interesting thing to me is to create something that people remember in a certain way later on, something that's instilled within someone's memory that's activated at some later moment I have no control over.

After I finished my transcribing, I stopped and made myself a cup of coffee and read my notes. In retrospect, the interview seems scatter-shot, directionless. It wasn't "about" anything, and it wasn't how I normally talk with Juniper. It wasn't illustrative, as I see it, of much. It's just a document of some things I asked him, some of which I already knew the answer to, more or less, others of which became tangents that were never explored (like the entire cult thing).

This is, I'd say, another through-line of the company's work: the idea of constructing space as a psychic phantasmagoria. The stage, in Zoe and Juniper's work, becomes a site of engagement with memory, the dancers' bodies by turns either inhabiting or counterpointing memory. There's a Proustian quality to the work, how a certain gesture, pose, or action can call up historical experience that's evidenced in the scenographic designvideo, silhouette, fluttering curtainsas constantly vanishing evidence of past experience.

As the coffee machine hissed, I recalled the first time I met Juniper. This was probably five years ago in Seattle, at one of John Boylan's local art conversations. It took place at Vermillion, a hip art bar and gallery on Capitol Hill, and Juniper was one of the surprise speakers, as he and Zoe had just completed a MacDowell Colony residency and residencies were the subject of the talk.

He arrived a bit late with Sara Edwards, the former communications director of On the Boards and then working at 4Culture, an important Seattle arts support organization. I briefly introduced myself to Juniper afterward and that was about it.

I've always known Zoe better. I met her first, when she invited me to a rehearsal of A Crack in Everything. And she travels more than Juniper, meaning that I encounter her far more frequently in New York than I do him.

He's a bit less brash than Zoe, maybe more conciliatory. Diplomatic. Which isn't to say that Zoe's rude or something, but together you can watch an interesting dynamic play out between them. Zoe pushes and pushes those around her, and likes to play with things constantly. Juniper, on the other hand, seems to pull collaborators toward very clearly formed ideas he has. I watched this happen repeatedly during the August tech residency. They'd run a few transitions and then gather around the tech tables. Zoe would offer a variety of ideas or suggestionsshe asks a lot of "what if" type questions, whereas Juniper offers very concrete suggestions for sound and lighting, aiming for some particular effect he has in mind. When Zoe makes suggestions, he pushes her to be clear and concrete in order to try to figure out exactly how to make something happen.

It's interesting that Juniper is usually referred to as a "visual artist" and Zoe as a "choreographer" in company descriptions. This is somewhat true, but Juniper actually used to work as a dancer himself with other companies in Seattle after he moved there. He did attend art school, but (if I recall correctly) he focused on ceramics, something that doesn't come up a lot (if at all) in their company's work. I've asked him about his practice before, and he tends to view it very loosely. At a practical level, during production he tends to focus primarily on bigger design issues and specifically handles video and projections, while turning over sound and lighting design to others, but he plays a role in shaping the choreographer at the same time that Zoe plays a role in developing the visual environment.

It is true, however, that he has a particular attachment to spatial elements in the piece more than to the movement, and he will work well outside the bounds of the performance to explore material. A Crack in Everything, for instance, featured an attendant gallery installation that was only truly realized at DiverseWorks in Houston, with a smaller version with the piece in Portland at the TBA Festival.

What's interesting to me is that when you talk with Zoe and Juniper about their work, you begin to get the sense that the work isn't actually a matter of producing a discrete performance event. Rather, the pair are animated by ideas which play out across their work, and pieces themselves tend not to be very fixed. What's the relationship between No One to Witness and BeginAgain, for instance? Or the A Crack in Everything installation and the performance?

I recall having a long conversation with Juniper about what it meant to create a tour-able work. It came up because I saw A Crack in Everything twice: first at the TBA Festival, and then some months later in New York at New York Live Arts. In Portland, it was performed in university theater with a raised stage with a thrust, and it wasn't until I saw it at NYLA's more traditional dance theater that I realized that the flooringan expensive reflective cover they toured the show withplayed such an important role. In other words, it turned out the venue for the TBA appearance was very technically problematic, and that got me asking how he thought about designing a piece that would have to tour to very different sorts of spaces.

Juniper had a couple points to make. First, he was very clear that he liked to design for a space, that he was very cognizant of the qualities and potential one theater offered versus another. But second, it was precisely that limitationthe perspective of a traditional theater arrangementthat inspired the installation, in which the spectator's experience could be profoundly different, immersed and surrounded by the visual elements that they used to create a flexible sense of linear time.

This was also the inspiration for No One to Witness. The idea of a series of chamber studies left the pair room to play with ideas and perspectives well outside the traditional theater arrangement.

The dynamic between Zoe and Juniper, though, is still something of a mystery to me. It's hard to tell where one's ideas end and the other's begin, though it's clear that each is bringing something very concrete to the table. Ask them the same questions about the work, in other words, and the response you get can seem like they're talking about completely different pieces.

But I've certainly gathered enough to understand the trying to clearly distinguish Zoe's part from Juniper's is impossible.

The most telling anecdote I heard from Juniper was back in August in Seattle. By chance, I was telling him about recalling the first time we met, at Boylan's conversation about residencies, and that got us talking about MacDowell. Anyway, that got Juniper explaining the genesis of one of the more arresting moments in A Crack in Everything.

The scene marks a shift in the feel of the piece. The dancers all exit the stage, then one re-enters with the end of a blood-red rope clenched in her teeth. The rope is angled up and off into the wings, and the movement mainly involves the dancer slowly moving across the stage, carefully maintaining tension on the rope so it forms a very strong line.

Anyway, according to the story Juniper told, that particular moment grew out of the stuff they played with at the MacDowell Colony. He explained that participants in the residency are invited to show and share work in the evening, at one of which he and Zoe did an improvised version of the rope-dance. It turns out there was no simple technical solution to maintaining tension on the other end of the rope, so it has to be hand-fed to the dancer in order to maintain tension. At MacDowell, it became a collaborative effort, with the spectators helping feed Zoe the rope.

Ultimately, it was that human connection that led them to keep that moment in the final piece. Although you can't actually see it, the rope-dance is actually a very careful duet between the dancer and the tech person feeding her the rope offstage. Completely buried in the visual is actually an intimate human interaction between artists connected by the rope. Anyone who's seen A Crack in Everything, I think, gets how that's so important to the broader themes in the work, the rope serving as a tenuous and subtle link between between moments, a line demarcating the course of time and establishing past and present.

The easy way to interpret the genesis of the image it is to imagine it as the product of a choreographer (Zoe) staging a technically complicated and subtle movement, in a sumptuous visual environment of arresting contrast produced by a designer (Juniper). In actuality, though, it's the result of a long exploration between the two, the heart of which is actually an interpersonal interaction. I think that says a lot about how they work together, where their ideas intersect, and ultimately, what winds up being mutually important to them in creating their art.

Beginning | Previous | End

Part VI: Morning Email

Jeremy M. Barker

Photo by Juniper Shuey

Photo by Juniper Shuey

The morning after our adventure in the Lower East Side, I woke up late. Dinner ran to the late side after the five of us left eventually found a restaurant to dine at, where we burned through a couple bottles of wine before I set out back to Brooklyn with Zoe, who was staying not far from my Park Slope apartment, with a friend near Grand Army Plaza. When I got up I made coffee, wandered downstairs to pick up the newspaper, then obsessively checked my email on my iPhone. I had an email from Zoe. It was a forward of the email she'd sent to her brother-in-law regarding the rabbit-hole his inquiry about Trio A had led her down. She thought it might be of interest to me. It read, in part:

I started working with making pretty crude (i.e. not well made, not great materials, etc) plaster casts of the dancers bodies. basically i was/am going for trying to capture and sort of cauterize into space what i always, continuously see of the movement and their bodies for the viewer.  i started working on this for our piece at the Frye Art Museum last November.  each day i made more casts of the dancers bodies doing my choreography and hung them in the place where they did the action. they accumulated over the 7 days and the dancers had to keep doing the movement in the same space that this residue of their previous movement was now hanging. i wanted to see what would happen to my movement/choreography when the basic DNA was still there but the cellular structure had to adapt, so to speak. it was fun. i'm sending you some photos and links so that you get an idea of what i am talking about.

also i wasn't trying to make a stunning visual art statement or piece. it was about the fluidity of being able to quickly make tangible what i see in my mind so that the audience has the same framing that i have when i am seeing/making the movement and arranging it in space in time. it was a way to sort of get us all on the same page so that we could move on to the more nuanced, interesting, potent experience and potential of how all of this can/could interact.  the end point for me wasn't (maybe now, is a bit more...) about the object. it was about the object as a framing device to open up, further see the movement, video, sound, dancers, choreography, etc.

I skimmed it quickly and went about my business, somewhat blearily confused about what it all meant.

The night before, we'd quickly established that Michael Klien and Steve Valk's piece Choreography for Blackboards, although it too engaged the situation of the dancers' bodies in space physically enacting a work, was aiming in a different direction. They were interested in the idea of "social choreography," a reframing of the choreographic vocabulary as a language of critical inquiry into contemporary social relations and organization. What Zoe was discussing with her brother-in-law was different and, seemingly, going in different directions.

Her brother-in-law, a sculptor, was interested in how movement could reveal something meaningful about objects in space. Zoe, though, was interested in how sculpture could capture or enhance meaningful tableaux from her choreography. They were, in other words, working in opposite directions: He from static to movement, to explore spectatorial experience, she from movement to static to explore the same.

All this was, I admit, lost on me. It was Sunday morning. I had coffee to drink, newspaper to read, and the inherent stress of being unproductive as an embedded critic to ignore. But as the day wore on, I began to think more and more about Zoe's email. Not for its merits in and of themselves, which only came to make sense to me later. No, what I got to thinking about was how I was trying to make sense of Zoe's comments on space (as opposed to movement, which at first blush would seem more natural) in her dialogue with her brother-in-law. But there was already a visual artist working with the company on the piece whose voice's absence was increasingly glaring.

Where in all this was Juniper?

Beginning | Previous | Next

Part V. Interlude

Jeremy M. Barker

Stop.

Re-read.

Edit.

BeginAgain, if nothing else, enacts a new attempt at trust between the artists working together to produce it. Zoe subsuming herself, her body, in a heretofore unimaginable way, into the visual landscape of the piece. One which she was a co-creator, for sure, but an aesthetic scheme in which her ability to achieve it was less than Juniper's, who, as a visual artist having worked as a dancer, was uniquely suited to enact.

I wrote that a long while ago, actually—it comes almost directly (along with much of the previous section) from the drafts I wrote in late-August/early-September, right after the residency. But if the show’s not dark, that doesn’t seem to make any sense.

stet.jpg

The same ideas and concepts thread their way across Zoe and Juniper’s work—memory and repetition, physical manifestation of psychic states, effects in which the focus slips between the body and its representation. The trick, for me, was pinning down what was different in BeginAgain, the new directions they were moving in with this piece. And at some point I settled on the idea of the dematerialization of the body.

In A Crack in Everything there are darker moments, particularly at the beginning with the reflection (projection) duet. But for most of the piece, the lighting is bright and saturated to illuminate the five dancers in glittery gold costumes. It’s on the whole a brightly lit piece.

But during the residency at On the Boards, I felt like I was seeing a darker and more muted tone. Instead of bright ambers and reds that dominated in A Crack in Everything, BeginAgain was cool blues and stark whites. The lighting and design effects I saw seemed intent on hiding the body as much as possible and manipulating how the spectator sees it. The “opening” they worked on was a simple repetitive phrase in which dancers, on a dim, hazy stage, emerged from and retreated back into the shadows. Another moment was a duet in which a dancer manipulated her cast shadow to perform a duet with a video-recorded silhouette. And another effect that considerable time was spent on was attempting to project a bright light against a white reflective floor, so that the reflected beam would clearly bifurcate the dancers’ bodies.

All of these effects seemed of a piece with the concepts that emerged from the No One to Witness chamber studies: The use of projection screens to activate specific parts of the space; the documents of ephemeral moments created by the plaster casts of dancers’ bodies and the dirt floor employed at gloATL; the conscious exploration of where the audience was situated in relation to the action at Velocity.

From there—from dozens of photos and hours of videos and days and nights spent in theaters with the company and my own six year engagement with their work—I constructed an entire critical narrative about BeginAgain that was dependent on one thing: The piece being darkly lit.

But it’s not darkly lit. Or probably not. Or possibly not. Or, really, it remains to be determined.

The point that Matt Trueman madeviz. that an embedded critic is not a critic in the classical sense, as there’s nothing to critique—I missed over and over again over throughout 2013. I kept trying to write something that wouldn’t come, because it wasn’t right.

How, after all, can you write criticism about something that doesn’t really exist?

Beginning | Previous | Next

Part IV: Feral Ballet

Jeremy M. Barker

The second night I was in Seattle in August, I caught the bus up to First Hill to go to an event at the Frye Art Museum arranged by The Stranger, Seattle's alt-weekly. Every year, The Stranger gives out a series of awards to artists called the "Genius Awards." There are five categories, of which performing arts is one, and this year, Zoe and Juniper were nominated (and ultimately won). In the past, the awards were limited to a one-night affair: A big award-show in which the pre-announced semi-finalists found out who won, down at the Moore, a beautiful historic theater where a veritable who's-who have performed over the last century.

Zoe, Juniper, and Stranger editor Christopher Frizzelle at the 2013 Genius Awards. Photo by Tonya Lockyer

Zoe, Juniper, and Stranger editor Christopher Frizzelle at the 2013 Genius Awards. Photo by Tonya Lockyer

But in 2013, The Stranger expanded the affair into a series of evening showcases of semi-finalists by category, leading up the epic final party. By coincidence, the night for the performing arts semifinalists was during my brief stay, so I was granted one of their precious guest passes, and headed to the Frye for a quick cocktail before heading into the auditorium for presentations of the nominees, which also included my old friend Amy O'Neal and Pat Graney, one a long-time Seattle dance presence and the other an even longer-time one.

The MC and moderator for the event was Brendan Kiley, the performing arts editor of The Stranger and one of the last staff performing arts critics in the U.S. I worked with him earlier in the year on Everyone's a Critic, the event I helped produce at On the Boards as part of Culturebot. He's a swell guy. But when it came to interviewing Zoe and Juniper (second in the line-up) I found myself cringing a bit. In his introductory remarks, before screening their 60-second video sample, he referred to Zoe's movement as "feral ballet."

"Feral" is a term that comes up with surprising frequency regarding her work. The first time I recall it was from a curator I shared a cab with to a showcase of her work during APAP a couple years earlier, but Kiley seemed intent on framing it conceptually as "feral ballet."

The "ballet" part is itself problematic; Zoe has occasionally described herself as a dancer "ballet didn't want," and there's some truth to that. She's too short by a bit for your standard ballet company, and her body too exaggerated and extreme. The ballerina's body is required, even in the contemporary, to be subsumed within an idealized feminine. Female attributes are de-empasized through costuming and hairstyle, a bizarre anachronism that eroticizes the de-sexualized female body, a truly strange bit of socially acceptable pedo-eroticism. The term I usually use to describe Zoe's movement is "highly articulated," which is both a euphemism and an allusive dodge. There's a peculiar quality about her body--its litheness coupled with subtle muscularity--that serves to highlight shifts to the extreme. When I describe it as "articulated," I mean in the sense of an articulated antenna or robotic arm; the effect is an exaggeration of angularity at the joints coupled with a fluidity of movement. But "feral" doesn't quite capture it. As Zoe told me a few hours later, as we were heading for their car after leaving the after-party at Greg Lundgren’s art-hipster bar the Hideout, as a Southerner (Zoe's from Georgia, an accent that occasionally peeks it head out), "feral" isn't a conceptual term, it's what you use to describe wild dogs and cats. It suggests not ferocity or wildness so much as a mangey, probably half-starved former pet threatening you with rabies.

Genius award.jpg

But that was what provoked me so much by the literal darkness of the staging I saw during the residency. Zoe's particular sort of movement is problematic--it makes her a very unique dancer, but it's difficult to set on another body, particularly since its effect seems so tied not to the gesture or pose itself but the body that enacts it. But one of the through-lines I saw in the material for BeginAgain was a sort dematerialization of the body. From the plaster casts that formed a key scenographic element in early studies, to the dirt floor employed during a residency in Atlanta, to the perspective shift of Velocity showing, to the elements of shadow and video and haze that marked the design elements the company played with during the tech residency, there was a marked shift from focusing on the dancer's body towards ways of isolating line, shape, and movement outside of direct embodiment.

It was almost like Zoe was trying, by turning over more of the concept to Juniper, to evaporate the body which had been so much so the critical fascination with the company's work. Zoe the "ballerina that ballet rejected" seemed tired of being the same old object of spectatorial fascination that ballet itself proposed. The company's work had always been defined by the close and intense collaboration between her and Juniper, a visual artist with a background in dance whose scenographic environments more successfully integrated the physical presence of the dancers within the conceptual space than most other contemporary American companies.

"This is really Juniper's piece," Zoe had said to me earlier that day outside On the Boards, where we retreated to the sunlight for lunch. BeginAgain, if nothing else, enacts a new attempt at trust between the artists working together to produce it. Zoe subsuming herself, her body, in a heretofore unimaginable way, into the visual landscape of the piece. One which she was a co-creator, for sure, but an aesthetic scheme in which her ability to achieve it was less than Juniper's, who, as a visual artist having worked as a dancer, was uniquely suited to enact.

Beginning | Previous | Next

Part III: There Is Nowhere to Eat in the Lower East Side

Jeremy M. Barker

"No One to Witness..." study at gloATL, December 2012

"No One to Witness..." study at gloATL, December 2012

"How much of what I saw at On the Boards is still there?" I asked Zoe as we walked down a street in the Lower East Side about an hour after our show ended.

We'd gone to see the newest work by an artist I've followed for a couple years, Arturo Vidich. Zoe and I sat in the part of the audience signalling our willingness to participate in the work. I wasn't worried about being chosen (since Arturo clearly wasn't going to pick me--I already knew the gambit), but Zoe in fact got picked to be one of two participants, leaving me to wincingly watch her drawn into a highly physical improvisational task by Arturo and wondering what it would mean if I, having taken her out, wound up letting her break an ankle or something.

Arturo choose his participants using a "psychic" technique: placing his forehead against each potential participant and psychically asking the person whether they're willing to take part. Mind you, Arturo has never evinced any particular belief in the actual psychic channeling of this moment to me; rather, he claims he's used it many times, from back in his clowning days, and it always works. Whatever he reads, he reads right, and though Zoe assured me she did her best to channel "don't pick me" to him, she indeed did perform with aplomb.

"Not much," she responded to my question about the August residency.

Which of course left me thinking, “Well what the hell am I supposed to write about now?”

I stopped at the corner and looked around, trying to find the rest of our erstwhile crew. Jay Wegman, the artistic director of Abrons Arts Center, which presented Arturo's show, had invited us and about ten other people out to dinner afterward, but it was about halfway through having each of our bags searched at the door to the restaurant--delayed by two separate arguments over bringing in bottled water (never heard that one before)--that we realized our restaurant had become, since Jay's last visit, just another b&t nightclub, and his "dinner reservation" was really just "table service." He left, irritated but snickering at the maitre d', who informed him of their cancellation policy ($15 a head), not realizing they'd failed to take down Jay's credit card when making the reservation.

This, however, left us in the unenviable position of wandering the LES on a Saturday night just shy of ten o'clock, looking for a restaurant that could accommodate a dozen people without prior reservation. An impossible proposition. Sometimes when I find myself wandering around that neighborhood on a weekend night the lyrics to Santigold's "L.E.S. Artistes" pop into mind and I start chuckling, but truth be told there's nary a hint of the neighborhood's one-time reputation as an artist's redoubt to be found these days. I can still tolerate the East Village and Alphabet City north of Houston St., but the Lower East Side, aside from when I want to take someone dancing at Mehanata, is unbearable.

"But is it still dark?" I ask Zoe. She gave me a curious look. "I mean, most of the design was really dark, like shifting the movement to video, shadow-play, bi-secting the body with light, the sort of thing."

"I don't think so," she replied. "Not anymore."

Beginning | Previous | Next

Part II. "About as Interesting as Watching Grass Grow"

Jeremy M. Barker

On Monday the nineteenth of August I caught an evening flight from New York to Seattle. Heading west, it hardly classifies as a red-eye; I arrived early enough that I was able to swing by Solo Bar in Lower Queen Anne, about halfway between where I was staying on my friend Christina’s couch and where Zoe and Juniper were two weeks into their tech residency at On the Boards, a bar owned by a good old friend of mine with whom I had a drink before heading back to the apartment for a night of furtive, jet-lagged sleep.

residency.JPG

The next morning, bright and early, I got up and headed over to the theater. The place was a mess of cables and lights and rolls of plastic and all the kind of crap that I really haven’t dealt with since I used to work as a tech director a decade ago. I found a place with the designers, who had a few tables set up right in the middle of the audience, and started taking notes.

The tables were set up on two rows. I was seated at the lower table, with Juniper—hunched over a pair of Macbooks, operating the video—and the company manager or costume designer or whoever in general came in or out during the day. In the row above, the lighting and sound designers were working. I spread out my stuff—an iPad, a Moleskine notebook, my iPhone. I waited and I watched.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t clearly recall a number of things about the art, the design, the choreography from the three days I spent in a dark theater while Seattle basked outside in a lazy summer. I do, and I have my notes to push me further than memory alone. But honestly, when I think back on the residency in Seattle, I don’t think of any of the arty stuff. I think of how pragmatic and nuts-and-bolts the whole thing seemed to be.

The tech residency was mostly given over to wholly practical concerns: how to transition between this and that, when the screen bisecting the stage should come down, how to get a dancer to enter up-right moments after he exited down-left. Three some-time performance collaborators and interns were the only performers Zoe brought in for tech—they mostly there to aim lights lights at, cast shadows, move across the stage. That sort of thing. And watching and listening to it and having to personally comment on it occasionally (“Does that sequence work, or did you prefer the one before?”) was truly bizarre, because it’s the least artsy conversation about art I’ve had in a long time.

None of it should have surprised me. I used to be a tech director. I’ve been in tech before, and I knew long before I got to Seattle that tech is “about as interesting as watching grass grow,” as a producer friend of mine put it. But that said, when I worked in the theater, I was working in very conventional forms. There was a script to tell us what followed what and so on. Which of course is exactly the sort of text-centric theater I ran away from into the world of contemporary performance.

So yes, it was actually somewhat shocking to find myself in a tech residency for a contemporary dance company that seemed, if possible, even more beholden to purely practical concerns than I was when I was designing a low-budget version of A Winter’s Tale.

Back in the spring, when I joined the company at Velocity Dance Center, the chamber study was explicitly framed as an experiment in how bodies relate in space. It was workshoppy, with Zoe breaking the action whenever she saw fit to have the dancers change from one phrase to another. That made sense; the point wasn’t what the dancers were doing but the circumstances in which they were doing it. I didn’t give it a second thought.

But watching Zoe and Juniper play with rough cuts of choreography in a more theatrical space, I found myself surprised at how little the order seemed to matter to them. The sequence of phrases could be rearranged to account for, say, the fact that the opening required the entire theater to be flooded with haze, which requires time to clear. The idea that the work was concretely ordered, structured with a mind to developing a clear emotional arc, that one movement should clearly follow another, wasn't there. It was like watching them put together a jigsaw puzzle, sorting out which movement phrase worked with which design scheme, and how best to transition on the next.

As a critic, I usually look at a work holistically, treat it as though it can be taken as a conscious art-act in its entirety. But that’s not quite true—any production is a matter of practicality and compromise, a series of episodes strung together with as much art as possible, which art in turn is beholden to all kinds of concerns and limitations in terms of space, time, effect, etc., etc.This is exactly what visual artists making performance hate about theater, too. More than once I’ve criticized visual art performance for its lack of rigor and formal accomplishment, which they embrace in the name of some sort of “authenticity” I find suspect, anyway. But sitting through tech, I began to see the point: Why not just say “screw it” to convention and compromise and do it however you damn well please, and accept the risk that something won’t work out exactly as planned? I remember chatting once with Tobaron Waxman, a visual and performance artist. In one of his pieces, Tashlich  (2009) he waded into a stream till he was neck-deep in the water, then proceeded to shave his head with a wireless electric razor. I asked what his back-up was should he get the clipper wet and it not work. He gave me a look that was partly quizzical and a bit condescending, before replying something to the effect that, "This isn't theater."

That’s not a vague sort of conceptual authenticity, that’s just an actual representation of the original idea, undiluted by bending to the demands of artfulness. Zoe and Juniper are performance makers, and they start with the perspective that in the end, the work will be shaped by just these sorts of demands. But as a critic looking in on the process, I realized that my own perspective, which I assumed was fairly well developed and insightful, was actually quite naïve.

Anyway, that was the main thing I spent my time thinking about during the residency in August. That, and that everything seemed really dark.

Back | Next

Part I. Friday Night in a Taxi with Zoe

Jeremy M. Barker

"Who was that guy who had the dance with chalk boards?" Zoe asked as the cab lurched forward up Flatbush Avenue.

It was Friday night and we were running late to the show, stuck in traffic in Brooklyn twenty minutes to curtain on the Lower East Side. Every time the taxi jolted to a halt at yet another light, the Manhattan Bridge still nowhere to be seen, I was more and more convinced we were going to miss the show.

Not the actual taxi in question.

Not the actual taxi in question.

"Michael Klien," I told her. "With Steve Valk. It's called Choreography for Blackboards."

We were running late on account of Zoe, who'd only arrived in New York a couple hours before on a bus from Philadelphia. It was a mad-dash for her to get from Midtown to Park Slope, where she was staying near me, with a detour to Fort Greene to pick up the keys to the apartment. She was walking in for the first time to drop off her things as I was leaving my apartment to meet her by the subway. Needless to say it didn't work, and by half past seven I was waiting on a street corner for her, hoping it wouldn't take too long to grab a car.

"Should we get out and try to take the subway?" she asked me as we idled at the umpteenth light, the meter ticking up and up.

"Won't work," I told her. "We're past the stop we need and the train won't make it anyway." I paused. "Why do you ask?" I said, referring back to Klien and Valk.

"Well," she began, rolling down the window, "I was chatting with my brother-in-law today and I got to thinking. He's a sculptor, and we don't usually talk about art--we've never talked about my work before--but he wrote me and it got me thinking because he was asking about Trio A." She stopped. "Okay, I'll give you the short version."

The short version was not what I got, the telling lasting nearly twenty minutes until we were dashing across the street through traffic, two minutes to curtain in Manhattan.

Her brother-in-law, it turns out, is a sculptor who teaches at a college in Los Angeles, and he'd reached out to her because he was interested in using Yvonne Rainer's Trio A as a classroom exercise for his students, who were, I guess, supposed to learn something about objects in space by performing it. He was interested if Zoe knew of any documentation of the piece, and she suggested he rely on the video, which led to a discussion of how to determine where the piece should start in space.

Personally, I was fine with getting the long version because it delayed the inevitable conversation Zoe and I had to have: Namely, where was all the work I was supposed to be doing for No Ideas But In Things?

Every time I get something out for this project, it's always terribly self-conscious, all about how hard it is to write whatever this thing is that I'm calling "embedded criticism," which honestly makes for boring, boring reading (IMHO). But for some reason it feels impossible to actually properly say anything. After my last visit with the company, for their August tech residency at On the Boards in Seattle, I came home with notes and interview audio and all kinds of ideas and documentation to work with...and nothing came.

I reached out to colleagues for help. Maddy Costa, a critic for the Guardian and co-founder of "Welcome to Dialogue," with Jake Orr, made the good point that it's "vital to be clear from the outset whether you are to be a silent presence in the room or contributing in the moment, whether your potential dramaturgical effect is retrospective or immediate." Matt Trueman, another British critic who, frankly, has taken this idea further than I think anyone else, across several projects, told me: "I'm not sure 'criticism' is the right word in terms of process," which from experience I certainly concur with, though given the name we've all applied to this thing, that's not reassuring for the success of the project. I heartily second his assessment that, indeed, it's a bit of a bugger.

As Zoe was explaining her brother-in-law's idea for the exercise and the challenge it presented, which led down a rabbit-hole about notation and Laban and how no one does that anymore, I pointed out that Rainer, last I knew, was based in LA and he might as well justask her, mostly so I could make a bad joke. ("What's she going to do, say no?") But Zoe was already beyond that. As provocative as the idea of postmodern dance as sculpture exercise was, what had piqued her interest was the challenge of conveying some of her own ideas for BeginAgain--many studies for which have used plaster body casts as scenic elements--in a way that made sense to a sculptor. An exercise that, in turn, had got her thinking about the ideas she was struggling with. This was where we'd gotten about the time we reached the Manhattan end of the bridge.

The day before Zoe arrived, I'd been invited to be part of a symposium on criticism at CUNY, where Tom Sellar, the editor of Theater magazine, made a comment about "embedded criticism" and how to his mind what we really needed was more belles-lettristic writing on performance. He was seated next to Bonnie Maranca, the founder and editor of PAJ, who had several months before pressed me on what exactly "embedded criticism" was supposed to accomplish, and approvingly pointed to Hilton Als's long profile of Robert Wilson in the New Yorker, published shortly before Einstein on the Beach returned to NYC as part of BAM's 2012 Next Wave Festival. Needless to say this, this wasn't helping my ego, what with my ongoing failure to actually write any embedded criticism.

We got to the theater just in time to wait for the doors to open 15 minutes late, and Zoe found herself chatting with some acquaintances who were also seeing the show. I zoned out as I sometimes do in crowds and counted myself lucky I hadn't yet had to tackle the subject of No Ideas But in Things.

More than a year earlier, I remember chatting with Zoe about what I thought could work: a big, interactive website that treated ideas and concepts modularly, so that they could be curated in diverse ways. Imagine: You go to the homepage and there are a half dozen images, each based around a simple concept (I don't know..."Middle Space" or "Video Veil" or "Mapping" or whatever had emerged from my observation of the process). Click on any one and you enter the labyrinth of videos and images and writings and interviews and journal notes. Each choice puts you on a path through through content, and at any point where two paths intersect, you can change paths. I imagined it as an iterative process that could grow with time--by cataloging and responding, I would build a library of content that would allow ideas to emerge organically over time, much the same way the ideas of creating the piece itself did. Halfway through you might realize this one thing was emerging, and you could trace the evolution of the concept.

I think I described it by referencing Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch, a novel in which the chapters can be read in various orders--or even B.S. Johnson's The Unfortunates, a marvelous novel that was published unbound, so it can be even more easily rearranged--to allow new meanings and ideas to surface. I use these as references because I'm so self-absorbed, I guess, that it didn't occur to me to point out it's like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, which is a reference people would actually get.

That was the original idea, but in the execution I was falling far short of any such goal, and, by November of 2013, I had lost all sense of what I was doing. It was only when I sat down to write this piece that I realized that Matt Trueman also had the same sense I originally had.

"I wonder whether embedded criticism can take an standard essay/article form," he wrote in an email to me. "Mine became much more fragmentary, even if they were through-written."

Anyway, I thought of all this much later. That night, I waited for the doors to open while Zoe chatted with Brian and Sheila from the Chocolate Factory, and counted myself lucky I hadn't yet been called out for not having written about the residency in Seattle four months earlier.

| Next |

On Looking (Toward a Reboot)

Jeremy M. Barker

photo.JPG

In late May, I travelled to Seattle to join zoe | juniper for their open performances at Velocity Dance Center, the fourth in a series of “chamber studies” the company has been producing to explore ideas that will coalesce in their newest evening length work. I spent two days with the company in the studio, sitting through twelve of the eighteen 30-minute performances for an audience of ten at a time, and returned to New York to begin the process of writing and responding to the piece.

And now it’s two months and change later.

There are a variety of reasons something didn’t come more quickly, but in the main it’s because, when I sat down to write, I found myself writing what felt like a “review,” which wasn’t the point of course and which I didn’t like but couldn’t kick somehow. The entire point of this experiment in embedded criticism was to reframe my own relationship to the work. Yet having dispensed with one frame, I found I had no other and kept slipping back into doing something I didn’t find compelling. And it was a downward spiral from there.

An acquaintance of mine, Maddy Costa, a theater critic for the Guardian and a co-founder of a project similar to this one, called Welcome to Dialogue, offered me some advice when I told her about what I was doing: “[D]on't write a word without giving yourself time to think. Time to think allows you to differentiate what's particular to this process from what might be typical to any process.”

I could have saved myself some stress had I taken that to heart earlier. But with eight weeks’ reflection, discussion, and false starts, I suppose that I’ve inadvertently given myself that chance.

When I originally set out to write about the experience, what I found was that I was grappling with how to treat the central experiment. Basically, the idea was to see what effect a drastic shift in audience perspective would have on the experience of the work. In this case, Scofield and Shuey placed the audience on the floor. They were laid in V-shaped pairs, head-to-foot, on lines taped out on the floor and with a small pillow for the head. Scofield ran her dancers through various combinations of sequences the company had been working on, so that no two performances were the same. (In fact, it was very workshoppy in that Scofield would stop during each showing to offer direction or feedback.) Design-wise, the company suspended a series of plaster casts of dancers’ bodies (created during a previous study, at the Frye) over the audience, and ran video projections on the ceiling.

In the talkback Friday evening, the strongest responses from audience members tended to center on two things: first, the visceral experience of feeling the dancers’ movements through the floor, and second, the experience of being in such close proximity to the dancers but the fact that the dancers (usually) didn’t make eye contact, performing as though you weren’t right there.

Both are fair points and led to an interesting discussion, but when I sat down to write about all this, I found myself grappling with how exactly to get at what was making it interesting to me. I mean, let’s be blunt—I’ve written all this out in a nice compelling way, but if you parse it (and I was parsing the hell out of what I was writing) you can also come to the conclusion that all Scofield and Shuey had done was to lay the audience on the floor and make them look up at same exact work they were already doing, work that wasn’t reconfigured to take advantage of the possibilities offered up by such intense proximity between dancer and spectator.

Scofield’s response to that would be (I suspect), Yes, you can see the choices as minor or even gimmicky if you want to, whatever; this is an experiment. First, to see what these particular choices revealed about the elements we have been working with. And second, to see what we can learn about this particular sort of artist-spectator relationship, which learnings can be applied to a future iteration of such a piece.

All of which is absolutely true, of course. But I found dealing with that to be tricky. Again, this experiment—the idea of critical engagement and response over time, rather than something like dramaturgy (which I’m not doing)—places me in a very different relationship to the work. In a way, it wasn’t until I became part of the process of the work’s creation that I realized to what degree I was being merely responsive to the art I write about it. Now, I was being asked to look at an experiment and, along with the artists, to try to see what could be learned from it, not to respond to the sum of the spectacle but to think along the same lines as being a creator involved in a process. And even as I write this I still find it somewhat bizarre.

Reading my own notes on the audience’s responses during the discussion we hosted, what I find myself thinking about is how much of what I was hearing was dancing (just gonna let that unintentional pun slide...) around the idea of dance-as-labor. That is, after all, what’s actually interesting when you feel the percussive waves from the dancers’ feet while you’re lying on the floor. You know, rationally, that this is always present—you can hear the sound of feet on the boards in most performance spaces. But lying on the floor with them all around you, it’s clear evidence of the physical labor that goes into the movement, along with the sounds of heavy breathing, the sweat smearing the body paint, the jiggle of muscles with a heavy step.

The result of such close proximity to the performer reveals the labor that goes into performing. And that, I think, is why so many people also commented on the lack of eye contact (which to be clear wasn’t consistent; some dancers made eye contact sometimes—again, zoe | juniper were experimenting). The sort of vague discomfort that arose from being so close to someone but without being actively acknowledged comes from the spectator’s own sense of exposure. Normally, we’re too far away to actually make eye with the performers we’re watching, which is sort of voyeuristic. But being so close, we come to want that acknowledgement, the permission to look and to watch, since we know the performers can see us looking at them just fine.

These sorts of tensions are deeply embedded in Scofield’s work. It comes close to vulgar biographism to point it out, but Scofield came up through the ballet, which presents a very different aesthetic proposition than contemporary dance. The ballet dancer is much more objectified, idealized and (in a crucial sense) de-personalized, through exacting movement, costuming, hairdo ("bunheads"), and so on. The demands of such uniformity are intense, and I think that Scofield emerged with a fascination about the way in which the performer is presented to the spectator. Her work still bears hallmarks of her balletic training, and not just in how physically exacting it is. Academic forms pop up in a couple of the segments she was working with at Velocity, but like dark parody—mechanical, repetitive, almost absurd. The way in which the dancers inhabit the space changes drastically between such segments, and based on that changing sense of their behavior, I think the audience becomes more and more aware of how they’re being presented to us, and making me at least reconsider the way in which I at them.

Of course it would be reductive to suggest that this is the core concern of the work, and I don’t mean to suggest it is. But this is what I’ve found myself, left to my own devices, thinking about and processing, as much for what I saw as what I heard from other audience members. I could go on and on about it, I’m sure, and I’ve found myself looking at documentation—video, photographs—of all four of the studies so far and began seeing ways that these tensions I’m describing are playing out in diverse spaces with different scenographies.

In a recent conversation with Scofield, she agreed that one of her central concerns in the piece was "looking," exploring the way in which audiences apprehend the performers, which serves as a thematic through-line through the diverse scenic elements and their various configurations across the chamber studies. Previous chamber studies explored this through scenic elements that suggested both presence and absence simultaneously. Plaster casts produced during the Frye Art Museum residency most clearly elucidate this point, serving as a concrete document of physical absence. But the video in all its iterations toys with this concept, too. At ArtsCrush, where the work was staged as an installation in a house, video components included rips of older home movies, likewise a glimpse of absence (in this case, the past, memory being an ongoing concern of the company's work). Other video effects further this, such as Shuey's grayscale videos in which the dancers only emerge from the undifferentiated field as motion, thus capturing ephemeral movement as distinct from the body itself, which otherwise disappears.

At Velocity, the reconfiguration of the audience in relation to these scenic elements, in exploratory form, moved the work towards questioning how to navigate this issue of "looking" at actual physical bodies, which cannot be made absent through videographic trick or the mere creation of physical documents of ephemeral moments. Scenographically--and this is my own reading--the company seems to grappling with how to deal with presence in performance, since the absenting of bodies has so heavily figured into other elements of the work. At previous chamber studies, with a more traditional audience perspective, this was most clearly explored through the placement of a semi-transparent projecting screen in the middle of the performance space, so that dancers could move behind it, either disappearing entirely behind a video projection, or--more frequently--existing in ambiguous relation to the video, such that the immediate presence of the dancer is reduced.

Seen this way, the experiment at Velocity used the spectator's proximity to challenge the gaze. With the sculptural elements suspended in the middle-space overhead and the ceiling transformed into a cinematic projection surface, the spectator has a clearly established visual interplay directly in their line-of-sight from the floor, through which the dancers move occasionally. Of course the spectator can choose to ignore, at least temporarily, the spectacle overhead and turn to watch the dancers as they move around them, but still, in contrast to the more traditional perspective the previous studies offered, the fourth iteration at Velocity denied the audience a horizon-style view of the piece. The spectators were forced to choose, and thus implicated by their choices--made self-aware, as previously mentioned, of how they chose to look. Yet the physical proximity--the material experience of the dancers' closeness, through the floor, through sound, and so on--prevented them from becoming fully absent. The spectacle moves toward becoming all-encompassing, surrounding the spectator but denying a God-like perspective, the ability to "take it all in at once."

What I'm waiting to see still is how all this gels together in BeginAgain. The broad themes the company is exploring share similarities with previous works. They're less a description of the material that will become BeginAgain in March 2014 as they are areas of fascination and exploration that, with several years' knowledge of the company's work, continue to be refined. They also describe A Crack in Everything in a general sense. But that work had a distinct core, as well, which BeginAgain sure will, too. I just haven't really located it (my direct experience being, admittedly, limited). That's what I suppose I'll be looking at carefully this month when I travel to Seattle again to join them during their tech residency at On the Boards.

"No Ideas But in Things": An Introduction

Jeremy M. Barker

"No ideas but in things" is a line from William Carlos Williams's poem "A Sort of a Song," and has often been read as his statement of the poet’s approach to the art. Ideas, for Williams, cannot be approached in the abstract, as a sort of intellectual game, but rather must exist in concrete relation to the world.

Zoe Scofield (who is more of a poetry person than I am, I’ve discovered) proposed the line as the title for my collaboration with the company she co-helms. For the next year or so, as zoe | juniper develops their newest evening length work BeginAgain (which premiers at On the Boards in Seattle in March 2014), I will be responding to and documenting the process of creation, exploring the ideas that inform and emerge from the company's development work. The title is, I think, quite fitting—a collaboration based on immersion rather than distance, of responsiveness and participation rather than detached appraisal.

The idea behind No Ideas But in Things emerged from a series of conversations Scofield and I had in 2012 and early 2013; it turned out that as both of us were asking questions about our approach to our respective practices—hers as a choreographer, mine as a performance critic—there was a convergence over the need we both recognized to reconsider the process of making a performance. This is our collaborative attempt to begin such a reconsideration.

For Scofield, the desire to change how she thought about—and others looked at—the process of creating a performance came out of her experience developing A Crack in Everything (2011). A Crack in Everything was the company's most recent and ambitious work, their second national co-commissioned project, between On the Boards, Portland's TBA Festival, Jacob's Pillow (where it premiered), DTW/New York Live Arts, and the National Performance Network. In the field, this is the sort of recognition and support that almost every emerging dance company longs for. But with that opportunity come challenges, and the pressure to meet or exceed the implicit (or explicit) expectations of your presenters: to use the opportunity, in other words, to more fully realize the artistic vision they decided to support.

Scofield and her co-creator Juniper Shuey understood from the beginning that all that pressure was par for the course; what Scofield found troubling, though, was how much emphasis this wound up placing on the hour-long performance that came out of three years' work making A Crack in Everything. Previously, working in their hometown of Seattle, the company had a sense of each piece existing in relation to their prior work. But with A Crack in Everything, audiences around the country were seeing only this one-hour snippet which came to represent the company's entire aesthetic/artistic practice. As she put it jokingly to me in an email, "Audiences only see eleven percent of what we do." The other 89 percent is what gets written off as "development" and "process," leaving only the product of that work to be hyper-scrutinized.

None of which made sense to her, since she saw herself as fundamentally engaged in an ongoing process of investigation. When she began work on BeginAgain, to try to shift the frame from product to process—where the bulk of her artistic practice lay—she decided to conduct the initial set of residencies and WIP-showings as "chamber studies," collectively referred to as No One to Witness or Adjust, No One to Drive the Car (another reference to Williams, this time, to the poem "To Elsie").

To be clear, No One to Witness... isn't just a matter of framing and optics; as of this writing, the fourth study has recently  been completed, with a two-day open performance at Velocity Dance Center. Each study (which will be addressed more in depth in the future) was constructed to explore specific questions, and intended to stand on its own, as an act with artistic merit in and of itself, independent of its role in developing BeginAgain.

For my part, the interest in this project emerged from conversations I was having with colleagues (critics) both in New York and abroad. Andy Horwitz at Culturebot had, from the beginning, proposed that blogging about art placed the critic in temporal relation to the work. In other words, the critic wasn't evaluating some "finished product" so much as engaging in an ongoing dialogue with art and artists over time, and this informs a core component of "critical horizontalism."

Around the same time that Andy was framing critical horizontalism for me, the British critic Andrew Haydon wrote an essay on what he dubbed "embedded criticism." The nomenclature was borrowed from the practice of "embedded reporters" with the troops during the invasion of Iraq, and inspired by Haydon's own tour with a theater company in Kurdistan. A number of British critics leapt at the idea, led by Maddy Costa (the Guardian) and Jake Orr (A Younger Theatre), who, inspired by Andy's critical horizontalism as much as embedded criticism, launched a project called Welcome to Dialogue.

For my part, the appeal of embedded criticism as a concept lay in the recognition that—much as Zoe was lamenting—the sort of contemporary performance I cover follows a very different course of material realization, and that process is integral to understanding the work. There are many practical reasons to follow a work over time. I came name a half dozen pieces off the top of my head that I encountered prior to their premier that had certain strengths I thought were lost as the work was "completed" (read: turned into a presentable, tourable piece). But for my money, there are two crucial considerations that can only be addressed through a practice like embedded criticism, one aesthetic, one economic.

Aesthetically, what I found myself thinking as Zoe described her concerns over the way contemporary performance is presented and consumed is that this dovetailed with work by European thinkers who had been provoking me. Mårten Spångberg has offered a withering critique of the European version of this system throughout his pugilistic enterprise "Spångbergianism," encouraging artists to rethink their relationship with and respond to the system in which they work. In a related vein, Michael Kliën and Steve Valk (among many others) have sought to focus on process in its own right, proposing that choreography—far from being a mere means to making a new dance piece—can be a critical practice of broader social investigation. While Scofield I don't think proposes to go so far in either direction, she shares similar concerns, and just as she's proposed that opening up and liberating her own process can preserve her artistic practice from disappearing into a consumption-oriented morass, such a project seems to require an ongoing critical engagement, a partner (for better or worse, me) who can help illuminate and elucidate the particulars of the process.

All of this, however, occurs at the level of theory and aesthetic approach. There is also a far more concrete and practical application for embedded criticism: Namely, to create a document of the labor that goes into creating contemporary performance.

It goes without saying that to lay audiences, the process of materially realizing a piece is vague at best, and often misinformed by relation to more conventional artistic practices. But within the field there is an increasingly broad acceptance that the current model for supporting work is inherently unsustainable for the artists and companies making the work. Artists can no longer really emerge from the "emerging artist" stage, since practically speaking, the infrastructure no longer exists to provide for establishing and maintaining companies, a space, and so on. From a journalistic rather than critical perspective, I believe that simply creating a living document of the actual labor and cost inputs in creating a work can serve to inform and help generate positive change within the field, and No Ides But in Things is in part my contribution to the broader discussion over art, labor and money being led by the like of Working Artists and the Greater Economy and, indeed, my former colleagues at Culturebot, with the Brooklyn Commune.

In the end, though, all of this is merely speculative—inspiration, yes, but not programmatic. In the end, by its very nature, this project is designed to be an open process of engagement over time, subject to evolution and further development as zoe | juniper and I move forward. This space is intended to be both a forum and a clearinghouse of information, a resource providing a window into the company's work and space—albeit a digital one—in which Zoe and Juniper can engage directly with their audiences, whether existing, potential, or indeed, just virtual.