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ON THE ART OF CONNECTION

by Ana Freeman

It is through the possibility of intimacy that the experience of art can be truly transformative.

 

"The desire for connection and the impossibility of it,” said Jim Findlay in our latest interview, “pretty much sum up the whole of human experience, from the criminal to the holy.” Since taking over the editorship of this interview series last January, I’ve spoken with more than a dozen artists. They’ve all had very insightful things to say, but none have stuck with me more than this particular comment. I’m inclined to think it’s true that a desire for connection is at the root of, well, everything. However, I don’t quite agree with Jim that connection is ultimately impossible. I would say that it is rare, but still possible. While we can perhaps never fully know or be known by another person, we can at least feel glimmers of what Marina Keegan called “the opposite of loneliness.” There are many means we have for reaching towards those glimmers. I have recently been working on withholding judgments on the myriad ways people have found to feel whole in the world: to use Jim’s terms, one person’s "criminal" is another person’s "holy." 

I moved to New York City about two years ago. It is a cliché to talk about feeling alone in a crowded city, but I have noticed that many people I know do seem to feel disconnected, despite most of us interacting with many people on a daily basis. There are multiple possible explanations: the rise of technologies that enable communicating in impersonal ways; alienation resulting from an urban, capitalist, and competitive environment; rising rates of clinical depression; and the recent inauguration in the United States of a particularly oppressive administration. The extreme political polarization of our country and the violence in our world seem evidence enough that disconnection is not a problem unique to New York. It’s also possible that it has become more popular to talk of a perceived lack of community in recent years because increasing numbers of people have the resources to protect themselves from more pressing practical worries. Nevertheless, we are living in a time where the seeming impossibility of connection is especially potent.

I’ve always believed that art is perhaps more particularly positioned to address the universal human need for connection than most other experiences. But then, where’s the human connection in an abstract painting? There is some message being passed from artist to viewer, of course, but it may be more of an aesthetic or conceptual message than a heartfelt one—more akin to receiving a text than to gazing into someone’s eyes. So though all art is communicative, some of these communications are more intimate than others. It is through the possibility of intimacy that the experience of art can be truly transformative.

Odyssey Works’ first principle is to begin with empathy. For us, this means that we begin the process of creating an Odyssey by extensively researching and interviewing our participant, in order to get to know them as much as possible and gain an understanding of what life in their skin might feel like. It also means that the first intention of the work is that it be designed from the point of view of the participant’s experience, rather than our own. This is the only way for us to make an experience that is truly for and about one person. 

I was the production manager for Pilgrimage, the Odyssey we created last November for Ayden LeRoux, our assistant director. Early into the process, I found myself Google-stalking Ayden and constantly thinking about her and how she might react to various pieces of the experience we were planning. For example, when writing couplets that Ayden would find hidden in the New York Picture Library, I adhered not to my own poetic sensibilities, but to what I knew of Ayden’s tastes and history. 

The Odyssey centered around Ayden’s knowledge that she carried a gene that put her at high risk for breast cancer. This was not an experience I shared, though I have had medical problems of my own and could relate to the sense of being betrayed by my body. During the planning for the Odyssey, I thought a lot about how it would feel to be in this situation. 

When watching a movie or play, there’s a certain process that occurs by which, for the length of the piece, you become the protagonist. The character becomes your avatar for navigating the fictional world, and you share their emotional, intellectual (and sometimes physical, in the case of immersive or VR work) experience. In Pilgrimage, Ayden was the audience member, and I was one of the creators of the work, yet I found myself seeing through her perspective in a similar way, both when planning the Odyssey and during it. Since we spent months creating the piece, this was an experience of prolonged and deep empathy unlike anything else. 

 

Ayden is carried through Brooklyn Bridge Park during her Odyssey. Credit Katy McCarthy.

Ayden is carried through Brooklyn Bridge Park during her Odyssey. Credit Katy McCarthy.

 

The fact that Ayden was a real person was also key to this. Imagined characters and situations are often complex and potent, but they can only go so far. Sharing in a character’s experience can be very moving, but I do not believe a relationship with an artwork can compare to a human relationship—unless that artwork itself constitutes a genuine human relationship. 

It is for this reason that Odyssey Works strives to create real, rather than make-believe, experiences. Just as an Odyssey is based on a participant’s life, so the Odyssey comes to exist within the real world. Though an Odyssey is composed of scenes, those scenes are not populated by actors, but rather by real people interacting with the participant.

In one scene during Pilgrimage, I gave Ayden a talismanic necklace as she walked across a bridge leading to her final destination, the site of her pilgrimage. As she walked towards me, there was a moment of recognition between us. I recognized her, of course, because I’d been waiting for her, and all my energy was focused on her imminent arrival. But she also recognized me—I was someone she already knew, and she knew I had a role in creating her Odyssey. So I both saw her approaching and saw her realizing that it was me standing there once she got close enough. 

I’ve found that acting in front of people I know can be awkward, because they recognize me in spite of the character I’m playing, and this can feel like it threatens the performance. The mutual recognition I felt with Ayden did not threaten the experience, but actually enabled it. Looking back at that moment, I feel that I shared a piece of Ayden’s real journey, not that I played a part in an immersive play created about her journey. 

Ayden and I have never sat down and had a long conversation, but I still feel close to her, and protective of her, and like I gave her something that I am proud of giving. I felt privileged to be allowed such deep knowledge of someone. I dove into and explored her experience not because I am her close friend or family member or lover, but simply as in end in itself. In some way it’s the arbitrariness of it that made it so powerful. To partake in someone’s Odyssey is to know that we are all connected, or at least that we can be, if we work at it.  

In the spirit of connection, we decided to start this blog in August 2015 to interview artists with similar intentions to our own. Last year, Princeton Architectural Press released a book about our theory and practice called Odyssey Works: Transformative Experiences for an Audience of One, by Abraham Burickson and Ayden LeRoux. If the digitization of communication is one cause of alienation, it also has the power to connect people all over the world, and through the book and this blog we’ve hoped to begin an inclusive conversation. Over the last couple of years, we’ve spoken to conceptual artists, experience designers, performance artists, experimental musicians, game designers, theatre-makers, and culture-creators of all stripes. Via email, phone, and fountain-side conversation, these artists have told us about their ideas, inspirations, and processes. Though we would love to continue the series forever, it is time for us to bring it to a close for the time being. We’ve found a significant sense of solidarity through engaging with like-minded artists, and every one of our interviewees had something new and enlightening to add to the dialogue. With that in mind, I’d like to highlight just a few of the interviews that particularly contributed to our understanding of intimacy in art. 

Our interview with Olive Bieringa offered us a stunning view of what making art that stems from empathy can look like. As co-director of the Body Cartography Project with Otto Ramstad, Olive has created several one-on-one dance projects. In her words, this kind of work is a way to “practice being present with another person.” Through movement, artist and audience member give and receive their perspectives and come to a place of mutual understanding. This performance structure facilitates an exciting reciprocal dialogue that disrupts traditional notions of the roles of dancers and audience members. 

 

Kendra Dennard performing with the Body Cartography Project. Credit Sean Smuda.

Kendra Dennard performing with the Body Cartography Project. Credit Sean Smuda.

 

Christine Jones’ work demonstrates a similar kind of mutuality. Her Theatre for One series consisted of private performances shared between one performer and one audience member. In this model, theatre is not a spectacle or a transaction, but a genuine exchange between two people who share a particular slice of time with one another. She is “an artist who uses intimacy the way a painter uses paint…to make people feel seen, and sometimes…loved.” 

Intimacy can go even further when the narrative and symbolic material of the art comes from real life. Tiu de Haan is a beautiful example of this. As a celebrant, she designs experiences for people around major life events, such as deaths and marriages. By using events that are already significant to people as her starting point, she can make experiences that are profoundly meaningful. In detailing her process of working with her participants, she said: “I empathize with their…hopes, and their fears. I build trust, I become their confidant, and I help them to channel their thoughts into a creative container that reflects what is truly important to them.” Her practice is thus founded on authentic listening, which engenders wonder through connectedness. 

 

The connection found through art is something that is captured rather than invented.

 

Emma Sulkowicz also relentlessly pursues truth in her art. Her most famous piece, Mattress Performance, was inspired by sexual trauma that happened in her real life. In her later performances, she has gone even further in working with reality. For example, in Self-Portrait, she answered audience members' questions, but passed along the over-asked ones she no longer wished to answer to a robot version of herself. Reflecting on the performance, she said “I wasn’t changing the way I acted because I was in a gallery. Other people assumed that I would be, because most people really believe in this distinction between art and life, but I’m trying to break down that distinction.” For a more recent piece, The Healing Touch Integral Wellness Center, Emma took on the role of a psychiatrist. My experience of the work was the same as my experience of Emma as a person. In other words, though the work had a specific framework, Emma wasn’t acting. She does not have a medical degree, but she was still her real self in a fictional situation. In a later conversation, she referenced the stereotype that performing artists are performing all the time, even in their real lives. She tries to do the opposite, which is to live her real life even when she’s performing. 

It is paradoxical to suggest that the truest intimacy, which is both real and mutual, can be found through art, a medium traditionally thought to be both fictional and unidirectional. I think this paradox rings true because art simply provides a container—a time and space in which we can be with each other—which we don’t often have time to do in the superficial hustle and bustle of our daily lives. The connection found through art is something that is captured rather than invented. As Todd Shalom said to us about his work with Elastic City, “We already have everything that we need, so it’s just a question of reframing.” 

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ANA FREEMAN was Odyssey Works' 2016-2017 intern, editor of the artists' interview series, and the production manager of Pilgrimage. She also writes for Theatre is Easy and performs with Fooju Dance Collaborative.

 

 

Adam Robert Dickerson on Dancing Out into the Unknown

Adam Robert Dickerson. Credit Ally Lai. 

Adam Robert Dickerson. Credit Ally Lai. 

ADAM ROBERT DICKERSON is the founder and artistic director of Fooju Dance Collaborative. Fooju began in 2014 as a cerebral playground for exploring what dance is and where it can happen. Engaging multiple disciplines and all the senses, Fooju's work takes place onstage, online, in public spaces, and in private homes. It is social, experimental, playful, messy, and often accidental. Dickerson has also choreographed works for the American College Dance Festival, the Youth America Grand Prix semifinals, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, and musician RJD2. A former member of Graham 2 at the Martha Graham Dance Company, he currently dances with Amanda Selwyn Dance Theatre and Amy Marshall Dance Company. 

We want to make the chimerical intimately real.

Odyssey Works: What is Fooju? How did it originate, and what is its purpose?

Adam Robert Dickerson: The name “Fooju” was birthed out of my own clumsiness. I mixed up “feng shui" and "juju," and just blurted it out.  Immediately, I wanted the word to stick. The principle of accepting happenstance as creativity is central to my choreographic process: playful clumsiness gets refined into crafted dance. The word became an important reflection of my work.

Before officially beginning Fooju, I had worked closely for several years with my dance partner, Dolo McComb, at Colorado College. The work that we developed together as students there was the embryonic foundation for my future Fooju creations. After we graduated, Dolo moved to Minneapolis and I came to Brooklyn. Separate, yet forever choreographically tied, Dolo and I collaborated on a project we funded with Kickstarter in January 2015. Our long distance relationship fostered a new way of generating work togetherthrough the Internet.  By way of YouTube and FaceTime, we created an evening-length work, the first production under the name of Fooju Dance Collaborative. The performers, dancers and a few non-dancers, were a collection of my local friends and acquaintances, and would come to form the basis of the collaborative. We performed in a studio at the Martha Graham school, where several of us had trained, used Christmas lights as lighting, and invited audience members to drink and heckle us during the show and to donate objects to us in lieu of paying for tickets. Since then, Dolo has continued to create work in Minneapolis with with her own collective, //CATHEDRAL\\, while Fooju Dance Collaborative has grown in both size and vision under my direction in New York City.

Fooju Dance Collaborative is meant to frame the queerer qualities of existence by placing performative dance theatre outside the context of the proscenium; its purpose is to expressively and colorfully highlight the idiosyncrasies of the human experience. Fooju is the manipulation of visceral, incidental, or accidental creative impulses into dance that mimics the unconscious. We want to make the chimerical intimately real. 

 

OW: How and why did the Works in Progresso series get started? What makes your kitchen shows different from typical dance performances, and whats the point of doing things this way?

AD: Works in Progresso was borne of necessity. Producing a show in a traditional venue in New York City is prohibitively expensive for most choreographers, aside from the famous ones. More often than not, choreographers are losing money to create work, and significant profit is abnormal. So I made up my mind to make as much dance as I could manage without spending any money. The resources that were most readily available to me were my kitchen and my network of talented and willing friends.

I had long been choreographing, dancing, and filming dance videos in my kitchen, because the space was there. While looking towards developing a new full-length show last year, I had trouble finding a space. I eventually resolved to create work in my kitchen, for my kitchen. The goal was not to emulate concert dance in a kitchen, which would stretch the viewer's ability to suspend disbelief past its breaking point. Instead, my aim was to facilitate a harmonious, equal collaboration of hosts, choreographers, performers, photographers, videographers, and guests. I wanted to make the work specific to the venue, and to highlight our kitchen as the space where we make and share both meals and dances.

 

Lia Bentley and Adam Robert Dickerson dance in a kitchen. Dancer Vera Paganin and composer Wes Braver watch from "onstage;" Keenan Parry films. Credit Joe Desimone. 

Lia Bentley and Adam Robert Dickerson dance in a kitchen. Dancer Vera Paganin and composer Wes Braver watch from "onstage;" Keenan Parry films. Credit Joe Desimone. 

 

Once I decided to make a show with no budget, I began the rehearsal process at my apartment. My choreographic process was loose and quick. With most of the pieces, I gave my dancers a framework with few specifics. We embraced the chance of error. More often than not, the mistakes from a dancer’s body catalyze my choreography and lead it towards sincerity.

When we had a show ready, we invited our friends, bought a box of wine, and showed the work we had created together.  The opening piece involved asking those watching for cookie recipes, and then baking a batch of cookies on the spot. Guests used their memories, phones, and collective tastes to contribute to the experience. This reliance on audience involvement initiated open communication between the "stage" and the viewers. The smell of the cookies gradually filled the room, until the oven timer sounded ten minutes into the dancing, and we served the audience warm cookies. We named the whole experience "Works in Progresso," an homage both to our home-brewed aesthetic and to the belief that all art is always a work in progress. We also served Progresso soup, although this was less popular than the cookies. Since then, we've brought various iterations of the Works in Progresso series to kitchens and living rooms throughout New York City. 

 

Stoking collaboration results in a splattering of new ideas onto what feels like a giant drawing board of new ways for dance to exist.

 

OW: Why does Fooju involve performers and collaborators who work in disciplines other than dance? What do they bring to the table, and how do they change things?

AD: Collaboration ensures we have a varied array of talent under the Fooju umbrella, and it ties together differing modalities from each of the participating disciplines. We encourage all our artists to share their developing work with the group, and to present it at showsso we all feed off of each other, and we all benefit from the experience of working with or around different mediums. In that way, Works in Progresso provides an opportunity for the artists in Fooju Dance Collaborative to experiment and share new ideas. This aspect of the series is what most compels me to continue curating shows for large and small audiences and to keep our collective motor running.

Stoking collaboration results in a splattering of new ideas onto what feels like a giant drawing board of new ways for dance to exist. Every show is different. We always throw in new pieces and complete re-workings of old pieces. We are often still playing around with things right up until our audience arrives!   The “trial and error” mentality of Fooju amplifies our energy and makes us feel as if we are dancing out into the unknown with each new show.

Fooju not only serves as a source of mutual experimentation and inspiration for our members, but it has also become something of a support group for those of us with questions about how to navigate the performing arts world. Also, I enjoy the wider audience and increased opportunities that naturally follow a more diverse group. This has proven helpful to us in connecting with prospective collaborators and hosts.  

 

OW: Your kitchen shows take place in small, semi-private spaces amongst people who mostly know each other; the dancers and audience members intermingle. At these events, where do you draw the line between a dance party and a dance performance? Between the artists and the audience? Where is the artwork itself located?

AD: Fooju’s Works in Progresso series is an invitation for showgoers to unlearn audience etiquette, and for our performers to unlearn stage etiquette.  We are still testing and determining the boundary between the audience and the performers, but it is definitely porous. Those who keep coming back to our shows are just beginning to understand the fluidity of roles we embrace. Our performers watch the showsometimes with our guests and sometimes from within the designated performance spaceduring the pieces they are not in. Fooju performers are also encouraged to include the audience in their performances, just as a host includes their guests in conversation. 

Deciding to put dance in a kitchen generated many questions for us about the meanings of terms like "audience," "dancer," and "stage." We are constantly in the process of deciding which performance conventions we want to keep, which we want to modify, and which we want to discard. Generally, we do engage the traditions of lighting, music, and a suggested area for the dancing to take place.

Yet we do not pretend to be in a theatre. Our events are free of charge and involve food, drink, and socializing before, after, and even during the show. We do usually lose track of where the show ends and the party begins and where the party ends and the show begins. We have a running joke where whenever anyone asks when the performance is starting, we say "The show already started! This has all been the show!" Works in Progresso is, in fact, about the multi-faceted magic of the entire experience.  Dance is something we like to do among friends and new acquaintances, not something we want to present to strangers. We see it as a social gift that we will share with anyone generous enough to receive it. We work to maintain the honesty of being "at home."

However, it is important to us to still create a theatrical, heightened experience. This is more, not less, possible in a kitchen than in a theatre. Whatever we might lose from not being on a stage, we gain back tenfold from being in our own sacred spaces. Having a show in an a small, private space yields qualities of intimacy similar to a religious ritual or ceremony. I choose to highlight these qualities by asking the audience to wear party hats for unity and drink our special (alcoholic) Foojuice. We begin each show by smudging the space and annointing the performers with glitter face paint. A Fooju show is a quiet spectacle, like a dream. 

 

Adam spreads glitter on dancer Anna Zekan's face before a show in Astoria. Credit Joe Desimone.

Adam spreads glitter on dancer Anna Zekan's face before a show in Astoria. Credit Joe Desimone.

 

OW: Fooju relies heavily on technology. Earlier projects have included Photobooth Ballet and Kitschy Kitchen, both video series. All your shows are recorded, and you encourage performers and audience members to use social media during each performance for documentary and promotional purposes. What does all this mean in the context of an art form founded on liveness? 

AD: As with dancing in people's homes, lack of funds were the initial impetus for the use of technology in my work. YouTube and social media are free, and almost everyone I know has a phone with a camera on it. Technology also enables the members of Fooju to collaborate long distance and without having to always set aside time to all meet together in person. It is such an easy tool for creating and sharing work. Beyond that, when audience members post on social media, it brings Fooju beyond the boundaries of the performance space. It allows them to perpetuate the performance by putting their own creative take on what they see and experience. It's one more means of inviting the audience to collaborate with us. 

While live dance will always be the genesis of my process, I have also always been passionate about film as a way to structure and frame movement. Keenan Parry has been Fooju's resident filmmaker from the beginning, and his artistry with the camera complements my choreography well. His delightfully playful cinematography highlights new dimensions of the dancing that may not have been as apparent during the live performance. He does not document the art, but co-creates it with us. He's also an integral part of our live performances. In our more recent shows, he has dressed in a green screen suit and followed dancers around the apartment with his camera. He's not quite audience member, not quite dancer, but something of a transitional object.  

 

I trust my unconscious, so I rely on chance and circumstance to sift through choreographic choices, allowing mishaps and obstacles to make decisions for me.

 

OW: Who are your influences, and within what aesthetic and conceptual traditions do you locate your work?

 AD: My exposure to collaborative theatre groups such as Elevator Repair Service and Forced Entertainment has influenced my sense of humor and my way of using found movement and improvisation to lay a foundation for my work. Eiko & Koma have inspired my use of time and imagination to modulate my choreography. Elements of Pina Bausch often find their way into Fooju shows: large choruses of dancers, quasi-pedestrian choreography, vocalization, and seemingly disconnected vignettes. Finally, my passion for the legacy of Martha Graham was what initially brought me to New York to study at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance and dance with the Graham 2 company; this is the foundation of my dance technique and my choreography.

On the theoretical side of things, I draw from Antonin Artaud’s idea of the dream aesthetic and Richard Schechner’s insights on ceremony.  I am a romantic surrealist with hopes of physicalizing and ritualizing the queerness I experience in my dreams. I trust my unconscious, so I rely on chance and circumstance to sift through choreographic choices, allowing mishaps and obstacles to make decisions for me. If the language of dreams and the language of movement are universal, my aim is to resonate with the unconscious language of the individual. That’s you! And that’s Fooju. 

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Interview by Ana Freeman