Three RAWdance Premieres Break New Ground (Again) In TRIPLE TAKE
March 2, 2020—The innovative choreography of RAWdance includes the Concept Series, a salon for contemporary Bay Area choreographers; Double Exposure, a piece that portrays the work of 16 different West Coast choreographers; and ChoreoFest, a weekend festival of site-specific work by nine local companies in Yerba Buena Gardens. So it isn't surprising that the three artistic directors have taken on an even more innovative, barrier-breaking collaborative work. What is surprising is how they've done it.
Katerina Wong's work The Healer for four women was inspired by Wong's aunt, a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine. If the piece was inspired by her aunt, then why isn't it a solo? The work began as a duet as Katie explored the relationship between herself and her aunt in terms of different generations and cultures, "and the way that they intersect and interplay," says Katie. But as the work progressed, she became fascinated by, "the beliefs and the histories within the practice of Chinese medicine itself," concepts such as yin and yang, Qi Gong, and The Five Elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water). "Each has so many different stories and ways of exploring pathways," says Katie, "that required more bodies to create more relationships, create more conflict, more tension, and more resolution."
But the number four conveys bad luck in Eastern cultures, while five is auspicious. So why four dancers instead of five? "Four is bad luck," says Katie, "because the word sounds like the word for death. In a way it's like an interesting opportunity to reclaim that concept of bad luck and superstition around the idea. And also acknowledging that so much has been an inspiration from loss and grief, the loss of my aunt. It felt like there was an importance there, that we're playing more deeply with the concept of yin and yang. So it felt more of a priority than having five bodies to represent each of the Elements.
Each of the dancers explores each of the Elements, or Phases, clearly in her solos. "The construct of the whole piece," says Wendy, "lives within the fifth element. We thought of ourselves as four elements and the fifth element as us as a whole."
The original music by Daniel Berkman is heavily influenced by Berkman's exposure to Chinese medicine and philosophy. The instrumentation is reminiscent of Chinese music, which is also influenced by wind and movement.
Rein and Smith's piece Shadow explores society's loss of privacy in the digital age. We are "shadowed" by high tech companies that follow our online actions and collect and share data on our locations, social media profiles, purchasing habits, Fit Bit data, and so on. "There are a lot of images of shadows throughout the work," Ryan explains, "There is this crazy trace of all of us that is left behind and living in this abstract realm as our data footprint." "And it's growing at an incredible rate," adds Wendy, "because we are outputting all of this data by the minute. And it never goes away. It's indelible."
The more that Wendy and Ryan researched this subject, the more
they saw the emotional aspect that can be expressed in dance. "How
these identities relate to us," says Wendy, "The things that we
feel are intensely private, what should be private, what would be
lost if we give away all of this information. All of the things that
come back to us as complicated, living, breathing, human beings are
in this world where all of our information is being captured and
stored." Ryan adds, "How are we all living and how are our bodies
handling being in this state of surveillance."
"The convenience, the easy access, the necessity of a lot of the technology that we use now really makes it impossible to avoid," laments Wendy, "There's a sense of something like giving us candy, a clouding of the mind so that we don't think about what we're giving up."
"It's a tense and dark work," says Ryan, "It's very moody
and very mysterious." The effort to express the intangible digital
reality as a physical reality in dance was a challenge, "to make
the digital analog," says Ryan. The piece includes solos that give the dancers the
opportunity to show their fear that their most intimate information is being shared in
Ryan and Wendy made a conscious effort to exclude technology in the piece. "We were interested in looking at the subject of technology," says Wendy, "but really making the piece about the body, about a more analog stage set." The most technological thing about the stage set is the lighting. Ryan and Wendy experimented with handheld lights to look at ways that technology is scanning us.
Ryan describes the music, by composer Surabhi Saraf, as "dark and sinister." He explains that Saraf's work blurs the line between art and technology to examine how technology affects our bodies and, conversely, how our bodies influence artificial intelligence.
Katie, Ryan, and Wendy collaborated on the piece Consequences, which was inspired by the Exquisite Corpse drawing game. The game is based on the Surrealist word game, in which players add to a work or composition in a sequence. The Exquisite Corpse game has been applied to composing music and writing poetry, but rarely to choreographing dance. For example, the film Exquisite Corps consists of 42 choreographers taking turns creating dance in different locations, with each choreographer picking up where the previous one left off. "We've seen a couple of pieces pop up here and there", says Wendy, "We've never watched them in person, but we know we're not the first."
Smith explains that the act of contributors adding sequentially to a work in progress describes their creative process of collaborating on opposite sides of the continent, Katie in San Francisco and Wendy and Ryan in New York State. They decided to, "put our organizational structure into the art itself," says Ryan, "It seemed like an interesting way to try to build and break open some of our habits and our patterns that we have in the studio and to work collaboratively in an approach that we've never taken before."
"I think that the way we're using it as a launching point to construct a creative process around it, is our little twist on how to be inspired by the Exquisite Corpse game," says Wendy. It's not just that the piece is threaded together without seeing one another's work, but we're generating the entire thing from the very beginning by passing back and forth sections, and trying to inspire our feeling and reactions and getting outside of our comfort zones. It's sort of like the spirit of the game that we're connecting to."
The logistics of collaborating long-distance were "complicated," says Ryan. He and Wendy started with three minutes of material and sent the last 30 seconds of it in a video to Katie. She used those 30 sections to begin a second section, then shared the last 30 seconds of her work with Wendy and Ryan, and so on, back and forth for a total of six sections.
The dancers did rehearsals on their own, with one dancer acting as rehearsal director to maintain it and make sure everyone was remembering it. "Usually in the rehearsal process," says Ryan, "you go back, you review things, you understand the through line, you understand the thread, and we weren't allowed to do that by our own rules. But we wanted the dancers to do that, for the sake of the piece, for the sake of their sanity and comfort." Wendy and Ryan attended only a few rehearsals when they happened to be in the Bay Area.
So how did the dancers respond to this unorthodox rehearsal process? "They've been amazing," says Wendy. "It's a challenging process to not be able to review your own material and not talk to the other choreographers about what's going on in the room. After the development process, the three of us have all been working together to look at the piece holistically." Nothing new was added, only some slight tweaking and rearranging, "to make it more of what it already is," says Wendy, "We've been torturing the dancers even more by re-ordering the parts that were already very challenging for them to do. I have to say they've been absolutely incredible."
Setting the work on the dancers might not have been so torturous. The five dancers for Consequences all have a longstanding working relationship with the choreographers, which Wendy believes is "key for the collaboration". The choreographers relied on the dancers to interpret their direction and make it their own in the context of the piece.
TRIPLE TAKE runs from March 12 through 15 at ODC Theater. For more information see ODC Dance.