Whatever broad definition one can generally make for “critical distance” these days, I know I didn’t have it during the month and a half I was living at Mount Tremper Arts. In fact, I didn’t even have much normal personal distance from the artists in residence most of the time, not to mention the founders of the festival, Aynsley Vandenbroucke and Mathew Pokoik. I lack that outside eye, which can produce both the best and the worst kinds of comparative analysis. But I do have a broad view of this small, intelligently curated residency in the Catskills where some of the most interesting contemporary dance artists ate, slept, worked, and performed during July and August. This is a story about how a space can hold an idea: the blurring of the line between art and life. Or: how individuals are an extension of what they produce, especially when their product is—despite documentation and memory—essentially ephemeral and site-specific.
When Ryan Kelly and Brennan Gerard, the last artists in residence, left the property on August 15, you could feel the well-worn, turn-of-the-century white farmhouse heave a big, empty sigh of relief. Over six weeks it, along with the barn style post-and-beam performance space up the hill, had housed ideas, creations, stories, discussions ad nauseum, frustrations, miscommunications, and the budding of many a new friendship. The performances themselves, the public face of the festival, were just a small portion of the artistic process, and arguably, just a small part of the artwork itself. Yvonne Rainer was staging rehearsals as performances back in the ‘60s; in the years since, all aspects of artistic process and an artist’s life have become increasingly recognized, especially in the performance world, as inseparable from the artwork itself. This summer, many of the works hinted at full disclosure of this fact, and when they didn’t do so explicitly, glimpses into the common parts of each performer’s existence made even the most specifically topical works incredibly personal during their presentation.
July 9, 2010: D.H. Lawrence wrote about Cézanne and his lifetime of fighting the cliché. Lawrence said that the artist was able to find the “appleyness” of the apple, but that in most of the other subjects, he still painted the cliché. Lawrence seemed mainly concerned about the loss of the sensual, intuitive experience—we are all intellectual, spiritual people, he said. It is the intuitive, sexuality driven selves that know, and we ignore that. Or, at least, the English painters ignored that. Rashaun Mitchell told me he doesn’t want to make a solo work. He gives Silas Reiner all the emotionally taxing bits of physical work and builds his second dance piece from the outside, rather than on his own body. I wonder if that has anything to do with painting and Lawrence—if at all, only remotely. Mitchell and Reiner totally inhabit their bodies; they are so beautiful, even when they aren’t moving. Intuitive reason might, however, have been trained right out of their instruments, physical as they are. Sex can be out of touch with essentiality, too.
Those thoughts came up before I had seen even a run through of their performance, which occurred publicly on the opening day of the festival. The night before, there was a giant dead pig lying on ice in our bathtub at the house. It inspired bad dreams for at least one person that night, but fed the largest audience in Mount Tremper Arts history once it was roasted. Pulled pork sandwiches, cole slaw, pasta with pesto, potato salad, fruit salad; so much of it grown right from the garden. Mitchell and Reiner performed Adyton early in the afternoon. Later that day, they performed a Cunningham “Minevent” with fellow Cunningham dancer Marcie Munnerlyn. Music for the event came from the post-classical string quartet ETHEL, a group that, when it performed alone earlier in the day, was the obvious favorite among the local audience members. (Contemporary experimental dance performance is a bit of a stretch for the rural Catskills crowd, but that’s the beauty of this place. It’s a challenging head on culture-clash from start to finish. No one is in his comfort zone—performers in front of a mixed audience, less of a knowing crowd than they’re used to, and audience members seeing new advancements in an art they’ve never been exposed to before. But there’s food shared, and tenderness just seems to grow from the soil, so everyone is safe and comfortable. It’s kind of amazing.)
Select descriptions pulled from a forthcoming essay I wrote for PAJ:
After dropping in through the window only inches away from the first row, Riener writhed on the floor. He was enacting a death, but the physical actions were more striking, more external than any real pain seems to ever appear. Mitchell knows his collaborator’s body well; the movements he designed are physically extreme—deep arches of the spine, the slamming of his chest upon the floor. Tensed limbs, and then he lies motionless. Jumping down from the windowsill, Mitchell grabs Riener and gracefully drags him to the back of the room. This is the first of a number of explorations with dead weight that are scattered throughout the piece. Then, once the blinds were closed and Riener was outside of the space again, Mitchell began a sweeping, gentle glide that took him spinning in circles around the room. Loud pounding sounds (Riener jumping against the space’s walls from the outside) didn’t budge his internally focused float through this solo. Occasionally, a soft wind would blow the window shades open a bit, providing randomly strewn natural light that illuminated Mitchell for a moment or two, then moved the daytime darkness deeper into our awareness.
August 7, 2010: I’m sitting on the porch with Foofwa d’Imobilité now. He’s wearing a black Adidas tracksuit, the kind with the three white stripes down the side, and a hood. He also has on white running shoes. Today is Saturday. He’ll perform tonight and then he’ll leave. Goodbyes keep happening, but the porch stays the same. The giant maple tree in my line of sight keeps on being just as beautiful; the sound of gunshots from the shooting range across the river, those can be counted on. Funny, I thought those noises were fireworks when I arrived here around the Fourth of July.
I look up: Foofwa’s massaging his calf with some strong-smelling oil now. He looks a like an athlete in this Adidas get-up; I notice he’s tied some beige linen pants around his neck, white earbuds connected to his computer keep him in a trance in front of it. Last night, running around with the kids, he played the clown, handing out acorns as silly little surprise gifts, and dancing with a maniac 6-year-old whose rhythm was off, but who was original and interpretive in his funny little body. Foofwa dedicated his second dance that night—he performed with Alan Sondheim and Azure Carter—to this inhibition-free little kid and his dinner dancing. Foofwa’s improvisation included an absolute mimic of this child’s jerky, consistent style. When he recognized his own movement, the kid jumped up and joined in; his father had to remove him from the performance space.
An email from Will Rawls, August 10, 2010: “Hope all is well at MTA since we left. Had fun. Miss the landscape and garden freshness and moonrises. I don’t miss making the solo. It has been nice to have a break.”
Understandable, considering the physical trials he goes through in the piece. As it was performed the week he was up in the Catskills, Rawls’s solo was actually a trio. He worked with two musicians, Mallory Glaser and Chris Kuklis, who sometimes go by the Plumes, and here experienced their first foray into creating and participating in staged movement. It’s not always interesting to watch untrained dancers, but Rawls used these musicians’ physicality sparingly in the construction of the piece. I saw it twice—the first time, alone with the three performers and just one other witness, there was a thick layer of tension that made the short distance between us and them seem a real third element, alive with its own energy. I felt in the piece, like if I broke eye contact for a moment, then the room would drop out from under us and we would just float into some oblivion of art and confusion. I didn’t feel that again when the performers did the same piece, their energy diffused throughout the hot room full of 80-plus people, two nights later.
I told Rawls that his eye contact during that rehearsal unnerved me. I said this publicly, while a room full of people ate corn on the cob with lime and butter and salt. Here, at this Friday night BBQ and discussion the night before Will’s public performance, Karinne Keithley, Ursula Eagly, and Sarah Smith presented their group writing project and then opened the floor to discussion stemming from their incredibly broad topic. Their goal: to document, from the inside, what they see as the “new sincerity” of dance. In their minds, it has a lot to do with a shared experience of pop culture—inhabiting a pop song, for example, in postmodern, post-ironic joyfulness. Whether or not the artists used it in a way that exactly fits these ladies’ thesis, there was certainly a lot of pop music and dancing to it during the festival this summer. Miguel Gutierrez and his 10 performers did a line-dance to K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s, “Keep it Coming Love”; Kelly and Gerard used “Material Girl” and “Alejandro,” which I still can’t seem to get out of my head.
In Dance Magazine, Christopher Atamian reviewed Rawls’s piece by comparing the work itself to the artist’s statement, a point of entry I find almost always to be fruitless. Specifically, he didn’t think that Rawls created, as his months old blurb in the flyer read, “new forms of folkloric expression based on nature, identity, playfulness and misinterpretation.” Instead, he felt that “Rawls was really exploring the dichotomy between community and individual life and—perhaps—the alienation that ensues from the latter.”
Besides the fact that these two statements don’t exactly seem mutually exclusive, the analysis misses the point of new performance that is grown in a residency such as this one. Experimentation and change are the most exciting parts of the experience, especially for an audience member. During the course of the summer, names of shows were changed, ideas were pulled from the site itself or from conversations during the week, and there wasn’t a lot of holding back. That’s a good thing for everyone. It keeps the work fresh and honest; holding an artist to an earlier statement is a misguided, not to mention boring, approach to critiquing this kind of work.
An excerpt from Keithley’s book, Montgomery Park, or Opulence: An Essay in the Form of a Building, which was in the form of a performance with Katy Pyle one Saturday night in Mount Tremper:
If I was the wall—and I am—If I was the wall, I’d say, uncover me. And you would, if you were compliant, uncover me, which would mean that eventually you would remove my function. We call it a kind of nature. Under snow I saw a deer this morning coming at me under canopy. I saw a deer coming at me I thought it was a dog.
In this particular performance, almost every little bit of the architecture of the performance space was utilized. That excerpt came from a speech Keithley made from the porch, toward a group of people still waiting to get in and find a seat. This was the most theater-based and intricately constructed of the performances this summer, but almost everyone molded their work to the venue in this way. At the end of the festival, just as it seemed all the creative uses for this beautiful, but essentially uncomplicated studio had been used up, Kelly and Gerard turned our attention toward usually closed doors. One of the residency bedrooms and the bathroom became locations for performance, which was appropriate for the work since it creates, among other things, new images for alternative intimate relationships. When Ben Asriel and Jose Tena went into the bathroom with Kelly, there was enough of a set-up beforehand to imply that sexual acts were being committed. That was the content; I loved being in the big, dark room with all these audience members shuffling in their seats as a stream of light from the slightly ajar door drew our attention to what we couldn’t see.
Pokoik and Vandenbroucke, both working artists themselves, say they curate—and I’ve found this to be true—based on potential dinner conversations. It’s not just about what work they want to see created in their space, but also what artists they want to spend quality time talking with. The walls of the performance space act as the visual arts gallery as well, so the curatorial choices in one department are thrown into a discussion with the other. Dancers find, when they enter, an unplanned collaboration. In the future the visual arts portion of the festival will grow, including residencies for photographers and other artists working outside of dance-based performance. The conversation will inevitably and positively broaden, but if a separate gallery is built, something very particular and special might be lost. It would be those unexpected visual moments when, say, a dancer is running full speed toward a wall where a valuable Roe Ethridge print hangs, and you feel all the anxiety of potential danger along with the pleasure of accidental beauty.
What was so exciting about Mount Tremper Arts this summer was that now in its third year, the festival has become bigger than itself. Every day the atmosphere around the property bulged with content, and the house heaved under the weight of bigger-than-life personalities and more concepts than could be developed in 10 lifetimes. It’s never going to be a corporatized entity; unlimited growth is just not a part of the administrative structure and definitely not the ultimate goal for the directors. But it will continue to be known, and not just as another country stop-off for cultural tourism in the summer. Public performance is one thing, but this location is built to feed artists and once you’ve seen it, it becomes clear that there’s nothing more important than a space where life and art aren’t ever at odds, all creative work is valued, and the true currency exchange is in ideas.