A conversation about Northwest New Works by Vanessa DeWolf & A K Mimi Allin Jun 12, 2011

by Mimi


Vanessa DeWolf & A K Mimi Allin attended Saturday's main stage show, took notes, met afterwards for coffee, then had an online chat the next day about the show.

VD:  So here's my first question: Is there anything in particular you expect from the Northwest and locally from this festival?

AKA: Expect, hmmmm. I have difficulty with expectations, but I like seeing support from On the Boards for amazing local talent.

VD:  Well I suppose expect might not be the right choice... perhaps more how does locality affect your thoughts on the work? or does it? I suppose I should also say that I've been seeing On the Boards Northwest New Works Festival since 1995.  

AKA: Do the pieces I witnessed on the main stage at On the Boards as a part of NWNW on Saturday 11 June comprise a Northwest sentiment?

VD:  I feel like in all the pieces last night there was a visceral relationship toward space. Holcombe Waller set in a desert, then expanding to include New York City. Paige by battling her own image over and over expanding what's ordinarily intimate space. Allie and Mary Margaret of Part & Parcel, contracted space in the duet to expansive space in the solo. Then Jessica Jobaris and general magic crazy messy space in full light as if there were no boundaries to the space. Hmm, I was thinking light and space might be potent for us Pacific Northwesterners because it is such a potent aspect of our landscape our lives.

AKA:  Is space not present in certain other pieces you've seen or is it the quality of space or the quantity of space that makes is seem or feel either Northwest or analogous to that?

VD:  That's true that performance is by its very nature bound by time and space, especially when it is on the stage.

AKA:  Light and space were two key elements, I agree.

VD:  I suppose to me, when I go to other cities, New York for example, the use of space and light seem different. I feel like I can sense something of our landscape in the work

AKA:  Perhaps it's the relationship between the performer and the space that is unique? Perhaps the performer here feels either grander or smaller or more connected to the space?

VD:  What were your feelings about last night's works? Could you identify aspects that seemed so clearly Pacific Northwest?

VD:  It seems like we've both seen some of these artists grow their work and their aesthetics in the last few years. Do you think you could say some things about that aspect too?

AKA:  I feel like the devotional nature in the third portion of Paige Barne's piece along with the Spanish speaking voice when the line of plastic heads were lowered were not indicative of the Northwest. I also felt that the orgy play and hyper pace of Jessica Jobaris' piece was not specific to the Northwest.

VD:  I feel I've seen bits and pieces in the super intimate setting of tiny studios and what an enormous leap to see the work on the big mainstage of OTB.  I've been thinking about process to performance in this festival for many years, this one was especially potent.  The trust of the choreographic voice is so evident because each piece inhabited that space so vividly. I believed in the worlds of each piece entirely and readily took in the expansive and the shrinking. Ahh, perhaps that's what the pieces also had in common TRANSFORMED WORLDS realistic yet abstract?

AKA:  There is something extra-terrestrial about the NW and its art, as seen perhaps with the use of signaling mirrors in Holcombe Waller's piece. There is also a sense of comfort with vast, clean, unknown, open spaces that demands solitary exploration.

VD: Imaginative and wild. Yes that vast unknown and clean space not ever, not even, in Jessica's, piece full. Always a touch empty, available.

AKA:  Can you give an example of a performance piece that is not both realistic and abstract? Or rather, how was Part & Parcel realistic for you?

VD:  Part & Parcel for me has an element of realism in the performance quality. We talked about this last night over grilled cheese and bacon. Allie Hankins and Mary Margaret were living really via the movement. Their life was the movement, not just an expression or reflection of a kind of life. Each moment of their performance existed right then in their bodies moving. The movement was the real world.

AKA:  I also sense something military about NW art. I'm not sure I can properly explain, but either I sense the militant or the pressing up of the citizen against some imposed law, the determination of the individual against the state. This was most prevalent in Waller's piece, but came for me as well in Part &Parcel and was internalized in Barnes' piece, but taken to extremes in Jobaris' piece.

As per the performance quality in Part & Parcel, is that realism in art or it that truth in performance?

VD:  Uhhuh, a kind of anti-authority, a rebellion that filters through the structures forms and, as in Jessica's piece and Holler's, in content too. Is that the west coast in us?

AKA:  I am also wondering about crisis and the NW artist and thinking about how it is largely absent and in its place comes an extended exploration and longer, more fluid movements and vaster landscapes.

VD:  Truth in performance vs realism in art.....hmmmm. I suppose my original thought was that we just didn't see a lot of abstract work in the evening, so I was making a distinction between abstract and realistic. That's probably not accurate in art history, though it does make me wonder why I felt the works weren't abstract. Was it because there seemed to be narrative content?

AKA:  While the OtB flyer suggested that the performers in Jessica Jobaris' piece were each coping with a crisis, the coping was so long in the making and the performing that the piece itself became an extended metaphor for the vast number of ways in which we as human being sense and experience our bodies and our sexuality across the board and in relationships and with one another and our environment that it no longer felt personal.

VD:  Crisis is absent in northwest artist....what do I think? I'm not sure I've seen crisis in much performance, and specifically in dance. Both Jessica's piece and the vibratory-epileptic movement in Paige's piece felt like evocations of crisis.

AKA:  I am struggling to understand what sort of a dance performance you would view as abstract if not Part & Parcel? I find a definition of abstract dance as "a style that is not concerned with drama and realism, and rebels against traditions and structures."

VD:  I agree, Mimi, that the process of making and performing often brings out the extended metaphor, like a kind of processing of material. And I agree that Jessica's felt like a layer cake of crises including the tossing of the world, as if that in itself is a giant game. The folks sitting behind us laughed nearly in hysterics, yet the ideas were ultimately heartbreaking and human. The tender and violent duet between Aaron Swartzman and Amelia Reeber was riveting and disturbing and felt quite true to me. I know abstract in dance does feel different for me then in other forms. I think I really mean performance presence that is alive as opposed to one that is evasive and blank. Now it's true neither Mary Margaret nor Allie Hankins did so very much with their faces, yet they felt alive and human.  I was aware of human bodies moving through the space. They were people to me. Another thought that came to me this morning was one of history.  Holcombe's piece is about a history, someone..

AKA:  Not crisis as in personal crisis for the performer on stage, but crisis as in unstable and dangerous suppositions or fields of conflict that inform a piece or perhaps the region as a whole. Maybe I am talking more about structure and intention? I feel as if in many pieces coming out of the NW I can sense the ocean, the weather, the natural world. The two pieces that felt most NW to me were Holcombe Waller's "Surfacing" and Jessica Jobaris' "You're the stuff that sets me free." Paige Barnes' "War Is Over" felt too personal to categorize as NW and Part & Parcel's (Allie & Mary Margaret) "By Guess & By God" felt rather Universal.

VD:  Oops let me continue. Wait are you speaking of the element of danger?  I'm wondering if you can talk about the fields of conflict that other locales use as structure and intention in the work.

AKA:  Fields of conflict may be our reasons for making work. Fields of conflict in Poland, for example, felt to me to be very much the whole breadth of the state, very little of what I saw felt intimate or small or confined to a locale. I think realism may perhaps be necessary in order to have a point of conflict rather than a field of conflict. Fields of conflict in NYC have always felt to me very localized, much smaller.

VD:  Okay so I thought Allie's "By Guess & By God" & Paige's "War is Over" felt the most northwest to me in approach.  Those two pieces felt in dialog with the northwest contemporary dance tradition of gesture, flow, solo, space and more.  I could almost see Pat Graney's work in dialog with these two pieces.  Perhaps it has to do with inquiry in the bodies.  The body centered nature of these two pieces.  

VD:  It's possible we are talking about different aspects of the work to kind of localize it. I'm talking about the dance-works that I've seen in Seattle for the last two decades and that very particular kind of tradition. To me Paige & Allie's work fits in that area of inquiry.

AKA:  That's very funny. We absolutely disagree about what feels NW.

VD:  Yes but I bet if we talked about visual art our two points of view might align more. Hey, I'm just remembering reading something Lane said recently about differences between Portland and Seattle in performance aesthetics oh yeah it was in City Arts Magazine.

AKA:  Yes perhaps we are talking about different things. You are talking about a quality of movement that aligns with other artists who have come out of this region and I am talking about what anyone, from artist to non-artist, from frequent viewer of NW art to someone who's never seen anything from the NW, might see and sense of the Pacific NW in these works.

VD:  Hey so I was gonna ask about the history element...but you know what I'd really like to know about are your responses to the emotional realms of the works. Did they all affect you emotionally? Could you say why?

AKA:  A further thought about space. Unbound. I think that's what defines the NW artist. The spaces we see, use, present and struggle within are unbound.

VD:  This makes sense, your perspective and mine.  I'm almost entirely local....I admit I travel only a bit and mostly see work right here. I suppose that might make me provincial, actually ain't that the exact definition of provincial?

AKA:  Hmm, my emotional responses. There was a coolness to Waller's piece. I enjoyed it immensely and was caught up in its content and landscape and humor, but I was not emotionally affected, as in I did not need to go off and process the piece in order to set the world right. Paige Barnes' piece had a greater emotional affect on me. It spent two long sections preparing me for the impact of the emotion that it would deliver in the third section. Part & Parcel was a strange combination of cool and emotional. I think that's why it made such a strong impression on me and why it kept me so engaged. It was ever present to itself and this, I find, is a crafted line between performance and real life.

VD:  Oh yeah that's true about space in all the works I saw last night. They felt like they were grappling with these prescribed boundaries, like the wings, but also trying to undo them. Holcombe Waller's piece had techies/musicians onstage like the backstage was right there in the desert.  Paige's piece kinda made it seem like the personal space was almost overwhelmingly massive, huge, enhancing the kind of personal violence that she was working with. Then Part & Parcel, Allie & Mary Margaret, began with contained space until it spilled and then fractured by expanding beyond the wings and then these  long straight walking or crawling passages as if times were overlapping happened....then of course the BURST of space by Jessica's piece.

VD:  Ah that's it a crafted line between performance and real life that to me is a great way of stating the kind of realism I felt in "By Guess and By God."

AKA:  Jessica Jobaris' piece had the effect previous work of her has had on me--so much, so soon, so layered, that I need to go away and process. I suspect that might be considered a very emotional response, but an unknown one. Perhaps it was all emotion and I needed then to place my meaning and understanding on that, but at a later time.

VD:  I suppose that quality of performance made the work not simply patterns of movement. It's true that in all that wildness it is hard to know my emotional feelings, yet my more visceral mind is in reaction, is activated by Jessica's work.  

AKA:  Another way of thinking about these "prescribed spaces" is not to think of it as space with boundaries but perspectives with shifts in focus, so when the space opened up in Allie and Mary Margaret's piece, it was really that the space opened in the viewer's mind.

VD:  I'm beginning to formulate a question or at least some thinking about how space, emotion, and structure are perceived and via these elements set free notions about content, narrative, characters…

AKA:  Perhaps we're all just speaking about the NW landscape that exists in our minds, that collective understanding that we're at the end of the land, the sun sets to the west on the Pacific and we've nowhere left to go and then how we, the viewer, identify this same feeling or sentiment in the performer.

VD:  Couldn't agree more with the space opening in the viewer's mind as the crux of expansiveness. This is why movement and the body's metaphoric existence is so potent for me as a viewer. That's a great oceanic and expansive way to think about it Mimi. I LOVE it. This is why massive scale work and intimate tiny scale work so readily co-exists. Even more vividly demonstrated in how I can see the tiny detail of Allie looking over Mary Margaret's shoulder as massively essential in the same breath accept the grandness of Mike Pham and Jens Wazel connected by one huge penis rope.

I feel like I notice tiny details and I accept massive images. Okay so another question is about the body in performance...

AKA:  We live in the Pacific NW where the mountains are more jagged, the ocean is less salty, the light lingers longer and the earth is volcanic and has different a hue.

VD:  I'm going to see the Studio Series and the Mainstage again in a mere two hours. Before this conversation is over, were there any performers you wanted to mention? Perhaps someone we haven't yet mentioned?

VD:  This is what Lane said in City Arts Magazine: LC: "And dance theatre. If you’re looking from south to north, Portland has a poor theatre aesthetic that’s pedestrian and really wacky. There, you often get something made cheaply and on the fly, with a DIY vibe. And it’s sometimes the furthest afield in terms of being imaginative. Head north to Vancouver and that’s where the tightest production values come from. In Vancouver the work feels highly professional and dialed in, and sometimes you wish they’d go even further with the zaniness that Portland has. With Portland you wish for the production values they have in Vancouver."

AKA:  I'd like to comment on the courage of all the performers in Jessica Jobaris' piece, "You're the stuff that sets me free," from Marissa Niederhauser's sitting on a block of ice to the cultish dressing and undressing of Rosa Vissers who was then left draped over an audience member in the front row while the music and all movement stopped and only her crying voice could be heard.

AKA:  Lane makes a good and agreeable point and I'd like to see those two schools intersect more often. The best art often comes from such intersection.

VD:  Okay so the two technician/musicians in Holcombe Waller's work were wonderfully provocative and subtle with the opening flashes of mirror light bits. Also I thought the sustaining of simple walking and crawling paths of Mary Margaret through the increasing speed and continuous movement of Allie Hankins was riveting.  

AKA:  I cannot find the names of Waller's supporting artists, but I too was thrilled by their work in that piece. It was Allie's and Mary Margaret's connection and disconnection in space that kept me engaged.

VD:  Sruti Desai's graceful and peaceful solo in Jessica's piece as well as Mônica's thigh slapping solo were both moments I recall vividly.

AKA:  Some things we did not mention that I would like to talk about are sport or sports in the pieces we saw Saturday night. I'd also love to talk about which of these pieces felt like full-length works that were confined to a 20-minute slot and which felt best served by this restriction.

VD:  The two guys from Holcombe Waller's piece are Ben Landsverk & Steve Kennon.

AKA:  For those who thought chaos reigned complete in Jobaris' piece, I would use those examples and many others as resting points, vivid stop actions that I too felt. Good sleuthing!

VD:  Oh that's excellent. Certainly "Surfacing" by Holcombe Waller is a tiny piece of a much longer work. "War is Over" by Paige Barnes felt complete, the 20 minutes was enough for that work. "By Guess & By God" by Part & Parcel (Allie Hankins & Mary Margaret Moore) felt complete but I'd welcome a longer version, to see what might emerge with more time. "You're the stuff that sets me free" by Jessica Jobaris and general magic is really the first enticing rough draft of a much larger work, at least that was my feeling. Can't wait to see what she'll do with it.

AKA:  When we talk again I'd love to touch on the uses of light in the pieces we saw and maybe how we think they are specific to our region, but more how they worked within the specific works.

VD:  That sounds fabulous.  

AKA:  Vanessa, I agree completely with your assessment about which pieces felt complete and which were destined to becoming longer works. Excellent forecasting!

VD:  This was lovely and free flowing. 

AKA:  Thank you for the talk. Enjoy the show tonight.


A K Mimi Allin

Vanessa DeWolf