Rebecca Lazier – Photo by Bentley Drezner

5 questions to Rebecca Lazier (dancer, choreographer, teacher)

On June 13-15, 2013, Rebecca Lazier and her performers will team up with Newspeak to present the NY premiere of Coming Together/Attica, an immersive, site-specific dance work to Frederic Rzewski’s iconic scores at The Invisible Dog Art Center. We asked 5 questions to Rebecca about this project.

How, for you, does Rzewski’s Coming Together / Attica speak to the present?

When I first heard Coming Together and Attica – a friend sat me down, gave me headphones and told me to listen – it was entirely without context. I was unaware of when it was composed, the source of the texts, the performer instructions, the compositional techniques, the significance of the riots in American history or of Rzewski’s controversial position in the music world. Despite my naiveté, I was immediately struck by its combination of structural clarity and emotional power. I wanted to know how it was made, what made it work and who Frederic Rzewski was.

As I learned about the history, context and structure of the piece, I noticed that while knowing more allowed me to appreciate the work and see it as an artistic challenge, the piece resonated with present-day compositional methods and provided insight into disturbing current cultural policies. As I delved into it, I realized the music isn’t just about a single moment of American history, but a work that continues to shed light on relevant abstract and political questions. Although it was inspired by the riots, Rzewski does not dictate an ideology in the piece, he invites the listener to create his or her own meanings. This allows it to be timeless.

For me, the piece speaks to the present on several levels. Rzewski’s compositional approach to merge formal constraints with political content is used across art disciplines today. Performing the piece now can also raise consciousness of the current prison crisis in America. An unprecedented proportion of our population is incarcerated. The perverse lack of rehabilitation services and the use of isolation to treat symptomatic behavior is tantamount to a humanitarian disaster and demonstrates questionable educational, cultural and political policy.

Rzewski’s work brought new perspectives to my experience of isolation and confinement, introduced possibilities for structural invention, motivated me to research the historical and current conditions of imprisonment, and enabled me to imagine social change through art.

Rebecca Lazier - Photo by Bentley Drezner

Rebecca Lazier – Photo by Bentley Drezner

What about the music and spoken-word inspired you to choreograph a dance ensemble and how do the different art mediums involved function as a whole?

I was initially drawn to the structural conditions of the music and text and started investigating them in rehearsals as generative tools. What would choreographic “squaring” be? How could additive and subtractive structures work in movement? Can I apply similar performance procedures to the dancers? Metaphoric experiments followed: what is the physical experience of extended stillness? How do you embody time and space in prison? I was interested in how Rzewski translated the experience of reading the text into the form on which he built a piece. Nonetheless, I was still not committed to having the score performed with the choreography; this process was research.

The treatment of the text drew me in. While both pieces use accumulation and decculmulation, the vocalist in Coming Together speaks whole sentences (there are eight), but in Attica she sings only six single words. This repetition creates a changed experience of time – a kind of timeless time – in a way reading the letter aloud from start to finish does not. Here, Rzewski’s repetitive cycles allow the mind to pick up the changing inflections, attend to the words themselves and let go of the need to follow a narrative. I loved the way the words changed meaning as you heard them again and again. How could adding movement bring out even possibilities for meaning?

After creating movement material without the music, I thought about how to direct attention between the words, music and movement as I began to construct the dance. For example, the beginning of the dance is extremely slow. I feel you needed time to hear the music and listen to the words. Once you have a sense of the pattern you can attend to a visual rush of action. It was fascinating to experiment with what needed to happen in the dance the first time you hear ‘lovers’ as opposed to the last time you hear the word. Although I did not choreograph the steps to the beats of the music or create movement representations of the words, attending to the structural development of the words and music became a major criterion in determining the sequence of the dance.

How do the physical bodies in dance speak to the idea of isolation?

I thought about isolation during movement creation and while developing the overall composition. We experimented with many states of physical isolation: sit as long as possible without any movement, complete a series of tasks moving as close as possible but never touching or acknowledging each other, fold yourself into the smallest box possible, for example. We also looked at how one can be isolated among people and explored ways isolation can be a protective mechanism during oppression. Throughout the piece the relationships between the performers constantly change – in one moment they are alone, in another they throw someone down, next they move in parallel – yet, there is very limited eye contact. In Coming Together the performers never actually see one another, they inhabit the same physical world but are isolated emotionally and psychologically. For Attica they do start to build a community by performing movements in similar ways and thus breaking down the walls of isolation.

Rzewski’s music seems to have its own powerful way of dealing with the tension between structural constraints and improvisatory freedom. How did you approach that tension in your choreography?

Yes, Rzewski provides a clear baseline in the constant 16th notes played on one instrument over which the musicians follow various instructions that change every 49 measures. Rzewski’s interplay between compositional specificity and performer agency prompted me to reevaluate this fascinating relationship. In one section of Coming Together there is a gamut of movement the dancers can choose from in performance. They must fulfill spatial and dynamic directives but they can perform a movement of their choice. Another method I use is to allow different interpretations of the same movement. Rather than perfecting a single movement to look the same on each body, the dancers adapt and alter it to suit their interests and abilities. This element of choice allows for uniformity and difference. I also have sections where there are no set steps, only a script they must follow. The instructions are so tightly defined that I do not think the casual observer would notice a difference between two performances, but the choices are being made in the moment by the performer, and are rarely the same performance to performance.

Bringing the audience into an imagined setting would seem like an important way to give extra weight to the meaning of this piece. What means have you used to accomplish this?

I knew early on I wanted the audience to be confined within the same theatrical space as the performers; this piece wouldn’t have the same effect on a proscenium stage. The vastness of The Invisible Dog, a former factory, allows us to perform Coming Together and Attica at opposite ends of the space, so the audience will move as part of the performance. To design the flow of people we looked at how prisoners travel in space in prison – they have no options and must follow designated lines.

The text for Coming Together was written within the walls of Attica Prison, while the text for Attica was spoken outdoors – this reality influenced the trajectory of the dance, the lighting and costume design. For Coming Together the audience is surrounded by long fluorescent bulbs that lay on the ground and reflect upward behind their chairs. The viewers, surrounding the dancers on four sides, will see the audience across the room as the backdrop for the dance. We have also frosted out the windows to further emulate a closed environment. The visual and environmental design was not meant to replicate a prison, rather to heighten an experience of confinement and the subsequent release.

In part two, the transition from of Coming Together to Attica performed in silence, the respective viewer/performer roles are reversed as the isolated dancers sit and look at the standing audience. Lighting will depict a liminal space, neither outdoors nor indoors. Attica begins as light enters from outside, while the audience is seated together on benches and the dancers change costumes in front of them.

The musicians remain in the middle of the space for the entire performance. The acoustics of the room will make the audience will feel as if they are within the music, rather than experiencing it from afar.

Coming Together/Attica
The Invisible Dog Art Center, 51 Bergen Street, Brooklyn
Thursday, June 13 at 7:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m.
Friday, June 14 at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m.
Saturday, June 15 at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m.
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