On the eve of their upcoming performance at Detroit’s Museum of Contemporary art, two of the founding members of the itinerant dance company, MGM Grand– short for Modern Garage Movement– Biba Bell and Jmy Leary were kind enough to discuss their recent outing at New York’s The Kitchen, the development of NUT, and the method of their art making.
Chris Sharp: A large part MGM Grand’s program is taking dance out of traditional dance spaces, or even forgoing the division between stage and audience, and dancing directly among the audience. Your most recent production NUT is no exception. However its much anticipated run at the Kitchen, a traditional theater/dance venue in New York was received with some incomprehension. Do you think this was a consequence of presenting it outside of its, so to speak, native habitat? How did it feel to present NUT in a traditional dance venue?
Biba Bell: It’s difficult to know what makes a work comprehensible to people, and I think that this is a good thing. It’s impossible to know what’s going to happen in that liminal and communal space. I love this. I think it’s a necessary condition of presenting work, of making it and sharing it. This is a charged, fertile and potentially luminous space. I think there could be many reasons why MGM’s NUT was met with incomprehension… we tend to operate in a zone that is difficult to classify. Coming from and fully engaged with/in the dance world, we have created a personal history that is not hinged upon this mode of making/presenting work. Most of the work we’ve made has been outside of dance institutions. We made dances in our apartments, in the garage, on a field somewhere, or an old abandoned factory. But even still, we are not attached to these sites of inception. We like to be nomads, and I think that our physical practice and how we build mobile, transient choreographic structures that we can crumble and shift with time and memory, also speaks to our relationship to the discipline, to dance.
It’s funny, in all of the reviews (not that there was a ton) no one ever mentions the dancing, our bodies, the physicality. This is really one of the most stable aspect of the work: we dance, and it is also about dance. I suppose in this sense, dance can be hard to see. We definitely ask the audience to come with us and not know what it is, not know what they are seeing. It can be crazy! It can be uncomfortable, awkward, and strange. For me this has become an artistic strategy, a dance strategy.
Dancing in the theater at The Kitchen was a challenge. It’s well known, has a strong and important history, and is a black box, where the premise is more along the lines of a controlled environment. Our first move to deal with it was to look closely at the details that make The Kitchen weird, off, unpolished. The random screws protruding from the walls, the extreme darkness that it is capable of, the humming sound of the ventilation system and light board that never entirely silences. We performed extra shows so that the audiences could be smaller, more easily engulfed by the space, and the theater itself could possibly be brought to the foreground rather than recede into/as the background. We worked to make the theater experience explicit and slightly odd. This is hard to do. Everything has been done in the theater, everything has been accounted for. I mean, we didn’t want to try to change what it was– like change the seating or reverse it somehow. We tried to deal with what was there, to really be inside of it. We focused on small interventions: we talked to the audience before in the lobby, left our costume changes and bags of warm-up clothes in the aisles behind the risers so everyone had to pass by and see this stuff, brought people up on the stage for an “intermission,” and climbed over the risers in pointe shoes. But the flux that we are used to encountering when dancing in more unconventional dance environments is an exciting element that we don’t think of as outside of the work, it is a part of it, and the theater makes this flux much more difficult, maybe it is more micro. The space doesn’t shake us around, maybe it vibrates (especially with all the electricity of the lights), but it’s hard to feel it sometimes. The walls get hard, the floor feels stable, and the audience likes to settle into the familiarity of the space and the spectacle. The Kitchen is set up for this type of consistency.
JMY: NUT at The Kitchen felt strange, sort of like being on an alien planet that you did have a vague memory of being on before. But only a vague memory that didn’t clue you in to what had happened on that planet to you but did make you slightly uneasy. Was it uneasy in the unknown space of the recall, the memory itself or in being in this place now? There was a moment that Biba and I were warming up before “opening night” and we looked at each other and started giggling (Paige [Paige Martin is the third member of the current version of MGM Grand. Eds note] was off somewhere else, probably fixing the masks). It went without saying for Biba and I that we were totally connected in the feeling of “shit, what are we doing here and what are we doing?”
I think of NUT as our most multi-layered piece to date. We work from the body but think on a visual level, often creating collaged effects with conflicting elements. For example, the “meat” of NUT, what we call NUT’s core, is a twenty-five minute improvisation. We wore sparkly dresses that were from the Baryshnikov White Oak Dance Project, very dancey dresses making us “look” like maybe we could be on “So You Think You Can Dance.” This was in minor conflict with the grey grandfather socks we all wore so we could slide around on the floor of The Kitchen, using the slippery sliding as a tone in the dancing. Our score was based on many different styles of dance– Alvin Ailey, Ballet, Competition Dance, Motown Moves, Martha Graham, Bob Fosse– that are entirely in conflict with each other as styles of dance. How we as a trio presented NUT’s core as improvisation was in conflict with what group improvisation might usually look like on stage, where you see the dancers looking at each other to make decisions of what to do next, the audience sees that and understands that improvisation is happening. Our outward focus was on the audience, open dramatic faces to the audience, but we were attempting to be completely in tune with each other’s dancing, formations, and the music and dance score we built. Our highly trained bodies, shown dresses and socks, were in direct conflict with each other, bumping into, falling on top of, pulling each other’s bodies across the floor, through the shafts of light. This was all against the backdrop of our very pristine, colorful set based on ’70s Motown stage design that extended in two blooming stripes from the top step of the audience, through the stage, up the back wall of the theater. We make very visual work that includes rough edges, overlapping ideas, and problems. It’s not a neat package that is easy to look at. We are interested in work that allows you to wonder what you might looking at, what this is, what are they doing, whether we are at The Kitchen or by a river outside of Portland with an audience of four people. Knowing this we try to add on the veneer of entertainment. Which also may be in conflict with everything else we are presenting.
CS: Jmy already spoke a bit about the composition of NUT, and its conflicting influences, but I am curious to know when you first developed NUT? And after it’s appearance MOCAD, do you plan on touring it more? What’s in store for MGM Grand next? What are you working on now?
JMY: I believe that NUT began with thinking about structures, ways of working and dimensions specific to making a dance. How do you make a dance? What are the tools we have in our toolbox? Where do we want to go? Biba, Paige and I made lists of everything we could think of in each category. This was done while on residency at MIT, working in a small, drafty dance studio that had the feeling of being forgotten and unimportant in this beautiful campus of heavy hitting buildings and a sea of obsessive people. When we finished the lists, and our lengthy, heated discussions about each thing on the list we found a Nina Simone greatest hits CD someone had left, that started with the song “Love me or leave me,” put it on and started dancing. NUT was the first piece we made with Paige, and the first piece that I felt was really of a collective nature, of a 4th mind, a mind of the three of us, yet operating as its own entity.
We are taking NUT on a two and a half week tour this August. We are not going to be in theaters, with lights and smooth hard floor, which is so so so great! NUT is going to change, we in process of working out exactly how and then when we get it on the road, the journey will talk to us, inform us how to crack it.
We have ideas for a few projects but I think that what we are going to make next will be something totally new, not based on anything we have discussed already. It will be Paige’s next project with MGM, after taking NUT on tour, touring in the way we do. She will have the experience of that, as Biba and I do. I have a feeling I have no idea what is coming next.
BB: We started NUT during a residency at MIT during the first 2 weeks of December 2010. It was freezing cold in Cambridge and we were rehearsing in a small studio in an old building next to the water. The students were having their winter concert a few days after our arrival and we were asked to perform with them. They had been up in their labs for days studying for exams. Tommy DeFrantz had worked with them creating improvisational forms, and we decided to perform this new piece, creating a loose improvisational structure. We’d rehearsed for maybe two days. This we hadn’t done before. It was our first piece working together as a trio, the first time making a piece in the winter, and our first time performing a dance that we considered completely improvised. It was very complex, we were trying to feel each other, but also deal with audience, perform for the audience. We started NUT in the studio, working with the mirror. In that sense it is very much about performing, about dancing, what it looks like, what it feels like.
After the MOCAD show we are going to try to take NUT on the road in typical MGM fashion. We have a short tour that we are planning on the west coast from LA up to Portland in August. NUT will be a different dance to tour than previous tours because of the set and the costumes. We are working on making these components flexible and adjustable, and making different versions/lengths of the piece. NUT was made for the theater, and the dancing came out of the studio. We will have to adapt our bodies to spaces that are not theaters, that are not furnished with a smooth, sprung floor. I wonder how touring will put pressure on the dance, or the theater dimension of the dance. Will it feel rigid? Out of context? What will be its aesthetic and experiential effect? We put into practice a number of different working modalities in this piece, some more familiar to earlier processes, some entirely new. NUT has multiple layers and this is partially why. Considering our relationship with spaces, with locating our dances, and the move to make a dance specifically for and about being in the theater, going on tour now makes me feel like we are addressing the inevitable, our own eternal recurrence of sorts. The dance has to deconstruct. It’s like we are MGMifying the piece, again.
We have a number of ideas for future projects– ideas that we have been tossing around for sometime. Honestly we have no shortage of thoughts, impulses and material. We really have an itch to produce, we do it quickly. I am excited to start a new dance together, to get passed NUT. I think that we worked out a lot of things in that piece, but in many ways it feels like something we needed to do, like we had to get through it. Now we can begin, again. We will be working together this fall in NYC.