NOT WHAT HAPPENED
You are frequently commissioned to create "site inspired" theater works that draw on lost or overlooked histories; how do you start?
I start by walking.
I do not surf the web or read books; at first I resist stories packaged for long-distance viewing. I go to the place and I walk. I look for current conditions and negligible clues to their beginnings. I walk. I look for some form of question that sticks. Next I ask many people the most open-ended version of that question I can verbally manage. I am trying to both learn the question's ramifications and be available to unexpected response. I do not want the answer I could give myself just as I do not seek the story I could find at a distance.
The first to arrive in me is never plot. I don't often experience that required sense of beginning or end, but rather a constant modulating hum chaptered by emotion. When I'm lucky, the force of that emotion accumulates into theme. Then comes character. Then I scramble for a container – a situation to tilt character and theme into action.
My disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of Rhetta and not necessarily those of Fist and Heel. Names have not been changed to protect those involved.
[Continue] Brooklyn to Guilford, VT. Estimated driving time 3.5 hours give or take or give and get; Clear, safe transit out of Gotham’s limits. Going north; sign of things to come.
In Reggie’s timeline of (project) Moseses Project, the vocal residency (Reggie Wilson, Lawrence Harding, Rhetta Aleong) was strategically placed as he constructs and focuses this evening-length work which World premiers in September at Philly Live Arts and has a New York premiere in December on the BAM Next Wave Festival 2013.
“The artwork is the people to come and it is a monument to its expectation, a monument to its absence.” – Jacques Rancière The Emancipated Spectator
The stories that I am beginning to tell about The People to Come are all about the audience. The night we unexpectedly found that a young woman we only know as Sophie has an incredibly beautiful voice as she sang two submissions (one by Hilary and one by Charlotte) combined by performer Luke Miller into one song: “I am a plastic doll dressed in a penguin suit...” Or how wonderfully undramatic young Cyrus was to performer Peter Musante’s repeated demand that he say “Fire!” over and over again. There was the audience caring for Luke as he blindfolded himself and wandered about the stage. The woman who found her passion when she destroyed the archive table on Luke’s command and who did it with such gusto that it seemed to release years of pent up desire to obliterate someone else’s order. The young woman who took all of performer Simon Courchel’s weight. The audience kissing one another on Peter Musante’s suggestion inspired by the video made by audience members Kelly and Clark in the photobooth: Tail of a Tongue. The audience moving about the space whenever Luke moved as Simon raised his shirt and gently prodded his belly-button. A man attacking Luke’s zipper with the microphone. Many an audience member standing up to speak into the microphone their interpretation, their story to answer questions about the town of Marlboro, about what the other performer was doing, about astronomy, about negative space. One boy shouted out, “He is doing what we made! He is doing it!” A gang of kids rushed in to watch performer Darrin Wright do their movement verbatim.
In asking questions about participatory work in my last blog post, I suggested that The People to Come is an attempt to be in some way transparent about the process of the piece. It endeavors to create a shared knowledge base in which everyone in the performance space—performer, director, designer, audience member—has a shared and specific involvement in the outcome of the event being played out live.
Previous to The People to Come, I have not thought of my work as participatory. It seemed like a strange bedfellow when the word first cropped up in project descriptions. The word raises, for me, questions about theatrical manipulation and suggests an awkward relationship between performance maker and audience. The word “coercion” comes to mind at the extreme—or a subtle pressure that is perhaps more insidious. But essential questions about the nature of the relationship between audience and event kept me coming back to uses of and practices in audience participation. From the spectacles of Louis XIV’s court ballets to the bawdy exchanges in the Elizabethan Theater to Brecht’s alienation effect, how have audiences participated in the live event? And isn’t the shaping of this participation what defines a performance in culture/in time/in place?
A year and a half ago, I posted a blog entry about our project Where (we) Live. At that time, it was in its earliest gestation. We knew very little about what we wanted to achieve, except that we were going to challenge ourselves to reach outside a collective comfort zone.
So Percussion was founded in the midst of a rigorous chamber music program at Yale. In order to focus on the skill of playing other people's music at a very high level -which is difficult enough to master on its own - we were laser-focused on what it takes to become an accomplished, cohesive group. We've never abandoned this core purpose, and those "10,000 hours" come in handy while making music.
How to research the sensorial fallout of a rote task two hundred and eight years ago?
I admit I could not frame that question till halfway through the research. I knew I was pulled toward an activity of no historic consequence (I often am). I knew I was interested in a moment and location that was daily and transitory, the task rather than the artifact of that task. (I often am interested in the moment before “the moment.”) Also yanking at my consciousness was the giant silence of one imagined cloudy morning in pre-industrial rural early America (facing the empty virtual page on a cold gray Wednesday knowing I should write is my version). Girdling these tangents was a question about historical reenactment. (I’m not sure where I got that – it appeared.)
At the end of their first day of rehearsals at the Broad Brook Grange, Dan Hurlin said to me "we choreographed our first etude today!" I loved hearing how Dan thinks about puppetry in choreographic terms. Rachael Lincoln, Sheetl Ghandi, Darius Mannino and Zachary Tolchinsky are dancers as much as they are puppeteers. It has been fantastic to observe them in the studio as they build the work bring Dan Hurlin's objects and Dan Froot's stories to life.
I can’t remember if I told you this already but I’m interested in people dancing not dancers moving and I am really working on that with a new dance, "Theater in the Head." Created during the one-year creative residency at VPL in collaboration with composer Josh Quillen, the work starts as a spectacle for six performers, and as the dance progresses the spectacle becomes stripped away revealing more personable connections between the audience and the performers.
I make theatrical narrative non-fiction dance told from a female perspective - usually with a sense of humor. These dances originate from personal experience, I then explore how that experience intersects with popular culture as part of the collective unconscious. These intersections are conveyed through a chunky non-linear collage format combining energetic robust athleticism, everyday gestures and text. I tend toward a social commentary that often asks, why aren’t we being more honest about this?
This has been happening my whole life. Salmon brings me to harvest with my family, brings me across Kachemak Bay in Alaska to learn fish-skin sewing from Audrey Armstrong, brings me to awe as I watch them swim upstream, brings people to my table again and again, and brings me here, to Vermont Performance Lab. Of course, in this case, we had to arrange for the wild salmon to be here.
Lying between the white brick walls of the alley, I keep my eyes closed. Moving slowly amidst the everyday pedestrian bustle and rumble of tucks on Main Street, I hear people ask (with varying degrees of proximity to me), “What is she doing?” I smile because I asked myself the same question earlier this morning.
Last year while leading some students through an improvisation exercise, I heard myself tell them something that I am trying to learn: “You are an important part of this picture, even though you are not the whole picture.” This idea is one reason why I am drawn to working in spaces that locate human scale as a small but significant component of a larger landscape. For me, this performance work includes a practice of exploring what it means to belong—to recognize how my body and actions affect and are affected by dynamic ecologies that I inhabit.
After two hours in that alley space, I sweep away the residue of my performance including some text chalked on the pavement. A man standing on the river terrace asks me about the words I had written there: “Every heart break is a little opening.” I tell him I am learning that heartbreak can be an opportunity to grow rather than form a rigid scar. He tells me that notion reminds him of the Japanese word for “crisis” which involves characters that can connote “danger” and “opportunity.” I smile as I consider how both love and performance offer us dangerous opportunities.