By Kat Richter for The Dance Journal
Tomorrow night marks the opening of shatter:::dawn, the latest dance/installation venture from experimental movement artist Zornitsa Stoyanova. Taking “intimate” to the extreme, the performance will accommodate just ten audience members each night and features a cast of five dancers including Stoyanova, Christina Gesualdi, Adam Kerbel, Mason Rosenthal and Anne Wilson. Between rehearsals, Stoyanova took some time to reflect on the audience experience and the notion of “success” in the performing arts.
DJ: What does shatter ::: dawn mean and how did you come up with the title?
ZS: The working title for the piece was “I am everyone, I am no one.” It was too long, too wordy and I felt like it wasn’t a good fit as a title. After long discussions with all my dancers and dramaturg Megan Bridge, we decided that the title needs to evoke something new, something different and add to the piece, instead of explain it (which is what the working title did). I was looking for a lot of different imagery that was evoked in the piece. I loved the pairing shatter/dawn, because both words produce a specific image. When I think of “shatter,” I think of something that gets truncated, broken and abstracted from its original form. It is an action of force and immediacy that makes an object completely unrecognizable in shape, but still carries the essence of the original object. “Dawn” I loved because the direct correlation with light. I work with light a lot and in this piece I’m exploring some effects with Mylar sculptures and the reflection they create. The piece itself is slow and meditative, growing almost invisibly, like the light of the new day. In both words there is something pure, something primal and I feel that reflects the piece in its entirety.
DJ: How have the dancers influenced the work? Is the choreography entirely yours or do you collaborate with your dancers in creating movement?
ZS: I wanted to work with actors and dancers who were all very good improvisers and feel comfortable performing nude. I chose Adam Kerbel, Christina Gesualdi, Annie Wilson and Mason Rosenthal, not only because of that, but also because of the friendship and trust we had beforehand. We all share a mutual respect for what we do and our individual work and that to me was of great importance.
Every single one of them is a maker in their own right and I really needed that kind of environment in rehearsal. This resulted in a lot of discussions and the dancers pushed the boundaries of what I thought I wanted to see them do. They would question my motives behind a decision and propose different ways to get at that same issue. Without those questions and discussions we would have never gotten where we are now.
But to answer the question correctly, a lot of the piece is improvisational in nature. Not your “do what you want” kind of improvisation, but one with very specific set of rules tied to the audience members. There is also very specific chorography, some of which I’ve made by myself, some of which we’ve put together. I would say that the piece becomes alive when there is audience in it and it is a synergy between all of us performers and all of the audience.
DJ: How do you anticipate audiences will react to a performance that “walks the picket fence between dance and installation?”
ZS: We’ve all worked really hard to give the audience a specific environment. Every single audience member can move through the space and chose how to see the piece. We use a lot of proximity and abstracted communication for the duration of the piece and it is definitely an unusual experience for a theatergoer. I anticipate that everyone will have somewhat a different experience and will see things other people didn’t see […].
DJ: What do you feel sets you apart as a performer and from other Philadelphia-based artists who do similar interdisciplinary work?
ZS: I am obsessed with the right lighting and very much concerned with the audience affect and experience. One thing that I’ve been developing and haven’t seen others in the Philly area catch on is the communicative gesture and play of recognizable imagery I propose in my performances. I like playing with expectations and creating a non-verbal (or sometimes verbal) communication with my audience. My relationship with the audience turns playful and daring, a little bit unsettling and very, very fun.
DJ: How do you feel about performing for such a small audience (a total of 60 people over the course of the run)?
ZS: I LOVE IT. It is really important to me to have an intimate environment, one where the audience doesn’t just sit down to “enjoy” and be “fed” some mildly thoughtful/ mildly entertaining thing. The audience is an agent, a person, an individual and we treat every single one of them that way. I want to be clear though, this is not the type of environment where you are called out on stage, or picked at, or make uncomfortable. We work very hard to challenge the audience, but in a very comfortable and safe environment.
DJ: Oftentimes, performances with a 2:1 audience/dancer ratio are viewed as “unsuccessful” (i.e. ticket sales didn’t go well, or the only people interested in coming were the dancers’ friends) but you’ve designed this show with small audiences in mind. Can you comment further on this?
ZS: Most art is made to be consumed for one person and one person only. Take painting for example (the most classical of the arts). A painting is made with one specific vantage point, when looked at in a museum, one positions himself directly in front of it and when it’s time to move, they make space for the next person to be able to “see” it. Performing art [is] a very similar phenomenon. Every person in the audience watches performance and without realizing it, flips the picture in their brain as if they were sitting at the director’s seat – front and center.
Knowing that, I question the build and rules of the theater entirely. I think the theater is the grandfather of television, thus in its form it is constructed for entertainment. Somehow visual art breaks that boundary and gives a lot more agency to the viewer. This is namely why I am interested in this kind of format. I want to give freedom to the viewer to not be entirely passive and to be able to guide their own experience though moving through space.
To me the term “unsuccessful” used in this form is silly. Most funders and presenters are obsessed with it, spending millions of dollars on marketing campaigns trying to get every person on the street to care about their season. I simply don’t agree with this approach to art.
Rite of Spring was hugely unsuccessful; more than half the audience walking out of the theater. Picasso, when he first started his cubism period, was hugely unsuccessful. One more recent example is […] Meg Stuart. An American born choreographer working mostly in Europe, [Stuart] is probably one of the most influential teachers and choreographers in contemporary performance right now. She is highly produced, with huge festivals behind her, touring the world almost every year. Still, half of her audience exit[s] the theater during her show.
What’s important in all these examples is the merit of the art and not its appeal to large audience. I don’t claim that I’m making performance for everyone. It’s certainly not appropriate for children and will be not so appealing to some. I know that and am excited to hone down into the craft that keeps me up an night and share it with the people who are in fact interested and engaged into experimenting with new experiences. So, 10 or 600 audience members…doesn’t matter to me.
shatter ::: dawn
Wednesday – Friday, May 22nd, 23rd, 24th at 8pm
Monday – Wednesday, May 27th, 28th, 29th at 8pm
White Space at the Old School, 1417 2nd Street, Philadelphia, PA 19125
Tickets on Dance Box Office at http://danceboxoffice.com/product_details.php?item_id=77
Kat Richter is a freelance writer and teaching artist. She holds an MA in Dance Anthropology and is also the co-founder of The Lady Hoofers, Philadelphia’s only all-female tap company. Her work can be found at www.katrichter.com.
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