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The Making of This Part II
(‘This’ At the Chocolate Factory)
Or: on writing text for K.J. Holmes’s “This is Where we Are (or take arms against a sea of troubles)”
Performed at The Chocolate Factory, L.I.C NY, March 9-12, 2011
Performed by: Jodi Bender, Keith Biesack, K.J. Holmes, Marin Sander-Holzman, Kathy Westwater, Devika Wickremesinghe.
Music performed by: Doug MacKenzie, David Moss and Charlie Rauh. Lighting and projection design by Tom Ontiveros.
(You can read “The Making of This Part I” here)
November: I went home, typed up most of what I’d written in New York, edited it, sent it to K.J. A long silence followed. I wasn’t too worried. But then I was. Maybe she didn’t like it? Maybe I should start over? I was going back to New York in December, and was longing for some direction by then. As it turned out, the dance had hit a crossroads. Two dancers had had to leave the project. K.J. needed funds to pay the others. Again, timing: the making of the work required me to relax my own sense of urgency, my own schedule, to become more patient than I wanted to be while events unfolded. I didn’t go to rehearsal that December week. In my impatience, I thought maybe I should withdraw from the project all together. I went home and wrote as much to K.J. Her answer: no, probably (definitely) not. In fact, what she said was, the text is already fully integrated into the piece. Basically, it’s too late to drop out now. I was elated, and ashamed of my sulky attachment to my own timing. In a decade away from dancing, I had forgotten something about how to wait for others, how to listen.
January: K.J. and I determined that the best way for us to proceed was for me to send her a new version of the work, for her to indicate the parts that she liked best, and for me to then record and send the pieces in separate tracks. Again she told me to write from uncertainty and doubt. She also told me she was creating a forest of old trees for the space. That was it. But I was also then folded into the email loop between the now six dancers, three musicians, and video artist/photographer. Now I got word of scheduling problems, various people’s travel plans, also poems, photographs, responses to rehearsals, jokes. Some of this language I began to grab for the writing.
February: Having determined on five sections to record, I asked my friend Aaron Angello to help me. He had the equipment and the patience. I had an idea that I had to speak very slowly. I knew a lot would be going on in the space under and over the text, so I wanted to make it easy to hear, easy to understand. It took about two hours to record the whole thing – then I sent it. Later, I listened. Totally morose. I sounded horribly depressed, exhausted, nearly asleep. We had to do it again.
Then Michael Ondaatje came to the University of Denver to read. The reading was mesmerizing, intensely focused. After, there was a Q&A. The usual questions about process, and then someone asked: “What is the most important quality for a writer to have?” Inwardly, I groaned. This kind of question invites pompous declarations. Ondaatje thought for a few minutes then said, “Uncertainty. Doubt.” I went home and finished the work. Aaron and I sent them to K.J. the next day. This new recording was faster, more trusting. I just read them as I heard them.
March: The piece opened on March 9 for a four night sold-out run. Sadly, I only got to see it once. I had no idea how the text would fit into what they were going to do. I had no idea, actually, what they were going to do. My nine-year-old daughter Alice and I arrived at the last possible minute, after a typical New York subway fiasco. I cannot adequately describe this dance. I can give a few images of what was an astounding hour and a half of movement, image, music, and text – a performance that took my breath away over and over.
1. Seen through a lit doorway, a small fierce woman dressed in blue (Kathy Westwater) dances through a white space. We can only see her when she happens to pass the door. Silence, then electric guitar accompanies her.
2. A woman, naked but for a pair of navy briefs (Jodi Bender), moves through broken pine boughs, heaps of pine needles, rolls of birch bark. She keeps her back to the audience. Projected onto her body, images of stained glass windows – blue and deep red (created by Tom Ontiveros). From off stage another woman (K.J.) is singing, or howling, or weeping.
3. A man faces the audience (Keith Biesack), arches back so far that we can no longer see his face. From here he speaks lines from Plato’s Apology over and over until the others come and lift him, rescue him, in a sense, from his predicament, and deliver him to the ceiling.
4. A film of a middle-aged woman cooking in what looks like a tenement kitchen. In the film, a table and a white wooden chair, no one sitting there. One of dancers (Devika Wickremesinghe) walks in with an identical white wooden chair, though it’s much smaller than the one on film. She sets the chair “at” the table, across from the empty chair and sits, waiting, it seems, to be fed. The woman on the film, now her “mother,” begins to separate into multiple images of herself, each moving through identical motions, but at different times. While one image of the woman is “solid,” the others are ghostly, in various stages of transparency. The girl in the chair sits very upright, long dark hair falling down her back, continues to wait to be fed.
5. One of my texts is playing. A dancer, K.J. approaches a microphone stand, though there is no microphone. She holds it in her hand as if to speak. But then carefully lays it down, lays herself down. She begins, slowly at first, then faster and faster, to spin the stand in a circle around her. She is the point of the compass, the stand is the arm. As it spins, it rolls on its metal base, creating a gorgeous song under my text. This goes on for some time.
Here are a few more of the words that made it into the final version of this dance. What I can say about them is that they were written in a kind of privacy, the beloved privacy of writing. But they were not written for themselves. They were written for the others, for what they would accompany, with very little knowledge of what this would be. This meant that they were written into a “to be” or “not to be,” written into an absence, into a future, an “as if.” They were written into uncertainty and doubt.
If a woman in a forest recalls a woman in bed
If a woman in bed recalls a woman at the wheel
If a woman at the wheel recalls a woman at work
If a woman at work recalls a woman at the movies
If a woman at the movies recalls a woman in bed
I do this always with a sense of a deadline
are you in your car?
are you on the highway?
are you “at work”?
are you busy?
on the phone?
are you buying something?
cooking something? carrying
what’s in that bag?
can I see?
can I look in that bag?
are you selling something? To me?
the sky’s all
branchy now, all broken.
no clouds, there’s just this haze
or maze. a maze of branches. or are those
cables? cables so I can
call you so I can
After the performance the dancers and musicians told me how uncannily the language spoke to what they were concerned with, what they were thinking about, though they hadn’t heard most of the text until the dress rehearsal. “How did you know?” they asked. The night before I saw the show, I gave a reading at Bard College. Joan Retallack graciously hosted me. At her house (her own and John Cage’s artworks on the walls) she gave me a copy of her new book, Procedural Elegies / Western Civ Cont’d. She signed it for me, including a line chosen at random from one of the poems. “I believe in the meaning of pure chance,” she told me. The line was:
“Someday I’ll read to you the rest of it.”
Which means it is for me to listen.
That fall in New York there was a big show of abstract expressionism at MOMA. I went to it, and so did K.J., though we didn’t talk about it. Today we discovered that we’d both written the same thing down in our notebooks, the following quote from the wall text about Barnett Newman:
“He created large paintings to be seen from a short distance – he believed deeply in the spiritual potential in the abstract art…His paintings giving the feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality and at the same time, his connection to others.”