Dean Moss and Sungmyung Chun
A choreographer and an artist walk through a Nameless forest.
Mon May 16 2011
Photograph: Tim Trumble
One afternoon, the choreographer Dean Moss came across a storefront gallery while walking along a street in Seoul. Inside was a figurative installation by the Korean sculptor Sungmyung Chun, whose work—violent, sinister and eerie—often features groupings of figures with the same haunting face (the artist's own). "I stopped, went in, looked at it and said, 'I want to work with him,'" Moss recalls. "I just knew about this guy. We had something in common." Moss's Nameless forest, which will be at the Kitchen beginning Thursday 19, is developed in collaboration with Chun. At its heart, the production explores the act of initiation. Twelve members of the audience sit onstage with the performers, who include Moss's longtime dancer, the elegant and austere Kacie Chang. (Always a main attraction in any of Moss's works, she serves as a guide for the onstage audience members.) For Moss, Chang embodies "an emotional content that has pain and edges in it and, in a way, makes one feel very much for her." Without giving too much away, she makes the piece snap. There are two ways to see it—onstage or off—but the point is to see it.
When did you begin working together? How did you meet?
Kacie Chang: It was through Marya Warshaw at BAX [Brooklyn Arts Exchange]. She recommended me to you. I was working in the office, and she mentioned that you were looking for someone and thought I'd be a good fit. You were doing a solo performance there.
Dean Moss: I had done something that I was sort of embarrassed about, so I was doing my hiatus in Brooklyn. [Laughs] We were at the beginning of Commodities, Identities and Synchronized Swimming. Kacie came in, and we did a duet together.
Chang: It was our first duet. It was wonderful. It was more like a rehearsal that I walked into, and the weird thing was that I felt like I understood your movement or what you wanted it to look like even more than what you were showing. It was odd because we hadn't met before, but I knew what you really wanted it to be.
Moss: We hit off quickly. You were the only person who could do the movement the way I wanted it.
Chang: It was like I was shadowing you.
Moss: She understood where things were coming from; I was still making work based on myself at that point, so it was important for somebody to be able to do that.
How did you want the movement to look? Why couldn't anyone else recreate it?
Moss: Well, it's one of those crazy things where you think you're some kind of wonderful purveyor of movement that nobody else has [Laughs].
Chang: I feel like it's not what it looks like, it's the thought behind it—we're always thinking while we're dancing. That's kind of what I saw.
Moss: And Kacie got the thinking behind it and nobody else really did. She could anticipate where it might go, and we could have a conversation about the kinds of ideas around the movement, which is different. With most dancers it's, How do I do that as a form, not as an idea? The next piece was Spooky Action [at a Distance], and for the first time I really started choreographing on Kacie. I would suggest something, she would take it and then I would shape it. And it became the model for the way I choreograph now. It's more elaborate, but it all came out of that dialogue of moving and speaking. Also, the dialogue you have with somebody is an exponent of your ideas, so I can do something that's really shorthand—verbally—but I see it on Kacie, and I see what she does with it, and that reinforms what it is. So the conversation is really about movement, and it's quick.
Chang: I also get an idea about what you want; I'll make a choice about it and it's always to serve your idea, but it's also about what choices I make and how you'll react to that.
Moss: Exactly. And she also allows me to shape it on her. I like to cut, but dancers like to own; so you start cutting and there becomes a reaction, and Kacie allowed that reaction to happen. She quickly understood that cutting is really important.
Chang: I became fascinated that for Spooky we made an hour worth of material and we took a few months off and came back and we'd have a few minutes. If I trust you with it, then I know [to] just try and try, and if I'm really floundering and if it's not working, you're going to get rid of it. I knew how it helped Dean; I thought, I'm doing something and I'm making choices and we're building something and I know it's not really right, but I just keep going because maybe I'm wrong or maybe it'll be gone. You just go with it and trust that if it's not serving the idea, it's cut. It could come back in the next project. You never know.
How did Nameless forest begin?
Moss: I wanted to use Kacie, but I didn't know if I was going to cast women at all in this piece. Sungmyung's work was based on men. I had just finished a piece with all women [Kisaeng becomes you] and thought this would be all men, but it just didn't feel quite right, and there was Kacie and Sari [Nordman] and I liked both of them. This was going to be a cast of a lot of people I didn't know. Having somebody who understood what I was doing became important also as a balancing act within the world. And just having somebody who grokked me. Who understands. And can take it seriously. The balance between you and Eric [Conroe], who laughs at the drop of a hat and is nervous about everything—a wonderful performer—but [it was important] to have somebody in the rehearsal process, to have someone on the other side, saying, "No, really. We're going to do this."
Could you talk about your ideas for the piece?
Moss: The piece was based on Sungmyung's sculptures. They are installations, and they have a real fragile and emotional content, and they're a lot about a kind of self-identity, about finding out about what this circumstance of being alive is. And they are a kind of journey, and they are a kind of initiation to life. That's the underlying narrative of his imagery. This work is divided structurally into three parts. The first part is more of an homage to Sungmyung's work, where we try to present the characters and their relationships to their world. Everyone's dressed in costumes by Roxana Ramseur, based on Sungmyung's imagery. So there's that world, and then there is the idea of taking this interior narrative that Sungmyung has and replacing it with a narrative that's more worldly and more about where we live now. I used fragments of diary from my friend Mike Kamber, a photojournalist, while he was in the field in Somalia mostly. He made recordings about his life. Those fragments are edited into narratives. The movement within that section reflects [the narrative in] a kind of cynical way. The first part structurally repeats, but in a more irreverent way. It looks at that and twists it into something that's more aggressive.
Chang: And it comments on itself. So it's a more modern, real, worldly thing in that it's commenting on itself as it's happening.
Moss: It multiplies the complexity. The third part pulls it back into a kind of ritual, but a ritual that takes advantage of the space that we're in and the place of theater and ritual in this world. Now, over the top of all of this, is the audience. Twelve members are onstage, and that audience goes through a kind of initiation process. The piece itself actually dissolves into a kind of ritual of initiation. Even as we are enacting this movement and activity based on these images, we take the onstage audience on a journey.
Chang: The first section has this true narrative based on the interior world that the sculptures create. Then we bring the outside world into it through this narrative and this irreverence, but in the end we bring our actual, true circumstances in. So actually being in a theater, in the audience, in a presentational space becomes part of it.
Moss: So we have a translation, and the translation includes [Chun's] work, the figures of his work, the space that his work exists in, our relationship to that in theater and performance and your relationship to it as audience. From the beginning, the primary metaphor of the work becomes initiation. We separate the audience and bring them into our world, and then we send them back out into their world changed. It's quite astonishing.
Where do they sit?
Moss: They sit on the stage with us. Their relationship to the performers is very intimate right from the start. There's a kind of small emotional wounding that happens through which we encourage the audience members to think about how this character that we're basing our work on feels about the world. We don't say, "This is how it feels." We say, "Feel this." The performers have to figure out how to perform for those people onstage. The onstage audience is in the round. We wanted to explore the performers performing for this group while the audience sitting outside is looking through a very thick fourth wall. We've since opened the fourth wall up [after a series of showings], so we're not so ignoring the seated audience. At the end, Kacie interviews the onstage audience members. She tells a story and asks them to tell a story; everything faces out to the house, so it becomes a mirror of them onstage. [For the audience] the stories aren't pointed, like, "Tell me what you think of what we're doing." Your story is now being supplanted for the photojournalist's story, which was supplanted for Sungmyung's interior story. Meanwhile, as these interviews are going on, the ritual of the work continues.
How do you maintain the intimacy of performing with the group onstage?
Chang: It was a process of trying to understand how to do that. We're with them—I spend half my time seated with the onstage audience. There can be a clear difference when you're with them and then you stand up and enter the [performance] world. And sometimes that can bleed.
Moss: I didn't want Kacie looking out. I didn't want all those secret ways of manipulating the audience.
Chang: I make a lot of eye contact with [the onstage audience]. I lean on them. We touch them. That became a key element. We wanted it to be real, and if you're touching someone, that's a real thing. I think people got confused—if we talked to them too much, what was real and what wasn't? I always say that nothing is real. Or everything is real, because when someone comes to your house, there's a certain way you behave. You put on a little show for your houseguests. Everything's a ritual. Life's a ritual. We found that they believed it, and that it was very unusual and real to sit and invade someone's space and to really sit with them.
Moss: It causes real emotional connection, which is what we really wanted to inspire: It's an emotional connection to the performers and therefore to the work. So when somebody does something harsh onstage and comes back to join the group, people think about that person differently. They're sensitized to that performer. People grow attachments: "That's my performer," they will say. That's the one that brought me onstage. There's a pride in, That crazy one was mine.
Chang: It's another mirror of life. You can see your loved ones do harsh things and have a different reaction than if you see a stranger do something harsh on the street. It becomes heightened and more complex, and the onstage audience has a completely complex emotional relationship, truly, to what's going on. They're very involved; they have a shared responsibility with us.
There's no way I'm getting on that stage.
Moss: [Laughs] People get very shaken by the world—and surprisingly for simple things. We are so happy that we did so many showings because we got to know what was working through them.
Chang: You say goodbye and thank you, and they hug you.
Moss: It's kind of amazing. Also, there's a completely different reaction between them and the audience offstage. [The latter] sees it as a much harder world. It's like watching an initiation ceremony when you don't know the culture. You think, You're doing that horrible thing to those people, yet those people are seeing themselves be embraced by this society, by culture, by everything around them. They're being embraced and shown a kind of joy and togetherness. It's a very strange circumstance. People onstage come out saying, "I felt at peace."
Is that what Scientology is?
Moss: [Laughs] The people offstage feel like, That's so harsh, that's so horrible. What are you putting those people through?
Why is initiation a theme?
Moss: That was hard, because it wasn't at first. The early rehearsals were about the idea of community. But seeing [the piece at an early Kitchen showing] and listening to the feedback, I realized that instead of having our performers go toward the audience, what I really needed to do was the opposite. That would give us the control.
Why has this idea of participation taken such hold of you?
Chang: You talk about how you use our behavior—that that's how you build the work. And with Kisaeng I thought, He'll never get these [Korean] women to give him that kind of moment of pure behavior onstage. And then he had the audience do it, and I was so floored! It's a development of this fascination of behavior and vulnerability onstage.
Moss: Part of it also comes from being a curator at the Kitchen and looking at other people's work. That experience pushed me into a place of, Where does the work happen? What's that experience for the viewer? I wondered about that, particularly with Figures on a Field, where I first saw an audience onstage. You couldn't get these responses and this emotional play without the audience onstage with you. A lot of artists [nowadays] are very much interested in real vulnerability. How am I really putting myself out there? Am I making decorative work? I'm not good at [making decorative work], frankly. There are people who do that so much better, but I'm very much interested in a kind of experience, and that dance is about that. How the dance is articulated is really telling you about the quality of that experience. I love the implications that the audience and I are the same, that we understand this landscape of emotion. We share in it. I like to do things that reiterate that, that resonate with that feeling. I don't know where I'll go from here. [Laughs] But this has been exciting.
Kacie's role involves telling a story and sitting with the onstage audience. Could you talk about the part?
Moss: The women's roles were about contextualization, and contextualization got more complicated as the work progressed. Because I started out with the men in relationship to Sungmyung's work, it was easy to make them the content. But the piece is really about contextualization. So the focus starts out with the men and ends up with the women.
Chang: In the end talk, I have to tell a story, and that was a very hard thing to figure out: What was I going to talk about? I choose my stories based on what I feel when I look at the sculptures. If I were in the audience watching the work, what would it bring up for me? What are the moments in my life? So these are the stories that I'm looking to tell when I do the ending.
Moss: Kacie's a fabulous performer, but I think it's a very particular thing to be an actor, and that's not what she does. It's not about recitation or trying to act like this is a true story—it has to be from her life and it has to communicate vulnerability.
Chang: Throughout the piece maybe I acknowledge a kind of complicity within myself. It's knowing what you're doing while you're doing it and not necessarily approving of what you're doing—but you're doing it anyway. And that's the kind of role I feel I have, and that's the kind of story I tell.
Has this changed you as a performer?
Chang: It definitely has. But the change began a little bit with Figures on a Field in that you don't have any of the control that you have when you're just performing a piece without the audience onstage with you. There's chaos, and the thing that I learned the most as a performer in this piece is that when you interact with the audience you have to be very firm; you can't be nice, and you really have to adjust every bit of your energy to direct them. How do you get the response you want without asking for it? That's my job. If they do something that's not what we want, that's my fault. So that calibration is really intense.
Moss: Early on at our first showings [of Nameless forest] at Arizona State University...
Chang: It was the first time we had done it with the audience participants in this way—we came right at them with all of this crazy energy, and they started to play. You approach them with the wrong energy? It's permission for them to be as crazy as you are. I became truly frightened and had to ask someone to leave. He was doing back to me what I was doing to him, but he was a man and he was pushing me around because I had been pushing him around and making him do things that he didn't want to do. So he pushed back.
Moss: We learned that we had to regulate our energy in a whole different way.
Chang: I have all this energy, and then when I cross this new, invisible line on the stage, I have to drop the energy. I have to communicate.
Moss: And there's a real thing about firmness. The guys put the guests [onstage audience] in a kind of half nelson and really control them. You can't do it lightly, like you're being kind—you have to do it really firmly, like you're dancing with somebody who doesn't know how to dance. So you lead them and they then relax because you are leading them so well. If you are light, they feel like, Oh, I'm not sure what you want me to do—I have to make decisions. You don't want them to make decisions. [Laughs] Just go with us. [Softly] Go with us. And the thing that we're trying to frame is not so much what they do but how they feel and how they project what they feel. We build up a relationship, and we break it apart, and you get to see a reaction in the audience again and again and again. From the outside, it looks like it's all about control, and on the inside, it's control and something else. It's definitely not so brutal. With Kisaeng, the control was really psychological, and in this piece, I think that psychological control exists and that there is this other level of control. Or suggestion. Or hypnotism. It's an initiation ritual, just like when people say afterward, "I don't know why I was doing that. I don't know why I felt okay. I don't know why it felt like it was the right thing to do."
Chang: They often say they were at peace. It's because they're not making the decisions. That's peaceful.
Nameless forest is at The Kitchen Thu 19-Sat 21 and May 26-28.