For the next two weeks, we'll be counting down to the Bessie Awards—also known as the New York Dance and Performance Awards—by talking to the 15 performance nominees. This year, the nominators have honored a remarkably diverse group, one that manages to span the spectrum from trance dancers to flamenco performers, from longtime legends to exciting new faces. We'll be posting new interviews nearly every day, so be sure to check back to learn about the best New York dance has to offer—and start getting your fanciest duds together for the Bessie Awards at the Apollo Theater on October 19th.
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The Bessie nominators singled out Talya Epstein for her gonzo performance in Larissa Velez-Jackson's Star Crap Method, an anarchic show that was improvised on the spot every night. In an 80s-inspired, Warhol-meets-Punky-Brewster wonderland, dancers Velez-Jackson, Epstein and Tyler Ashley collectively created a deliberately “amateur” spectacle by making up movement and even songs; in that mayhem, Epstein was a bizarre tornado of movement who seemed to be trying to embody Cher and Richard Simmons and Andy Kaufman…at the same time.
How long have you been dancing with Larissa Velez-Jackson?
I did a couple of smaller projects with her without realizing that they were leading up to Star Crap Method. She put out a call on Facebook for a piece she was doing; we did two or three rehearsals and then did a show at Center for Performance Research. We kept talking and the group coalesced around her and myself and Tyler [Ashley]. After that Facebook post, it was three years in the making—and that whole time we were building the aesthetic. Larissa is hugely comedic, and she can write monologues which are structures and yet also improvised. She is such a genius at being in the moment.
How did you get into this sort of work?
I transferred from Arizona State to the Boston Conservatory—and that was a bittersweet experience, because I got a lot of good training, but there's a lot of unhealthy behavior. Then I went to the American Dance Festival and saw people from New York, and I realized there was another way of making work. I wanted to be in New York and see work by people who are still alive! It was then that I realized I admire improvisers, people who dare to make the work in front of an audience. I started dancing relatively late in life—I never looked up to a ballerina; I never had that. Instead, I always looked up to artists like Ishmael Houston-Jones or Keith Hennessy. I'm completely enamored when someone can make something out of nothing in the moment.
How did you go about making something from scratch every night?
First, I had to tell myself that no one is going to die!
Can you recall a particularly memorable moment from one of the shows?
The memories I have from performing are so collage-like and strange. There was a moment on opening night I remember: We have solos, and I remember I was talking about the chipping paint in the Chocolate Factory and wanting to rip down the walls, and Brian Rogers [the venue's artistic director] was in the audience. I said, 'Don't worry, I won't destroy the space,' and he yelled out, 'Go for it!' Then I ripped off the paint, and Larissa sang a song about it. There was something about having Brian there and responding to a moment that was happening in his space that told me the piece was really working itself out.
Do you have a preshow ritual?
This show's preshow ritual was very specific. It's not like I'm practicing choreography or knowing my body is going to need to do a lot of battements. Instead, I walk around the space and narrate what's happening around me. I'm getting ready for an athletic event, but in a mental way. I just see what my body needs that day, because anything can happen. The rest of it is, you know—vocalizing, drinking water and little slap on face. [Laughs]