Q&A: Adam H. Weinert installs a secret installation at MoMA

Adam H. Weinert talks about letting viewers generate content for his newest MoMA installation

Are you finished with NYU?
Basically. I’m done with all my classes. I just need to finish my thesis, which is wrapped up in this Ted Shawn project at MoMA. It’s nice because the project lets me talk about dance in museums, dance and technology, the archive without getting too abstract. It actually is a thing that happened; sometimes I get a little lofty. [Laughs]

So let’s go back a bit: André Lepecki recommended you to perform these solos. Take me through the learning process. Did you work with Norton Owen, the archivist at Jacob’s Pillow?
The invitation came first. I said to André, “I’d really love to remount these solos,” and then two weeks later I got an invitation from MoMA in the spring of 2013. I got a research fellowship at Jacob’s Pillow for the summer and worked very closely with Norton Owen and Paul Scolieri, who is the cochair of the dance department at Barnard and is currently writing a biography on Ted Shawn. I was lucky that my research fellowship overlapped with his, because he continues to be a great resource. I’m excited to read his biography.

When will it come out?
Well, 2015 is the centennial of Denishawn, and I know there was the idea to coincide with that anniversary, but I’m not sure if that is on track. I’m talking to Jacob’s Pillow about creating some kind of AR [Augmented Reality platform] experience throughout campus to celebrate the centennial. All of the group works were performed outside; we restaged them site-specifically, and there’s so much content. They have hundreds and hundreds of hours of documentation. So we’ll see—we’ve been having preliminary conversations.

How did you decide what the solos would be for the original project?
I worked with Paul and Norton. Four Solos Based on American Folk Music [“Old Fiddler’s Breakdown,” “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” “Give Me That Old-Time Religion” and “Patriotic Song”] felt very archetypal in a way. I think it was Shawn demonstrating how he was trying to find an American dance vocabulary, but [one] also very relatable and accessible. And there were limitations at MoMA in terms of what I could do with costuming and sets and props. Those dances were very simple. Pierrot in the Dead City (1932) is a more obscure solo, but one reason I chose it is that it’s quite well documented. There is even a video of Barton Mumaw, who was Ted Shawn’s principal dancer and lover for many years, coaching a ballet dancer in the ’80s. I found that to be really helpful. The way Barton talks about it, you’re looking back for something even though you know it probably doesn’t exist. That struck a chord with me, because I have this idea in my head of Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers being this kind of queer utopia, and I’m not really sure it was that, but I’m going to keep looking for that. That’s why I chose Pierrot—although there could have been many others.

What did you notice during that coaching session? What was important?
Groundedness was really important, and that doesn’t come naturally to me. To be honest, I found farmwork to be really helpful in that way. It’s a little bit out there, but I started working with this biodynamic farmer, and she has a practice of walking through her fields barefoot every morning so that the soil will absorb the toxins in her skin. It is to help her achieve her life goals, just as she’s laboring to help them achieve their life goals.

To help whom?
The plants. [Laughs] It’s a little out there, but in a certain way, why not? And as a modern dancer, I do so much dance barefoot, but no one’s ever talked about why barefoot. I’ve never really considered what that means. I remember working with a field manager on another farm, and I said to him, “I thought farmwork was going to be really repetitive, but we come in every day, and we do something completely different.” I mean I grew up in Manhattan. I had no idea what I was saying. He said, “It is really repetitive. It’s just working on an annual cycle.” It changes your sense of time and space, and those are important things in dancing. I found it to be more profound than I expected. So Barton talked about groundedness; he also talked about not throwing away the choreography. If you’re having a true experience, go with that. I never met him, but from his memoirs and from watching him on film, he seemed like the sweetest, most gracious man—and a beautiful dancer.

It’s interesting how that authentic experience is still so relevant in performance for dancers today.
Yeah. The technique class is a little funny. It’s about 30 minutes, and you’re jumping immediately. But it has a lot of similarities to Shen Wei’s technique class. I performed at MoMA and Celia Ipiotis [codirector of Arts Resources in Collaboration, Inc.] thought that I was doing Cunningham technique. There are a lot of Laban principles. It was well articulated. Gus Solomons was also around for the MoMA performances, and he’s performed Ted Shawn’s work a number of times, so he was there to tell me what I wasn’t doing.

Are you still participating in the farmwork?
I am. It was uncanny. The farm that I started working on—just because it was the closest one—turns out to be run by Bennett Konesni, whose family has owned that property on Shelter Island for 13 generations. His life’s work is about the work song, and the work song as a way to synchronize movement, to increase productivity, to create joy; he’s done some Ted Talks about this. It was a great place to bounce around some of my ideas. I went back to Jacob’s Pillow and said, “You have to start growing your own food again!” That’ll take some time, I think.

The Pillow Pub isn’t going for that yet?
[Laughs] No. But I haven’t given up. The farm is on Shelter Island.

How often do you go to the farm?
I’m spending this summer in Hudson, New York. There’s a very rich agricultural and cultural world up there, which I’m starting to get my hands dirty with. I took a food-studies course at NYU and, honestly, the reading list was the same as in André’s course. It’s all about temporality and sensuality and from the laborer’s point of view; it’s sweat equity in the same way that dance is. I took a step back from that line of research and am going in another direction, which I think NYU is better able to support. But as a lifestyle choice, I’m really enjoying it, and I think there’s something there—I just haven’t totally figured it out yet.

So you were at Jacob’s Pillow reconstructing the solos. Can you talk a bit more about Shawn’s Four Solos Based on American Folk Music
One of them is about a barn dance. Another one has to do with slavery and that legacy. That’s a vein of Ted Shawn’s body of work that is tricky to navigate. He was a contradictory person in a lot of ways; I’ve seen films from the ’40s at Jacob’s Pillow, and he brought tribal dancers from Africa and dancers from Asia and Polish folk groups. It’s pretty surreal to see these groups performing in a cabin in the middle of the woods with no electricity, but I think he did a lot to increase what was considered dance: what could go onstage, who could go onstage. But at the same time, he did a lot of dances with his all-white company. In remounting the dances, I tried to be as true to the originals as possible. The reinventive aspect for me came in how to present them. As Lepecki writes, it is the task of the reenactor to pick up a work’s virtual forces and to continue its always incomplete, yet always consistent, plane of composition. To Lepecki, [Susan Leigh] Foster and [Ramsay] Burt, this usually takes the form of the dancer’s body as an endlessly creative, transformational archive. What I would like to add with my proposal, is the creative and transformational value that can be augmented through the use of digital technology and an activated viewer. Shawn’s principal contributions to dance history lay in making dance more accessible by broadening what dance was and who got to perform it. It is in this plane of composition that I wanted to add a new vector.

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