A particularly challenging and fertile aspect of being a creator of experimental performance is that I often have to describe a project in detail many months or even years before I start on it. When working with 10 or more ensemble members and needing to plan out schedules and spaces that are accessible for dancing, instruments, wheelchairs, props, sets and more, I have to do a lot of advance planning. I joke often with my husband about how I have things planned for specific weekends three years ahead of time, while he’s often not wanting to make any set plans for three days from now.
The foundational priority for me in art making is staying connected to my sense of truth as it unfolds. And in order to make sure I have the time and resources to do that work, I have to make a lot of guesses as to what my truths will look like in the future.
For the past 6 months I have had a very clear picture of what my four month residency at CounterPULSE would look like. While I knew that many of the individual moments and images I explored with my ensemble would change, I knew that we were making a piece that both satirized and drew from reality TV contests to investigate the dynamics of competition in each of our lives. I knew we were continuing the work we started in “Don’t Suck! Cycle I” at the Baryshnikov Arts Center this past summer. I knew that we were going to set up every week of rehearsal and the final performances as actual competitions, where we would be forced to confront our hopes and fears around winning and losing in front of audiences and for an online community. I was excited about facing the difficulties such a project would evoke and excited to attempt to transcend some of my personal competition hang-ups.
And then, two days before our first CounterPULSE rehearsal, one of my best friends died. This changed everything. Even though it wasn’t a sudden death in the usual sense of the word–she had been diagnosed with a brain tumor 10 years before—I am in a state of shock. Death is bizarre. I’ve never lost anyone this intimately connected to my life before. It feels sudden.
I talk about death a lot. Most of the performance pieces I make are in some way addressing the nature of impermanence. I’ve lost a number of people from various parts of my life. At first when Sharon died, I felt a kind of calm joy. I had this sense of her moving into some state of freedom that was in total contrast to the constriction of her body and voice as she existed in a near-coma for the past couple of months. I felt sadness and loss, but also relief. I thought that I had prepared myself for this and was just going to be able to move through the experience of loss organically. I spent my first few days in the studio at CounterPULSE making short pieces in honor of my friendship with Sharon, and friendship in general. I thought I would return to the competition material in the new year.
My grandmother died the next week. It was much the same as with Sharon. Grandma died in her bed in her home, on a Sunday morning, with some loved ones nearby. I felt a similar warmth of freedom at first when I thought of Grandma after death. Her body and mind had offered her mostly pain for the past few years, and at her burial last month it felt like her spirit expanded immensely above us—clearing the clouds away and giving us a powerful rainbow, before allowing the rainstorms to return.
And like with Sharon, I was at first more conscious of our continued sense of connection than of my loss of this person in my life. It was about 3 days after the second death that I crashed internally. Since then I’ve been feeling alternating waves of grief and acceptance, sadness and courage, exhaustion and inspiration.
It’s become clear to me that I need to shift my artistic gears. My original ideas for the residency were provocative, extroverted, spectacle-inducing, dizzying and terrifying. In general I love this sort of challenge in a performance project. But there’s no way I can generate the kind of energy that project calls for at this time. These deaths have triggered a great deal of reflection and priority rearranging for me.
The most potent method I know of for integrating and transforming the troubling parts of life is art making. I feel a powerful call to make art that addresses all that has been evoked by these losses. Sometimes it’s a sense of interest or curiosity that drives a line of artistic inquiry. But this feels more like acknowledging unavoidable emotional/spiritual gravity. There doesn’t seem to me to be any way to move forward except for addressing these losses in my work.
(Here’s our first installment of a weekly, accumulating webisode documentary chronicling our creation process for this residency:)
I’m going to try and face one of these deaths at a time, even though I know that art making exists beyond any attempt at categorization and separation. I’m sure both deaths will figure prominently in my residency project. But I am starting with an exploration of my friendship with Sharon Mussen. I met her in high school-the one year that I lived in the Bay Area, in between the rest of my growing up in Los Angeles. We came together as part of a group of friends all drawn to exploring issues of consciousness, spirituality, death, art and sexuality. It was a powerful convergence of freaks and free spirits and we delved together into all sorts of mysterious areas of our own beings and our connections with each other. Sharon was the only person from this group of friends that I stayed in touch with consistently for the past 20-plus years. She remained one of my closest friends.
Her death on Dec. 5th, and the illness directly leading up to it brought a bunch of us from that group of friends back together again. We’ve all grown up in some ways, and in some ways are falling right back into the dynamics of our high school adventures.
Sharon was also one of the only close friends I have that is not directly connected to my creative and professional life. Most of my social life and intimate friendships happen within the context of the ensemble I direct with Dandelion Dancetheater. It’s wonderful to be able to be with my friends in a creative setting—as art making feels like my central life path. But I’m realizing it was also wonderful to have friends that are slightly more removed from this area I focus so intensely on.
Losing Sharon has disoriented me. And reestablishing ties with this larger group of friends feels serendipitous. I sense the possibility that some of these folks can become friends of mine outside of my “work,” in a similar way that Sharon was. But developing friendships in this way is something I’ve forgotten how to do. I did so in high school, and even college. But after that my quest for intimate relationships was almost always funneled through my art.
So my new work to be created in these precious months at CounterPULSE will explore my friendship with Sharon, through the larger vehicle of an investigation of friendship in general. How does each of the ensemble members hold friendship in our lives? How have friendships developed for us? What role do our friends play now? Do we actively seek new friendships? What friends have we lost and how did we process those losses?
Over the last few years I’ve made increasingly large and anarchistic ensemble performance works. I’ve played with multiple layers of community diversity, chaos versus control, busting the format for performance wide open, and courting wildness in as many ways as I could. It seems suddenly very appropriate to me that I’m now on the other side of such a cycle. I feel myself called to turn inward and to seek intimate, tender and hidden truths.
The work will be called simply “Friend.” It is a comfort to me to be looking for Sharon somewhere in this creative project, and to think that I might connect with her spirit in a whole new way.