07 July 2013

Summer 2013 update

UPDATE/July 3, 2013

Autophagy Suite: A Moving Diorama in Five Parts  

Performances with Ann Arbor Dance Works, June 8-9, 2013
UM Museum of Natural History
Choreography, Text, Sound, Props, Costumes and Video: Peter Sparling
Music: Wendy Lee; Frank Pahl 
Cellular Illustrations by Dave Goodsell
Duderstadt Video Studio staff: Jacques Mersereau and Jeff Alder
Dancers: Kula Batangan, Penelope Koulos, Ashley Manci, Lauren Morris, and Riley O'Donnell 
Science Professor: Dan Klionsky, Ruthven Professor of Life Sciences, UM 

I. Autophagy 101: Prof. Klionsky and video; music by Frank Pahl: The Bilbao Effect, from Music for Architecture
II. Bag Lady Dance: all dancers; music by Wendy Lee: Sprout
III. Divertissement 1: Cellular Muses; Penelope Kuoros, Ashley Manci and Riley O'Donnell; music by Jean-Philippe Rameau: Pièces de Clavecin En Concert: Premier Concert: La Livri
IV. Divertissement 2: Alien Invader; Kula Batangan; music by Wendy Lee: Black Laquer
V. Harpies in Heels: All dancers; music by Wendy Lee: Macromusophagy

When UM Ruthven Prof. of Life Sciences Dan Klionsky approached me a few years ago with the suggestion that I choreograph the cellular process of autophagy, I first balked at the thought of creating mimed illustrations for a science class. But as I learned more about his research, I realized that he understood and described to his students this process by applying to it notions of human behavior. This caught my interest: to a large extent, he anthropomorphized all living bodies--even single cells-- by attributing to them their own little wills! Autophagy seemed to be particularly susceptible to blowing up into stories or mythic narratives: by describing to us the steps in autophagy, Dan was handing us a ready-made script that I and my dancers could then bring to life at a human scale, taking poetic license and great liberties in the process.

Autophagy Suite is a flight of fancy or danced hypothesis that zooms in on a realm we can barely imagine or see. Performed in the round in the UM Museum of Natural History’s entrance rotunda, we imagine the space as a lab, or petri dish to peer down into with electron microscope. Circular-framed video projections are cast downwards onto the floor of the rotunda from the second-floor balcony/overlook. The five dancers interact with the shifting projections, composed of images by medical artist extraordinaire Dave Goodsell. Music by Frank Pahl and Wendy Lee provide sonic animation to the dancers’ antics. See the dress rehearsal on tape here.

The entire collaboration has been documented by Michigan Media for a video to be premiered at UM on October 18. Special Thanks to Elizabeth Barry, Managing Director, UM Life Sciences Institute.


Last Man at Willow Run

On May 23-24, my frequent collaborator, Ernie Ruben, got us access to the now-empty Willow Run Bomber Plant in nearby Ypsilanti, Michigan. The historic space is scheduled for demolition this fall. The first iteration of the imagery from our visit appears in my recently completed video, Last Man at Willow Run.  See sneak preview and click here:

Other iterations are in the planning stages, incorporating Ernie’s photographs and John Gutoskey’s Shaman Johnny performances.

Here is my report written shortly after our visit.

"And I only am escaped alone to tell thee."  

Whether taken from the book of Job or from Melville’s closing epigraph in Moby Dick describing his narrator, Ishmael, this familiar passage speaks of an only survivor from some debacle or cataclysmic event. Perhaps is also suggests a final healing or reconciliation.  Or as Jacob’s three days and nights in the whale’s belly, so thousands of men labored for over a period of 68 years in the Willow Run Bomber Plant near Ypsilanti, Michigan. Once considered the largest factory under one roof in the world, it is now empty and scheduled for demolition in the fall of 2013. Its gutted, immense spaces and mile-long aisles lined with abandoned equipment yawn with a deadening stillness yet somehow echo with the sounds of machinery and human voices.

As interlopers from the future, or privileged archeologists surveying a tomb or a lost expanse of underground caverns, four artists were granted two days to freely roam the empty site. We were there as artists to sound the space—to trace and record its contours, to stir up forgotten lives with a dancer’s improvisational “readings”, a photographer’s camera, a videographer’s scanning gaze, and a performance artist’s shamanistic rituals. Were we summoning ghosts, seeking traces of former lives, or merely channeling what the space was revealing to us? Dwarfed by the sheer enormity and extremes in scale, we spent hours in the thrall of the monster; we explored its guts, its infinite ribcage, the accumulation of decades of machinery, twisted objects, and piles of debris it had swallowed and regurgitated as it lay beached along its namesake, a small tributary of the Huron River that once meandered through woods and pastures owned by Henry Ford.

Approaching the site from its own, infrequently used exit off I-94 expressway, the massive complex of smokestacks and long, low, metal-sheathed buildings first appears over the horizon of overgrown grasses like a remnant of a bygone civilization.  Once inside, we survey a concrete expanse of floor shimmering like a lake with reflections from the florescent lights suspended above the grid of steal beams. Ernie Ruben immediately wanders off to photograph the interlocking webs above and the forest effect of so many columns rising up from the floor. Layers, densities, depth of field, seemingly endless vanishing points, the eye’s increasing desire to fathom the logic of this diorama sealed off from time, this man-made landscape… We mount bikes rigged with carts and baskets, and pedal across the surface towards a large portal into a deeper part of the plant. Passing over the threshold, the lights dull to glowing amber; everything is oil-stained, sooty, and the ceiling opens upwards three floors high into a dark void above our heads. We peer down into rectangular recesses the size of large tombs or poured cement basements.

Peter Sparling climbs down into the wells and shelves along the sides of the pits and performs movement spells as if churning up forgotten souls: the agony, the wonder, the utilitarian gesture, the repetition, the dulling, mindless efforts of past inhabitants.  Pete Leix stands at a distance, eye to his video camera, adjusting light settings, framing the moment with foreground, background, adjusting variations in shutter speed, or a skewing of the frame to further unsettle the moving picture. Later, John Gutoskey, dressed in red suit and a modern-day wizard’s cone hat festooned with gum chains hanging to his knees, ceremoniously marks the space with surveyor’s poles on either side of the threshold while charting the passage from one space into the other.  Ernie has been lifted off via golf cart into the labyrinth of aisles by Cliff Lewis, the site manager, to scout for other voids, cluttered densities or forlorn objects that she claims are calling for her. She no longer has control of her camera. “The pictures make themselves!”

After two days, on our drives home or while sitting together at meals, we begin to draw conclusions and spout mixed metaphors in our attempts to describe or lay claim to our experience.  What to make of it all? And then, what to make (as artists) of it all? A double conundrum. Will it be a video? An installation in the largest space we can find, an armory? Objects fabricated in a 3-D printer from Ernie’s photographs? Clones or duplicates of Sparling’s dancing images, swirling through the darkness with LED lights in hand? Projections of Leix’s videos on floor, scrims, screens? Ten red-suited shamans mapping the space in grid formation, poles in hands? 

Ernie’s thoughts move into her family’s past, to overlays of memories, family lore and old photographs of weddings and of her grandfather, the architect Albert Kahn, who designed the building for Henry Ford.  She is incredibly energized by her experience in the plant; it has become for her an almost symphonic reading of her own mortality and of a spiritual affirmation: of life born out of the building’s death throes. Sparling is surprised at his aging body’s ability to respond with such fervent and visceral dancing, as if he was channeling some residual energy or presence.  He recalls how his grandfather and father both had small plants in Detroit that supported the auto industry, and remembers working the night shift at a Ford assembly plant in the summer of 1969 to make money for his first year at Juilliard. He also thinks that their readings of Willow Run are different from the “ruin porn” of artists and scholars who flock to the abandoned, rotting factories of inner city Detroit. At Willow Run, life still lingers as if the site were only recently vacated—a sudden migration away, a displacement of a massive group of men and women. Leix compares notes to his own thesis research on his hometown city of Flint, Michigan and its acres of leveled GM plants.  John thinks back to his three summers painting color-coded machinery, walls, and roof vents at TRW outside Cleveland. (His 90-year-old father still works there part-time.)

So we imagine a symphonic ode to an abandoned space, a benediction, a decommissioning, a tribute, a condemnation, an homage to large-scale human efforts, a blessing, a wake, a last rites, a memorial.  Riffing off the name, Willow Run: a run through a life and death; a final run-through; the end of a theatrical run, a closing act. Soundings, readings of the heartbeat that is still there. Dancers as the ghost of the machines becoming human; humans purging the space of worker spirits. And the mammoth garage door—through which the bombers rolled off the assembly line and onto the airport runway-- as jaws, the mouth of the behemoth, the gates of hell… or heaven, the passage into the light, into the clouds, towards Europe and the war, towards destruction, liberation, and a hard-won but fragile peace. And again, back into the sleeping beast, its last dying gasp, its death throes, and final rites.

What will it mean to return five months later, and record its demolition? How will our thoughts shift from wonderment and awe to mourning, to the rise and fall of the machine, the life and death of the body, the end of a vision, a purpose, a chapter in human endeavor?  Will the site simply return to nature, or to its former state of pasturelands and woods? Where, if anywhere, is that buried, rerouted stream, the green pastures and still waters?  In the meantime, we view and catalog our evidence, and wait that final dismantling of a beautiful, obsolete monster. 


Six Sonnets

When UM celebrity Professor of English Ralph Williams agreed to join me for a video shoot against green screen at UM Duderstadt Center on May 30, I could think of no better opportunity to try some danced improvisations to a selection of  Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Ralph is world-renowned for his scholarship and wildly popular lectures on Medieval and Renaissance literature, Shakespeare, literary theory, comparative literature and Biblical studies. He has taught such wide-ranging courses as The Bible in English, plus the literature of Chaucer to Frederick Douglass, to the works of Primo Levi and the Memory of Auschwitz.

A day later, I began to organize the materials in Final Cut Pro, knowing I would want to try out some of artist Vince Castagnacci’s paintings and drawings as sets, backdrops and environments for our “stagings”. Vince, a Thurnau Prof. Emeritus of UM School of Art & Design, warmed to the idea when Ralph and I visited him at his home and showed him my first draft. See it by clicking here.

Vince has given us permission to use any of his images, so I will be culling through his treasure trove (see his website gallery by clicking here) to select a discreet set of paintings and/or drawings to help give cohesion and a thematic thread to our rendition of the six sonnets.


Blakeley White-McGuire is a reigning diva of the Martha Graham Dance Company and an adventurous spirit. She has invited me to set a work on six Graham Co. dancers for a festival at Mt. Gretna, PA in late August. I have sent to the dancers their parts to a video script I’ve assembled from a set of improvisations videotaped in Paris during my stay there in fall, 2010. I will travel to NYC next week to rehearse with the dancers at the Graham Co.’s new home at Westbeth, formerly Merce Cunningham’s domain. (Funny how modern dance somersaults.) Check out the video script or blueprint here.