SF choreographer Jesse Hewit interviews Headlands Center for the Arts resident alumni Melinda Ring about Mouse Auditions.on Oct 19 in Article, Community Partner Program, Dramaturgy, Interview by admin
About Melinda Ring. Melinda’s work is informed as much by the concerns of experimental film, visual art, and theater, as developments in new dance. She is more interested in questioning why and how to make dances than resolving the answer, she’s produced works with titles like Impossible Dance, Hmmm… and Huh?, all of which hint at the unresolved character of the “finished” product. This interest has led her to explore a very liberal definition of choreography, organizing not just dances, but also installations, performance pieces, curatorial projects, and videos. To learn more about Melinda’s work visit her online at www.special-projects.us
Last week Jesse Hewit, Local Choreographer and active participant with THEOFFCENTER engaged with Melinda with questions about the Mouse Audition. What you’ll read here is a transcript from an email exchange.
Jesse: So…its my understanding that Mouse Auditions was originally made under a really specific set of circumstances imposed by the Whitney Bienniel. I mean…half opportunity, half imposed circumstance. But beyond the compulsory act of using Martin Kersels “Five Songs” as inspiration, what were other circumstances that lead you to create Mouse Auditions as a process-as-product work? Clearly you could have made some “set work” on the sculptures. But instead you made Mouse Auditions which evoked a bunch of themes about art consumption and ownership, and about underpaid performer labor. How much of this piece was “inspired” by getting the gig at the Whitney? Do you think the work works in other settings? Or is it a really site and time specific work about being in this particular show at a big Museum with certain politics about the buying and selling of art and artists?
Melinda: So the ideas for MA came in stages . First it started as a joke with myself…a few months earlier I was auditioning dancers for a dance piece (another work). Because I felt I was relatively new to NY, I looked at this as an opportunity to meet people as well as find the 5 dancers that I needed. Because I’m not actually really new to NY, many more dancers came forward to audition than I expected, and I saw most of them (I turned away very few people). So the audition process was really long-winded, and I became really intrigued and became more and more involved in the process – it took me a month to finally find the 5 dancers (who are performers I’m still working with). I was really moved by how many amazing dancers there are in NYC wanting to work. The longwinded process also helped me develop my ideas for the piece I wanted to do, which eventually became X (2010). So from that experience I had this joke that I could do a piece that was nothing but an audition, and was never ending. Then I got the opportunity to do something at the Whitney, and Martin Kersels is a very close friend of mine. Early on he showed me the maquette for the sculpture, and I knew that even though he was creating it as a stage space. It had tremendous limitations for presenting dance (real dance), but potential for something else. Five Songs is 5 independent sculptures that look like giant mutant Playmobil pieces. When I thought about something happening there, the first thought I had was that I saw it populated by a lot of disaffected mice. The fee from The Whitney was $150.
With this piece, I’m venturing into a new area, which is exposing things that I’ve been dealing with as an artist but I’m not used to talking publicly about, mostly having to do with money. I’m working hard to have my work pay for itself – mostly through fundraising and grants – and I’m super committed to paying performers, and once in awhile, even myself. I felt $150 could pay for an idea, and with an idea, I could hold an audition. Yesterday you had a question about the Mouse Auditions: you were curious about the Mouse Auditions as a chicken-and-the-egg question. So I already had the idea for the piece, and then the circumstances sort of presented themselves. It wasn’t really until after MA happened at the Whitney that I realized I showed up at the Whitney Biennial and did a work-in-progress. So I’m happy to be at Headlands and have the opportunity to try and really develop the work. Because it is really complicated and does seem to have a lot of potential to me. I don’t think the work is time-specific, though I was supposed to be at Headlands last year, and I couldn’t come because I had an injury, and I was a little frustrated about that because for me the piece is more about labor relations, and with Occupy Wall Street at that time so much in the media, it felt really timely. But that theme is really timeless, especially for modern dancers and performance artists. I see part of the potential for the piece as continuing to develop, and that it is site-specific, but can really go anywhere and be specific to the people who join in to the project, and the venue where it takes place.
Jesse: In this context, what exactly are you working on at Headlands, and what does development for this work look like?
Melinda: I’m here at headlands to reconsider what I did, and clarify some new ideas about the piece. And I’m also really interested in having conversations with people about the project to see the potential for how other people enter into it. Before I arrived here, I thought that I would go to my studio every day and that people might come in and talk to me or try stuff.. So if you are reading this, and you’re interested in doing that, please email me: spec...@mac.com
Jesse: How do you feel about the ethics or politics of the casting for the Whitney piece? I mean….clearly the work is partially ABOUT the economic negotiation of these folks performing at the Whitney, despite no pay. How do you feel like the action of this work is interacting with the problem of undervalued performers? Did you hear about the Yvonne Rainer/ Marina Abramovic debacle at MOCA’s gala last year?
Do you feel like this work is in conversation with that critique all?
Melinda: The situation of the MA is kind of complicated. At the Whitney, even though I thought it wasn’t really an audition, in the end it actually sort of was. From spending time with that group of people, I did get to know some performers, and I did find myself more interested in some people than others. And even though I don’t have any projects right now for these performers, I do have it in my mind that we might work together in the future. So some real exchange did happen. I haven’t auditioned that much myself – as a performer, it’s something I always avoided. But the auditions that I’ve gone to, I never got paid. Though recently one of the dancers working with me told me that she did go to an audition where she got paid, and she was very happy about that. She felt tremendously respected. Because I don’t like auditions, I structure my auditions more like a workshop, and MA is patterned patterned somewhat on the format of my real auditions.
I think that the Marina/LA MOCA thing is a little different, because it was a benefit party. I wasn’t there, but reading about the event, and how the performers were used, made me a little queasy. Though a friend of mine who was involved felt he received something of value through the process. I think it is in conversation with the Marina/LA MOCA critique – which, if I remember correctly, was that the performers’ pay was not commensurate with the amount of time required. For me it’s a little different – I don’t have as much money as Marina Abramovic. While we’re speaking about Marina Abramovic, the performers in her MOMA retrospective were forced to engage in negotiations with that museum, and Marina refused to be involved in questions of pay or worker/performer safety. As I said earlier, MA has led me to speak publicly about issues that I have been thinking about – and gossiping about with my peers – forever.
Jesse: I’m interested in what you might be suggesting about arts economies, through this work. A number of good friends and colleagues of mine in the dance/performance world have, in recent years, performed in works in large museums with tons of money by Tino Seghal an Marina Abramovic, where the casting and rehearsal processes are rigorous and intense and the pay was not so great, but they configure the value of their experience and their resume item in a way that isn’t so reflective of a very capitalist way of working for money. I feel like a lot of times, performers have to quite literally ascribe to an altogether different notion of economy, value, wellness, exchange, in order to keep their chins up and keep living in their craft. Some do it to get by, others do it as an outright practice of anti-capitalist social and creative practice. Where do you think Mouse Auditions fall in this conversation? Is it a critique of people not getting paid enough money to perform? Is it a suggestion that our artists economies are as futile and chaotic as the interactions of groups of mice? Is it calling for a different definition of work? Is it hopeful for artists?
Melinda: Yes. to everything you just said. Except, having done a project where I observed and lived with pigeons for twenty-one days, I wouldn’t dismiss the interactions of mice as futile and chaotic. My mice are more like test subjects, because I’m an experimental choreographer, and everything is an experiment for me.
Jesse: In using Kafka’s Metamorphosis as inspiration, you seem to suggest a correlation between the underpaid and misunderstood performer and the plight of Gregor. But things don’t end well for Gregor. How can performers stay alive? What was it about Metamorphoses that initially inspired you?
Melinda: Turning to Metamorphosis as a basis for the never-to-be-performed work of Mouse Auditions was an intuitive move. I connected the mice as vermin to the beetle that Gregor became but then, rereading the novella after many years, I realized something I hadn’t when I was much younger, which was how much the story is about Gregor’s role as a worker. And it seemed to me that his change from human to insect was perhaps brought on by job stress. So then it made even more sense to me to use it as an element in MA.
As for “how can performers stay alive”? I think this is a super important question. I don’t have an answer for everyone, and I’m not certain if you’re asking about performers only, or also the people who are making the work. By “stay alive,” I’m assuming you mean how do performers pay their bills. Of course you probably know people who do that in various ways and have some way that you do that yourself. There are people who cross over into performing in more commercial ventures – I have friends like John Fleck, who lives in LA and acts in TV shows and movies; in New York all the dancers I work with have “day jobs:” some have what I think of as “trades,” i.e. they teach yoga or pilates and make very good hourly wages. Others do more menial things and struggle more. But have plans to learn trades, such as rolfing and acupuncture. Of course, none of that is ideal, and I don’t think that’s actually what you’re asking me. I think in a way the subtext of our conversation has been about whether or not I think performing artists should be paid. This is something I’ve personally struggled with first as a performer and now as a person who makes work that involves performers. I can really only tell you about my experience – and I don’t think of myself as a very practical person. I don’t think there’s one easy answer of how this situation can be changed. Early on in my career, I stopped working as a performer in other peoples’ work, because to me, money and time are resources, and I wanted to take that time-energy and put it towards my own work. I knew I wanted to make my own work, and I made that choice. I made solos for a very long time, because I didn’t have the capacity to pay other people. When I started to get grants, I started to make work with more people in them, and I started to pay people. But around that time, I also started to go into debt. Then at some moment, I decided that I could not just keep making work without the world in some way telling me that it needed me to keep doing this. I began to send out fundraising letters, and I was surprised by the response. This was really a difficult transition for me to make: I had to really think about my own relationship to money. Also around that same time I decided that my work had to pay for itself – that I couldn’t work at my day job to pay for my performances. Since that time, I’ve slowly figured out how, through fundraising and grants, to bring in money, and pay performers “something”. How much “something” is always the question. At first, it meant enough money so that the performers were not spending their own money to come to my rehearsals. And that is the case here with the MA – I’m offering everyone a small honorarium. Inthe last few years, with the dancers I work with in an on-going way, their pay has ranged between the rates some babysitters get paid per hour to a little more than minimum wage. Usually I pay performers before I pay myself, and if more money comes in, more money goes out to them. Right now I’m working extremely hard to find as much money as possible for my projects, and that is mostly to pay people, andhopefully eventually myself. Along with not being very practical, I’m also a pretty optimistic person, and probably inherited risk-taking genes from my father’s side of the family. I’ve often thought about changing course in order to have a more stable present and certain future, but decided against the alternatives as not how I want to spend this life. I look to older artists, artists who have not compromised their work or dedication to it and try to learn their secrets.
Jesse: How much can you plan for Mouse Auditions performances, and how much is it important to leave most of what happens up to the moment of being in the space, meeting the auditioners, etc? Are you interested in/working with ideas of chaos? Do you believe that chaos exists?
Melinda: Most of my early dances were structured solo improvisations which I rehearsed a lot. This morning I was just reading about last night’s debate, and the reporter was talking about Obama being at a Virginia resort for days prepping for the debate. I feel that there’s an analogy in these two situations: for me it’s best to work very hard to be prepared – it gives me a kind of freedom and spontaneity within a construct.
I love chaos. I believe everything is chaos. Chaos is one of my major subjects, especially in the highly choreographed dances that I have been creating the last few years.
Jesse: Also….if the call for auditioners says that the audition is the piece and that the audition is for a work that will never be performed, then how do you deal with the folks who GET IT and come to perform the audition as a play about a play kinda thing? What do people’s comprehension levels tend to look like and where do you prefer they are in the spectrum? In this regard,what kind of auditioner engagement/comprehension yields what you find to be the most effective version of the work?
Melinda: One of my dancers – we were working on something – and she told me this story about a play some actor was doing. One night, one of the actors said his line, which was to ask for a glass of water. And he got a huge laugh. And the next night, he gave the same line, and he didn’t get a huge laugh. And he asked the director what happened. The director said, “the first night you asked for a glass of water, and the second night you asked for a laugh.” I am interested in people asking for a glass of water.
Jesse: I just came off of a 4 month tour of residencies and then showings of a work called Turbulence (a dance about the economy). It is an improvisation, a circus, an experiement in value and exchange, and an impossible dance. I think that the theoretical conversation between the two works is pretty dense, but one thing that really strikes me is how works like Turbulence and Mouse Auditions are both works that may or may not have set out to be works ABOUT something very codified and discursively specific, but because of their interactions with the very real economies of making contemporary performances, they evolved/devolved into works about making work. Now, I know there are alot of other things and ideas out there to be musing on, as makers, but do you have any thoughts about perhaps why these two pieces may be finding audience in the current moment, based on what they are ostensibly about? I feel like alot of what I’m seeing in contemporary dance in the past few years is comprising kind of an anti-dance expose movement, in which choreographers are questioning the capitalist nature of displaying skills and are really heavily situating the work in the real-life economies in which it is being made, being talked about, being performed, etc. Is this a coincidence or do you feel like maybe contemporary dance is getting quite critical of previously-defined concepts of “dance” “technique” “skill” and other terms that have historically been used to judge the work in fairly capitalist language?
Melinda: From the little I know of Keith Hennessey’s work, I don’t think of myself as political. I describe MA as my “side band.” I’m really still very engaged as a choreographer. I see my job as to organize either movement or situations. You asked me earlier how this iteration of MA will be different than the one that took place at the Whitney. I’ve gone back to the Metamorphosis to focus on Gregor’s relationship with his body, I’m especially in the time just after he wakes up and doesn’t understand how his body functions, and isn’t clear about what has happened to him. You also asked me earlier about chaos, and I’m interested in that moment because it is a moment of chaos for him, physically. I care very much about politics and social issues, but they usually don’t enter directly into my work.
Jesse: What does process mean to you these days?
Melinda: I think there are three main components to my process. There’s taking a shower, or doing the dishes, or something like that, and my mind drifts and ideas come. Then there’s the necessity of having to write about my work for grants and fundraising stuff. That used to be very separate from my real process – which is in the studio – but now it’s much more fluid. Then there is the real process in the studio. As I said, I used to do a lot of solo works, but now I don’t want to be in the studio alone anymore. One of the parts of the audition that MA was based on – the audition for X – was brainstorming. I worked hard to find dancers who I felt I could have a conversation with, who could perhaps be collaborators; the group of dancers who I worked with in X and I are now in the middle of our second project together. When we start a dance, I often ask them to do some lame things. That leads to something; that something usually leads to something interesting, or hopefully it does. They share their thoughts, and one thing leads to the next. MA is different, though I was hoping, while at Headlands, to have people come into the studio and spend time with me. Please email me if you are interested in doing this! I can’t properly pay you, but I will pay for your gasoline, bus, snack, etc. And, even though I’m not Marina Abramovic, I think it will be a mutual benefit.
Jesse: What work is inspiring you?
Melinda: Weirdly, nothing is coming to mind at this moment. Usually I’m not inspired by dance performances – I often love them or hate them, etc, but I’m often inspired by things I read or see at museums and galleries. I feel like a bird that builds nests, just picking up bits and pieces of things along the way that I find, that seem right, that feel right.
Jesse: What did the amazing chef at Headlands feed you tonight!!!?????
Melinda: Last night we had cassoulet. It was incredible.
Jesse: What else?
Melinda: When are you coming to visit me in my studio!!??
Call for participants – Melinda is asking interested participants to help further the performance experiment that is the Mouse Auditions. Melinda is looking for 6 – 12 performers to audition during one of two 2½-hour work sessions on the day of November 4, 2012, between the hours of 12-5:30 pm. These “auditions” will be the performance. Participants should be an experienced performers with the following qualities: uninhibited; focused; comfortable making sounds, noises, and speaking; experienced in improvisation; and a quick study who is also willing to experiment and engage fully in a rigorous process for process’s sake.There is no monetary compensation involved, however there are rewards: you’ll have an interesting day, and we’ll have a chance to meet and get to know each other a little.
If interested, please respond by September 15th by sending your resume, photo, and the answers to this questionnaire to spec...@mac.com.
Dramaturgy in Dance – Dramaturgy in Dance is a series of conversations instigated to promote discourse around dance performance theatre from the voice of the maker and about process.
THEOFFCENTER would like to thank Brian Karl, Program Director at Headlands Center for the Arts for making this interview possible, Caroline Tracey, Intern at the Headlands for helping with the transcription and of course Melinda Ring for giving us of her time, passion and vision.