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a constellation of humans

a constellation of humans

a process essay for building a buffalo directed by devynn emory

compiled from participants’ language & edited by jai arun ravine

notes: building a buffalo will be performed at Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance (BAAD) in NYC on November 18, 2016 as part of BETWEEN LINES. image by Kristel Baldoz. learn more about devynn emory / beast productions.


we breathe inside compartments // but we trust each other // & we need bodies in a different way // in this way // we want to bring our queer // brown // spiritual // communities together // we want this performance to be a location // a gathering // we want to bring worlds & bodies together // we want to throw it all in one pot // we want to be expansive & take up space with our whole selves // we traverse the space between worlds but we also want to be in our bodies more // we want to open up the ceiling & come down from the sky // we want to fly // we want to sit & eat first for an hour at least // & sit & talk for hours after // we are birds // we are humming // we are recording this // we are remembering this // we’re taking selfies // we bring the energy of the people who can’t be here right now // we’ve been learning how to divest & how to say no but today we want to say yes // we’re thinking about the different shapes & structures for performance & how they serve the people involved // we’re thinking about what virtuosity means in a disabled // mixed // gendered body // we want more ways to orient ourselves in space // we’re an adult slumber party // we’re all in a clump // we recognize each other // we take this opportunity to think about our identities in a new way inside of this performance // we want an art practice that can grapple with our struggles in ways that are not only reactions or responses to conflict //


we are invested in how you // the audience // receives this & we’re hoping that you // the audience // is not predominantly white middle class // we want cotton candy & popcorn // good food // children in the space // more female body hair // less cis men in underwear // we want to karaoke // we want to look at each other & really see each other // we want no time limits // we want to be able to take a nap // we want windows & doors to throw open // we are allowed to have fire // we’re climbing // we’re jumping & jumping off things // we are intimate & expansive & free // we want to skype in // all the dead // we’re cuddling // the roof opens up // to the ocean // to stars // we’re keeping the fantasy in // we’re singing before you see // the sound is moving // 3s & 7s // slow fade up // oversaturation of light //

procession // purple light // we are the voice // we’re gonna start with singing // how much echo is this // what does a lot of echo sound like // placeholder // we’re stepping out to look at this // step one // we’re BAAD // change the orientation so it’s really wide // the deep way // we saw it the wide way // let’s pretend that’s what’s happening // that’s kind of not seen yet // coming from the basement // let it go a little bit before the polyrhythm // a flocking clump // in the blue light // in the rainbow sunset // let’s stop there // meander // fade out when we arrive // it’s possible in silence // amoeba // so where’s the audience right now // a clear break // silence not darkness // darkness not silence // did anyone watch the tiny iphone video in google docs // laughter //


what’s the method of the line // as a unit // pulling // tension // a slow turning away // should we try it again from the wall // should we try to do the same thing we did before // looking out & it was really nice to see their face // maybe not all the way // choose your own adventure arms // the same energy as // the line kind of breaks // immediately close the gap // dispersed // do you want to try it from breaking out // that time when // make eye contact // not make eye contact // touching someone // not touching someone // being on the ground // not being on the ground // constellations // stay in a constellation for a few moments // find a new constellation of humans // do you want to try or move through // let’s move from the break out // it’s your time to shine // how did that happen right now // that felt really awkward // let’s go from // variations of interaction // let’s go from constellation of humans #2 // once we start that’s your cue // the thing that comes after this // flumpish // depending on the night // people start exiting // hah hah hah hah hah hah hah // as a flump // join the flump whenever you want // leave the flump whenever you want // do you want people to exit the space entirely or do you want them to stay on the edges // can we talk through the whole structure before we do it // i would love to try it before we do it // do you want to popcorn it // a processional flump // what’s our relationship to the audience at this point // to answer your question // exciting to see everyone’s eyes // looking past // i think this can be really slow // gaze fixed // weaving // then you can just let it go // it seems that there wants to be // breathe as an organism together // i’m where i should be // it’s almost an embrace // but how would we see that // we can just be inspired by that // something that felt really nice // i’m making it up too i’m not sure // maybe what’s not working // when it folds in on itself //


i kind of want to go through it verbally from the beginning // we never finished our popcorn // i was imagining it whispered // either change something about the song or something about us // finding a huddle & then that one can dislocate // casual constellations // installations // if you do dislodge // but could it be // i really like that rhythm being constant // more range in the upper body // as a juxtaposition to a pattern // opportunity to interject other rhythms // like punctuation // quiet // or soundless // or quiet // overlaid on top of the voice // scattered trill // but within it i wanted to change more // what is it // where are you // the group doesn’t all have to shift at the same time // not everything has to start & stop at the same time // in what ways can things build or build out // it’s coming closer // how is the gaze different the second time you turn around // this thing is going forward & i can’t stop it but i’m going to try anyway // there almost had to be a response // i guess i didn’t have a feeling which one was right or not // contrasting interaction // loving & aggressive // soft & human // battlefield // grieving // animals // bodies & breath & sound // we could have switched one more time // observing is a nice texture // a lot of movement doesn’t have to be the only strong choice // who is this to //

dimly, dimly at first: a response to “action is primary”

Dimly, dimly at first: A Letter to Kristel Faye Baldoz

by Jai Arun Ravine

Dear Kristel,
On stage you bring Trinh T. Minh-ha’s book When the Moon Waxes Red as a pivot point during your improvisation. I ask Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee to open to a page that could respond to you, and this is what she says:

Dimly, dimly at first
then increase just a little more
volume then a little more
take it take it no further, shut it
off. To the limit before too late before too soon
to be taken away. (130)

What are you humming? Nice mood light. I wonder how you will start. Each time you begin dimly, dimly at first. I went to a restaurant last night called Mood. This is a moody new moon, am I right? The way you chose to light the space may suggest one or more of the following:

  • a) You do not want to be seen all the way.
  • b) You only want to be seen by certain people.
  • c) It is difficult to be in the space; dimly makes it bearable.

Everything echoes intensely, the body echoing. I see the echoes in the dark. I sense the horror and pressure of being seen, of being seen as what? I’m writing to support you here on the edge. Light change, then increase just a little more. More light now, less moving. More seeing, less seeing. More writing. You’re wearing all gray and you talk about the color gray as possibility, what reminds me of third space or nonbinary space. You drape your gray shirt across a white chair and put your arm around it. Is this a companion or a jacket? You say that this assemblage approaches the feeling of another body on stage with you. You seem alone, isolated, singular, hair over your face as a fabric. Yet in shadow there are four of you like backup dancers against the wall. You attempt to frame yourself within the moving frame of the folded white chair. But what can really interrupt the imperialist gaze, the hegemonic frame, the audience’s visualization?

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at the edge: a response to “action is primary”

at the edge of the space, on the border between observer and participant

A response to observing action is primary workshops and rehearsals (February 2016)

by Jai Arun Ravine

1. do what you need

I arrive at The Whole Shebang. The door is locked. No one told me the code. I push what I hope is a doorbell several times, with no response. I stand outside for 15 minutes in the cold. One of the participants arrives and lets me in.

Meg asks everyone to stand together in the center. Notice how cramped it feels. Then she asks us to move back and stand at the edges of the space. Notice how much more room you have.

I sit at the edge of the space with my water bottle, notebook and pen. I don’t expect to participate, but participation is suggested. A borrow a pair of dance pants from a friend.

2. action is primary

I’m the only person of color in a room full of white people. I sit at the edge of the space, trying to be as small as possible. This is not the first time I’ve noticed this kind of composition in my environment, but writing it down here makes it feel like an isolated event. When people come near me, I pull in my feet. My action is to observe from the outside. Even “inside,” my actions still feel like observations from the outside.

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Photo by Tasha Doremus

Enduring Presence: A Response to Gregory Holt’s 2,000 MOVEMENTS

September 16-17, 2015
thefidget space

Photo credit: Tasha Doremus

To witness Gregory Holt’s 2,000 Movements, a series of 2,000 unrepeated, layered movements, is to witness an enduring presence.

Moments of context—a score slipped into the program, Greg’s brief yet informative introduction—helped me grasp on and tune in, gave me frame and focus. (I love context. Thank you!) “Listen to the city,” Greg said, and then he began.

Late sunset streamed through the windows of thefidget space, churning into twilight. Asimina Chremos’ lighting design seemed to offer the passage of time as a suggestion. Because Greg had invited us to “listen to the city,” I knew not to expect recorded music.

As time [time did not “pass.” As I sat there, witnessing,] I found that I no longer expected anything. Not that I didn’t expect anything. I think maybe what fell away was expectation itself.

Potentiality replaced expectation.

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Gesture and Line: A Review of Nancy Karp + Dancers 35th Anniversary Season

ODC Studio B Theater, San Francisco
February 20-22, 2015

Gesture, line. Pattern, variation. Depth, duration.

I had the pleasure of meeting Nancy Karp while on residency at Djerassi in the fall of 2011; it was my first residency there in writing, and her second or third in choreography. I also had the opportunity to sublet her beautiful live/work studio during the summer of 2012 while she was away in Sicily creating the gesture, but not the target, and witnessed a performance of her work Continua in Light: Three Acts in San Francisco in 2013.

It is with fondness that I recall our afternoon walks on the Djerassi land, and our meandering conversations about dance, writing, landscape and art. While subletting her studio I listened to some selections in her music collection, including a Kronos Quartet album, which became the soundtrack for a sequence in the book I was writing. I also browsed her collection of books and devoured Yvonne Rainer’s Feelings Are Facts: A Life. Continua in Light: Three Acts was my first experience seeing her choreography live, and I was moved by her collaborative relationship to video projection and choral song, which gave the work added texture and dimensionality.

So when I asked Nancy if I could review her 35th Anniversary Season show—a world premiere of time and the weather and a-motion-upo-motio-n, and a re-staging of il Mercato, originally created in 2001—these experiences prepared me for what I was about to see: the space of the theater shifting and continually transforming with the work; movement influenced by visual art, literature and musical composition; and her attention to gesture, line, pattern, variation, depth and duration, all of which has informed her work over the past three decades.

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Sarah Bush - Photo by Lisa Harding

Compress and Expand: A Review of Sarah Bush’s RE-COMPOSE

D.I.R.T. Program B
Dance Brigade’s Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco
Friday, January 30, 2015

Re-compose begins with Sarah Bush silently screaming into a spot of red-brown light, bearing her teeth. A new solo work debuting at Dance Mission Theater’s D.I.R.T. Program B, Bush writes that the piece “examines the earthly forces at work in and on my body and their effect over time. Creating this piece gave me the opportunity to look at how both my body and mind respond to pressure.”

Responding to pressure and identifying its sources are questions asked by several women choreographers in this year’s D.I.R.T. festival, including Esmeralda Kundanis-Grow last week in Program A, and Jetta Martin and Alma Esperanza Cunningham in this week’s Program B. Kundanis-Grow’s Sensitive Pressures (which I reviewed last week) sought to locate sites in the female body where one absorbs micro- and macro-aggressions and sexism, and how these social and environmental pressures affect the experience of being gendered as female.

Martin’s Black Swan features Martin and two other black female ballet dancers responding to racism in the ballet world, which is often glossed over as “you’re not the right body type,” as one of the dancers says in an interview voiceover. Some of Martin’s choreography spoke directly to the effect of that racism on their bodies, such as collapse and fragmentation. Cunningham’s She Went dis-identifies with hyper-sexualized images and representations of the female body. It approaches them with dead-pan humor and utilizes awkward physicality and arrangement to disrupt and re-configure the female body and what is imagined.

Bush works with this kind of pressure by taking it into the realm of geology.

In her program notes she references this as a source, and I’m curious to know what she gleaned and incorporated as source material in this piece. When I think of pressure in terms of rock, I think of an incredibly slow condensation, erosion, and sedimentation of material over billions of years—basically everything I learned from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recent re-boot of the television show Cosmos. Coal is old trees that were compressed into seams in an age before termites could decompose them. Oil is old dinosaurs. These fossil fuels are a compression of ancient, once living, organic material, which is of course being extracted from the earth at an alarming rate. Pressure in terms of rock can also mean sudden, drastic shifts in tectonic plates; sudden shifts that are the product of incremental, sub-atomic ones.

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Saint Mary's College of CA MFA in Dance

Phenomenal Emergence: A Review of Saint Mary’s College of CA MFA in Dance Concert

A Review of Saint Mary’s College of California MFA in Dance inaugural concert

Thursday, January 29, 2015
The Flight Deck, Oakland, CA

Saint Mary’s College of California offers two new MFA programs in Dance—Creative Practice and Design & Production, the latter of which is the first of its kind in the United States. Thursday, January 29 was the opening night of its first concert, which featured student choreography (the beginning seeds for their thesis work), as well as lighting, costume and set design in collaboration with their peers. Performer, teaching artist, dance writer and Saint Mary’s MFA student Jill Randall invited me to review the show with an eye to creating a critical discourse around writing about MFA performances.

Before I continue, I’d like to locate myself as a writer and a dancer, trained professionally from a young age in ballet and then modern in college. While earning my MFA in Writing & Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, I continued to take dance classes in the BFA program and performed in students’ work. My art practice has always been and continues to be interdisciplinary. From my early compulsions to write in the studio and dance on the page, I began to incorporate embodiment and spatial awareness into my performances of text, and then started to utilize video as a creative tool to bridge text and the moving body. I find that writing about dance, an act that is a partnership of my home disciplines, helps me absorb and concretize the ephemeral experience of witnessing movement and performance.

Looking back eight and 10 years to my experiences in school, I find that my creative process was shaped very much by what we called “Friday showings,” our feedback sessions within the Dance Department during my undergraduate studies at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. We engaged the work using Liz Lerman’s process for critical response, wherein the choreographer directs the structure of the feedback session by asking us to respond to specific questions. I began to incorporate, and value, this process in my writing workshops.

Many college writing workshops have a strict policy that the writer, after reading their work, be silent during the feedback discussion. I found that listening to other people’s opinions, which were formulated blind, without having an understanding of the context of the work, or what I was interested in investigating or developing, was extremely counter-productive to my process and made the workshop essentially worthless. So I believe that providing the audience with a frame, with a context for what they are about the witness, helps them attune and become sensitive to what is taking place, and find a way in. This is true for both writing and dance.

That being said, I’m curious to know the questions these dancers are investigating. As a non-student of the program, listing a couple questions per piece in the program notes would have been helpful for me to frame what I was seeing. A talk-back after the show, where choreographers could pose questions to the audience, would have been helpful as well. But since I’m absolutely new to these dancers, their work, and their processes, I’ll note what stayed with me and drew me in, according to what I identify as the intention or intentions of each piece. In so doing I acknowledge my own aesthetic preferences in terms of what interests me and what I want to witness in performance, and strive to locate the work’s artistic choices and voice.

In Randall’s 15 questions for choreographers and performers, her last is “What is the dream of the audience?” I immediately recalled the work of one of my all-time favorite artists, Korean American writer Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, who studied at UC Berkeley in the ‘70s and began to use experimental video, visual poetry, text objects, and performance in a manner extremely avant-garde for a woman of color in her time. In her text work “Audience Distant Relative” (1977), she writes:

you are the audience

you are my distant audience

i address you

as i would a distant relative

as if a distant relative

seen only heard only through someone else’s description

[from The Dream of the Audience: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-1982) edited by Constance Lewallen, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2001. This book was a companion to the University of California Berkeley Art Museum exhibit.]


So I respond to these works as if a distant relative, my notes alive within the audience’s dream.

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NOW SERVING: A review of works by Esmeralda Kundanis-Grow, Nol Simonse, and Embodiment Project

D.I.R.T. Program A
Dance Brigade’s Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco
Friday, January 23, 2015


A Review of Esmeralda Kundanis-Grow’s SENSITIVE PRESSURES

Two metal clothing racks and a small black end table appear downstage. Hanging on the racks are an assemblage of this season’s haute couture: a blazer, a beanie, a bike helmet, a black trash bag, a wig, a pair of Converse, a pair of gloves, and some tattered gauze.

Four dancers enter in darkness. Warm orange light begins to glow from two circular floor spots upstage. A high-pitched industrial drone whines and ramps up. Beautifully backlit, the dancers carry the table and roll the racks back, in what I thought was a subtle and genius way to begin.

It’s runway time.

In the program notes, Kundanis-Grow writes:

The D.I.R.T. is the emotional withholding and displacement that occurs when faced with continual aggression and anxiety from our surrounding environment. “Sensitive Pressures” is research into the presentation of the contemporary, female experience and how our body/bodies have been affected every day by a history of male possession and power. The work explores what it takes to identify where in the body we hold our environmental pressures/aggressors and how we might use this awareness to shift the physical, emotional, and spiritual states of the body towards greater self-empowerment and presence.

I was intrigued by Kundanis-Grow’s decision to use a runway, as well as the performance of “runway,” as a site in which to not only interrogate the male and misogynist gaze, but to also reveal the very internal landscape of nerves and soft tissues affected by these micro- and macro-aggressions.

The genre of the runway fashion show embodies and advertises certain types of desired, socially acceptable, yet highly idealized or romanticized femininities. One is sort of blank or overly neutralized; the models have bored, vacant faces and their bodies seem to be frail, emaciated, blank slates. Another is hyper-charged and sexually objectified; the female body is loosely and minimally covered, exposed.

But there’s also a disturbing collision of these two that creates a vacant, seemingly sexually available female body, one that does not speak and seems indifferent to the heavy scrutiny of the crowd, to being constantly watched. She returns again and again in different garments, but does the same walk, walks the same track, pauses in the same places, stares straight ahead, silent. She becomes a kind of magazine cover specter haunting the western imaginary of the feminine.

Performers Caroline Alexander, Hallie Dalsimer, Dominique Nigro, and Rebecca Siegel each have a distinctive and very specific physicality to their walk, which is either sourced from, satirizing, or otherwise responding to these representations. One is very subtle and reserved in a ruffled blouse, blazer casually flung over the shoulder. Another has an austere and angular severity. A third wears splattered jeans and a slightly confused look, her strides wide and somewhat lost. The faces each of them give at the end of the runway before turning around are priceless.

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Fog Beast - Photo by Jessica Swanson

Levity and Loss in One Pounce: A Review of Fog Beast’s THE FOX AND THE DONKEY and BAD HERE DAY

by Jai Arun Ravine


“The Fox and the Donkey” starts almost accidentally. While the audience is still milling about, chatting, getting drinks at the bar and finding their seats, Danny Nguyen (The Donkey) separates himself imperceptibly from the crowd at the front and stands unassumingly in the corner upstage. About 30 seconds later, Andrew Ward walks from the back of the space to stand behind him. Then from the audience follows Melecio Estrella with his guitar, and Mo Miner (The Fox). Now it’s clear: they’re all waiting in line.

This image evokes a host of cultural expectations and rules of social etiquette around how we’re supposed to interact with other people while waiting in line, including how much distance is acceptable between yourself and the person in front of you. Polite ignorance is custom. Contact is expressly forbidden.

Each person waits with a distinctly different tone. Nguyen is very patient, quiet and still, arms crossed in front of his body. Ward is the non sequitur of the group, the one who takes a very loud phone call. Estrella minds his own business with his guitar. At the end of the line, Miner fidgets with visible annoyance and impatience. Ward nudges Nguyen with “Hey, don’t I know you?” and starts talking about doing a manual labor job together. At the end of their conversation, Nguyen squats and Ward jumps on his back and they lumber off, transforming the image from two people waiting in line to a man on a donkey. Continue Reading

Dohee Lee - MAGO - Photo by Pak Han 2

Undercurrent: A Review of Dohee Lee’s MAGO

by Jai Arun Ravine

Wind, rock, women. These are the three abundances (samdado or “three many”) of Jeju Island, which lies off the coast of South Korea and is home to Korean American dance and performance artist Dohee Lee. Yet Jeju is also the site of a different kind of “three many”: massacre, militarism, US imperialism. MAGO begins in the mythic past of preverbal time, cuts through the thick silences of memory, and invites us to connect to our personal and collective histories and myths in order to protect and sustain our world.


Dohee Lee - Mago - Photo By Pak Han 4The world premiere of MAGO was staged at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco on November 14 and 15. From the plaza the audience enters the long and narrow space of the Grand Lobby. Lee crouches low on a small raised platform at the front end. Behind her, down the platform’s steps and along the floor, trails a long thin stream of white cloth. Sound designer Adria Otte mixes the soundscape from the gallery’s balcony above. Lee embodies the Korean creator goddess, Mago.

The energy is something very ancient, existing before spoken language yet carrying the memory of eons of struggle.

Something like bacteria escaping from eroding rock on the sea floor, flexing its cells toward sunlight, coming into sentience. When she speaks it is a stone’s language—one that is highly porous, contrary to its surface. She wears a garment that seems to be made of thinly pressed paper, and she sheds her papery skin with a series of guttural whistles, like threads of breath and sound, like air released through punctures in her body. Continue Reading