I am a man of many obsessions, but over the past few years some of those obsessions have taken prominence, namely: traditional cultural forms re-imagined in contemporary contexts, digitally informed choreographic structures and deep dramaturgical integration in performance.
In September 2012 I attended a dance platform in Minneapolis where I encountered the embodiment of this confluence of obsessions in Aniccha Arts’ performance In Habit: Living Patterns.
While my more traditional-minded dance colleagues were skeptical, I was enraptured. In Habit, along with Joe Diebes and David Levine’s WOW and Meg Stuart’s Blessed, were the three works that really prompted this entire line of inquiry about mapping concepts from OOP onto live art.
In Minneapolis we saw approximately 20 minutes of a 75-minute piece that is designed to repeat for up to nine hours. Aniccha Arts is “a performing arts group that uses dance and electronic media to interrupt public space and invoke mass response.” The name is derived from the word anicca in Pali, which refers to the permanence of change, and is led by artistic director Pramila Vasudevan, a multimedia artist living and working in Minneapolis.
I recently caught up with the core creative team for In Habit: Living Patterns to discuss the work.
The initial impulse for In Habit: Living Patterns as a project was an investigation into visualizing sound. “I was thinking a lot about sound and the impact of sound on shaping crowds; I was interested in cymatics, the study of the visualization of sound, so it was natural for me to begin with sound for the next project,” said Pramila, “of course In Habit: Living Patterns ended up not being about that at all! [laughs]”
Ultimately In Habit: Living Patterns took shape as a performance installation composed of 16 “dots” or segments, “each commenting on different aspects of the collectively learned habits and behaviors that emerge in everyday life.” The composition of each of the 16 dots, the subsequent composition of the 75 minute sequence of dots and the iterative composition of the total performance over nine hours, is framed within the idea of the South Indian kolam: geometrical line drawings composed of curved loops, drawn around a grid pattern of dots. Women draw them using rice powder or chalk, usually in front of their homes, to bring luck or to celebrate holidays and special events.
Pramila told me, “We started with this idea of visualizing sound. “How do I catch a sound?”
She continued, “Let’s say you have a simple speaker and you place a sheet of metal on top, drop some rice grains on it and play a sound at 100Hz, which is pretty low, but still it vibrates to the point where the rice grains almost bounce. If you increase to a much higher rate of frequency like 2000Hz beautiful patterns and shapes that look like kolam appear.”
Piotr Szyhalski, the director of In Habit: Living Patterns and Vasudevan’s frequent collaborator, said, “The first time Pramila and I met, we just talked about the germ of the idea of the project. Then we started having workshops where we would meet with the whole team and try to develop new ideas, or push these ideas further. We considered having a stage with the powder on it that was shaped like the images, but the idea of the kolam wasn’t on our radar, weirdly enough.”
“And then we started thinking about technology,” adds Pramila, “I needed to know if it was going to work – if it would be possible to make this stage made out of powder. But given the challenges of money and time, we decided not to pursue the mechanical aspect of it because the physics of it – making the floor perfectly level with the right patterns to make the shapes – would have been too much. But that led us to the idea of daily patterns on the floor that could be walked over.
“And from there,” Piotr added, “we thought of having the stage be a surface where the cymatic images would projected.”
When I saw In Habit: Living Patterns, I was struck by how all the various elements – video, choreography, lights, video, sound – seemed to be deeply congruent and thoughtfully integrated, patterns in one element were clearly legible in other elements, the “performance object” was congruent as whole. Like Meg Stuart’s Blessed, I really felt that this was like a living sculpture, and I was curious how this rigorous congruence was achieved.
Pramila told me, “I usually start projects by choosing collaborators and exploring some ideas as a kind of lab. We’ll do some experiments, see what we’ve put out there, see what is working and then develop that.”
“Since we were exploring the visualization of sound we wanted to work with artists working with sound, which led us to John Keston.” She continued, “Piotr, as the director, helped navigate those labs by asking questions and framing the investigations. Piotr was one of my professors at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, so we’ve worked together before. “
“Jasmine [Kar Tang] was both the dramaturg and a dancer in the piece, so she was part of the process of making it, as well as thinking about the ideas that shape it; Jasmine was investigating the politics of the piece and, along with the other dancers, investigating this question of “What does it mean to catch and embody a sound?””
Jasmine, who was also on the phone call, elaborated, “Pramila and I started meeting about 18 months before the production. I have experience as a writing consultant so part of my training is asking questions that are centered around the person I’m talking with. So I would try to act as a sounding board as we worked to understand the idea a little more. We had a lot of rambling conversations where Pramila would say, “This is what I’m thinking about” and I would respond, “That doesn’t make sense to me, tell me more….” Eventually we came to this idea of habits and patterns …”
Pramila chuckled and said, “Jasmine is always finding and sharing reference points to help contextualize the ideas we generate. She’ll send you an essay, article, some philosophy or other writing that relates to what we’re talking about, which helps us figure out what the possible directions forward with an idea.”
“We started from Bourdieu’s notion of habitus and had a lot of conversations about habit in all its contexts and possible meanings,” Jasmine told me.
Jasmine’s work as dramaturg not only included research and inquiry, but developing a dramaturgical strategy for communicating across disciplines.
“Pramila asked me to facilitate a workshop to integrate the collaborators and develop a common language,” Jasmine said. “So we did a workshop that was a few hours long and took about fifteen hours to prepare. It was like designing a lesson plan, almost, because we hadn’t really talked to everybody yet, and these early conceptual conversations had to happen.”
“We found ourselves asking, “Who do we need to integrate more, what kind of backgrounds are folks coming from?” We needed to figure out how to fold people in and build community so that we could understand each other’s artistic mediums.”
Part of the process was about being conscious of who was in the room. “In those workshops we were very deliberate about engaging people who were usually quieter,” said Jasmine. “Or engaging folks who had specific, relevant skills. For instance, one of our dancers is a schoolteacher so I asked her to take an active role in facilitating buy-in – for lack of a better word – not just into the project, but also into the process and the collaboration.”
“Honestly we looked at just about every aspect of the piece as a group,” Piotr added. “From discussing the particulars of sound composition for one piece to working through bits of choreography, to working out the sequence of the pieces, to working out the titles – these were all essentially discussions that involved about everybody in the group.”
“Right,” Pramila offered, “We are all interested in the idea of transparency and everyone could provide an idea that might end up in the work. We generated a lot of ideas that ended up turning into the sixteen patterns, or “dots”. And since everyone was present for the performance making their part happen in real time – dancers and technologists alike – then everyone could be seen as a performer in the piece.”
Piotr explained, “For instance, for one workshop Pramila asked people to come prepared with some kind of activity that would involve everybody else.” So I brought these diagrammatic images that were the beginning of the idea of the sleep/work pattern. Then we worked through different ways of handling body as if it were a prop or object onstage …”
“We actually did a lot of thinking about the bodies onstage,” added Jasmine. “We had – and still have – so many conversations about the body onstage. There is a sequence where Pramila and Dustin are dancing together and we talked a lot about what does that mean representationally and what kind of commentary is this making about gender, and how does this relate to the other ideas in the piece? We had so many different types of conversations …”
I had asked Pramila, Piotr and Jasmine in what ways the creative process and composition of the completed work engaged with Bourdieu’s notion of habitus and the politics of cultural production generally. Jasmine elaborated, “After many conversations with Pramila it was clear that she’s invested in looking performatively at group dynamics. So what kind of attention do we need to bring to that when we’re looking at the group dynamics of the collaboration?”
“I feel that we had synergy as a group. But it is not something that comes organically. It is something that is cultivated over a long period of time and some of the moves that we make early on in the collaboration are really critical.”
“We had many conversations about how – for example in designing a workshop – how to think about and cultivate the ways people are interacting. How can we be conscious of acknowledging tension between members, or noticing if somebody’s getting ignored or make sure to engage someone who is a little quieter, or whatever may be the case?”
“In this way the facilitation has to be very intentional,” she continued. “This is similar to how, as teachers, we talk about how the first day of class is the most important because you set the tone. When you’re working across disciplines in complex collaborations like this all of that stuff has to come first, it has to be considered from the very, very beginning.”
Pramila then told me that the real game-changer was time and resources.
“About a month before we actually presented the piece we had the ability to be in a space at MCAD where we could have a whole mockup of the whole thing including the sound, the screen and the visuals,” she said.
“The entire setup was installed for about a month – and having a month of tech is a big deal because that’s what is required to truly have an integrated, immersive feeling to the piece. That time to really work in a concentrated way was what built the cohesiveness of the group and the performance. We’d be working and we’d have an idea and be able to say to our musician, John, “For this part you need to come onstage.”
Pramila continued, “This team doesn’t totally exist in other projects. They’re not necessarily talking to each other all the time. This was a unique cast for this piece. This kind of process allowed us to be together, to live and breathe in a space even though we hadn’t necessarily worked with each other in the past.”
“We were able to develop a language and a way to give feedback that created a level of comfort and made sense. Normally there’s a kind of separation of all these things but this time allowed us to move through those. It gave us a chance to create a truly integrated, immersive work.”
While we were talking, Piotr emailed me the diagrams that served as the visual elements “connecting the dots” to create the overall design of the performance.
Piotr explained, “These diagrams were designed for each one of the dots – or patterns, or “pieces” – and were both used as projections and were printed in rice powder on the stage.
“But what is important about these diagrams is each one is trying a kind of central algorithm for that piece. My objective with the diagrams was to visually represent the key dynamic – whether that’s a relationship between the dancers or between ideas that are important in that particular dot, or an iconic image which points to a sequence of events – within every “dot”. They are a schematic to develop a flowchart for interactive environments; it may help to think of it as a schematic in the sense of how you might lay out a circuit board in an elegant way. People talk about these charts as maps for interactive environments, so you can kind of organize the components.”
Since I only saw a 20-minute fragment of the piece I asked how they came to the idea of having an iterative, iterative, looping compositional structure and how did the piece operate over the course of nine hours.
“When you look at the diagrams, they are very minimal in a number of ways. The complexity comes from a kind of meta-structure, an accumulation,” Piotr said.
“During one of the workshops I said to Pramila and Jasmine, “I think the whole piece is a loop. Each one of the segments has to be looped and it will connect the dots in a single sweep.”
“It became very important to link the idea of habits as behavioral patterns, working in patterns and looking at structural patterns, together. Creating and sustaining some kind of narrative arc for nine hours would be difficult and challenging for the dancers and the audience – I would be kind of crazy to require someone to stand there for nine hours to witness the entire event!”
“So repeated looping patterns became the device that allowed us to really execute a nine-hour performance. So we agreed that the piece would function as kind of a structure within which there would be a sequence of repeating patterns.”
At that point we had a lot of the choreography already developed and we started making small adjustments to allow these small artifacts to function as loops. Each pattern could be repeated once, two times, three times or indefinitely – however many times we wanted. Each one of the dots – or segments – was a different length but they were all fairly short, so they could be expanded, compacted or repeated however wanted in the live performance. In the beginning we could perform them longer; in the middle of the night when things were a little rough and people were tired we could compact them a little bit. The flexibility involved a big part of the methodological approach towards handling this extreme duration.”
“We approached the entire sequence of the set of the dots as a loop so that the beginning or end could function as a closing bracket. I was interested in a lot of the material being fixed but also interested in opening the spaces that allowed for things to have flexibility on the spot.
“We really worked on having it both ways – having it be flexible but also having it concrete enough so that everyone could proceed in feeling that we actually had a fully developed piece. We had a lot of conversations about the risk of leaving things a little too open, but in the end I think the piece had a very effective, efficient, nice balance of fixed structure, developed narrative and openness.”
Since so much of the piece was enabled by technology – and identifying the appropriate technology was one of the initial concerns, I asked the team what programs were used and how they interacted? The visual media was all run through QLab, while the John Keston works primarily with Ableton Live.
“Ableton Live was probably the programmatic core of the sound piece,” explained Piotr, “But he developed his own components of the software using MaxMSP to facilitate the 8 channels of simultaneous playback.
“We had four speakers installed underneath the stage projecting towards the audience and four speakers installed at the perimeter of the open space behind the audience. John developed pieces of software that allowed him to move the sound very effectively from one place to another – for example from the center stage out to behind the audience, or between the points on the perimeter.
“For us the immersive quality of a performance is very important,” said Pramila, “and John’s sound was a big component in creating that.”
The immersive nature was not merely in the sound design and visual elements, but the aesthetics of the performance itself – how the dancers, technologists and audience inhabited the same space with a kind of informal porousness. The performance space was at once well-defined and visibly porous, its borders seemed to adjust according to which “dot” was being activated and, one imagines, by the presence of the audience at different times throughout the nine hour duration. I asked how they arrived at this choice.
“I used to work a lot with screen-based interactive media, a couple of decades ago, in the early days of this type of work,” Piotr said, laughing. “One of the strategies for handling the slow processor speeds was to preload all the assets that were going to be used in the piece, but somehow keep them off the screen area. You had to consider how they would be loaded into the memory but not be visible to the user on screen. How could you make it that they were deployed or moved onto stage only when they were needed, but also move them fairly fast without the computer having to load them.”
“This idea of a performer or a component of the piece being just outside the perimeter of the performative space was something that to this day seems pretty interesting and important to me, and this made its way into In Habit: Living Patterns as well. For example, not all the components were activated or used all the time, there were many moments that wouldn’t allow for all the performers to be onstage. So what do performers who are not performing at the moment but will be performing in two or three minutes, what do they do, where do they go?”
“Because the stage is set up in the round, there’s audience surrounding all the sides of the stage. We discussed the pros and cons quite a bit and finally we agreed that the not-performing performers would simply sit on the edge of the stage facing out towards the audience. To me, keeping the performers just outside of the performative space came directly from this programming strategy of preloading assets.”
“Do you remember the Wim Wenders movie Wings of Desire? Do you remember the way the angels sit around in the library? That’s sort of what our dancers were doing on the edge of the stage when they were not performing.”
The entire creative team for In Habit: Living Patterns: Living Patterns is Pramila Vasudevan (artistic director, choreographer and dance collaborator); Piotr Szyhalski (director); Jasmine Kar Tang (dramaturg and dance collaborator); Caleb Coppock (visual media designer); John Keston (musician); Benjamin Reed (installation designer); David Steinman (technology designer); Clare Brauch (costume designer); Cornelius Coons and Annie Wang (graphic designers); Sarah Hoover Beck-Esmay (dance collaborator); Dustin Maxwell (dance collaborator); and Chitra Vairavan (dance collaborator).
It is currently available for touring. Ahem.