The first thing you notice is his skin.
If it were soil, his is the earth brown you’d want to sow in.
A Chicago son, hard times, he does not blink.
So think of this brother brown, now see this mother black.
See how dark the day becomes when you bury the son?
—Marc Bamuthi Joseph
Oakland-based spoken word and dance artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Chicago-based visual artist and activist Theaster Gates collaborate to create a multimedia performance and visual installation addressing environmental issues from the perspective of communities of color. The performance, red, black and GREEN: a blues (rbGb), is presented at MCA Stage, April 12–14. The visual installation, a stage set created by Gates titled The Colored Museum, will be open for museum visitors to explore during the performance week. Over the coming weeks, visit this blog to explore ideas of community, the environment, and art through interviews, videos, images, and interactions with Bamuthi and Gates.
We invite you to answer the questions Bamuthi raises in his work: “What sustains life in your community?” and “What is your relationship to life in Chicago?” Our guest bloggers will include Kate Dumbleton from Chicago Jazz Ensemble along with community partners Jacinda Bullie from Kuumba Lynx, Mike Hawkins from YOUmedia, and Robbie Q from Young Chicago Authors. Additional perspectives come from our presenting partner MAPP International’s Emily Harney in addition to MCA voices including Curator Naomi Beckwith; Curatorial Assistant Stephen Bridges; Performance Programs Intern Eboni Senai Hawkins; and Carron Little, one of the Lead Artists of the MCA’s teen program The Creative Agency.
In the meantime, enjoy this video introduction to the project by MAPP International Productions:
I have spent the last week and a half wrapping up and reflecting on the Dance Exchange performance. It was wonderful to interact with so many different and interesting people. In the process I think I learned a few things about the universe, the history of atomic testing in the US, and about myself. I hope that in the past week that you have also had a chance to think about the issues and themes presented.
One (of the many) things I was working on for this production was wrangling different groups of volunteers for this very large scale production. The Tea Servers: a core of volunteer dancers who have been working with the company all week, and the Provocateurs who were discussion leaders during the second act.
Over the performance week I had the chance to get to know the Dance Exchange company members, crew, and all the volunteers. I met, had great conversations, and now worked with some really amazing, talented, beautiful, and interesting people. I am usually so caught up in making sure that everything goes smoothly, that everyone has what they need, and trying to solve problems before they happen that I don’t often allow myself to step back and appreciate what is happening around me. Friday night at the end of the show I held a little thank you reception for everyone in the cast, circling the room chatting with different people over strawberries and cider. I finally allowed myself to stop worrying, and just enjoyed talking about the performance in a room full of new friends.
And it struck me later as I was driving home, at 11 pm, exhausted and happy…oh right…this is why I do this job…And I want to thank you all for coming on the journey with me.
You have seen the tea servers and provocateurs in rehearsal, now watch a clip from one of the performances.
Let them eat cake!
(And drink tea…)
Strangely enough (or maybe not so strange depending on who you are), Act II/The Tea of Liz Lerman’s The Matter of Origins depends on serving tea and cake. The ‘cake’ is chocolate and based on an original recipe served in Edith Warner’s tea house in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The staging of the ‘Tea’ is being evaluated by the National Science Foundation as a science-delivery system. For MCA’s production of The Matter of Origins, we had to find enthusiastic individuals who could collect measurements that assess the audience’s experience through the course of the evening, as well as perform alongside the members of the Dance Exchange.
We spent several weeks reaching out to universities and dance centers, Facebook fans, and Twitter followers. 19 people responded to the challenge:
Rachel Berg, Kaley Marissa Cross, Alyssa Diaz, Lara Ditkoff, Aundrea Frahm, Marta Juaniza, Motrya Kozbur, Susan Lyon, Donna Nails, Sabri Reed, Bonnie Romano, Selena Roque, Alicen Sonja Schade, Michelle Vasquez, Sasha Manuylenko, Dominique Boyd, Marie Janine Socha, Janet Schmidt
Watch the rehearsals below!
Provocateur (noun): an instigator and stimulator of dialogue surrounding difficult, deep, intriguing and awe-inspiring matters; a guide, a leader, and, when need be, a fly on the wall.
The Provocateurs in The Matter of Origins are artists, scientists, scholars, community members, and educators. As an integral part of Act II/The Tea, they are also cross-pollinators, collecting knowledge from multiple individuals to explore the seemingly disparate topics of art, science, and belief as presented in Act I.
The Matter of Origins has been previously presented by Arizona State University, Wesleyan University, and the University of Maryland, all institutions which had a captive academic community from which to source volunteers for both Provocateurs and Tea Servers. In this incarnation of The Matter of Origins, our partner, the Chicago Humanities Festival, extended invitations across several disciplines and multiple spheres of influence to recruit Provocateurs. The individuals who answered the call:
Leslie Baum, Amy Bretz, Marianna Buchwald, Kristen Cox, Amanda Denham, Deb Durham, Karen Faith, Cassie Hamrick, Axel Hoffman, Jackie Intres, Maggie Kast, David Lakein, Lisa Leszczewicz, Heather Lindahl, Onye Ozuzu, Barbara Pool, Chris Preissing, Elvia Rodriguez Ochoa, Ari Rudenko, Bryan Saner, Sarah Schnadt, Myah Shein, Annie Shuminas-Nelson, Tamara Silverleaf, Emily Stein, Gwen Terry, Lindsey Barlag Thornton, and Jacqui Ulrich.
We expect orderly chaos to ensue as each Provocateur challenges the audience and each other with questions pulled through layers of varied experiences. In preparation for the dress rehearsal, we asked three of the Provocateurs to share with us why they agreed to carve out time in their busy schedules to join us for this unique event:
“I danced with the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange for a year-and-a-half about ten years ago. I am familiar with Liz’s great ability to interact with people from all walks of life, in all situations, including while they are being lifted and tossed around a stage. A few years ago I saw her piece on the genome project, and especially loved the parts where they reproduced her conversations with biologists as a soundtrack for the piece. Liz asked the scientists how they would choreograph a particular genetic structure, and they jumped in with suggestions. The dancers embodied the suggestions as the audience listened, and it was hilarious. I’m not sure there is any serious dichotomy between science and art, but I do believe that any area of cultural or ethnic conflict is likely to set off sparks that light fires of creativity. (Witness the dance theatre of bi-cultural Montreal). If science and art don’t collide next week, perhaps dance and tea will, and I hope we will all begin to glow.”
“Liz’s work has accompanied me through my dance journey from the beginning. My first significant mentor/teachers – Nia, and her father Ed Love — were from Washington DC and had worked with and carried stories, processes, and methodologies of Liz Lerman and the Dance Exchange into our work together. From the first time I participated in a Creative Response Process, early in my tenure as a professor of dance in the academy, I integrated it deeply into the way that I taught choreography, dance history, philosophy, and technique and into the way that I thought about artmaking, audience engagement, and dance administration. I just moved to Chicago and am coming into a significantly new chapter of my work as an artist. It seems timely and fitting that I see what Liz is up to. Her work has always navigated an important interspace for me — between an ancient sensibility of dance ritual and a contemporary and functioning tool of social and civic discourse facilitated by artists for the purpose of igniting the multiple complexes, polycentric sensitivities, and reflexive awareness of ‘the people.’”
“As I prepare to act as a Provocateur in The Matter of Origins, I find myself concerned with a question: why must our lives as humans be so limited by the finite? We can only see so far, hear so much, understand such a small fraction of the universe. And yet perhaps, the finite is the only lens through which we can even begin to understand the infinite reaches of our galactic and subatomic worlds. Our bodies are the most important tool we will ever have for experiencing the finite and through her choreography, Liz Lerman is inviting her audience to wrestle with the finite in order to penetrate the mysterious world of the infinite. I am so looking forward to the discussions that follow this performance as we spend some time sitting at tea with the biggest questions. Hopefully, our collective understanding of the infinite will be stretched and strengthened.”
One intriguing and visually stunning aspect of The Matter of Origins performance is the large imagery projected on five curved screens that form a half-circle onstage. These dramatic images tower over the dancers and add an unexpected layer to the stage production. I talked with filmmaker and projection designer Logan Kibens about the development of these images.
Kibens shared with Liz Lerman the films she created as a student at CalArts, to initiate a visual language early in the creative process. They traveled to CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) with a dancer to collect images while exploring the facilities and tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider. Kibens said, “I wanted to shoot CERN and other elements like a landscape film, with long, static, tightly-composed shots that let the environment play out inside of them. You can see this technique and effect in the “Genesis” section of Origins, where the dancers move among the “towering giants” of the LHC tunnels and detectors.” CERN was one of many locations the group visited to capture a variety of images on film.
During several workshops with Liz and the dancers, Kibens and Isadora programmer Kate Freer threw images up on the screen to see how they integrated with movements on stage. Through this improvisational process, Kibens selected the final images for the performance. Three projection units display the images, using Isadora software that allows pre-programming and spontaneous cues based on the dancers’ moves. Kibens describes one of her favorite moments as “a long, slow zoom into what looks like a series of circular windows, and is in fact the inside of an old bubble detector on the CERN campus. The movement of these shapes receding over the curved projection screens while the dancers move in unison in front of them creates a strange sense of vertigo, depth and movement as an audience member, which I loved playing with.”
Our presentation partners, the Chicago Humanities Festival, recently shared with us the musings of Gordon Kane. In addition to collaborating with Liz Lerman on The Matter of Origins, Kane is a professor of physics at the School of Art & Design and is Director of the Michigan Center for Theoretical Physics. His words are oddly soothing — leading us to believe that we can understand the complexities of science on our terms.
“Many people, perhaps most, want to gain insights into questions about the meaning of life and our place in the universe. As we have understood our universe better we have seen it apparently does not provide a base for meaning for our lives. It is not that physics does not tell us anything about meaning, but that the answer is not what we thought we wanted to hear. What we learn is that the meaning should arise from our relations to other people, rather than outside.”
As individuals immersed in the world of art making, we already believe in the intrinsic value of what we see, hear, and work tirelessly on every day. To get out of our heads a bit (and escape the office), we shifted our focus to patrons in MCA’s galleries.
Recently, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to a team of three scientists who discovered that our universe is accelerating by observing distant supernovae. What does that mean for those of us who don’t process things as quickly as the characters on the Big Bang Theory? What does that imply for my grandmother’s unshakable faith that the world started as described in Genesis? How can we feel secure that we have a place in the grand scheme of things?
In the midst of what could be philosophical chaos, we eagerly await the arrival of The Matter of Origins, the latest work by Liz Lerman and Dance Exchange. The Matter of Origins takes these questions, turns a kaleidoscope on the world, and crafts a story of our elemental beginnings. Dance Exchange – with dancers from a diverse range of ages and backgrounds — is steeped in the philosophy that dancers “comprehend action and make it real in thousands of variations.” Watch a preview of the work here. When you join us to see the full-length performance, you may be moved by the extensive parallels between art and science. The dancers’ actions may expand your experience. They may introduce new connections for you to see.
We are bringing this performance here to appeal to your robust imagination. We want your brilliant musings and your preconceived notions. We will instigate cohesive ramblings via our virtual roundtable on this blog and want your comments to flourish in an open forum. Through it all, don’t forget to find us on Facebook, Tweet us (#upclose), and watch us on YouTube. Let your questions beget more questions. Share them. Maybe we’ll find an answer together, maybe we won’t. This is a process, this is a beginning.
“An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion … unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.”
— Newton’s First Law of Motion
I’ve always experienced the works of Liz Lerman as a kind of conversation – a provocative conversation, to be sure, but also a welcoming one. Liz is the masterful choreographer not only of dancers on stage, but also of communities of people, drawing us together to find where we stand on issues that matter.
This new blog, MCA Stage: Origins Matter, is stimulated by Liz Lerman’s multimedia performance The Matter of Origins. She created it with the Dance Exchange and a wide-ranging group of collaborators, from media artists to particle physicists to ethicists. And Chicago audiences get to experience this epic work November 10-13, when MCA Stage and Chicago Humanities Festival join to present it.
We’ve been describing The Matter of Origins as part performance, part conversation, and part game show – and it really does stretch to embrace all this. When I saw it at its premiere, I was amazed by the vivid worlds conjured up in Act One, a multimedia dance that probes the universe and how we understand it. And I was totally taken by Act Two, which moves the entire audience into a nearby party room for cake, tea, and conversation – with artists and scientists presiding over the talk at each table.
This blog is a bit like that: it’s a chance to use The Matter of Origins as a springboard for ideas, questions, and expansive expressions about the what, where, and how of our existence. We’ll be hearing from artists, scientists, specialists, and our audiences. And there’s a welcome mat here for your views and exchanges.
As Liz Lerman wrote: “The Matter of Origins is about the origin of matter. But it’s also about how we perceive beginnings, discover them, think about them. It’s about speculation. It’s about how the human mind flips and stretches to comprehend things that are incredibly small, large, fast, or far beyond the categories of known experience. I suppose The Matter of Origins is a dance about a very big topic, but I also think of it as something more intimate and approachable, a meditation on the poetry of the mind.”