Garage dance in Detroit: An interview with MGM Grand’s Biba Bell

July 14, 2011 · Print This Article

I saw Modern Garage Movement (also known as MGM Grand) perform in Detroit for the first time in 2009. It was sheer luck, actually, since I’d never heard of them and had only learned about the performance from an overheard conversation at a cafe. Unsure what to expect, I showed up to a warehouse in Southwest Detroit, then in use as artist studios and a performance space by the 555 Gallery, and was directed to a huge, open room several floors up. It was the kind of space that you find scattered throughout Detroit: a gorgeous, creaking, post-industrial vastness, a bit decrepit but steadfastly built to last.

Photo by Garrett MacLean

The atmosphere was disarmingly informal. Theatre chairs were arranged here and there, and the company’s three dancers chatted casually with the fifteen or twenty gradually arriving audience members. The dance began with just one dancer, lying on the floor. She spent several minutes there, gasping, heaving her torso, arching her back, and flopping her limbs heavily, dramatizing a profoundly disquieting sense of body horror. From my perspective, I couldn’t see her face, which reduced her form to something anonymous and animal.

Photo by Garrett MacLean

The dance, Royce, evolved into a work of purposeful purposelessness, with the dancers at times stalking furiously around the confines of the space. Having been created over the course of a few weeks as a site-specific work, it also became a dance about the space. The dancers moved around the room’s numerous pillars in a way that emphasized the pillars as much as it did the dancers. During one especially breathtaking moment, all of the lights were turned off except those illuminating a single corner of the room. The dancing continued, now as a supporting, exclusively auditory phenomenon. (The dance had no recorded soundtrack, only the dancers’ footfalls and breathing, and the regular, rhythmic splash of passing cars driving through puddles.)

Royce was playful, too; at one point, the dancers offered the audience beer and bags of chips. At another, they started rolling objects in our direction: balls, industrial spools, tires. This level of audience acknowledgment and involvement is essential to MGM Grand’s work. Also essential is an experiential investigation of space, an interest in taking dances on the road and letting them change along the way, and a tendency to perform in unexpected places.

The company will be bringing its singular performance style to the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit this Friday, July 15. They’re dancing Nut, a 2010 piece informed, in part, by the classic Motown female trio (and featuring Motown music, modified by MGM collaborator R. McNeill). Nut was conceived at MIT, developed in Detroit, and premiered in New York at The Kitchen. After Friday’s performance, it will continue to tour on the east and west coasts.

“Nut” (2010) at The Kitchen. From left to right, Piage Martin, Jmy Leary, and Biba Bell. Photo by Paula Court

MGM Grand originated in San Francisco and its three choreographer-dancers, Biba Bell, Jmy Leary, and Piage Martin, live across the country. Bell currently lives in the Detroit enclave of Hamtramck, and I interviewed her after seeing a recent Detroit performance she choreographed as Urisov, a moniker used to identify her solo work, apart from MGM Grand. (“Urisov” is pronounced “your eyes of,” and is a reference to Part IV of “Hymmnn,” the concluding section of Allen Ginsberg’s long poem Kaddish).

That performance was at the 2:1 Gallery, a temporary sound art space in Detroit’s Eastern Market district. It included a dance (InGrain) during part of which the audience sat in the basement and listened to the dancers performing upstairs, as well as a sound piece (Four Corners) by Gregory Holm and Jeffrey Williams that included a vibrating tambura, a droning, electronically modified piano, and two singers vocalizing wordlessly into the rooms’ corners. I asked Bell about her distinct creative personae, her influences, and the approach MGM Grand takes toward making and performing dances.

Matthew Piper:  Can you talk a bit about the distinctions between the work you do as Urisov and as part of MGM Grand? Obviously MGM Grand is a shared creative experience, and that in itself would require a different approach to making dances on your part. But is there anything more fundamentally distinct to you about the work you do in each?

Biba Bell:  They are different projects with distinct histories. I guess MGM would be more like being in a band and Urisov is my solo project. In MGM we talk about the Bryon Gysin concept of the third mind, when two [or more] people come together in collaboration, and the issues, materials and creative experience produce (and are produced by) another, culminate phenomenon. It is a combination of two people, yet it becomes something else—gestalt maybe. We like to think about this in MGM as a way to think about what happens inside of the experience of performing and making work. It is about us but it is also outside of us as individuals. Urisov is more solipsistic, though it really isn’t exclusively so. It’s about collaboration, too. Maybe that’s why I was originally drawn to make up the moniker, instead of just saying everything is by Biba Bell.

MP:  You mentioned to me before that performing under the Urisov moniker is, in part, a way to make your work “not about your name.” It was also clear that during InGrain, which you did not dance in, that you were nonetheless very consciously not being Biba Bell, but performing a role, complete with a costume and a distinct persona. What motivates your desire to subvert your individual identity in your work?

BB:  Yes, initially when I started Urisov it was about working with people and with materials. Using the moniker Urisov makes the work about the encounter that occurs in between my own intentions and impulses and the body (my own or someone else’s), the idea, the concept, the material, etc. There are always shifts that happen with these encounters. It is not about me. It is not about control. I suppose that this way of approaching making things is not original; certainly there are plenty of artists who work with this type of openness, and so I wanted the name to not immediately signal to my identity, or be about me. Biba Bell Dance Company sounds really boring and terrible to me. Urisov can be about choreography, collaboration and performance, but it can also be writing, teaching, discussion, curation, production, etc. It can infiltrate different mediums and events.

I performed myself in InGrain, though yes I was in costume. In certain ways I was performing in support of the dancers, but I was also performing the role of the choreographer.

Bell (right, as the choreographer) watching “InGrain” (2011). Photo by Michel Soucisse.

MP:  Who are some choreographers you’d consider primary influences and how have they influenced you? From what I’ve seen of your work, I can see Merce Cunningham in, for instance, the resistance of a single “center.” I was a little surprised, though, to see minimalist influence in the performance at 2:1 a few weeks ago. Four Corners [clip below] struck me as a minimalist dance in the style of Lucinda Childs or Laura Dean, with its reduced formal vocabulary, uniform movement, and repetition, only slower than I usually associate with minimalism. (I also thought about Childs during InGrain, when a dancer rolled over on the floor repeatedly; that reminded me of her work in the John Adams’ opera Dr. Atomic, where she uses a similar technique to dramatize the perception of time slowing before the detonation of the atom bomb.)

BB:  Mel Wong was a huge influence; he danced with Merce in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s and was a prolific teacher in New York and then in Santa Cruz, where I met him. He is honestly one of the main reasons I am dancing today. It’s funny: the piece you refer to, Four Corners, is actually Greg [Holm] and Jeff [Williams]’s music piece. They asked me to do some dance inside of it, but it is really to supplement the music, not so much about the dance. I thought that the music was very drone-y and meditative, so I decided to do a minimalist homage to Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker’s dances to Steve Reich’s phase pieces [clip below]. That’s what that was. So she is an influence! I can understand your Childs reference, too, with respect to that piece.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vs3wFNtqdAs

BB:  InGrain was dealing with the sound of the floor, and this makes me think of Neil Greenberg’s work, because for some reason I am very aware of the sound of the body against the floor—there is a weight, not a heaviness, but a wonderful weightedness, to the dancing. It would be great to listen to one of his pieces from below. I am also influenced by Sarah Michelson in the way she organizes the audience’s perspective; she is a master at this. It is so architectural, and this relationship is dramatic, psychological, sensual. Of course I am influenced by MGM too.

MP:  I’m also interested to know your and MGM Grand’s relationship with ballet. There was a great moment in Royce when the dancers stretched against a decrepit heater, and you looked like ballerinas stretching on the barre. It was a really beautiful moment, feeling at once like an homage and something darker and more ironic.

BB:  We were all trained in ballet coming up. Ballet instills an enduring relationship to discipline in the body and practice. Jmy, Piage and I all have lasting physical practices. A daily practice. I think that the specificity in ballet, and the way that one learns to push against the edges of what the body can do is something that we have gone on to explore in ways that deviate from the ballet aesthetic and principle, but is refined and rigorous nonetheless.

MP:  MGM Grand is interested in testing the boundaries of where dance can take place. Nut, for instance, is one of the only dances you’ve choreographed to be performed in a traditional stage setting. What opportunities does this resistance toward traditional exhibition of dance offer? What are some of the most interesting places you’ve danced?

BB:  Initially it was an issue of frequency. In dance there is a unfortunate model in which one can spend many, many months working on a piece to perform for one, maybe two weekends. That would be a total of 3-8 performances. MGM began in a one-car garage because we could be in the space–we even set it up like a proscenium with the audience on the slightly graded driveway and the garage door as a ‘curtain’—as much as we wanted and do what we wanted. When we began touring the dances, we tried to set it up so we could perform as much as possible, often improvising new shows en route and performing 1-3 times a day for up to 6 weeks straight. In a sense we never really got outside of the piece, but sort of lived it out on the road. This enabled a drastically involved and generative relationship to the work. I think that I have been able to experience the work in incredible ways, letting it shift and be flexible to enable this mobility.

By eschewing the conventional venues for dance we have developed a strong taste for the myriad spaces we have/could perform in. This has an effect on our bodies, our relationship to movement inside of the dance along with our histories in technique and practice. We meet different audiences that wouldn’t generally go to a dance gig, we also get to roam outside, or at least in the margins of, the dance discipline. Our influences and aesthetic responses are not solely about dance; though this is our departure and ultimately our loyalty, we definitely operate with concerns that do not remain in the dance medium. Our work is highly visual, and our models for circulation, for touring, are really based more on a band model.

“New Gree” (2008)

BB: What are the most interesting spaces we’ve performed in? The Henry Miller Library in Big Sur is a favorite of mine. We’ve danced in galleries, a llama barn, book stores, homes, gardens, wineries, garages (of course), bars, a goddess gift shop, Esalen, the Sol Lewitt room at MIT, and the old ice stadium locker room for the Winter Games in Turin, Italy during the Artissima Art Fair, to name a few.

MP:  So obviously, there’s a prohibition against staring in our culture. In traditional performance spaces, the spectator stares at the performers, but there’s enough physical distance that it doesn’t feel uncomfortable. In your work that I’ve seen, there’s a physical closeness that borders on confrontation, because the traditional boundaries between audience member and performer are transgressed. The spectator has no choice but to stare at bodies which are in extremely close proximity. For me, that heightens the experience of watching dance, making it more charged and visceral. Can you talk about the performer-spectator relationship in your work from a dancers’ (or choreographer’s) perspective?

BB:  We had an interview with TimeOutNY a couple of months ago and the interviewer asked if the dance had “audience participation,” at which point I remember groaning a little, but also needing to acknowledge why that could/would be a question for us. We always consider the audience. We deal with the audience. I don’t think that we try to construct unified, controlled experiences for the audience; we like for them to be unpredictable and respond in unexpected ways. But we definitely consider them. I think as far as your comment, though, we are very aware of the highly visual nature of dance as a form and especially its intensity in performance. (Here I like to think of Peggy Phelan’s wonderful phrase regarding performance as “the maniacally charged present.”) The body is primary. We exploit this—we definitely exploit our bodies!—and this can be a strange, awkward and potentially uncomfortable thing. But we also play in obscuring the desire towards visibility. We have one dance, New Gree, where we begin the piece by having the audience hold hands and “do a very simple step—step together stop together,” then we ask them to close their eyes. The dance goes on, they eventually open them, but we do the dance with very little light, and the costumes are designed as a sort of camouflage, so we can disappear into our dim surroundings. I suppose this could constitute “audience participation,” but typically I am more interested in operating on a more subtle level. It’s about attention, focus, being in a space and situation together.

Blanket Dance (2010)

MP:  You’re from the Bay Area originally and have worked extensively on both coasts. What’s exciting about Detroit to you right now? What keeps you working here?

BB:  Detroit is an incredible city. There are many layers that seem to be on the surface, but are really quite hidden. Space is a big issue in NYC and SF, availability. Everything, every square inch, is accounted for. The way in which space is occupied in Detroit is very different. There are ways in which it asks the subtle body to participate, to lead the way.

“Nut” will be performed at 8:00 pm on Friday, July 15th, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. Admission is free.

Matthew Piper is a Detroit-based librarian and writer.

One Response to “Garage dance in Detroit: An interview with MGM Grand’s Biba Bell”

  1. […] act will be local rockers Tiger Honey Pot, and Biba Bell’s dance project MGM Grand. This concert is part of the Mission Creek Music […]

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